I’ve lived in Belgium for two and a half decades, taken Belgian citizenship, and cheered my oldest son for representing Belgium in red and black at the World Amateur Golf Championship. My wife and I were one of seven families who started the country’s only international, anglophone progressive synagogue, the International Jewish Centre.
Until yesterday’s election, my adopted homeland, famed for its chocolate and carnivals, appealed to me for its tolerance and love of life. But the far-right Vlaams Belang won about 20 percent of the vote, an increase of 14 percentage points. This troubling surge comes after a dangerous series of anti-Semitic incidents. It is not just the individual incidents that worry me. It is, above all, the silence from Belgian politicians to denounce them.
The problems started this past winter in the small Flemish town of Aalst, just west of Brussels and home to a winter carnival, designed as part of UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” A float at this year’s parade featured the grinning figures of Orthodox Jews standing on large piles of money. The image came straight from the Nazi anti-Semitic bible Der Stürmer.
Once informed of the hurt caused, the float’s builders, a fireman, a technician, an Education Ministry official and a police department employee, to name a few, didn’t apologize. They said it was funny and demanded that Jews develop a sense of humor. (Given the long history of Jewish comedy, I never thought this slur would be used to attack Jews.) Aalst’s mayor, Flemish nationalist Christophe D’Haese, defended the float. No leading Belgian politician offered any criticism, even though it is hard to see what was the political downside in doing so.
I hoped this was a one-off. Unfortunately, it was not. During a football game in Brussels, Bruges football club supporters were taped chanting, “Whoever does not jump is gay” and “All Jews are gay. The Belgian Prosecutor requested a heavy fine. But the Football Union appeals commission this month acquitted the club, saying “the chants ought to be viewed as neutral and inoffensive.”
These anti-Semitic incidents do not make it impossible to live a Jewish life, or at least an orthodox Jewish life. Another recent action represents a direct attack on Jewish traditions – Flanders’ ban on ritual kosher animal slaughter. From 2019, Belgium’s northern region began to enforce a ban on shechita, the ritual slaughter of animal. The ban is scheduled to spread to the French speaking southern region in September.
The pretext is animal welfare. Although Belgium’s Constitutional Court has asked the European Court of Justice to rule on whether the law infringes on religious freedom, it continues in effect until the final judgement.
Recent polls provide additional evidence for my concern. This year’s annual Kantor Centre report on global antisemitism concluded that, apart from France, “Jews do not experience anywhere [else] in the EU as much hostility on the streets as they do in Belgium,” The Belgian government-backed Centre for Equal Opportunities said it had handled 101 cases of antisemitism in 2018, up from 56 the previous year. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found 42% of Belgian Jews had considered emigrating in the last five years, one of the highest proportions in the 12-country survey
Why now in Belgium? My recently released report on Holocaust Revisionism showed Belgium marking significant progress in education and acknowledging the complicity of its wartime collaborators, including acknowledging that the majority came from the Flemish community. When a terrorist killed four people in May, 2014 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the country’s politicians united in their horror and a court convicted the French author of the attack.
Until Sunday’s election, this country has avoided, for the most part, the development of right or left-wing extremes, common in neighboring France or the Netherlands. The breakthrough by the far-right Vlaams Belang shatters this complacency, showing that at least a large part of the Dutch-speaking northern region has become infected with the same intolerant anti-immigrant racist virus. “This election was about our people, and our people have to come first,” President of Vlaams Belang Tom Van Grieken told a gathering of party militants in his victory speech, according to Politico.
Rising populism, intolerance and anti-Semitism is not just a Belgian problem; it is a European-wide challenge. When I recently visited the Brussels Cathedral, I saw disturbing images reflecting a deep-rooted virus dating back to the Middle Ages. In 1370, local Christians accused Brussels Jews of desecrating hosts, executed up to 20 of them, and banished the rest of the community.
In the 19th century, after Belgium achieved independence, Belgian King Leopold I celebrated the massacre by commissioning the five stained-glass windows. There’s no room or place here to discuss his son Leopold II’s bloody conquest of Congo. Let’s just hope Belgium learns from the dark chapters in its history – and avoids repeating them.
William Echikson is the director of the European Union of Progressive Judaism’s Brussels office.