Amid protest by prominent Dutch Holocaust survivors, an author who called Gaza “a ghetto” and said he feels uncomfortable around Jews has stepped down as keynote speaker of the national ceremony commemorating victims of the genocide.
In a statement published Thursday on the website of the National 4 and 5 May Committee, Dutch-Moroccan author Abdelkader Benali wrote that on the national commemoration day, “we come together to commemorate and the discussion around my remarks must not distract from that. So I’ve decided it’s better if someone else deliver the speech.”
Benali, who was named Monday by the committee as keynote speaker, said in 2006 during a conversation with a journalist that southern Amsterdam “is full of Jews. And that’s annoying that there are so many of them. Amsterdam Jews. Makes you feel uneasy as a Moroccan. It looks like Israel. So many Jews, it just feels crazy.”
In an interview published Wednesday in Het Parool newspaper, Benali acknowledged that “I made those remarks,” but that it was during the Second Lebanon War and that “We blew off steam. I was drunk during the party. It was black humor, irony and tastelessness, which, in retrospect were misplaced.”
He added: “I understand that Jews are offended by these remarks if they don’t know the circumstances. I didn’t mean it. I distance myself from those remarks, they weren’t meant literally. I also have Jewish friends and interview Jewish authors.”
In a 2009 op-ed, Benali wrote that “Gaza is a ghetto” and that a Jewish man wearing a kippah “in exchange for money” showed him around the Israeli town of Sderot, “where many people speak Russian.”
Prominent Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands had called on the country’s Jewish community to sever ties with the Dutch national body for commemorating the genocide if it hosts Benali as planned.
The National 4 and 5 May Committee has a history of controversial decisions, according to one of the survivors, Avraham Roet. He’s a former schoolmate of Anne Frank and a leader in the fight for restitution. Three of his five siblings were murdered in the Holocaust, which he survived in hiding.
“Usually, when people are drunk, they speak their mind,” Roet, who now lives in Israel, said of Benali. “The people on the committee need to be replaced. “Their actions and track record shows there is no possibility of cooperating with them on Holocaust commemoration.”
Salo Muller, a child survivor of the Holocaust whose parents were murdered, had said he intended to boycott the event if it featured Benali.
“I will certainly not have any part in it,” he said. Muller also said that the committee is “off the rails, has lost its way” and been “unemphatic to Jews” for years.
Muller, a former physiotherapist for the Ajax soccer team, led a successful campaign in 2019 to have the NS national rail firm offer compensation to Jews it helped transport to death camps.
Manfred Gerstenfeld, a scholar on anti-Semitism from Jerusalem who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a child in the Netherlands, said Dutch Jews “need to make their voice heard on this latest unacceptable choice” by the committee, and said that were Benali to speak, “Dutch Holocaust victims should have nothing to do with the committee and event going forward.”
Benali joins a list of the committee’s controversial choices as keynote speaker. In 2012, the panel pulled from its program a poem by a teenager for his great-uncle, an SS soldier who died in battle. The poem described the dead soldier as a victim of World War II, sparking a debate that led to its scrapping and an apology from the committee.
In 2017, the committee named as its “ambassador for peace” a rapper, Emerson Akachar, who during a soccer match the previous year was filmed shouting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Following an outcry, the committee revoked the title from Akachar.
The committee has not replied to requests for comment by JTA.