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For a while there it looked as though my semi-annual long weekend in Amsterdam would come to naught. Several days of massive snowfall made travel impossible in our part of Norway and closed down Oslo Airport for most of a day. Thanks to the snow, the usually reliable bus to Oslo pulled into the station a couple of hours behind schedule; and the airport express trains, which are never so much as a minute late, were delayed by an hour or so.
There was one surprise on the express train. In every car, they have these big video screens on which they give you a couple of the latest headlines, current temperatures in major European cities, stock market news, and flight departure times. Somewhere in there, there’s always an ad – invariably innocuous, instantly forgettable. Not this time. The ad – big blood-red letters on black backgrounds – was placed by Doctors without Borders, and it demanded an end to the “genocide” in Gaza.
Having allowed plenty of time because of the chaos, I got to the airport several hours early. I killed part of the time watching a couple of new YouTube videos in which the U.K. podcaster Konstantin Kisin interviewed participants in a pro-Palestinian rally in London. It wasn’t a particularly dense crowd, and it consisted mostly of young English people. They carried signs, distributed by the Socialist Workers Party, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and demanding that Palestine be free “from the river to the sea.”
A brief, polite questioning by Kisin established that they didn’t know what that meant, and that none of them really knew much of anything, for that matter, about Islam or Israel or the history of the Middle East. They’d spent four years learning that white is bad, darker shades good. They had yet to discover that there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in the lyrics to “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance.”
Still, they were good-natured, not at all aggressive in their exchanges with Kisin. They truly thought they were standing up for a virtuous cause.
I flew to Amsterdam. I was still inside Central Station when I heard the shouting. Stepping outside, I saw a solid wall of people marching toward me from my right. Hastening toward the tram platform, I just missed being slammed into by this mass of humanity. I had to duck to keep from getting tangled in a Palestinian flag.
Once on the platform, I turned to watch the protesters. The people Kisin interviewed had been individuals. This tightly packed horde wasn’t a group of individuals. It was a single large organism that seemed to speak with a single voice. No, not a voice. A howl.
Why was I surprised by this display? It was in this very city, 26 years ago this month, that I found myself living in a neighborhood – some distance removed from the areas frequented by tourists – where men with long beards and women in hijabs, the latter almost invariably pregnant and pushing a crib or stroller, promenaded down the sidewalks, trailed by several small kids about a year apart in age.
When you tried to meet these people’s eyes they’d give you a look. It was a “stay away” look. Sometimes, in the women’s eyes, there was fear. And often, in the men’s eyes, there was something absolutely chilling – a rage, a contempt, an inhuman something that seemed beyond all reason.
They were there, but not there; in the West, but not of it. And not remotely trying to be.
These people seemed especially out of place in Amsterdam. Centuries ago, when the Mediterranean-centered Middle Ages gave way to the Northern Europe-centered modern West, Amsterdam was its nerve center – a veritable beacon of Enlightenment values. In the late twentieth century, Amsterdam, and the Netherlands generally, was still a byword for freedom and tolerance.
And nothing could be more foreign to the Dutch character than the look in those men’s eyes.
I realized immediately that something was going on in Amsterdam that no one had ever told me about. And I realized that other cities in Europe must be in the same boat. Why, after all, would Amsterdam be an exception?
I realized one more thing. I realized that this wasn’t good news. I knew little about Islam back then, but I knew enough to know that I needed to know more. I ran to the main library, which was then located on the Prinsengracht – the same canal on which Anne Frank lived. (Back then, the Internet wasn’t the kind of resource it is now.) I found a couple of books that confirmed my guess – yes, Europe was indeed being Islamized. But the authors of these books sought to paint it as a good thing. One of them claimed that Islam would supply Europe with the spiritual dimension that it was losing. Somehow I knew instantly that this was a crock.
Waiting for my tram outside Amsterdam Central Station the other day, I thought of October 7. Taking in the spectacle of that immense, growling creature as it passed me by, bedecked with Palestinian flags and placards and banners, I could all too easily imagine it streaming across that little bridge into the city proper, breaking up into smaller groups, and smashing into people’s homes.
All those narrow townhouses along the canals, I mused, would be no match for such an assailant. I thought of all those high first-floor windows, through which passersby could view incredibly tidy living rooms, the walls almost always lined with books. On precious few of those windows, I reflected, was there ever a grating – something, anything, to protect the people inside. No, they’d all be sitting ducks. A few thrown rocks, the sound of glass shattering, the sight of young male bodies clambering up to the ledges and diving in. And from inside, screams of horror.
That’s what I saw in that mob outside Central Station. Not a bunch of naive European kids fretting about innocent children in Gaza. No, this was an alien force, barbaric, savage, that had begun to pass through the gates of the West decades ago and that, all that time, had been growing steadily in size and confidence. It was an army whose seventh-century scriptures told them that the world was theirs to conquer. And an army that, in the last few months, has grasped the opportunity to assert its power – and to make it as clear as day that what happened in Israel on October 7 can and will happen here, too.