Its passengers included celebrities, a rabbi and revelers in biblically themed costumes, but the Jewish boat at Amsterdam’s gay pride parade stood out for more than just its riders.
Following a west-to-east course along the Dutch capital’s Prinsengracht canal on Aug. 2 along with dozens of similarly flamboyant vessels, the Jewish boat was the only one in the parade guarded by police. Two boats with three officers each escorted the ship, while two additional agents sailed aboard the Jewish boat itself.
With increased violence lately aimed at Jews in the Netherlands and across Europe, authorities weren’t taking any chances.
“We’d planned this just to show that we [gay Jews] exist as a community,” said Gideon Querido van Frank, the Jewish boat’s chief organizer. “But with all that’s happened, I’m now here to stand up for our rights also as Jews to live as equals without threats by those who want to see Jews or gays silent or dead.” Querido van Frank boarded the boat wearing a Bronze Age soldier outfit laced with glitter.
As Israel’s military campaign in Gaza unfolded over the past month, acts of violence and intimidation have increased in Holland, threatening the country’s reputation for tolerance.
The home of the Dutch chief rabbi has been repeatedly vandalized, and police last week confirmed reports that in two separate incidents, Jewish women were assaulted for displaying an Israeli flag at home. One was beaten on the street, and a firebomb and stones were hurled at the window of the second.
In The Hague, Muslim extremists twice chanted slogans about killing Jews at demonstrations that featured jihadi symbols, sparking a national debate about limiting freedom of expression after police failed to intervene.
None of that deterred the 50 people who registered to sail aboard the Jewish boat at the 19th Amsterdam Pride Canal Parade, a world-famous aquatic procession that attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from across Holland and beyond. If anything, the attacks led passengers to broaden their message of tolerance for gays to include rejection of anti-Semitism and a demand that authorities crack down on hate speech.
The people intimidating Jews are also responsible for “a reversal in the level of acceptance of gay people in the Netherlands,” said Marianne van Praag, a Reform rabbi from The Hague who boarded the boat even though it sailed on Shabbat. Speaking out against hatred of Jews and gays, she said, has become “a matter of life and death.”
In some areas of the city, said van Praag, “gay people no longer dare hold hands on the street because they don’t find it safe.” She added: “I find it imperative that a statement on this be made also from the religious circles.”
During the parade, participants flew a rainbow flag emblazoned with a Star of David and cheered at spectators waving Israeli flags in solidarity. Organizers referred to Israel over the loudspeaker, introducing the boat’s main attraction: the transgender pop idol Dana International, who led Israel to victory at the 1998 Eurovision song contest with her hit “Diva.”
“I don’t believe in any religion, so I’m here as an Israeli, not as a Jew,” Dana International said. “But it’s time to end the persecution over religion or national reasons.”
Dressed in a tight black dress and golden leggings on the boat’s main platform, Dana International shouted into the microphone, “Thank you Holland for being the most tolerant place on Earth. Don’t ever change.”
While many in Holland are proud of the liberal policies and values for which their country is renowned, some fear that’s changing. In particular, the spate of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks has prompted concern that not enough is being done to defend that Dutch tradition.
“Tolerance is important but needs to have limits,” said Ken Gould, a gay Jewish cantor who runs KunstenIsrael, the Netherlands Foundation for Israeli Culture. “Clearly those limits have been breached. I am here also to draw attention to that.”
In the wake of the anti-Semitic demonstrations in The Hague, a petition with 17,000 signatures was sent to the Dutch Senate asking for the resignation of Mayor Jozias van Aartsen because city police denied hearing incitement at the demonstration despite footage that seemed to prove it.
“We can’t close our eyes and pretend there are no problems any longer,” said Louise Fokkens, who with her twin sister, Martine, rode the boat in matching white costumes. “It’s time to fight back and make a stand, and that’s why we are aboard.”
The Fokkens twins, who are in their 70s, are famous in the Netherlands for having worked 50 years as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District before their retirement earlier this year. The fact that they are Jewish isn’t very well known, yet someone painted a swastika near their apartment during Israel’s previous military campaign in Gaza, Louise Fokkens said.
“Last time they targeted the Jews and the gays, nobody said anything,” said Martine Fokkens, referring to the Holocaust. “Well, this is us saying something.”