While slouching against a wall in a former cigarette factory in the industrial outskirts of The Hague one day last month, I was visited with the sudden realization that over the formative centuries of European history the two words that most succinctly signaled “other,” “foreign” or “enemy” were these: “Jew” and “Turk.” Crudely unpacking them, “Turk” meant Muslim, Arab, infidel, the threat from without; a Jew was the enemy within, someone who, even if born and raised in your hometown, was part of another political as well as religious entity; the Jews of a city were referred to not as a community but as “the Jewish nation.” “Jew” and “Turk” were in fact constructs Europeans used to help define their own identity: that which we are not.
What brought this to mind was the scene in front of me. The Labor Party in the Netherlands — which several weeks ago emerged from the endless gray muddle of the country’s multiparty system to take the lead in polls as the nation approaches an election on June 9 — was unveiling its candidates. On a makeshift stage, before banners bearing the party’s logo of a fist inside a rose, stood two people. At the top of the list of candidates — the man responsible for the recent shake-up of Dutch politics, who is making some people in Europe begin to wonder whether he represents a way for mainstream parties on the Continent to successfully combat the swelling tide of populist, anti-immigrant voices — was Job Cohen, who until March was the mayor of Amsterdam. Cohen was raised in a secular Jewish household in the hamlet of Heemstede, not far from Amsterdam; his parents spent World War II in hiding from the Nazis; his paternal grandparents died at Bergen-Belsen. At Cohen’s side, No. 2 on the candidate list, was Nebahat Albayrak, who was born in the central Anatolian region of Turkey and moved as a child to Rotterdam, where her father worked as a scaffold builder.