The Hague, Netherlands — (JTA) — On a busy street near the Dutch Parliament, three white musicians in blackface regale passersby with holiday tunes about the Dutch Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, and his slave, Black Pete.
Many native Dutchmen view dressing up as Black Pete in December as a venerable tradition, but others consider it a racist affront to victims of slavery. With Holland marking the 150th anniversary of abolition this year, the controversy over Black Pete has reached new heights. Hundreds demonstrated against the custom in Amsterdam last month, and more than 2 million signed a petition supporting it.
Through it all, Dutch Jews – some of whom celebrate their own version of the Black Pete custom, called “Hanukklaas” – have largely remained silent.
But that changed in October, when Lody van de Kamp, an unconventional Orthodox rabbi, wrote a scathing critique about it on Republiek Allochtonie, a Dutch news-and-opinion website. “The portrayal of ‘Peter the slave’ dates back to a period when we as citizens did not meet the social criteria that bind us today,” Van de Kamp wrote.
Speaking out against Black Pete is part of what van de Kamp calls his social mission, an effort that extends to reminding Dutch Jews of their ancestors’ deep involvement in the slave trade. In April, he is set to publish a book about Dutch Jewish complicity in the slave trade, an effort he hopes will sensitize Jews to slavery in general and to the Black Pete issue in particular.
“I wrote the book and I got involved in the Black Pete debate because of what I learned from my Dutch predecessors on what it means to be a rabbi – namely, to speak about social issues, not only give instructions on how to cook on Shabbat,” van de Kamp told JTA.
“Money was earned by Jewish communities in South America, partly through slavery, and went to Holland, where Jewish bankers handled it,” he said. “Non-Jews were also complicit, but so were we. I feel partly complicit.”
Though he holds no official position in the Dutch Jewish community, van de Kamp, 65, is among the best-known Orthodox rabbis in the Netherlands, a status earned through his several books on Dutch Jewry and frequent media appearances.
His forthcoming book, a historical novel entitled “The Jewish Slave,” follows an 18th-century Jewish merchant and his black slave as they investigate Dutch-owned plantations north of Brazil in the hope of persuading Jews to divest from the slave trade. In researching the book, van de Kamp discovered data that shocked him.