Holland Could See Its First Jewish P.M.

By Rachel Levy

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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AMSTERDAM — A son of Holocaust survivors with deep roots in the Socialist movement was poised to become the Netherlands’ first-ever Jewish prime minister in this week’s too-close-to-call parliamentary elections.

Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, 55, emerged as the top name on the surprisingly strong Labor ticket following an announcement Sunday by Labor leader Wouter Bos.

Wednesday’s elections, which came down to a neck-and-neck race between Labor and the Christian Democrats, were called early after the Dutch government fell in October after only 87 days in office. Holland has been entangled in political turmoil for most of the last year. The campaign preceding the last elections in May 2002 was dominated by the popular, rightist Pim Fortuyn, who was expected to win in a landslide victory before he was assassinated one week prior the elections by a left-wing activist. When his party, the List Pim Fortuyn, was elected to the parliament with 26 seats, it caused a revolution in the Dutch political arena and reduced the Labor party to half of its original strength.

A new government coalition was presented in July, consisting of the Christian Democrats, the liberal VVD party and the List Pim Fortuyn. However, personal fights between the members of the List Pim Fortuyn caused the government to fall in October, prompting this week’s elections.

The Liberals and the Christian Democrats were at one point expected to win and form a new government. The tide turned in January, however, when the articulate, handsome Bos, 39, captivated voters and moved his party near the top of the polls. Bos said Sunday he has no plans to take a position in the government, and vowed to remain exclusively a member of parliament and lead his party faction.

Cohen, a former academic, has served in former cabinets as deputy minister of education and deputy minister of justice. He became known for his support for a controversial immigrant law aimed at restricting asylum seekers and immigrants in the Netherlands. In a press conference Bos said he chose Cohen for the job because of the successful implementation of the immigration law as well as Cohen’s experience with integration problems with the immigrant community in Holland, in particular the Muslims.

Tension between the Muslim community and native residents has risen recently and there is an ongoing debate about immigration and integration problems. Cohen is viewed by many in the Netherlands as a bridge-builder who has reached out to Muslim leaders and made them partners in solving the existing problems among the Muslim youth.

Cohen was born and raised in a Jewish secular family in Haarlem, a son of Holocaust survivors, both of whom were politically engaged in Socialist circles. He is the fourth Jew among Amsterdam’s seven mayors elected since 1945 — and if elected to prime minister would add Holland to the list of European countries which have had a Jewish prime minister, including France, Italy, Austria and Finland. Like his predecessors in the Dutch capital, Cohen has run as a humanist who opposes racism and discrimination and stresses the need for human rights, equality, mutual respect, tolerance and socialism.

“Cohen is someone who listens very carefully and does not express his opinion easily, definitely not impulsively,” said Ronny Naftaniel, director of the Center for Information and Documentation, an organization representing Jewish and pro-Israel interests in Holland. “He is very moderate, and perhaps too soft to deal with the increasing tensions between veteran Dutchmen and the predominantly Muslim immigrant community.”

Some voters, though, expressed optimism about a Cohen-led government.

“Both Holland and Israel will benefit if he becomes prime minister,” said Rosa Lipstadt, 76. “He is a sholem macher, someone who brings peace.

Naftaniel described Cohen as “absolutely a friend of Israel” who is sympathetic toward the Coalition for Peace organization, a group of prominent Jewish, Palestinian and other Dutch peace activists. He also pointed out the mayor’s decision to be the first mayor to take action against soccer hooligans who sang anti-Jewish slogans, including “Hamas, Hamas, throw the Jews into the gas,” during matches.

“It was very important that Cohen acted against this,” Naftaniel said.

“Following his statement — that these things were not to be permitted any longer — all larger cities in Holland have undertaken action against these practices during sport games,” he added. “Unfortunately, it is in his own city, Amsterdam, where these things are still taking place. And that is precisely my problem with Cohen.”

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