Belgium - Haunted by Ill Winds of the Past

by Daniel Ben Simon

 
(C) reprinted with the permission of Haaretz Daily (English)

The second intifada has lit a fuse in Belgium and Jews feel isolated and threatened. The media castigates what they see as excessively harsh Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and Ariel Sharon's trial has aggravated ill feeling about Israel. Whether or not it is tinged with paranoia, fear unites Belgium's Jews today.
By Daniel Ben Simon

During the last year, feelings of isolation have intensified among Belgium's 30,000 Jews. Many fear for their lives, even though they have no objective reason to do so, and even though there is no evidence of an official state plan to harm the Jews.

Whatever their reason, local Jews now speak about the return of anti-Semitism, and express concerns about being hurt by hatred of Jews. As in France, the second intifada uprising lit a fuse - and the fire continues to blaze because of local media coverage of what is depicted as harsh, aggressive treatment of helpless Palestinians. Jews have decided that sharp criticism in Belgium of Israel's government has been reflected on the local level and has turned into anti-Semitic sentiment.

As if this weren't enough, Belgium's legal system decided to consider prosecuting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for genocide - an offense associated with dictators of the worst stamp. Infuriated, and also embarrassed, local Jews had to come to terms with the fact that a Belgian court in the country's capital is charging the leader of the Jewish state with "crimes against humanity."

Belgian Jews feel as though ill winds of the past are once again sweeping across Europe. About 60 years after Nazi horrors victimized Jews in the country, descendants of World War II-era Jews feel as though they are once again being exploited as scapegoats. Faced with this threat, local Jews have mobilized and united. It is as though Jewish identity only flowers under dark clouds of external threats, be they real or imagined.

"I can't recall another period when the atmosphere in the community was so charged up," says Pedro Weinreb, a Jewish-Belgian businessman, in a tone of unconcealed pride. A few months ago, he established a "task force" of Jews from the community, whose purpose is to forestall attacks against Jews, and to monitor any signs of anti-Semitism. He appointed an Israel Defense Forces reserves officer named Rafi Yerushalmi to head this group - Yerushalmi worked in the past as a Keren Hayesod emissary in Belgium, fell in love with the country, and remained there after his term ended.

Soon after he took up his post with the task force, Yerushalmi launched a public relations campaign against Belgians who express what he regards as excessive criticism against Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians. Recently, he published a pamphlet which lauds Israel's efforts in the peace process, and roundly castigates Israel's enemies. His message is clear: Jews want peace from the moment they are born, whereas recalcitrant Arabs, especially Palestinians, incorrigibly yearn for Israel's annihilation.

Weinreb, a concerned Jewish activist, recently brought his business activities to a halt, and marshaled all of his resources in a full-throttle crusade to defend Israel and the local Jewish community. He is entirely convinced that Belgium's reality warrants such full-scale action. The life of the local Jewish community, he explains, has been altered forever by the eruption of the second intifada.

Persecution or Illusion?

Jewish mobilization in Belgium reached its peak after the Dolphinarium disco attack last June in Tel Aviv, in which 21 young Israelis, mostly immigrants from the CIS, were murdered. After the seven-day mourning period, members of the Jewish community packed a Brussels synagogue.

"I can't remember such activity," explains Weinreb. "There were telephone calls from all over Belgium. Jews wanted to organize, and to act. We marched on the main street in the city, and lit candles in front of a courthouse, and held up pictures of the casualties in the attack. Then we walked to the synagogue. It was the most emotional community experience I can recall. The synagogue was packed; hundreds of people crowded together, and we all expressed solidarity with Israel."

Jews continued to hold meetings in Belgium after this vigil. There has been much to protest - or discuss: the Ariel Sharon trial in Brussels, the strengthening of radical Islamic movements, anti-Israel or anti-Semitic graffiti on local walls, the attack of a Belgian Jew at a train station.

"Next to France, Belgium is the most dangerous place for Jews who look like Jews," says Joel Rubinfeld, who runs a public relations office and joined the special task force.

An Empathetic Rabbi

To exemplify current trends of anti-Semitism, Belgian Jews invariably point to the example of Rabbi Albert Guigui. Last December, the rabbi was accosted by five Muslim men at a train station in Aderlecht. The five taunted the rabbi, calling him "a dirty Jew," as he boarded the train. With his religious dress, beard and skullcap, Guigui, the chief rabbi of Brussels, is accustomed to drawing suspicious looks. But this incident was unusually ugly. The five came up to him while he was seated in the train, and continued to berate him. The rabbi addressed them in their tongue, Moroccan Arabic, hoping that this might bring some calm. Suddenly, one of the group kicked him, and broke his glasses. The incident aggravated fears among Jews in Belgium.

Rabbi Guigui, a reticent man, decided against telling others about the incident. He was afraid that such disclosure would only fan tensions between Jews and Muslims in the country. Yet after local police intervened, the incident became a national news item, and even reached the Belgian parliament. Extremists in the Jewish community exploited the incident, deliberately trying to tear the fragile web of relations between Jews and Arabs. Moderates took advantage of the incident as well, using it as a springboard for dialogue initiatives with Muslims.

Guigui joined the moderate camp. To the chagrin of many in the community, he quickly arranged meetings with Muslim leaders, trying to put an end to the bad feeling which had been created by the incident. He explains that Muslim leaders phoned him, and apologized. "They explained that the incident was not in keeping with the conciliatory spirit of immigrants from North Africa, and Muslims. The Belgians were happy about these reconciliation efforts; but there were many in the Jewish community who were angry when I met with Muslims. They told me that Arabs are terrorists."

For years, Rabbi Guigui has worked to bridge gaps between Jewish and Muslim communities. In meetings with Belgian officials, he has proposed ideas for reconciliation between the communities. "Members of the Jewish community want beefed-up police patrols, but I think that approach is a mistake," he says. "What is needed is peace-oriented education, along with understanding about the other side's needs. I know that Muslims have had a very trying year as well. It's not easy for them to watch what's happening to their Palestinian brothers on the television; they commiserate with them. That's not natural?"

For Rabbi Guigui, it has been particularly painful to watch members of the Jewish community accuse Belgium of anti-Semitism. Aiming to quiet irate, militant members of his own community, he plans to disclose to them information about the budgets and resources which Belgium's government has allocated for Jewish education in the country's secondary schools and universities. "No country in the world has displayed such good will and support for the religious needs of the Jewish community," he says.

Sympathy for religion, particularly for the Catholic church, is embedded deep in Belgium's social infrastructure. More than in any other country in Europe, religious faith is valued in Belgium as a top priority in life. More than in any other country in Europe, religious instruction there is an obligatory part of school curricula. Almost all wedding ceremonies are officiated by religious figures; almost all funerals are religious in character. Belgian's religious fabric has remained intact on a continent where states severed themselves from churches to avoid friction between political and religious realms.

Dashed Hopes

Said al-Marabet was disconcerted by news of the Rabbi Guigui incident. He worried that relations between the country's Muslim and Jewish communities would be torn asunder.

Marabet was born in North Africa and immigrated with his family to Belgium. During the past two decades, North African immigrants have increased steadily in number in the country, and today they constitute more than 10 percent of Belgium's population of 10 million. Inspired by memories of Jewish-Arab harmony in Morocco decades ago, Marabet says that were Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences, this harmony would be reborn.

"The problems stem from what happens in your country [Israel]," he says. "People see the horrific pictures, and can't understand why such terrible killings and destruction occur. Both of our people come from ancient, glorious civilizations. Isn't it a shame that we're behaving this way now?"

Speaking at a cafe in central Brussels, Marabet, a congenial, stocky businessman, referred to worsening relations between Jews and Muslims in recent months. He was at first reluctant to meet. When our discussion began, he explained that distress experienced by Palestinians has driven the whole Muslim world to despair. In polished French, he described the atmosphere in mosques, and the incendiary language used by preachers who come from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Iran, and who view Jews and Israelis as the cause of Muslim woes.

In recent weeks, Marabet worked hard to establish a Jewish-Muslim reconciliation association in Brussels. After having won the consent of leading figures in the local Jewish community for the project, he discovered that his Muslim friends opposed the initiative. "They told me that it won't work in our community, because of Israel's cruel policies, and because Jews in Belgium support Sharon," he says.

In the past, Jews were regular guests on radio programs broadcast for Belgium's Muslim community. In recent months, however, the Muslim broadcasters have boycotted Jews, fuming about the Jewish community's support for Israel. "The situation is terrible," sighs Marabet. "The extremists have the upper hand on both sides."

The Hostile Media

"It's simply an absurd situation," exclaims Nicholas Sommerstein, describing the plight of moderate Jews in the country. Sommerstein and others who have supported the left in Israel, and favored the establishment of a Palestinian state, now find themselves defending Sharon. They have mobilized in favor of Israel's current government as an instinctive response to the anti-Israel broadside attacks in Belgium's government - attacks tainted by an anti-Jewish tone.

"We have a dilemma," Sommerstein says, referring to Jews like himself who have felt compelled to defend Sharon in response to the not-so-veiled anti-Semitic content in media discussions of Israeli policy. Though he defends the Sharon government, Sommerstein says that he "has a feeling that Sharon exploits every opportunity to avoid making peace. I was stunned and appalled to see the houses Israel demolished in Rafah. As a Jew, I couldn't stand seeing pictures of children and infants who don't have a roof over the heads."

Sommerstein's friends, two brothers named Joel and Dan Kotek (a professor of international relations and the editor of the main Jewish newspaper of the Belgian community), are darkly pessimistic about Belgium's situation.

"There's no danger being a Jew in Europe, and I'm sure that there won't be pogroms tomorrow," says Joel. "But a Jewish Zionist [in Belgium] no longer feels as though he's part of the society in which he lives. The Israel-Palestinian dispute has become a test of his loyalties. Should he express solidarity with Israel, he comes across as a supporter of a Nazi regime. There is a Christian tradition in this state which views the Palestinians as a kind of new people of Jesus. And so I'm not saying that we have anti-Semitism here - it's a bottomless hatred of Israel."

Kotek's brother, Dan, argues that only the establishment of a Palestinian state will, potentially, ease Belgian responses to Jews and Israelis. "But I have the feeling that Sharon doesn't want this vision [a Palestinian state]. Since he's been prime minister, our situation has only gotten worse."

Does Israel Frighten the Jews?

David Susskind, one of the leaders of Belgium's Jewish community, is incensed by discussions of anti-Semitism. Though he is concerned about the spate of insults and acts of vandalism against Jews, he doesn't view them as the sign of a genuinely dangerous trend of anti-Semitism. Susskind was infuriated and embarrassed when Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior called on Jews in France to immigrate to Israel, to save themselves from anti-Semitism. He's even ruminated about the possibility that the State of Israel might have a deliberate policy of stirring up fear among Jews in Europe, so as to encourage them to immigrate to Israel.

"I don't know who's responsible for this [scare campaign] plan in the government," he explains, "but I don't have any doubt that somebody wants to stir unrest in France and Belgium. Who's going to respond to Melchior's foolish appeal? Only those who can't find a place in life, those who can't find a spouse or a job, those who have gone bankrupt and those who aren't worth much. Those are the ones who say that there's anti-Semitism."

Susskind recalls his boyhood days in Anderlecht, and the dread caused when the Nazis entered the city. Any comparison to the present is tendentious and wrong, he says. "Is there a single party in Belgium which has an anti-Semitic platform?" he asks. "Are there places in Belgium which are forbidden to Jews? Is there a hospital which won't accept a Jewish patient?"

Susskind suggests that local Jewish fears about anti-Semitic threats are overwrought. "What's this lunacy about - have the Jews gone crazy? Anyway, why did Rabbi Guigui have to go to a neighborhood where even the police are afraid to roam around? A few punks from North Africa attack him, and the Jews accuse the Belgians of anti-Semitism."

After he's finished venting his anger, Susskind expresses concerns that local Jews might succumb to exaggerated fears and cut themselves off from the surrounding society. As a Jewish leader, he has long encouraged Jews in his country not to isolate themselves. "Isolation from the surrounding society is the greatest danger posed to the Jews," he explains. "We live in a wonderful country, and we have extraordinary rights, so why should we put up with our life being damaged?"

Like it or not, in the past year Susskind has witnessed the fact that some of the central ideals of his life have been damaged. The cherished vision of peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been derailed, and Israel's left is paralyzed. And his own wife absorbed some blows at a Jewish event - she was attacked by Jewish women who resent her activity on behalf of Israel's left-wing peace camp.

There were some bleak moments in the past year when Susskind feared that Jews have succumbed to hysteria.

Where are the Elites?

"The New Judeophobia," a newly published book in Paris, could heighten concerns about anti-Semitism in Europe. The author, Pierre Andre Taguieff, analyzes in alarming detail the sources of hatred of the Jews

"Since the end of the Second World War," he writes, "we haven't witnessed such a rash of anti-Jewish acts, which have met with such limited intellectual and political resistance." The author continues: "One thing is sure ... At the start of the 21st century, we are discovering that Jews are once again select targets of violence. It is dangerous to identify a Jew today. Hatred of the Jews has returned to France."

Taguieff is a well-known historian and researcher who has published a number of works on racism, ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. In his new work, he excoriates French elite groups for turning a blind eye to and ignoring trends of anti-Semitism.

"We can see clearly today in Europe, and in the Muslim countries," he writes, "that renewed forms of anti-Semitism have taken on dimensions they haven't had since the start of the post-Nazi period."

Taguieff is particularly distressed by the way elite groups in France have kept mum as disturbing ripple effects of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have reached French soil. He finds it impossible to understand how the French elite kept quiet when Muslim demonstrators chanted "Death to Jews" in downtown Paris. Nor can he grasp how France's leading groups have done nothing when local mosques provided a forum for vitriolic, incendiary denunciations of Israel and Jews.

"The time has come for the political establishment and the intellectual circles to take up the cudgels against [anti-Semitic] phenomena," the author concludes. "It's not clear why they have kept quiet so far."


 

 

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13 Aug 2007 / 29 Av 5767 0