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The Wrong Side of the Tracks

It is somewhere frequently ridiculed for its ‘Eurocrats’ but all is not well in the heart of Belgium, riven by racial and religious tensions.


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, Belgium’s second city is coming to life. The waterways that make it one of the world’s largest ports, stretching all the way to the Dutch border, are hidden from view. But either side of the cavernous embrace of Antwerp’s 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 Belgium’s 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 storefronts.

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 Borgerhout’s 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 Antwerp’s 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. We’ve 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 Belgium’s ‘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 Blok’s 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 Fortuyn’s 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 nation’s strong Catholic, pro-family heritage, coupled with homophobic and anti-abortion sentiments (“1950s values”, a Dutch colleague explained).

Founded in 1978, the Blok’s 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. There’s fear always of more coming in. People have the idea it’s 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. “They’re 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 AEL’s ‘peace march’ turned violent in April 2002, Filip Dewinter railed against the city council’s lax security and promised Jews: “On us you can count.” The overall message has been simple: we will protect you against Moroccan youth and against anti-Semitism.

Hilde De Lobel, leader of the Blok's 22 (out of 55) councillors in Antwerp, claims in one of the party’s 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 was outrageous".

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."

Isn’t 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 Antwerp’s 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 ©2004


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If you like this ...
read my piece on Flemish Jews in the Jewish Chronicle