Jewish leaders in Belgium split over libel suit

Former Belgian Jewry leader resigns from Jewish board in protest of decision to honor politician who equated Israel with Nazism.

André Flahaut and Prof. Maurice Sosnowski (photo credit: Courtesy/CCOJB)
André Flahaut and Prof. Maurice Sosnowski
(photo credit: Courtesy/CCOJB)
BRUSSELS – A former leader of Belgian Jewry resigned last week from the country’s Jewish board in protest of the board’s decision to honor a prominent politician who has equated Israel with Nazism, and is suing the same Jewish board for libel.
Joël Rubinfeld, ex-president of the Umbrella Organization of Jewish Institutions of Belgium (CCOJB), says his resignation was in response to the organization’s decision to host André Flahaut, president of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives, as a guest of honor at a gala dinner in September.
“Honoring Flahaut was inappropriate and absurd in light of his statement and the lawsuit he filed against the CCOJB,” Rubinfeld told The Jerusalem Post.
Rubinfeld stepped down as president last year but remained on the board.
Rubinfeld’s successor as president, Prof. Maurice Sosnowski, defended the invitation as a means of keeping dialogue open and ending Flahaut’s lawsuit in a compromise.
Flahaut sued both the CCOJB and Rubinfeld individually in 2008 for libel, claiming they called him “an anti-Semite.” Rubinfeld had publicly accused Flahaut of “making statements which can encourage anti-Semitism,” in the context of a pro- Palestinian demonstration in Nivelles.
Flahaut – a former defense minister and senior Socialist Party official – was filmed there, saying: “I’m determined to fight all extremism, all Nazism, all fascism wherever, whenever they occur. That’s why I’m here.”
The demonstration was held in commemoration of Israel’s creation 60 years earlier and featured actors dressed as Israeli soldiers, shouting and loading other actors dressed in Arab garb onto a truck.
Rubinfeld had filmed the event and Flahaut’s speech and posted the footage online.
According to Sosnowski, the gala invitation was “natural” since Flahaut and the CCOJB are in contact over an end to the lawsuit. Early last year a first circuit court ruled in favour of Flahaut; Rubinfeld and the organization have appealed to the second circuit.
Sosnowski told the Post that Flahaut and the organization arrived at an out-of-court compromise, but that Rubinfeld rejected the deal, making it “impossible.”
Sosnowski added: “Rubinfeld was right to accuse Flahaut and right to appeal the first circuit’s sentence, but a reasonable compromise is better than a long and uncertain procedure.”
The compromise would have Flahaut drop the lawsuit and declare that equating Israel to Nazism is illegitimate and amounts to anti- Semitism.
Flahaut has insisted that he had never made such a link – thereby suggesting that Rubinfeld had manipulated the video. The first circuit court ruled the video had indeed been doctored, though all board members reject this.
“It’s a good compromise for the Jewish community and an achievement but it’s being blocked by Rubinfeld,” Sosnowski said, adding that a majority of the board supports the settlement. “Rubinfeld wants to turn this affair into a Dreyfus trial that would drag on for a decade and drain the community’s resources.”
René de Lathouwer, a board member, said Rubinfeld “was holding the CCOJB hostage.”
Rubinfeld, however, insisted on appealing the first circuit ruling “because the issue has become Belgian jurisprudence and free speech. The court must now determine that equating Israel and Nazism is illegitimate. A statement by Flahaut is worthless.”
Rubinfeld added that he wanted to resign immediately after the September gala, but stayed on the board “to work out the follow-up in the trial against Flahaut.”
Flahaut – who did not respond to requests for a reaction – was documented leading another anti-Israel demonstration in Brussels on January 11, 2009, where some protestors waved signs reading “Jew Nazi,” “Gaza worse than Auschwitz” and “Protocols of Zion, final stage?” Also present were two other Belgian parliamentarians – Isabelle Durant of the Green Party and Françoise Dupuis of the Socialist Party – who both attended the gala along with Flahaut.
CCOJB represents some 20,000 French-speaking Belgian Jews. (The Forum of Jewish Organizations – an independent body – represents the equally-sized Flemish Jewish community.) “I have no great sympathy for André Flahaut but there’s little chance of beating him in court. It will make other politicians close ranks with him,” Eli Ringer, honorary FJO chairman, said. “As a youngster Rubinfeld had good intentions to make some changes in the Brussels community but not too much could be achieved by always using force instead of dialogue.”
He added: “At the same time, inviting Flahaut to the CCOJB gala while he’s suing the CCOJB wasn’t a good idea. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”