Monday, 25 Oct 2021 - 19 of Heshvan, 5782

Are Belgium’s political elites antisemitic ?

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German magazine Der Spiegel has singled out Belgium for its manifestations of antisemitism which, it said, is spreading among the Belgian political elites. It quotes several examples.

Philippe Markiewicz, President of the Central Jewish Consistory of Belgium, rejects the idea that there is institutional antisemitism in Belgium as ‘’not acceptable.’’ ‘’This is not true. The Belgian authorities are not antisemitic. There may be antisemitic incidents, but overall we are far from complaining about the situation of Jews in Belgium and their relationship with the state authorities,’’ he said in an interview with European Jewish Press.

In a recent article, influential German magazine Der Spiegel singled out Belgium for its manifestations of antisemitism which, it said, is spreading among the Belgian political elites.

‘’The reputation of our country is unfortunately once again tarnished. But the observation is correct,’’ wrote at the time CCOJB, the Coordination Committee of Belgian Jewish organizations.

Among the examples quoted by Der Spiegel was an attack against Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès, whose mother is Jewish, for ‘’double allegiance,’’ in a debate at the Flemish television. A former Prime Minister, Wilmès was criticized by some of her coalition partners for not being tough enough on Israel during the recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

“It is absurd to accuse the foreign minister of double loyalty because of her Jewish background,”  Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel’s ambassador to Belgium, told Der Spegel. “This is a classic anti-Semitic narrative.”

During the debate, Meyrem Almaci, Chairwoman of the Flemish Green Party, which is part of the governing coalition, accused the Jews of ‘’doing to Palestinians what they endured during the Holocaust’’ and lied by  suggesting that Israel vaccinates the “Jews, but not the Arabs.

In  another episode quoted by Der Spiegel, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter commented a State of the Union speech by European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in which she mentioned the revolting antisemitic excesses of the controversial Aalst Carnival, by saying :  “It’s a bit of an exaggeration… it’s probably because she’s German.”

The Carnival in the Flemish town of Aalst featured last year, for the second time, masked people like from ‘’Der Stürmer’, who paraded with hooked noses, obsessed with money and dressed up like insects.

A few months earlier, the current Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, tweeted “the Jewish lobby is working overtime, after Aalst, Washington”, blithely confusing the denunciation of antisemitism in Belgium with the positions taken by Israeli ministers visiting the U.S.

‘’Anti-Semitism, which has been rampant in various form in Belgium for several decades, now reached the country’s elites, wrote Maram Stern, Vice President of the World Jewish Congress, who lives in Belgium, in an op-ed.

‘’If today the country’s elites are won over by the virus of antisemitism, it is because in Belgium, antisemitism has been for too long a problem that only the Jews really cared about. Whether it came from extremist circles, from the right or the left, or from parts of the Muslim communities, it was never tackled head on,’’ Stern said.

But Philippe Markiewicz, President of the Central Jewish Consistory of Belgium, the official body of Belgian Judaism dating back to the Napoleon era, rejects these statements and the idea that there is institutional antisemitism in Belgium as ‘’not acceptable.’’ ‘’This is not true. The Belgian authorities are not antisemitic. There may be antisemitic incidents, but overall we are far from complaining about the situation of Jews in Belgium and their relationship with the state authorities,’’ he said in an interview with European Jewish Press.

The Consistory is an institution that deals with worship. But it is not a religious institution because it is not chaired by rabbis. It has been chaired by lay people for over 200 years. ‘’We are the interlocutor of the state authorities in various matters concerning the Jewish community in the fields of education, antisemitism, relations with other recognised cultures and secularism, and when it is necessary to intervene also on security issues,’’ he explained.

In his role, Markiewicz, who is also President of the Jewish community of Brussels in the framework of the Great Synagogue of Brussels, is in regular contact with the authorities. ‘’I met recently with the Minister of Education to talk about antisemitism and especially the role of education in preventing antisemitism because we have to start at the base and the base is the teaching of the values of democracy because if you are a true democrat you cannot be a racist or an antisemite. This must be reinforced and developed. But I must tell you that the authorities in Belgium are listening positively to the Jewish community. I am not saying that it is perfect, but the attitude of the Belgian authorities at federal, regional or local level must be considered as positive.’’

‘’There is certainly no institutional antisemitism in Belgium,’’ he repeated. ‘’There are  anti-Semitic acts of course but there are certainly not in the proportion that some people would like have us to believe. There is a study that was done a few years ago that claimed that in one year 39% of the Jews in Belgium were affected by the wave of antisemitism. As there are 40,000 Jews in Belgium. 39% gives the precise figure of 15,000. Now for that year, a study carried out by an organisation called antisemitism.be which works with UNIA, a governmental anti-racism and anti-discrimination body, and collects the facts of antisemitism throughout the country. But for that year they came up with 100 cases. We know very well that the reported cases are not all the cases, there are cases they are not aware of. Let’s say that the 100 cases are only a part of the iceberg, let’s add the multiplier 5, that gives 500 which have nothing to do with the 15.000 mentioned in the study. We are exaggerating because if every year 39% of the Jews in Belgium had been victims of antisemitism, the Jews would have fled Belgium long time ago. This is not the case; we should not dramatize.’’

Asked about the attack against Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès for “”double allegiance”, Markiewicz, who was a lawyer by profession, noted that the journalist in the tv debate who mentioned the Judaism of Wilmès ‘’also talked about the Muslim affiliation of the Flemish Green party who was in the studio. ‘’You can’t call someone who said that an antisemite, because calling someone being an antisemite is extremely  serious. I call on people to have more restraint and to look at things in a more rational way. There are acts of antisemitism in Belgium, that is obvious. There are too many of them. Because every act of antisemitism is an act too many and is not worthy of a democracy. But to say that Belgium is antisemitic and that its leaders are antisemities is inadmissible,’’ stressed Markiewicz.

What about attacks against the ‘’Jewish lobby’’ ?

‘’Yes there is a Jewish lobby but there is also a Catholic lobby, there is a lay lobby, there are all sorts of lobbies that exist. It is not because we talk about a Jewish lobby that a minister should be considered as anti-Semitic. We must keep the church in the middle of the village. When the CCOJB takes the liberty of calling one or another minister anti-Semitic, no, that is not correct. That the current Minister of Justice is known to have sympathies for the Palestinians is a fact, but that does not make him an anti-Semite, far from it.’’

Asked about the link between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel and the calls for the murder of Jews during anti-Israel demonstrations in Brussels and Antwerp, and the fact that Belgium often votes against Israel in various forums, Markiewicz stressed that he is not an Israeli citizen. ‘’I am not an Israeli citizen. I am a Belgian citizen and therefore I refrain from intervening in the Israeli political scene. Besides, I have no legitimacy to do so…  I have a deep emotional link with the State of Israel and Zionism developed in Belgium thanks to the intervention of my great-grand-uncles Jean and Oscar Fischer and so there is a town in Israel, Kfar Yona, which bears the name of my great-grand-uncle. I have links with the State of Israel, I have one of my sons who lives in Israel. I have a link with Israel, I wish Israel to live in security and peace but I am not an Israeli citizen and I have no role to play.’’

‘’Concerning the Belgian authorities who vote more often than others against Israel, I would say that Belgium, like Israel, has its own interests but that is not why we vote against the policy of the State of Israel. Belgium has never questioned the right of the State of Israel to exist, its right to security. But it is not because we are against certain political measures of the Israeli authorities that we are anti-Semitic. I don’t think that all Jews in the diaspora agreed with Mr Netanyahu’s way of doing things when he was Prime Minister…But it’s an Israeli decision, he was the Prime Minister democratically elected by the Israelis, so we have nothing to say. But this being the case, I don’t think we can understand this as anti-Semitism but as a criticism of Israeli policy. Now we have to recognise that there are sometimes attitudes towards Israel that are in bad faith. You have to realise that if Israel is the strong one compared to the Palestinians, if Israel didn’t have the Iron Dome, what happened during the last conflict with Hamas would have been a catastrophe for Israel. So you have to put things into perspective and not only see the suffering of the Palestinians. Israel did not want to attack Gaza. It was Gaza that attacked Israel and Israel has, like any state, a duty to the security of its citizens. Israel tries to react in the most adequate way to avoid a maximum of civilian deaths but there are always blunders in a conflict, mistakes too, but this is not the reason to qualify Israel as a criminal state, certainly not. Israel, like Belgium and like any state in the world, has the right and even the obligation to ensure the security of its citizens. And this is not debatable. Israel has no less right than any other state to defend its citizens.’’

Would he ever consider leaving Belgium and going to live somewhere else, in Israel or elsewhere, if there were a situation that you would consider serious for the Jewish community?

‘’Everything is possible but logically I don’t consider leaving Belgium at all. I live well, I have a comfortable life in Belgium, I have always lived in Belgium. My great-great grandparents settled in Belgium. We have been through some hardships because part of my family died in the deportation. But that being said, we received a lot from Belgium, we also contributed to Belgium. I was able to have a peaceful life, an education, to do a job I liked, to create a family… no, I have no reason to leave Belgium. We live well in Belgium and Jews have access to all authorities and all levels of government without any problem.‘’

‘’Now the freedom to move belongs to everyone. Those who do not wish to live in Belgium are entitled to do so. Let them go and live where they think it is best for them, that is their right. Let’s not forget that some people have also left Belgium for purely fiscal reasons. You mustn’t mix everything up.  It’s not because of anti-Semitism. There are also people who have a feeling towards the State of Israel that their idealism leads them to leave Belgium. It is a legitimate right to move to Israel.’’

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