A biting wind scours the raked fields of Flanders. The landscape, once
scene of bitter trench warfare, is wide and flat. On the horizon the spires
and domes of an ancient metropolis pull near and a very different
battle raging in the heart of the European Union.
As dusk begins to draw down, Belgiums second city is coming to life.
The waterways that make it one of the worlds largest ports, stretching
all the way to the Dutch border, are hidden from view. But either side
of the cavernous embrace of Antwerps central station the streets
swarm with commuters, the early evening traffic glittering as far as the
eye can see.
To the left of the rail tracks cluster numerous jewelry stores, hugging
the entire length of the station building. Behind that lie the gem traders
and diamond banks that make this the centre of an age-old
diamond business, still crucial to the local economy. This is the Jewish
quarter, home to approximately half of Belgiums 40,000 Jews and
a community that can trace its roots back to the 13th century. Ultra-Orthodox
Hasidim frequently cycle by or stop to chat in Yiddish, whilst women wrapped
in headscarves push their babies or gaze in the windows of the kosher
There is wealth here but also privation. The Hasidim in particular live
a closed lifestyle: no TVs, no radios and a certain insularity. Politically
less aware, as one modern Orthodox Jew admitted to me.
But a well-constructed community, that looks after its own.
Part, but also apart from, mainstream Belgian society.
Over to the right of the tracks, barely a few hundred yards away, a wide
highway carves into an area marked as Borgerhout. Narrow streets
snake out from this central road, clogging several square miles of territory.
Tower blocks thrust into the winter skyline. A place of poverty and frustration,
it is home to 30,000 mainly North African immigrants: Moroccans mix with
Turks, Africans with Chinese, and East meets West in the pool halls and
mosques shouldering in Borgerhouts alleyways.
It is a simple short walk between the two districts. But as you do so,
with the call to prayer ringing out during the Ramadan evening, you might
as well move between different worlds. Increasing disaffection has led
the young of one community to lash out at the other, and with it the surprising
notion that Jews can now call on the protection of the extreme Right in
one of the most liberal democracies on Earth.
To understand the situation, you need to know something of modern Belgium.
In reality two nations sandwiched into one since 1830 the once-poor,
Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north, and the former heavy industry-dominated,
French-speaking Walloons in the south it is a somewhat artificial
construct. For years the Flemish were dominated by Wallonia. Now the tables
are turned and subsidies from a resentful Flanders support the south.
Home to the EU and NATO headquarters, immigration (legal and illegal)
has increased steadily over the years, particularly from North Africa.
Islam, and identity, are now the great faultlines entering Belgian, Flemish
and European politics.
Even before the increased pressure from 9/11, young Muslims here were
complaining of discrimination and police brutality. In the public mind
they have been linked to rising crime and drug abuse, a community wedded
to state handouts, failing to integrate. It may be an unfair association,
but in the bars of Flemish towns and villages, surly places of brown faded
wallpaper and suspicious glances, you find resonance with this belief.
Indeed, his face washed in pain, an Algerian friend of mine described
his descent into heroin addiction, ripping off dealers, lost between two
worlds, frustrated, unable to relate to an older generation still fixated
on another life back home with its arranged marriages
and village Imams whilst about him lay a hostile society riddled
(as he saw it) with institutional racism. In this culture of rebellion,
so-called militant Islam is not seen as extreme, merely offering an alternative
for the forgotten rights of a lost, but growing, minority.
An intelligent, intense young man, my friend is also a supporter of the
charismatic Lebanese ex-Hizbollah member, Dyab Abou Jahjah, and his Arab
European League (AEL). Arab disaffection has coalesced around Jahjah and
his campaign group, which calls for Arabic to be recognised as one of
Belgium's official languages; for Arab unity over Palestine; and for Muslims
to resist attempts at integration or assimilation. As a result, the multilingual,
one-time doctoral student has become both a saint and hate figure for
many in this country.
Attempting to introduce street patrols to monitor police brutality,
AEL supporters were part of violent protests in and around Antwerp's Jewish
quarter last spring. Then Jahjah was briefly detained during riots which
stemmed from the murder of a Moroccan teacher, by a mentally ill Flemish
man, in November 2002. "You do not receive equal rights, you take
them," Jahjah has declared.
In turn, tensions between Muslims and Jews have been increasing ever since
the start of the second intifada. At one point in 2001, incidents against
Jews by Muslims were being reported at the rate of one a
week, from verbal intimidation to physical assault. For example, in May
last year a father and son were attacked on their way to the Belzer synagogue
by a group of Moroccan youths, who beat and kicked them while shouting
Nazi slogans. Acts of vandalism have also been reported against Jewish
sports clubs and a synagogue firebombed.
Anti-Semitism is increasing for sure, complains Eli Ringer,
one of Antwerps prominent secular Jews and president of the Forum
of Jewish Organisations. A gaunt-looking diamond trader who occasionally
rests a hand on his yarmulke, he explains: There was always a sleeping
anti-Semitism, but the situation in the Middle East is being exported
here and a lot of Arab youngsters are now openly anti-Semitic. The Orthodox
[Jews] are targeted because they look more Jewish, more obvious. And you
have a poorer immigrant community put nearby on the other side of the
railway tracks. Weve seen shouting, people pushed from bikes, spitting,
assaults. But the fighting is only coming from one side.
Coupled with anger over growing anti-Israeli sentiment in media and parliament,
and an attempt (by Palestinian survivors of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres
in Lebanon) to indict Ariel Sharon for war crimes under Belgiums
universal jurisdiction law, and Jewish frustration has clearly
been growing. The infamous far-right Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) party
one of Europe's fastest-growing xenophobic movements has
openly declared its support for the Jews. And some of them have listened.
On an otherwise quiet Tuesday evening, I accompany a friend to a large
community hall on the edge of the Jewish quarter. A soft rain hisses down
on the cobbled streets and onto the roofs of the passing trams, trundling
through the night silence.
As we shoulder our way into the cramped surrounds, a cry becomes clear,
turning to a roar: Eigen Volk Eerst! Eigen Volk Eerst!'
'Our Own People First! Our Own People First!'
It is deafening. Emotion tears at the throats of thousands of respectably-dressed
men and women around us. Stirring music, from The Lord of the Rings film
score, thunders out. The mood is infectious. Unnerving too.
The object of the mostly middle-aged crowd's attention makes his way through
the sweaty heat, past cameras and banners, a youthful man smiling, walking
between thickset figures with lions tattooed onto their arms, shaking
hands and clearly basking in the glory.
Taking the stage, Filip Dewinter, the Vlaams Bloks Antwerp leader
and its most prominent public figure, tells the audience: No foreigners,
no right to vote! The lights go up and the hall roars again, almost
delirious. About him on the stage sit the other youthful leaders
similarly smart, groomed figures in addition to a rotund man from
the secessionist Northern League of Italy; a young woman from Jean-Marie
le Pen's Front National of France; and a representative of the late-Pim
Fortuyns party in Holland. Each in turn whips up the audience, regaling
them with scare stories of immigration, crime, Islam and the imminent
opening, as one screams from the podium, of Pandora's Box.
Antwerp is a rich city. And a place where one in three people voted for
the Blok's peculiar brand of nationalism: its desire for an independent
Flanders and the destruction of the Belgian state (some supporters even
want a Greater Netherlands); its call for the repatriation of foreigners;
authoritarian law and order policies; its reflection of the nations
strong Catholic, pro-family heritage, coupled with homophobic and anti-abortion
sentiments (1950s values, a Dutch colleague explained).
Founded in 1978, the Bloks leaders included former SS members
for whom the Flemish, as collaborators in both world wars, supplied a
battalion to the Eastern Front and Holocaust deniers. In March
2001 party vice-chairman Roland Raes was forced to resign after questioning
the Holocaust on Dutch television.
Dr Cas Mudde, an expert on the extreme Right in Europe, has written that
over two-thirds of its supporters voted for the party because of its stance
on immigration, not independence (as Blok leaders such as Dewinter would
have one believe). Popular perception is that with Muslims people
feel threatened. Theres fear always of more coming in. People have
the idea its the first part of a horde, an invasion.
These people, these illegals, find it very difficult to integrate,
they come from the lowest social classes, Dr Pol Herman, a GP who
is also a prominent Vlaams Blok member, told me. Theyre from
another culture Islamic.
Despite the controversy the Vlaams Blok has attracted, and despite a cordon
sanitaire agreed by the other parties to keep it from power, in recent
elections it took almost 20 percent of the Flemish vote, gaining MPs,
Senators, regional MPs and European parliamentary members. In doing so,
it has stamped itself firmly as the main party of protest.
Declaring its support, too, for the Jews, the Blok has reached out to
the Hasidic community, both through mailings and in person. Its MPs would
speak up in parliament about issues affecting Jews, for example vehemently
opposing the prosecution of Sharon. After the AELs peace march
turned violent in April 2002, Filip Dewinter railed against the city councils
lax security and promised Jews: On us you can count. The overall
message has been simple: we will protect you against Moroccan youth and
Hilde De Lobel, leader of the Blok's 22 (out of 55) councillors in Antwerp,
claims in one of the partys publications: "The situation is
explosive. Children of Orthodox Jews are stalked on their way to school.
We are witnessing the first outbursts of anti-Semitic violence since World
War Two. This is intolerable." She is demanding Abou Jahjah's expulsion.
"Lately, because of the rise of the Vlaams Blok and because of the
Muslim problem which by the way is not a Jewish problem, it's a
Belgian problem and a European problem Jews started to get involved
in politics, says Dr Henri Rosenberg, Europe's only rabbinical lawyer.
Sitting in his wood-lined offices the day after the Vlaams Blok rally
indeed, just a few hundred metres from where it took place
and surrounded by a huge library of Orthodox texts, he adds: They
started listening to what the parties are saying, and you have the Vlaams
Blok making propaganda towards the Jews, trying to convince them that
they would solve the problem.
It had a ready-made solution, he says, which was to send people
[the Moroccans] back [home]. In the same way they seduced some Jewish
votes. And that's what happened, some Jews said yes!" he exclaims,
his voice riding high, as he peers over his nose down thick spectacles.
"Simultaneously with this we had the problem of Israel, where the
government or the traditional parties were taking a stance against Israel
with the Sharon problem." He mentions how Yasser Arafat was invited
to speak in the Belgian parliament whereas Sharon was barred, "which
These things strained Jewish relationships with the ruling parties "plus
the Vlaams Blok were constantly asking Israel- and Jewish-friendly questions
in the parliament and this was of course published in Jewish newspapers."
You also had opinion-makers in the Orthodox community openly advocating
people to vote for the Vlaams Blok, he points out, even though they were
opposed by more liberal, secular Jews. "And then some of them
I don't know how much did vote for the Vlaams Blok."
Isnt this all very dangerous? Not necessarily, argues Rosenberg.
The Hasidim are less concerned with the symbols of Holocaust remembrance,
they have a more historically-grown pragmatic and subservient attitude
to the surrounding culture and politics. They will do what is good for
the Jews and that is to be submissive and show gratitude and respect to
the rulers, even if anti-Semitic. In such a way, they once said
prayers for Hitler during the Nazi occupation. "By the time the Vlaams
Blok throws out all the Arabs then we'll change party, we'll see,
is their current attitude, he suggests.
Not everyone in the community agrees with these views. I find it
understandable, if not acceptable, why some Jews voted for them,
says Professor Vivian Liska, director of Antwerps Institute of Jewish
Studies. A slight figure dressed in black, the Viennese-born academic
adds: I find it very dangerous and unethical. There might be pragmatic
reasons, but this disregards what the Blok would do if Jews were the only
foreigners. For Jews to vote for the Vlaams Blok means they have to make
themselves blind to the principles behind the party.
Walking the streets around the station, then crossing into Borgerhout,
with its youths hanging around street corners and the projects, it is
not hard to feel the tension. Yet for now no-one knows just how many Jews
have been seduced by the Vlaams Blok's message the Hasidim do not
participate in opinion polls and election results have not been published
by neighbourhood. Many secular leaders I spoke to were divided about its
impact. Muslim community leaders remained reluctant to talk.
The next battleground is the forthcoming European and regional elections
in May/June. Then we shall see. For now, the tension simmers and
all sides wait.
A version of this story appeared in The
Walrus magazine in Canada and on openDemocracy
You can buy this article, and seek new
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If you like this ...
read my piece on Flemish Jews in the Jewish Chronicle