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(CNN) —  

It takes less than a minute to walk from Amsterdam’s beautiful Portuguese Synagogue to the “De Dokwerker” statue.

The dockworker, as it is known in English, stands as a permanent reminder of the day Amsterdam came together on February 25, 1941 to protest against the anti-Semitic laws imposed on its Jewish citizens by the Germans.

By the end of World War II, about 75% of the Dutch Jewish community had been wiped out.

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, the vandalizing of the “De Dokwerker” statue last week caused headlines both inside and outside the country.

The
The 'De dokwerker' statue, commemorating the strike against the German occupation during WWII, was covered with yellow and green paint by rival supporters.
PHOTO: KOEN VAN WEEL/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

But the nature of the vandalism, the green and yellow paint on the statue, and the painting of green swastikas on the street, suggested a blurring of the lines between anti-Semitism, and hatred of the city’s football club, Ajax.

Throughout the Netherlands, and much of Europe, Ajax is known as a “Jewish club.” The vandalism, allegedly carried out by supporters of a rival football club in the Hague, shone a light on the complicated and often uneasy relationship between Ajax, the Jewish community and the anti-Semitism that it often attracts. ADO Den Haag, issued a statement in which it apologized for the graffiti.

Stalls close to the Johan Cruyff Arena sell Israeli flags to supporters.
Stalls close to the Johan Cruyff Arena sell Israeli flags to supporters.
PHOTO: James Stacey/CNN

Amsterdam was once a bustling center of Jewish life, home to the Sephardi community who arrived from Iberia in the 16th century, and to an Ashkenazi community who fled from Poland.

Before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, an estimated 80,000 of the country’s 140,000 Jews lived in Amsterdam.

Many of those who perished would go and watch Ajax, but it was really in the 1960s and 1970s that Ajax became known as a “Jewish club.”

Some of the chairmen who led the club during the 60s and 70s were Jewish, while it also had Jewish players such as Bennie Muller and Sjaak Swaart.

The club’s Jewish links often led to anti-Semitic abuse from rival supporters. To counter that, a section of fans began to fight back by calling themselves “Super Jews,” adopting the Israeli flag as a symbol and wearing the Star of David.

Like those who follow English club Tottenham Hotspur, this was seen as a response toward rival fans who used anti-Semitism to attack the Ajax support.

’Nothing to do with Ajax’

“I don’t like it,” David Endt, Ajax’s general manager between 1997 and 2013, told CNN.

“It gives the other party an alibi, to shout wrong things about it, to hurt people who have nothing to do with football.

“They shouldn’t do it and I don’t think it’s right. I can understand fans a little, because they like walk behind the flag and have a symbol. But this is the wrong symbol, you know? Don’t start calling, ‘We are the Jews.’”

Endt, who is Jewish, also says the club itself must do more to tackle the problem, making education a key part of the solution.

“I think the club should do more,” he said. “You know, maybe with the younger kids, teach them the meaning of the, the Jewish flag, which has nothing to do with Ajax.

“You know, just a, a chosen symbol by, by some people at a certain time but it really has nothing to do with Ajax.”

Ajax told CNN it did not want to comment.

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Speaking to CNN, a number of Ajax supporters who refused to give their names, insisted the use of Jewish symbolism had nothing to do with religion.

“I think it’s a kind of culture, every club has that,” one fan said. Another added: “It’s nothing to do with that (religion), it’s just nostalgia for them.”

One supporter described the relationship as “complicated,” adding: “That’s heritage from a long way ago, it’s also the identity of Ajax.”

Another fan said: “I’m sure if you asked 50% of these fans if they could quote the first verse of the bible, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.”

Off the field, the Dutch football authorities have made the eradication of anti-Semitism a priority.

Ajax is competing in this season
Ajax is competing in this season's European Champions League.
PHOTO: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Since 2016 the KNVB, the governing body of Dutch football, has met with Jewish groups to discuss tackling anti-Semitic chanting. Last year the body set up a working group along with a number of social interest groups to tackle discrimination as a whole.

Sanctions have been upgraded with clubs handed higher fines, partial stadium closures and individuals banned for up to five years for anti-Semitic chanting.

In addition, an education program has been set up to tackle racism and anti-Semitism in football.

In a statement sent to CNN, the KNVB said it was “important to stress that we take the matter of discrimination inside football stadiums very seriously, whether it be anti-Semitism or any other form of discrimination.”

Rising anti-Semitism

The link between Ajax, the Jewish community and anti-Semitism remains a highly divisive issue. Even now, near the stadium, Israeli flags can be seen in local shops.

Around 140,000 Jews, including 15,000 who had fled Germany, were living in the country when it was invaded by the Nazis in May 1940, according to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.

It didn’t take long for anti-Semitic laws to be enacted and deportations to death camps to start.

Many were sent to Auschwitz and Sobibor via the transit camps of Westerbork or Vught. By the time the final transport left the Netherlands in September 1944, a total of 107,000 Jews had been deported to death camps, according to Yad Vashem.

Over 75% of Dutch Jewry perished in the Holocaust, the Jerusalem-based museum estimates. No other country, except Poland which lost 90% of its Jews, lost as much of its Jewish community in the Holocaust.

According to the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), anti-Semitic attacks increased by 40 percent in 2017, despite Jews making up less than 0.3% of the population in the Netherlands.

Figures showed that 41% of 144 criminal offenses upheld by the country’s judiciary, including vandalism, assault and incitement to violence, were carried out against Jews.

The figure has nearly doubled since 2016, where 22% of 163 cases were classified as anti-Semitic, according to the Dutch Public Prosecution Service.

The results fit a growing trend both in the Netherlands and within Europe itself.

According to a report published by the European Union in December 2018, 34% of Jewish people surveyed in Netherlands said they avoid visiting Jewish sites or events because they do not feel safe.

More than 16,000 people across 12 EU member states took part in the survey with around 90% of respondents saying they felt that antisemitism is growing in their country.

An Israeli flag can be seen flying outside the Ajax stadium in Amsterdam.
An Israeli flag can be seen flying outside the Ajax stadium in Amsterdam.
PHOTO: James Stacey/CNN

“There used to be a very thin layer of veneer of civilization over the anti-Semitism,” Esther Voet, editor of Jewish weekly newspaper NIW, told CNN.

“What you see now, especially with social media, is that that veneer has cracked, and the brown mud that’s under it is surfacing again.”

The advent of social media has led to many anti-Semitic incidents at football stadiums being shared online.

In February, footage emerged of a group of Feyenoord supporters chanting: “My father was with the commandos, my mother was with the SS. Together they burned Jews, because Jews who burn the best.”

The incident took place in Rotterdam ahead of the game with Ajax on January 29 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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Other instances within Dutch football include Feyenoord fans taunting Ajax about Holocaust victims and AZ Alkmaar supporters chanting: “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” during a fixture in December 2017.

Chants such as “Let’s go Jew hunting” and “If you don’t jump, you’re a Jew,” can also be heard from rival fans.

The history of the Jews and Ajax fans goes back a long way,” Voet explains “People are using this to make the most horrible songs, and they say, ‘Yeah, but it’s against Ajax, it’s not against Jews.’

“Well, guys, you are singing about Jews in the worst way. I think that also from the other side, far much more should be done. The boards of the clubs need to fight against this, and this is not happening.”

The relationship between sections of Ajax’s support and its appropriation of Jewish identity was highlighted in the 2013 documentary “Super Jews.”

Its director, Nirit Peled, who moved to Amsterdam from Tel Aviv, at the age of 22, recalls being on a tram with Ajax supporters waving Israeli flags and singing about being Jewish.

She remembers men singing the traditional Hebrew folk song ‘Hava Nagila,’ wearing the Star of David, and chanting incessantly about “Joden”, the Dutch word for “Jews.”

Initially disturbed by what she had seen, curiosity began to get the better of her.

A sticker with a Star of David on a post close to the Ajax stadium.
A sticker with a Star of David on a post close to the Ajax stadium.
PHOTO: James Stacey/CNN

“When I made this film, one of the questions people asked as an Israeli and a Jew was: ‘Are they (Ajax fans) anti-Semitic?’

“I don’t think it has anything with religion for them,” Peled says,

“I think it’s something that is taken out of context. They’re definitely taking a side and then the other one takes another side, and I can tell you for a fact that the Rotterdam supporters do not identify with the Palestinian cause,” she said.

“It’s very much a friction that’s created, again, based on kind of identities.”

Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech (R) fights for the ball with Real Madrid
Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech (R) fights for the ball with Real Madrid's Spanish defender Dani Carvajal (L) and Real Madrid's Welsh forward Gareth Bale.
PHOTO: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

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Peled believes that there is little animosity meant by the Ajax supporters, stressing that some of them may not even be aware of the connotations of their chants.

“The kids don’t understand the connection, ” she says. “A nice anecdote is that young people in Amsterdam today will go to a jeweler and ask for the ‘Ajax star.’”

“They don’t even know that it’s actually the Star of David. Today, it’s the Ajax star.

“What’s funny is that in the whole discussion about this phenomena, we’re not asking ourselves why the word Jew is still a curse word.”

CNN’s Sean Coppack reported from Amsterdam. James Masters wrote from London.