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Tuesday, 4 May 2010


When Max Engelander became a policeman in Amsterdam in 1978, his mother was stunned. "How could you ever join the police?" she asked. What she meant was: how could you, a Jewish boy from a family largely murdered by the Nazis, join a police force of which many officers participated in the deportation of Jews? "The Amsterdam police force has changed," Englander then told his mother. By the late 1970s, flower power and other social movements of the era had left their mark on the police force. Today, equality is a core value of the Amsterdam police. It is going out of its way to express its diversity by setting up professional networks of Moroccan, Surinamese and homosexual officers. Jewish officers and their sympathisers have had a network of their own for a year now.

Jews reluctant to call police
This Tuesday, May 4, the national day of remembrance dedicated to the victims of the war, Max Engelander and the other members of the Amsterdam police force's Jewish network will attend a special memorial service. The service will be held in the Hollandsche Schouwburg. Here, Amsterdam Jews were gathered before being deported to concentration camps. "We want to show that the Amsterdam police force is here for the Jewish community as well," said Engelander, who would be attending the service in uniform. "Because of the war, people like my mother are still reluctant to call the police if they become victims of a crime." Engelander's mother was arrested in Amsterdam at the age of 13 and deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1943. "In those years, the Schalkhaar Battalion marched through Amsterdam's streets," Engelander said, recalling the name of the town where Dutch police officers were trained according to Nazi ideology at the time. "Of my mother's extended family, only she and two other relatives survived." History has also forged her son’s character. "Not until 1986 did the last Schalkhaar officer in the force retire," Englander said. His Jewish identity played an important role throughout his police career. "I have always been adamantly opposed against discrimination, no matter who it was aimed at," he said. Personally, he has never experienced anti-Semitism. "But it exists within the police force, as it does within any major organisation," he explained.

Hamas united police Jews
The Jewish police network he founded developed in response to an anti-Israel demonstration organised by the Dutch labour union FNV two years ago. The police union participated in that demonstration, to which prominent members of Hamas has also been invited, Engelander recalled. After an unpleasant conversation with the chair of the police union, Engelander placed an advertisement in the police force's magazine. Some 15 officers responded and the police force's Jewish network was born. Today, it has about 30 members. The network was officially founded in March of last year in the Jewish Historical Museum, housed in a former synagogue in Amsterdam. Amsterdam police chief Bernard Welten then referred to what he called a "black page" in the history of the Amsterdam police force. He emphasised his desire to create a "mixed force" that could identify with "citizens in need, no matter what their origin, culture, looks or orientation". All the force's networks are supposed to serve as a "connection" between the police and society, Welten said. "We want to serve as a bridge between the police and the Jewish community," Engelander said. "Not only because the police force should be a cross section of society, but also because it allows us to be more effective at police work." He gave an example: "When the police are called upon in a domestic violence case in a Jewish family on a Friday evening, we can recommend our colleagues to wait until after the Sabbath," Engelander said.

Yom Kippur cyclist fined
Not long ago, Engelander received a call from a colleague who had caught a woman riding her bicycle without a light after dark. "She said she wasn't allowed to turn on her lights on Yom Kippur [a Jewish holiday]. My colleague asked: 'Max, should I fine her?' I told her: 'You sure should'. If you adhere to the Yom Kippur rules in the strictest sense, you aren't even allowed to get on your bike." Conversely, Engelander can also impress upon his colleagues how heavily some matters can weigh upon his fellow Jews' minds. He recalled a case in which a Jewish man's tefillin (boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, worn on leather straps) were stolen from his car. "These were heirlooms that had been in the family for 150 years. I explained to my colleagues how important they were and they looked for them intensively," Engelander said. The tefillin were never recovered though. Engelander said he dreamed of establishing a national Jewish police network. He also hoped more Jews would join the ranks of the police force. "This summer, we will be manning a stand at a football tournament for Jewish youth," he said. "We will be looking to promote our network, but also to recruit".