Middle East crisis puts Belgium’s Jews under threat

9th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Vanessa Mock reports on how the latest flare-up in the Middle East has affected the large Jewish in Antwerp.

Belgium’s large Jewish community is on the alert after becoming the target of attacks and riots triggered by the war in the Middle East. The crisis has reverberated most sharply in the port city of Antwerp, where police measures are being bolstered to protect one of the biggest Jewish populations outside Israel.

Extra police forces are being poured into the city’s Jewish quarter, a bustling area famed for its diamond trade and peppered with Kosha restaurants which has now become a high-security zone.

Death threats
“Our community is under attack as some people are trying to import the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” says Diane Keizer, who heads up the Belgian Forum for Jewish Organisations. “There have been arson attacks and some Jews have received death threats.”

Last week, around 100 protesters were arrested after a march morphed into a riot, with participants attacking cars and buildings as they headed towards the Jewish neighbourhood, brandishing anti-Jewish slogans. In a separate incident, one Jewish house was attacked by arsonists. There have been other incidents in Brussels, including an attempted arson attack on a synagogue.

Climate of fear
Many are pointing the finger at the most extremist fringes of Antwerp’s Muslim community for the unrest. “There have been a series of protest against the strikes on Gaza, although most people are peaceful demonstrators, there’s a hardcore group that is using what’s happening in the Middle East to attack Jews,” Ms Keizer believes.

Some local residents complain that the incidents have sparked a climate of fear in the neighbourhood. “I no longer feel safe walking around beyond this area dressed as I am,” says the bearded, elderly owner of a Kosher grocery shop, who, like many men in the neighbourhood, wears the distinctive kippah skull-cap and a black overcoat.

In shock

There has been a noticeable rise in the numbers of officers patrolling the streets and police vehicles are out in force at the slightest whiff of fresh protest. “There’s palpable tension in the Jewish area, though not elsewhere in the city, most people have looked on in shock at recent events,” says Sven Lommard, spokesman for Antwerp’s police force.

“It’s very tricky right now because we just don’t know how the situation is going to evolve. We have to stay very alert. It’s a long time since we experienced something like this.”

Out of proportion

Various Muslim groups, which represent another large community in Antwerp, have complained that the recent events have been dramatised. “We musn’t blow this out of proportion. Yes, there have been isolated incidents sparked by hooligans, which we condemn absolutely. But it’s not the case that Jews and Muslims here are on a collision course. This is a village really, we live together,” says Mohammed Chakar of the Federation of Moroccan Associations.

“I think that some of the harder-line Jewish organisations have blown up the scale of the problem to attract attention and to help their case,” he adds.

Both Jewish and Muslim groups single out the Arab European League for the worst of the unrest, an organisation described by Belgian authorities as anti-Semitic and which orchestrated the recent protests. “The AEL abused the occasion to raise their profile and spread fear,” says Mr Chakar.

But the AEL says it is being unfairly targeted. “Police have been arresting people in Muslim areas who had nothing whatsoever to do with the protests. Racist intimidation is part of day-to-day policy. Civil rights are trampled on when it comes to Moroccans,” the AEL states on its website.

Vanessa Mock is Radio Netherlands' Brussels correspondent
[Radio Netherlands / Expatica]

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