A hardened scientist specialized in analyzing and managing national crises, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal has limited patience for questions about his Holocaust survivor parents or his Israeli wife.
"I’m not thinking 24/7 that I’m from a Jewish background," says 65-year-old Rosenthal, when asked about the significance he attaches to his Jewish background. "I'm at ease with my Jewish background. I’m not religious at all already from a very young age, though my parents kept some mitzvoth."
Rosenthal’s parents fled Holland in 1942 to Switzerland, after spending two years in hiding. He was born in Switzerland in July 1945, the year in which the family returned to Holland. He grew up in The Hague, and became professor of government studies at the University of Leiden before his ministerial appointment two months ago for the ruling liberal party, the VVD.
Rosenthal lives in Rotterdam with his two children and wife, Dinah - a native Israeli from Haifa who came to the Netherlands after they met, and married in 1973. He often visits Israel, where he has family in Haifa and Ashkelon. "Sometimes I come a few times a year, sometimes only once in two years."
By the fourth question about his Jewish affiliation, he comments that he hopes the interview – his first for an Israeli paper - will not be “all about family life.” A tall, broad-shouldered man with a calm, penetrative gaze, Rosenthal is emphatic that his Jewish background and link to Israel do not affect his decisions.
Some have alleged otherwise. In June, television broadcaster Harry Mens theorized that Rosenthal - senate chairman of the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) - had formed a "kind of lobby" with two other prominent Jewish leaders from the opposition: then Amsterdam mayor Lodewijk Asscher of Labor, and the leftist party’s chairman, Job Cohen.
Mens described this “alliance” as a “kongsi” - originally a Chinese word describing informal councils of exiles. A few weeks earlier, De Telegraaf, the country’s most-read daily, ran an opinion piece alluding to a “secret coalition” being forged by the same three Jewish politicians.
“I can only use the word stupid,” Rosenthal says in describing the kongsi theory. “It was simply a stupid, uninformed and nonsensical message, but not a new one. The same conspiracy story regularly pops up in the U.S.”
The Netherlands Police reported recently that there has been a 48-percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the country since 2008, a trend which is reflected in studies in neighboring nations. These figures, as well as similar statistics, convinced Frits Bolkenstein, a former official in the European Commission and one-time head of Rosenthal’s party, to advise practising Jews to leave The Netherlands for Israel and the United States.
Rosenthal concedes that Bolkenstein was responding to a true problem, in particular in Amsterdam. He says that the Dutch Jewish population is suffering at the hands of youths from a variety of ethnicities, but believes that Bolkenstein’s suggestion would not help the situation. “We have to address and solve this problem by ourselves. Perhaps up until now, the Amsterdam authorities have been lenient on it.”
One of the new foreign minister’s first statements regarding Israel concerned the website The Electronic Intifada, which was co-founded by a member of the Dutch parliament, for activists trying to promote an economic and cultural boycott of Israel. Rosenthal discovered that the anti-Israel site received support from a government-funded Christian humanitarian organization, and says he will have “a hard talk” with the aid group, ICCO.
“This site promotes policies which are totally at odds and diametrically opposite to the position of the Dutch government,” Rosenthal says. “Now, I don’t think all publically-funded organizations have a duty to adhere precisely to the position of the government, but there is a limit.”
The foreign minister compares calls to cut ties with Israel to demands to sever ties with NATO - a bond which according to researchers from the University of Twente has “determined a large part of Dutch foreign policy.”
“It’s like government support for an organization saying we should totally sever our ties with NATO, while the Dutch government feels itself a strong supportive member state,” he says.
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