The Selective Identity of Dutch Jews
The Selective Identity of Dutch Jews

“An estimated 53,000 Jews live in the Netherlands. This figure is based on two demographic studies carried out among the Jewish community – the first one in 1999 and the second in 2009. The main purpose of these studies was to investigate the nature of the bond between Dutch Jews and Judaism. Many people interviewed were hesitant about how to define their Jewishness. The figure above reflects a heterogeneous population; about 30,000, or 57%, self-identify as Jews, while 17,000 self-identify as having ‘Jewish origins’.

“Some 7% see themselves as Jews at given moments. The phenomenon of ‘feeling’ Jewish can emerge, for instance, when they are among Jews, or alternatively, when they are among non-Jews. It also may surface when they are confronted with anti-Semitism or with critiques of Israel from non-Jews.  About 4% consider themselves to be non-Jewish. Only 1% of the Jews are converts.”

Carlo van Praag has studied social geography at Amsterdam University.  He is the retired deputy director of the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau, a government office that carries out social research and advises the Dutch government.

There has been an increase in Jews attending a Passover seder, eating matzot and having bar- or bat-mitzva celebrations. On the other hand, only 5% of Dutch Jews follow the kosher dietary laws.
He adds: “The number of those in the Netherlands who are Jewish according to Jewish law (halachically Jewish) is about 37,000. This population maintains its numbers in part because of the increasing number of Israelis living in the Netherlands, which currently stands at about 9,000. Their stay is often temporary, however, as many of them are students or ex-pats who have found work in the Netherlands. Jews who have only Jewish fathers or grandfathers, are not considered to be Jewish according to Jewish law. 

“Over the past decades, the assimilation of Jews in the Netherlands has continued, much like elsewhere across Europe. The other marked trend taking place is the decline in membership of Jewish organizations. Mixed marriages are both an indicator and a stimulator of assimilation. On the one hand, they lead to a greater stability in numbers of Dutch Jews. On the other hand, the intensity of the bond with Judaism decreases.

“About 19% of Jews consider anti-Semitism to be relevant in the Netherlands. The percentage of those who say that they have personally experienced anti-Semitism has, however, declined over the past decade and stands at 22%. Any Dutch Jew who lives in a respectable neighborhood, like I do, doesn’t suffer from it. However, if one lives in a popular neighborhood together with many Muslim immigrants or their descendants, one becomes a target as a Jew, as many of these Muslim youth identify with the Palestinians.   

“Our 2009 study showed that the members of a Jewish religious community numbered about 9,000. The largest was the Dutch Ashkenazi community (NIK), followed by the Progressive (Liberal) community; only 3% belonged to the Portuguese Sephardic community.

“The bond with Judaism is diverse in nature. It consists, for instance, of selective participation in religious activities, holidays, and customs. Often, people choose to only participate in ‘easy’ activities. There has been an increase in Jews attending a Passover seder, eating matzot and having bar- or bat-mitzva celebrations. On the other hand, only 5% of Dutch Jews follow the kosher dietary laws, and about the same percentage keep all the Sabbath laws. A somewhat bigger percentage refrains from eating pork. In other words, the more pleasant and festive the activities are, the more Jews stick to Jewish customs. It is demanding to regularly attend synagogue services and even more to eat kosher and thus these activities have decreased.

“A second manner of maintaining a bond with Judaism consists of having a high percentage of Jews among your friends, being a member of a Jewish organization, and placing importance on the continued existence of the Jewish community.

“A third type of bond expresses itself through interest in Jewish culture. For instance, people participate in Jewish cultural activities, watch Jewish TV programs or listen to Jewish radio broadcasts.

A fourth manner is maintaining a connection with Israel: does one follow the news about Israel, does one defend Israel, and does one donate to pro-Israeli organizations?

“One can divide the connection to Judaism into two major categories which are fairly independent from each other. The first one is positive in nature - the so-called religious-cultural bond. It expresses itself in active participation and attaching importance to maintaining a Jewish life, and feeling solidarity with the community.

“The second form is negative in nature. It is based on the Jewish experience during the Second World War and/or anti-Semitism. It is thus an expression of sensitivity for what has happened in the past or for what is occurring today. 

“The positive bond is far more important for an individual’s identification with Judaism than the negative one. Without taking into account the issue of the Second World War, however, a number of those polled would not have considered themselves as Jews.

“Today, the majority of Dutch Jews still identify with Judaism. This is true in particular for those who have two Jewish parents. I share however the view that in Western Europa Judaism will disappear except for some small remnants. The question is how long the ongoing assimilation process will last. In the future however unexpected events might break this trend.”