Belgian Jewish leaders ‘satisfied’ with security despite withdrawal of military

Some activists in the Jewish community, as well as a Jewish MP, continue to express concern about what they say is visible reduction in security personnel for Jewish institutions.

A Belgian police special forces member patrols in Brussels, Belgium February 22, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)
A Belgian police special forces member patrols in Brussels, Belgium February 22, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)

Heads of Jewish community organizations in Belgium have said they are currently satisfied with the level of security being provided to Jewish institutions in the country, following the withdrawal of military personnel from such institutions in recent weeks.

At the same time, some community activists, as well as a prominent Jewish MK, have expressed concern about the withdrawal of military protection and what they say is the smaller police presence protecting Jewish institutions, particularly in Antwerp with its sizable and highly visible Jewish population.

Back in July, the Belgian government announced that it would be ending the security protection for Jewish community institutions that has been in place following the 2014 terrorist attack against a Jewish museum in Brussels and the 2015 attack against a kosher supermarket in nearby Paris.

Concerns were raised in some quarters over this move, especially in light of the fact that Belgium’s security services still put the terrorist threat to the Jewish community at level three out of four, higher than for the general population.

The military protection was formally removed at the beginning of September, although a strong police presence was in place for synagogues and other communal institutions throughout the Jewish holiday season. The police have now ended their heightened protection as well.

Philipe Scharf, copresident of the Forum of Jewish Organizations in the Flanders region of Belgium, which includes Antwerp, said that following the announcement of the federal government to withdraw the military protection, he and his organization were in contact with government officials at the national and local levels to make their concerns over ongoing security coverage clear.

Since the withdrawal of the military protection, Scharf said, “So far, I have not received feedback that there have been serious flaws in security,” adding: “From a functional point of view, there is adequate security coverage.”

Scharf said there is an ongoing police presence at Jewish schools and synagogues in Antwerp, although he indicated this was not round the clock. “If people were used to seeing the army, they might subjectively think there is now a security concern.”

He said, however, that there is a “comprehensive plan by the police in place in order to cover institutions, synagogues, schools and so on.”

Scharf said his organization was “up till now satisfied with current security arrangements,” but that it “would remain vigilant” and continue to monitor the issue.

Yohan Benizri, president of the CCOJB, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in Belgium’s Wallonia region, made similar comments.

“We had conversations with the authorities about security protection, and we insisted that we have a functionally equivalent level of security that was consistent with the threat level, functionally equivalent to what we have with the military,” said Benizri.

A Belgian national flag flies over the Royal Palace (credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR / REUTERS)A Belgian national flag flies over the Royal Palace (credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR / REUTERS)

“I am reasonably confident now that there were no security gaps during September. The level of security has not diminished for now,” he added.

Nevertheless, some community activists have expressed concern.

Jenny Aharon, an adviser on EU-Israel relations based in Antwerp, highlighted Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever’s criticism of Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden in August, when he insisted that the city’s police force required 36 more police officers to secure the Jewish community, and was critical of Verlinden’s failure to offer solutions.

“The federal government has a responsibility to secure all its citizens. That is the primary task of any government,” said Aharon.

“If they can resolve it with the local authority, then fine, but if the local government says it cannot cope, the federal government can’t ignore it.”

Aharon says that the visible security presence in Antwerp has been reduced, and that instead of army troops being stationed outside institutions, police units now patrol Jewish neighborhoods.

“This is very worrisome for us because the threat level hasn’t declined,” she said.

Aharon also expressed disappointment that the government of Israel has not intervened on the issue, and issued a public statement of concern to the Belgian government about the security situation.

Ambassador to Belgium Emmanuel Nachshon told The Jerusalem Post that “Israel feels concern for the security and well-being of all Jewish communities, including the Jewish community in Belgium, and noted that there is an “ongoing dialogue” with the federal and regional authorities in Belgium over security issues.

“I have full confidence that the Belgian authorities will continue providing the adequate level of security to all Jewish institutions,” Nachshon said.

Michael Freilich, a Jewish member of parliament for the New Flemish Alliance Party, has also strongly protested the withdrawal of the military security and the federal government’s refusal to increase funding for the Antwerp police.

Freilich said that although the police had provided the same level of security as the military during the recent holiday season, a much smaller contingent was now protecting Jewish institutions – much smaller than when the army provided its security protection.

Freilich, whose party, led by De Wever, is in the opposition, has raised the issue with Verlinden on several occasions in parliament, and submitted a motion in parliament for increased security and funds for the Jewish community, which was voted down by the governing coalition.

“The current government is being extremely reckless with the safety and safeguarding of the Jewish community,” said Freilich, noting a recent planned terrorist attack against a synagogue in neighboring Germany, and a heightened security threat in France.

“It is disheartening that the pleas of the Jewish community for necessary protection are falling on deaf ears,” he added.