William Echikson
Progressive Jewish Voice

Light amid the darkness in troubled Belgium

As war rages in the Mideast and antisemitism rises in Belgium, a much-needed, rare layer of light spreads over the International Jewish Center’s Brussels synagogue: Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish leaders gather together to light Hanukkah candles.

The celebration is part of the European Commission-sponsored program “Neighbors.” The program stems from the belief that personal contact can counter ignorance and even hatred. Groups of non-Jewish youngsters visit synagogues. Instead of a lesson in Judaism, they confront Jewish stereotypes.

Eight progressive Jewish communities are running the program across five European countries. The Jewish refugee agency HIAS is coordinating. (Full disclosure: I sit on the HIAS Europe board and am one of the founders of the International Jewish Center.)



The Neighbors program always has faced turbulence, particularly now due to the Mideast violence. Many schools have canceled, saying “the time is not right” to visit a synagogue. Particularly disappointing was the cancellation of the European School, an institution dedicated to the European Union ideals of peaceful coexistence, safeguarding human rights, and protecting minority rights.

In Belgium, the situation is dire. Since the start of the violence between Israel and Hamas at the beginning of October, the Jewish community in Belgium has been feeling increasingly unsafe, with five times as many reports of antisemitism than usual reported in November.

The Belgian government seems indifferent, or even hostile. It has carved out a strong pro-Palestinian position and failed to acknowledge a problem in its own country. While the French and German governments have supported programs to support their Jewish citizens, including well-attended marches against antisemitism, Belgian authorities left the Jewish community to organize its own demonstration.

Part of the problem is political. In the northern Flemish region, the far-right Vlaams Belang won about 20 percent of the vote in the most recent election, an increase of 14 percentage points. In the Walloon French-speaking south, the anti-Zionist left is surging.

The problem also is historical – Belgium sees itself as a World War II victim of Nazism, failing to acknowledge significant collaboration in sending its Jews to Auschwitz. When antisemitism flashes today, at Belgian football stadiums, at the Aalst Carnival, and elsewhere, Belgian politicians fail to denounce or even acknowledge the scourge.

Despite this official indifference, the fight for tolerance continues. Belgian Roman Catholic schools have defied the fear of other schools and continued to participate in “Neighbors.” Many of the visiting students are Muslim. During the visits to the IJC synagogue, the conversations remain civil and constructive, even when the subject turns to the Gaza War.

Over the past year, IJC Rabbi Brian Doyle-Du Breuil has forged a strong interfaith Neighbors Coalition, dedicated to fighting xenophobia, racism, Islamaphobia, and antisemitism. He invited his Catholic and Muslim partners to the IJC’s Hanukkah festival, not sure whether the invitation would be accepted. It was and more than 75 showed up to celebrate.

Since it was Saturday evening, we started with Havdalah. Everyone chanted together, in unison. Next came the candle lighting, latkes, and other festive fried foods. Smiles.

“We are trying to create a bridge between people,” says Fatih, a Muslim representative. “This is a first step – we should come together for each other’s religious festivals.”

The Roman Catholic representative Maryana comes from Ukraine. It’s “Day 654 since the darkness became darker” for my people, she said. “We live by every piece of hope that we can get,” celebrating “every bit of light that we can get in this world of darkness.”

Light is an important symbol in all three monotheistic religions. “We have invited everyone in our Neighbors coalition to come and talk about what light means to them,” says Rabbi Doyle-Du Breuil.

Although the darkness in Ukraine and Gaza overshadowed the event, he hopes that the pause in regular Neighbors’ visits will soon end. New visits are planned for the New Year. Let’s hope there will be no more cancellations. Let’s hope that the Belgian authorities wake up. And let’s hope that the flickers of light grow bright.

About the Author
William Echikson, a founder of the International Jewish Centre of Brussels, served for three decades as a foreign correspondent in Europe for a series of US publications including the Christian Science Monitor. Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. He is the author of four books, including works on the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the history of the Bordeaux wine region.
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