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So Sorry

The old story: European politician gets in trouble, helps the Jews.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Geert Wilders, the big-gesture Dutch politician who has made a career out of outspoken enthusiasms and denunciations in a country which is careful of its speech, has begun to take on water. In the June 2010 election, the Freedom party, which Wilders created five years earlier, was the third-biggest vote-getter. And when the free-market conservative Freedom and Democracy party and Christian Democrats formed a government with Wilders’s support, polls indicated that Wilders’s party was the most popular in the country. Between October and December 2011, its support shriveled by a third.

Photo of Geert Wilders during his hate-speech trial

Geert Wilders during his hate-speech trial


For once, Wilders’s problem wasn’t caused by his big mouth​—​the mouth which made him so thoroughly hated by the Dutch nomenklatura, the judges and lawyers he defeated in his hate-speech trial, the prestige journalists, and the professional class of bien-pensants (gutmenschen, as the Dutch say). His problem was that having finally been in a position to do something about his principles, he hadn’t. Holland’s oleaginous supporters of multiculturalism and internationalism were never going to warm to him. But now Middle Holland, “Henk and Ingrid,” showed signs of Wilders-fatigue. His issues were as popular as ever among his supporters: opposition to multiculturalism and open immigration, ensuring the right of women to be free from Islam’s forced marriages and enforced Burka-wearing, ending police and judicial toleration of crime by immigrants and within Muslim neighborhoods, moving policy away from EU norms toward capitalism, NATO, and support of Israel. But even to his supporters, he no longer seemed like the man to do anything about them.

The Freedom party sustains the majority of the present government, but Wilders seldom puts pressure on his affable prime minister, Mark Rutte. Rutte told the press in September that Wilders is predictable and doesn’t make a fuss. In the great financial crisis of the second half of 2011, a crisis in which the Netherlands, as the smallest wealthy country in the EU, has everything to lose and little to gain, Rutte has been complaisant about assaults on Dutch business interests, Dutch taxpayers, and Dutch sovereignty​—​an acquiescent partner in Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy’s ever-changing schemes.

Dutch liberals and free-market Euroskeptics (62 percent of the Dutch voted against the EU constitution in their 2005 referendum) watched in amazement as Wilders let Rutte have his own way about sending more and more euros and legal powers to Brussels. Wilders tweets à droite but legislates à gauche. While the euro collapsed, and EU leaders mused about further restrictions on Europeans’ right to self-determination, Wilders busied himself with a bill to ban kosher and halal slaughter, in alliance with the tiny “Party for the Animals.” The small Dutch Jewish population (about 40,000) was horrified, but Wilders didn’t attract any vegetarian voters. Neutral observers asked how Wilders could support Israel’s right to exist so strongly while denying Dutch Jews the right to live as Jews in their own country. Few believed that Wilders had anything against Judaism​—​the failed attempt merely suggested to all that he was unserious.

Looking, no doubt, for a noncontroversial way to recapture his momentum in the new year, Wilders’s eye fell on an unlikely savior: Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Israeli who grew up in Holland and now directs a Jerusalem think tank. Gerstenfeld is widely feared among European elites. He is the scourge of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism and is likely to pop up in any EU country with carefully documented statistics and dramatic examples of mistreatment of Jewish schoolchildren, hypocrisy on the part of proudly anti-Israel governments and media, and a well-turned phrase describing the level of anti-Semitism in contemporary Norway, Germany, Poland, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands​—​to name only countries that he eviscerated in the first three weeks of 2012. 

Last year, Gerstenfeld published a big book on the Netherlands, but its subject was uncharacteristically abstruse: the complex negotiations (1997-2000) about compensating Dutch Jews who had survived the Holocaust but whose property was not restored by the postwar Dutch government. Even if his book (published only in English) was titled Judging the Netherlands, a scholarly account of a 15-year-old legal process over a 50-year-old postwar injustice did not attract much attention in Holland when it was published last June.

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