Life for Belgian Jews feeling more precarious

Despite pugnacious tone by communal leadership, research shows Jews unsure of the future; institutions to remain open following Saturday shooting attack at Jewish museum.

Memorial candles outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels, where a gunman killed 4 people (photo credit: REUTERS)
Memorial candles outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels, where a gunman killed 4 people
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish leaders in Belgium reacted strongly to Saturday’s murderous attack at a Jewish museum in Brussels, vowing that communal life in the western European nation will continue normally despite the loss of life.
Three people were killed outright and a fourth died later of his wounds after a gunman walked into the museum and opened fire with a rifle. Two of the dead were Emanuel and Miriam Riva, a middle-aged Jewish couple on vacation from Tel Aviv; a French woman and a Belgian man were also killed.
The gunman, who is still at large, was shown wearing a baseball cap and carrying a large duffel bag on security footage released by city police on Sunday afternoon.
Communal institutions will remain open and “Jewish life will continue in Belgium, Maurice Sosnowski, president of the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations (CCOJB), told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“We are shocked, but not destroyed,” he asserted, disputing recent remarks by some expressing skepticism regarding the continuing viability of Jewish life on the continent.
The president of the European Jewish Congress made waves recently when he told reporters in Tel Aviv that, without a significant reduction in the fear and insecurity plaguing European Jewry, normative Jewish life there will quickly become “unsustainable.”
Belgian Jewry can get through the current tragedy just as their coreligionists have survived two millennia of exile, Sosnowski declared. “We cannot say this that it is over and we have to move.”
Sosnowski’s assertive tone, however, is starkly at odds with recent research indicating that many members of his community are unsure of their collective and individual futures.
Seventy-seven percent of Belgian Jews termed anti-Semitism a “very big” or “fairly big” problem in a poll conducted by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) last year, while a 40 percent indicated that they had considered emigration at some point over the past five years due to a feeling of insecurity.
Many Jews are reluctant to go in public wearing a kippa or any other garment that could identify them as Jewish or to visit institutions run by the community, Tel Aviv University anti-Semitism researcher Prof.
Dina Porat told the Post.
While until this weekend violence was not a major part of the Belgian Jewish landscape, she explained, other forms of anti-Semitic expression have been on the rise.
“2013 was not a violent year in Belgium. There were 10 or 11 cases that involved all forms of violence,” most of which were directed at the highly visible ultra-Orthodox community of Antwerp, she said. “In Belgium, as much as in Hungary and in France, the case was more case of bad atmosphere, harassment, incitement, [and] threats.”
Community leaders are still unsure whether the attack came from Belgium’s radical Right or the country’s large Muslim minority.
Several Jewish leaders who spoke with the Post following the attack all said that the Jewish community feels like it is being stigmatized by the press and that they believe that an anti-Israel bias present both in the media and the political sphere contributes to a growing antipathy toward their community.
“We have problems with the importing of the Middle East conflict in Belgium,” said Raphael Werner, president of the FORUM der Joodse Organisaties, an umbrella organization representing a number of Flemish Jewish bodies. “A lot of politicians are pro-Palestinians and they don’t make a difference between Jews and Israelis.”
Werner and Eli Ringer, his predecessor, were careful to point out, however, that the government is very supportive and that it has made every effort to protect its Jewish citizens.
“Whatever help we need from the authorities we get,” Ringer said.
Security has been beefed up with police deployed at Jewish sites, including synagogues and schools around the country.
“The museum is the only Jewish center not protected, as it is not exclusively a Jewish community building and so it was an easy target. This was a preplanned attack, it wasn’t something that could be improvised,” Sosnowski told President Shimon Peres by phone Sunday. “The modus operandi reminds us of the shooting in Toulouse.”
But the head of the Belgian League against anti-Semitism, Joel Rubinfeld, believes the shooting was a terrorist act that did not take away his fear of more attacks against the Jewish community.
“We can feel reassured, but as you know attacks can happen anywhere, anyhow, anytime, and anything can be expected from those who decide to carry them out. So, yes we are feeling reassured because all the federal Belgian state is on alert, in Brussels and elsewhere, because we have no idea of where these murderers are. But it’s a big statement to say that I’m feeling reassured,” said Rubinfeld.
On a day-to-day basis Jews do not feel the effects of anti-Semitism, Werner and Ringer both stated, noting that much of the worst hate is online where it is harder to combat.
Given that there is little actual violence, the attack on Saturday was a terrible shock, Werner said.
Part of the blame for such an atmosphere may be laid at the feet of politicians and leaders who are unwilling to fight proactively against anti-Semitism, Sosnowski told the Post.
“There are so many people who are insensitive to all this hate speech and I hope, unfortunately, that this [tragedy] will sensitize all these people,” he added.
Speaking with the press in Brussels, Sosnowski expanded on this theme, stating that “if the ‘wake up call’ we got yesterday is not enough to raise awareness among politicians and show the extreme and absolute urgency to fight anti-Semitism, I believe in that case I think that cause will be definitely lost.”
Such comments are congruent with statements made by a number of Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, blaming the attack on European “hypocrisy” and “incitement” against the Jewish state. Such acts eventually translate into more traditional forms of anti-Jewish bias.
“Nothing will help so long as Europe’s political and intellectual leadership refrains from declaring all-out war against the demonization of the Jewish state,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharanksy said in a statement.
“While Jews as individuals are no longer demonized in Europe as they were in previous centuries, the demonization of Israel – the collective Jew – continues to rise to new heights.”
Despite the government stepping in to cancel an anti-Semitic conference in Brussels earlier this month, and the current efforts being made to secure the Jewish community, not everybody feels that Belgium is doing enough.
“My impression is that the Belgian government does not have and never had a proactive attitude in dealing with anti-Semitism, unlike the French government in recent years,” Hebrew University anti-Semitism researcher Prof. Robert Wistrich told the Post.
“So if I was a Belgian Jew I wouldn’t feel very reassured by anything that the politicians… or the government either says or does.”
Reuters contributed to this report.