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Under Threat: Belgian Jews Living Amidst Terrorists

11-23-2015
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BRUSSELS -- Jews have lived in Belgium for almost 2,000 years and the city of Antwerp has been called the "Jerusalem of the North."

Belgium used to be a safe place for Jews. Not anymore.

When Muslim terrorism explodes in Europe, Jews are often the target. Many have already left for Israel or the United States. Some of the killers in the recent Paris attack were radical Muslims living in Belgium, the kind who are violently anti-Semitic.

Idyllic Years Over

In a series of interviews conducted before the attack in Paris, Belgian Jews told CBN News that life in Belgium was still good, but the possibility of danger was ever present.

"The idyllic years are over. The tranquil years are definitely over," Jewish leader and linguist Julien Klener said. "You can go to a grocery [store] and all of a sudden someone can shoot you down. You can go to a museum and the same can happen."

Klener was a "hidden child" during the Holocaust while half of Belgium's Jews were sent to Nazi death camps. Now, he must face it all again.

"How come the Shoah was not able to quiet down people about Jews?" he asked. "Why didn't it disappear into the oblivion of history like so many ludicrous approaches? Why is it still there? What have I done to deserve that?"

At the heavily guarded Jewish Tachkemoni School in Antwerp, Director Jan Maes explained the school's history to CBN News, including how in World War II it was liberated by Allied troops.

Maes shared how during part of the Nazi occupation, the principal was an SS officer.

"I know from one of the former students that he got his Star of David here in school," Maes said.

Today, the school's students are threatened again by forces that want to kill them.

"If we think it's not secure enough to let them go outside during the day, we keep all the students here during the day," Michael Greenberg, the head of Jewish Studies at Tachkemoni said.

"Most of them get over the fact that yes, for most of the activities you need protection, you need security. So the school is very safe," Maes said.

At Beth Chabad Synagogue in Brussels, Rabbi Shimon Lasker said he personally thinks reports of anti-Semitism have been overblown. And they removed the sign for the synagogue because it kept getting vandalized.

"They came in the middle of the prayers, the Jewish security, to announce when you go home, please be careful, don't walk too many people together, don't try to show that Jews are walking on the street. Can you imagine?" Lasker said of the reaction after a Jew was knifed in Belgium. "That's what we have to think about, how to walk on the street?"

Surrounded by Anti-Semitism

"Today you have anti-Semitism from the Left and the extreme Left; anti-Semitism that is going into a form that is called anti-Zionism and you have anti-Semitism from the Arab and Muslim communities," Vivian Teitelbaum, a member of the Brussels Region Parliament, said.

Teitelbaum said the government isn't doing enough to stop anti-Semitism.

"It's a problem in the schools, it's a problem on the street with graffiti on the wall, it's a problem of security, it's a problem in many different aspects of our daily lives," she said.

In the Flemish town of Mechelin, the Kazerne Dossin Holocaust Museum was built next door to a former German army barracks where Jews were deported to concentration camps. 

Claude Marinouwer, vice chairman of the museum and vice mayor of Antwerp, said Jews today should not have to risk being attacked in the street for looking Jewish.

"There is no reason that a Jew, religious or not, should walk down a street in a city, whether it's with wearing a kipa or wearing a Star of David, with the fear of being attacked," he said.

Serge Rozen, president of the Jewish Congress in Belgium, is worried about the rise of anti-Semitism but cautions that what is happening today is not like the pre-Nazi period.

"When people start to compare the situation of the Jews now with before the war, I don't think that's relevant as a comparison," he said. "We're well integrated into the societies, the mainstream societies accept us, respect us, (and) the political authorities support us."

But it's a fair question to ask if some Jews are in denial over the danger they face. The same was asked of Jews in Europe during the pre-Nazi period of the 1930s when it said that "the pessimists left for New York. The optimists went to Auschwitz."

Even when the trains came for them, some Belgian Jews believed they were being taken to a better life, and not to certain death.

Today, many Jews choose to hope the situation will improve because they don't want to leave.

But with the Muslim migrant surge from the Middle East, even more anti-Semitism is being imported into Europe.

Baron Jacque Brotchi, a neurosurgeon and Belgian senator, said some immigrants "import the conflict from the Middle East."

"And due to that, the message is not a message of living together. It's not a message of love. It's a message of sometimes killing Jews," Brotchi said.

Children's Future

For most Jews everywhere, whether to stay or go comes down to the welfare of their children.

"The Jewish community of Belgium, I'm talking about people who were born in Belgium, are starting to ask themselves, is Belgium the place for the future of their children or the future of them to continue living," Rabbi Lasker said.

And for increasing numbers, the answer to that question is no.

"Security? Look…send your kids to a Jewish school here in Brussels or even in Antwerp. What do you see? Paratroopers? Is that a normal life?" Klener said.

After the recent Paris attacks, Zaka, the Israeli emergency response team, held drills with Belgian Jews on how to deal with terror attacks and so-called "mass casualty events," a clear sign that some fear the worst. 

"Belgium has to start fighting so that its Jewish community can stay here," Teitelbaum warned. "Because a democracy that cannot defend its minorities is not a democracy anymore."

Dale Hurd also reported from Antwerp, Belgium.

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