Last semester, I studied abroad in Amsterdam. While I was there, the country held provincial elections in which the right-wing party, Boer Burger Beweging (the farmer-citizen movement) won the most seats in all 12 provinces. The election turned out to be a bellwether for what would come.
On November 22nd, The Netherlands held parliamentary elections after the previous Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, resigned and his coalition collapsed over disagreements on immigration policy. In the most recent elections, the far-right party, Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), won a majority of the vote and will have an almost guaranteed membership in the governing coalition. It’s even possible that the far-right founder of the party, Gert Wilders, will become prime minister.
The memory of my time in Amsterdam that sticks out most was my experience on King’s Day. Much like St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, King’s Day is a holiday filled with day drinking and national pride. My friends and I stopped on abridge to take a photo of idyllic Amsterdam, finally sunny and warming up after months of gray and frigid wind. We asked a young guy, in the middle of ripping his cigarette, if he could take our picture. He happily agreed and proceeded to take some photos. He then asked us where we were from;when we said the U.S. his face lit up.
“I love America,” he said “It’s great.” When we asked why he responded “you don’t have to respect trans people. There’s none of that woke shit.”
I realized at that moment we were not who he assumed we were (bigots) and he wasn’t who I assumed he was (accepting).
My time in Amsterdam was littered with experiences like this. A student at the University of Amsterdam said the difference between Syrian refugees and Ukrainian refugees was that Ukrainian refugees contributed something to the Netherlands while Syrian refugees simply profited off of welfare. I walked past buildings still branded with the logo of the Dutch East India Company, the organization responsible for the trade of enslaved people. We were warned on our first day in Amsterdam that it was common to see individuals wearing blackface. I once saw supporters for the local soccer team, Ajax, screaming anti-semitic slurs.
To say that The Netherlands has bigotry isn’t novel. What it does show is the disconnect between how the world views the Dutch and how the Dutch really are. The Netherlands is often applauded for its “tolerance.” But that word is doing some heavy lifting. The Dutch don’t embrace, accept, or celebrate. No, they “tolerate” the different identities of their citizens, but only when it’s convenient.
Dutch tolerance is a practice in pragmatism, borne out of a history of allowing refugees into their country. The Dutch discovered tolerance brought strength in numbers to a country harboring religious minorities. In fact, the first Jews in Amsterdam were those fleeing Catholic persecution in Spain. With them came a deep knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese trade with their colonies. As a result, harboring Jews became economically beneficial during the Dutch “Golden Age.” How could they trade without tolerating cultural differences? How could the Catholics of Vlissingen get their food if the protestants weren’t fishing? At its essence, the Dutch tolerance comes from the protestant idea of individualism and the need for a small trade-based economy to work together to survive.
But what happens when tolerance is no longer beneficial?
Well, The Netherlands has shown that there are limits to what they will accept. In the most recent elections, one of the main issues driving the election was immigration and the ongoing housing crisis. Wilders tied this crisis to the influx of immigrants from war-torn countries like Syria and Ukraine (although the far-right has a much bigger problem with the former than the latter). In his victory speech, Wilders vowed to stop the flow of immigrants to the country and only provide classes in Dutch at universities. In the past, he called the prophet Mohammed a “pedophile” and said he wanted to ban Mosques. So, when it comes to economic security, the Dutch have a history of doing what they think will help them financially. While this also isn’t a novel thing for a country to do, it undermines the idea that The Netherlands is inherently more progressive than any other country. The Dutch are as progressive as they choose to be and the majority simply did not think it was worth it to tolerate refugees when there is an unrelated housing crisis. While it’s nice to think any one country can represent the best humans have to offer, the Dutch demonstrate a universal truth: acceptance is a choice, not an instinct. So, when it comes to the next round of elections, the Dutch will have to choose what type of country they want to be, because relying on their tolerant impulses won’t save them from the worst tendencies of human nature.
Senior Olivia Deelen is a Staff Writer. Her email is email@example.com.