Swansong for Dutch broadcaster

AMSTERDAM – The Birthright Israel phenomenon arrived only last year in the small Jewish community of the Netherlands. With only 250 Dutch Jewish alumni, few here knew much about the program, which has brought 300,000 young Diaspora Jews on free 10-day group trips to the Jewish state.

And that’s the way it might have remained if not for a documentary, Make Jewish Babies, which aired in early 2012 by the Dutch Jewish Broadcasting Company. The film, which follows the Birthright experience of three sisters from Amsterdam, sparked a fierce debate in the Netherlands. Some said the program inspired participants to be proud Jews; others decried it as a nationalist propaganda exercise.

But the same year, two local groups and a philanthropist began planning the first all-Dutch Birthright delegation.

The documentary demonstrates not only the Dutch Jewish Broadcasting Company’s importance to Holland’s Jews – but also what could be lost when the Dutch government implements its plan to withdraw all the funding it provides annually to the broadcaster, known locally as Joodse Omroep, or JO.

“The threat of excluding us from public broadcasting is terrible and shakes the community’s internal feeling of safety in their identity, which is necessary for openness toward other identities,” said Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, the country’s chief Reform rabbi. “It will banish the community’s soul.”

Dutch Jewry received its own broadcasting company 40 years ago with the establishment of NIK Media. In 2005, the outfit became JO, currently the only publicly funded Jewish broadcaster of its size in Europe, offering 70 hours of radio and 23 hours of television annually, along with a website containing news and archived programs.

JO’s five staffers run the operation out of a humble studio in Hilversum, Holland’s media capital, with an annual budget of just $1.14 million, provided entirely by the Dutch government.

Local Jews say JO provides a vital platform for community members to talk to one another and to Dutch society at large, while also providing an avenue for Jews outside Holland’s major cities to stay connected to the community.

Nevertheless, Alfred Edelstein, director of the JO, remains hopeful that a place can be maintained for Jewish broadcasting in the Netherlands, perhaps by housing JO at one of the larger broadcasting groups.


A still from the documentary “Make Jewish Babies”