Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the Dutch role in the trade in enslaved people last year December. His expression of regret, while generally welcomed, was also widely criticized, in part for being held on a seemingly random day.
The King’s speech, in contrast, was given on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch territories. Keti Koti, the first of July, is deeply meaningful to the descendants of enslaved people, and has come to take an ever-greater place in the national consciousness as knowledge about, and interest in, the colonial history of the Netherlands. That the King, as symbolic head of state, apologized, was important. That he also acknowledged his own family’s role was significant.
This much can be gleaned from any of the multitude of news outlets that covered the event – the interviews with descendants of the enslaved, the historians who study this period, the prominent members of the community who were asked to tell the nation what it meant to them.
Why should Jews care about the King’s speech?
De Vrijdagavond, though, is geared towards a largely Jewish audience. So why should Jews care about the King’s speech? Obviously, all informed citizens of the Netherlands should be at least aware, if not concerned, about what the events of the day are, and Jews are no exception. But, beyond that, why do I think that the King’s short but powerful speech is of consequence for Jews?
Jews and African-descended people in the Netherlands share a long history. This shared history is a complicated one. It is one of exclusion, oppression, and minoritization. It is one of a struggle for rights, with Jews only being ‘emancipated’ and given full citizenship in 1825 and enslaved people in the colonies only being freed in 1863.
Both groups struggled and continue to struggle to varying degrees to this day for full acceptance in Dutch society. Both Blacks and Jews have suffered fearful losses: blacks at least 12.5 million in the centuries-long trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved people (of which around 600,000 enslaved and transported by the Dutch) and six million Jews lost in the Shoah.
Whites in the colonies
Yet shared victimization and extermination isn’t the whole story. Anywhere from a third to a half of whites in the colonies of Curaçao and Suriname were Jews in the 18th century. And in these colonies they were imbricated in the issues that colonialism engenders: discrimination, racism, and enslavement. While the Jewish role in the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved people was tiny, they certainly did trade in and own enslaved people, though in no greater numbers than any other group. Jews’ high visibility presence in the Dutch Antillean colonies as the most populous white group meant that they were a target of 19th century abolitionists, who often used antisemitic tropes to bolster their otherwise laudable cause. This depiction of Jews as unusually cruel and brutal slave owners has soured relations between blacks and Jews to the present day.
While this shared past and its mixed legacies for Jews and blacks in The Netherlands is clearly a reason Jews should care about the King’s speech, the Jewish community may want to brace themselves for another round of conversations about, and comparisons between, the Jewish and Black pasts. The King explicitly mentioned the Second World War and the lessons learned from it in his own speech.
Reparations for descendants
What sort of comparisons might we expect? There have been growing calls for reparations to be paid for descendants of those enslaved, like those that were paid by West Germany after World War II. The 1952 negotiations between the post-Nazi Western German state, Israel and the Claims Conference (a Jewish diaspora umbrella body) in the wake of the Shoah were not based on counting how much profit was made or all the losses, but on what was needed in Israel at that moment. By 2020, the German government had paid about $70 billion to people who suffered from the Holocaust.
By contrast, the claim for reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade is much more difficult. If you add people killed within Africa due to the slave trade to the 12.5 million kidnapped from Africa and shipped to the Americas, the figure could reach $30 billion. And the number of descendants may well be in the hundreds of millions. What’s more, none of the direct victims of the slave trade are still alive. Particularly for the descendants of the perpetrators of slavery, the historical memory is much more distant than the Shoah. That’s why no one expects that reparations are realistic.
No zero-sum game
Whatever our individual feelings or thoughts might be about reparations, philosophically, morally, or practically, we Jews should guard against being drawn into debates that have, as their basis, a sort of zero-sum game of competitive victimization.
It is painful and a bit embarrassing to admit that Blacks and Jews have, for one reason or another, competed, quarreled, and jostled with each other to gain attention and empathy for our struggles and the injustices we confront. We can move, instead, together to really confront difference but also overlaps such as experiences of diaspora, agency, oppression, resistance, violence, and genocide in our shared histories.
Let’s use the King’s speech for this kind of conversation.
cover: Linda Nooitmeer, chairperson Ninsee, and King Willem-Alexander at Keti Koti 2023, screenshot Bloom