a pleasant evening out

Very few journalists in any language can compete with Frits Abrahams, who currently writes five days a week for Holland’s best paper, NRC Handelsblad. His current function is that of glocal reporter: documenting clearly and accessibly everyday events that don’t get proper coverage elsewhere and that also happen to be of great importance to the rest of us. Here’s a speed translation of today’s column:

Abu Jahjah in Rotterdam. There he was again, yesterday evening in a jam-packed Unie building on the Mauritsweg. His two inseparable bodyguards stood like colossal guardian angels close behind him, while he sat on the podium opposite his opponent, Maurits Berger, author and Arabist.

The hall on this occasion offered more spectacle than the debaters. There were lots of young, eloquent Moroccans (chiefly girls with headscarves), Palestinians and other foreigners. “You won’t find the average Dutchman here,” observed a (Dutch)man.

That explained Berger’s almost impossible position. He had to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with Jahjah. They shared in many respects their criticism of Israel, called ‘a racist state’ by Jahjah. (While Berger didn’t repeat this phrase, neither did he contradict it.)

Berger had one important criticism of Jahjah’s Arab-European League (AEL). The movement makes, according to him and many others, improper use of the conflict in the Middle East. “I think they are really here to protest against their oppression, but they’re talking about Israel.”

His point didn’t seem so strange, but almost no one was prepared to follow him. They pretended they didn’t understand him, or they really didn’t understand him, led of course by Jahjah. Suddenly in the hall all the sentiments that go together with this subject broke free. They were almost all directed against Israel and appeared to be rooted in vague concepts such as ‘my identity’ and ‘my identification’. A random selection.

“Only with Allah will it be pleasant here,” said a young Dutch Muslim woman without a trace of irony.

“I identify myself with the Palestinians, because I feel the same oppression here on a micro level,” said a Moroccan woman in impeccable Dutch with the soft g that characterises southern Dutch accents.

“I feel Arab,” said another Moroccan woman. “If something happens to my Palestinian brothers, I feel pain.”

A Moroccan man began cautiously to cast doubt on the figure of six million murdered Jews, making reference to Roger Garaudy, the philosopher accused of anti-Semitism, who apparently relies on a ‘gas expert.’

And so it threatened to get really pleasant, with or without Allah.

In the meantime, I thought of the little book in my inside pocket. It was called De schaduw van mijn bomen [The shadow of my trees] and was written by the Zionist, Abel Herzberg. The book contained travel reports about Israel that Herzog wrote in 1967. Just one quotation of Herzberg, I thought, would have the effect of a bomb in this company.

This for example: “Ach, what moving stories could have been written had the Jewish state, according to the plan conceived, been destroyed! The bitter tears that were to have been wept were already prepared. Now they were bestowed on the Arabs, who after all have taken the place of the underdog. In Holland one calls that ‘balanced thinking’ or ‘objectivity’.”

Herzberg would have looked around that hall in bemusement. Much had changed in Holland; much had remained the same.

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