How did an ultra-orthodox Jewish community embrace Vlaams Blok, a previously pro-nazi party, and what does it say about the Belgian society and its relations with the Muslim minority. Reportage from Antwerp, the Flemish diamond city

Antwerp's Jewish quarter (photo: Charles Roffey)

Between lesser and greater evils

PUBLISHED IN |  Nov 20, 03

ANTWERP – In the spring of 2002, the sense of confidence felt by the Jews of this city was so shaken that many of them, particularly those living in proximity to Muslims, were afraid to leave their homes. It was the time of the bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya and Operation Defensive Shield in Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, and every day crowds of Muslims took to the streets to protest against Israel’s actions in the territories. Their anger was frequently directed at Jews who were simply passing by the city’s central train station, where thousands of Jews, many of them ultra-Orthodox, live alongside immigrants from Islamic countries. Jews were routinely subjected to curses, spitting, shoving and kicking.

That April alone, there were 25 violent attacks against Jews, nearly one incident per day, in a country with a total Jewish population of just 40,000. But this statistic is just the tip of the iceberg: It represents only the most serious incidents, such as the hurling of Molotov cocktails at synagogues and the torching of cars that belonged to Jews. There is no detailed list of the more minor incidents, such as Jews being cursed and spat at in the street, which occurred with much greater frequency.

S.D., a yeshiva student who has lived in Antwerp for six years, was attacked then in the street by four youths. “They started to beat me, with fists at first, and then they threw me to the sidewalk and started kicking me all over, without stopping at all, as hard as they could, for at least several minutes.” A few weeks later, he was a witness to what he calls “a real lynching” on the same street, Provinciestraat, referred to by the Jews as “the territories” or “Gaza” because of how dangerous it is to be on. Several dozen youths burst out from one of the buildings, attacked S.D.’s uncle, a man of about 50, threw him to the ground and began beating him.

Two yeshiva students who were there with them ran away and called the police. S.D. hid in the entrance to one of the buildings and watched what happened from there. “They jumped on him, kicked him and at a certain point, grabbed his head and started to bash it against the wall.” When the police approached, the attackers fled, leaving the uncle lying on the sidewalk. “We helped him get into the ambulance. He couldn’t even walk on his own.”

“At that time,” S.D. emphasizes, “the only ones who consistently supported us were the Vlaams Blok [the far-right Flemish Bloc]. No one else cared that Jews were being beaten up and degraded right inside Antwerp. The Muslims felt and still feel like the masters of the house here, and no one does anything against them.”

The far right’s press dealt at length with the Muslim violence against Jews and Vlaams Blok representatives in the city pressed the police to increase security for the Jews in problematic areas. S.D. says the pressure had an effect: The police organized a stronger force to protect the Jews, including the use of armored vehicles, and placed cement blocks at the entrances to synagogues to block access for cars that might attempt to enter with bombs.

In Antwerp, the growing fear of Muslims and alienation from the Belgian political establishment have given rise to a phenomenon that would have been inconceivable just a few years earlier: Jewish support for and identification with Vlaams Blok – the offspring of the Flemish fascist party that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. This trend became evident for the first time in the local elections in Antwerp in 2000. Marc Swyngedouw, a professor at the University of Leuven and the director of a leading polling institute, chose to sample a polling station where more than 90 percent of the registered voters were Jewish. Even he was surprised by the results: Vlaams Blok won more than 10 percent of the votes. Meaning that just a few dozen meters from the station from which trains crammed with Jews departed for the concentration camps, Jews stood behind the curtain and voted for the heirs of Nazi collaborators.

Roger van Houtte, a senior political reporter for the Gazet van Antwerpen, warned in April 2002: “If [the established parties] continue to shunt aside the Jewish community, the results could be dire. If our politicians continue to sing [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat’s praises and to persecute the prime minister of Israel; if we continue to let foreign youths hold demonstrations in the diamond district, to provoke and spit upon Jews – a [Jewish] vote for Vlaams Blok will no longer be unthinkable.”

There is still some debate in the Jewish community about the scope of the phenomenon. The more conservative estimates put Jewish support for Vlaams Blok in the low single digits, while the highest estimates stand at 15 percent. In Belgium, it is against the law to ask a person to reveal his religion, and so pollsters are not able to quantify the Jewish vote. Moreover, Jewish support for Vlaams Blok is also enveloped by a conspiracy of silence. The leaders of the Jewish community say that only “very few” voted for Vlaams Blok and contend that they do not personally know a single voter who did so. Vlaams Blok politicians prefer not to publicly flaunt this unexpected support and say that the party does not have a single registered Jewish member.

Radical Muslim enemy

A diamnod shop in Antwerp (photo: Remon Rijper)

A diamnod shop in Antwerp (photo: Remon Rijper)

Approximately 750,000 people live in the Antwerp metropolitan area, including several tens of thousands of Muslims (mostly Moroccans and Turks) and 16,000-18,000 Jews. For years, the Jews felt comfortable and secure in Flemish society, in which they attained a high economic status, especially in the diamond trade and the free professions. Nathan Ramet, a long-time member of the community who emigrated from Warsaw to Antwerp in 1930, calls that era the “grace period.”

The attitude toward Israel was positive then, too, he says, and Belgian Jews felt themselves to be respected and proud citizens of their country. He says that all this changed with the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987: Israel was now perceived as Goliath instead of as David, and went from being a symbol of success to a symbol of aggression. It gradually lost support in the media, in politics and among the public. Anti-Israel feelings quickly became anti-Jewish feelings, says Ramet, and anger at Israel’s policies was directed at the Jews in Belgium.

The first to raise an outcry was one of the country’s most senior Jewish politicians, Andre Gantman, a lawyer and former judge, who was deputy mayor of Antwerp from 1995-2000. Gantman, a member of the Flemish Liberal-Democratic Party, the party of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, says he could no longer bear the relentless assaults on Israel. “The Belgian government was in the vanguard of the opposition to [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, and as a Jew, I couldn’t go along with that. The comparison that the media made between the Israel Defense Forces and the Nazi SS was intolerable.”

Gantman is impassioned and outraged. “Palestinian terror doesn’t invoke any response in Belgium,” he says. “There were major, massive terror attacks and no one reacted to them; apparently, when Jews are murdered, it’s considered a normal thing.” His heart aches to see Jews supporting Vlaams Blok, “but I understand the reaction of my Jewish friends who see Vlaams Blok as the last straw to hold onto.”

After a member of his party, a junior minister in the Belgian government, visited Israel in March 2002 and shook hands with Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Gantman stated at a convention attended by Vlaams Blok leader Filip Dewinter that he would rather shake Dewinter’s hand than the junior minister’s hand. “At least Dewinter doesn’t have blood on his hands,” he explained.

Unlike all the other political parties in Belgium, the leader of Vlaams Blok has consistently sided with the Sharon government. Vlaams Blok representatives in the parliament in Brussels (the party won 18 percent of the Flanders vote in the May 2003 elections) are the only ones who pose parliamentary challenges to the right of the government’s views on this issue. In February, Dewinter was interviewed for the first time by an Israeli newspaper: the ultra-Orthodox weekly Hamishpacha (The Family). “I believe that Israel is the Europe of the Middle East,” he told Hamishpacha reporter David Damen. “With its democratic norms and values, it is an ally and not an enemy … Israel is engaged in a difficult struggle against radical Islam, which is not a friend of Europe but its no. 1 enemy.”

Dewinter went on to explain why he opposes any peace plan based on the establishment of a Palestinian state. “It won’t solve anything, because this is a radical Muslim enemy that wants to eradicate Israel, just as they want to eradicate Europe’s civilization. They want to see the last of the Jews thrown into the sea. This is the heart of the problem.”

At the beginning of this month, upon the publication of the European Union survey showing that Europeans consider Israel to be the biggest threat to world peace, Dewinter was the one who called for urgent action to prevent the emergence of new anti-Semitism on the continent.

Flattering the Jews

Dewinter demonstrates against ritual slaughter (photo: Vlaams Belang)

Dewinter against ritual slaughter (photo: Vlaams Belang)

Damen’s interview with Dewinter caused a big uproar in the Jewish community – for one thing, because of an accompanying photograph that showed Dewinter shaking the hand of Rabbi Pinchas Meyers, the chief rabbi of The Hague, in front of a bookcase filled with holy books. Many accused Damen and Meyers of giving legitimacy to the extreme positions of Dewinter and his party, positions that had spurred all the other political parties in Antwerp, from the moderate right to the left, to form a coalition under the slogan, “Anything but Vlaams Blok.”

Vlaams Blok is now the largest political party in Antwerp, with 33 percent support. The coalition against it is referred to in the city as a “sanitary quarantine” – as if to imply that that Vlaams Blok must be kept away like someone infected with the plague. Claude Marinower, a Jewish resident of the city who was elected to the parliament in Brussels in May, told Damen that the Jews should be the first to fight Vlaams Blok. Otherwise, the taboo that still exists against cooperation with the extreme right will evaporate.

“I don’t think that the leaders of this party are Jew-haters or anti-Semites,” Meyers, who is in close contact with Antwerp’s Jewish community, said later. “I think they are interested in creating a connection with the Jewish community and that it would be a serious mistake to just push them away.”

“Many people in the community have a lot more questions now,” says Damen. “Why not vote for Vlaams Blok? They’re always with the Jews and with Israel. On the domestic front, they stand alongside the Jews in calling for a halt to Muslim immigration to Belgium and for the expulsion of illegal immigrants, to stop their ever-growing influence. In the international arena, they’re the only party that expresses any sympathy and understanding for Israel’s positions.”

In 1995, the Forum of Jewish Organizations, the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities in Flanders, headed by Eli Ringer, outlawed any contact with Vlaams Blok. This year, on the eve of the general elections for parliament, the ban was publicly broken when Prof. Haim (Henri) Rosenberg called on people to vote for the far-right party. Rosenberg is a somewhat controversial figure in the Jewish community who is often described as “different,” “radical” or “infuriating,” though this cannot detract from his obviously keen intelligence and the fact that he is expressing widely held feelings in the community.

Rosenberg, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who speaks eight languages, is an attorney who comes and goes at the Supreme Court in Brussels, a rabbinical barrister, a lecturer in Jewish law at several universities throughout the world and the holder of degrees in philosophy, political science and economics. A few days before the elections, he published an “open letter to my brethren and friends, fellow residents of my city” in which he wrote: “One party alone acts in a flattering way toward the Jews in general and the ultra-Orthodox in particular, and fights head-on against the crime among the Muslims, and that is, as we all know, Vlaams Blok. At every opportunity and with consistency, it has been almost the only one to defend Jewish and Israeli interests … One is persuaded to vote for a party that |regularly defends Jews and Israel, especially in a place where no other party does so.”

He concluded his appeal by saying: “I have no personal involvement whatsoever in these elections and am receiving no benefit whatever from Vlaams Blok. My intentions are purely altruistic and solely for the general good.”

In his office, surrounded by 30,000 books, Rosenberg explains that, as he sees it, Vlaams Blok is no different than other parties. “Even when the left supported us, it didn’t do so out of any great love for the Jews, and the truth is that the motives don’t interest me at all. There may well be anti-Semites in the party, but no more than in all the other parties. Today there are anti-Semites in the Socialist Party, in the Liberal Democratic Party, everywhere.” Rosenberg, who is not prepared to divulge whether he voted for Vlaams Blok, maintains that many ultra-Orthodox Jews think all the gentiles are no good anyway, so there’s not much of a difference between one party and other.

Deniers of God

A synagogue in Antwerp (photo: Nils Geylen)

A synagogue in Antwerp (photo: Nils Geylen)

Prof. Piero Ignazi, for one, thinks there is a big difference between Vlaams Blok and other parties. Ignazi, a world-renowned expert on fascism and far-right movements, says that even in comparison to other far-right parties in Europe, including Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, Vlaams Blok is a radical party. He says it is one of the few political parties in Europe today whose ideology includes a biological doctrine of race.

In an article published at the beginning of this year, Prof. Swyngedouw outlined Vlaams Blok’s racial hierarchy: At the top of the pyramid are the Flemish, of course; near to them, but slightly inferior, are the Dutch and the white South Africans, who according to Vlaams Blok, speak the same language and share the same culture with the Flemish. Below them are the Flemish who live in Brussels, whose relative inferiority stems from their absorption of French culture; and after them come residents of Wallonia (the French-speaking region of Belgium) and residents of northern France. Next in line are the “foreign” Europeans who still belong to the white race, but have a different culture. At the bottom of the list are the non-European foreigners.

According to Ignazi, Vlaams Blok is the far-right party that comes closest to the neo-fascist definition, and not only because of its racial doctrine. Its stance against the political system is more radical than that of its sister parties on the continent: The concept of democratic discourse is completely foreign to it, and it leaves no room for political negotiation. In this it is different, for example, from Haider’s party, which was willing to join a government coalition with other parties.

Ignazi says that, like other right-wing parties in Europe, Vlaams Blok is fueled by rhetoric designed to respond to the sense of insecurity caused by massive waves of immigration and by the collapse of public trust in the political establishment. Despite the internal tension experienced by the party in recent years and its attempt to portray itself as a decent, respectable party (which helped its support to grow tenfold compared to 1978), Ignazi does not think that it has undergone any genuine change and that any differences are purely rhetorical.

With respect to the Jews, Ignazi points out that, as has always been the case with all the racist parties, the ethnic hierarchy is flexible: Today it is the Muslims who are considered enemies of the nation; tomorrow it could be someone else. These hierarchies change in accordance with the situation. As hatred for Muslims rose, hatred for Jews declined, but the latter are still considered “foreigners” and “non-nationals.”

“Today, I am much more afraid of the Muslims than I am of Vlaams Blok,” says Rosenberg in response. “And if the day comes when Vlaams Blok turns against the Jews, I’ll know how to defend myself against them. But I don’t believe that such a day will come. After all, the problem with the Muslims is almost unsolvable, they are so numerous here. Vlaams Blok will be dealing with the Muslims for a very long time to come.”

Rosenberg acknowledges the party’s anti-Semitic past and the Holocaust denial of some of its senior figures (In 2001, Roeland Raes, the deputy chairman of Vlaams Blok, was forced to resign after an interview on Dutch television in which he expressed skepticism about the number of Jews killed by the Nazis), but he doesn’t get too worked up about it. “The whole matter of Holocaust denial isn’t as important to the ultra-Orthodox in Antwerp as it is to the Israelis,” he says. “As it is, they have to vote for deniers of God, so why make an issue out of deniers of the Holocaust?”

Nathan Ramet, who is the president of the Museum of the Jewish Holocaust in the city of Mechelen, warns against adopting this attitude. “These are the same people,” he says. “Racists are racists. Their slogan is `blood and land’ and they are connected to all the extreme right-wing movements in Europe. I don’t trust them at all, but there are Jews who think that the enemy of their enemy is their friend. Whoever thinks that Vlaams Blok will protect him is out of his mind. The Jews who support them don’t recognize that this is the enemy standing before them.”

White Europe

Antwerp central train station

Antwerp central train station

Considering its extreme messages and the uproar it arouses among the Belgian public, the Antwerp branch of Vlaams Blok is fairly sleepy. Billboards and posters may call for Flemish independence, but a very mild-mannered chap answers the phones and the party’s public liaison politely explains its positions. “We are not anti-Semites and we are not racists,” says Philippe Van der Sande, an elected council member in one Flanders district. “The foreign media, especially the French media, disseminates half-truths about us at best, and, at worst, total lies.”

Van der Sande, a skilled spokesman, explains that the party is only trying to deal with the “immigration problem” and with the sharp rise in crime. He says that its policies include two elements: “zero tolerance” for crime “like in New York,” and halting immigration to Belgium and expulsion of illegal immigrants to their countries of origin. “We crossed the line a long time ago. We cannot absorb any more immigrants here.”

Van der Sande also effuses about the party’s affinity for the Jewish community in Belgium and for the Israeli government. “The Jews of Antwerp are part of the city, they are part of us. The Jews do not try to compel us to be like them and they have adapted wonderfully in society. They work, they are respected citizens and there are no problems with them.”

When he starts to talk about the Muslims, he gets a big agitated. His tone hardens and his hands slice the air in sharp gestures. “The Arabs do not adapt,” he accuses. “Islam is a very isolationist, very violent religion, and this is the religion that they wish to plant here. We won’t let them. The differences between us are too great, because Islam really runs counter to our way of life. Practically speaking, coexistence is impossible. We will be able to live with the Muslims only if they become non-Islamic.”

He is not afraid to say that his party is in favor of a white, Christian Europe, “maybe even Judeo-Christian.” Asked whether the Jews might not be the next target, once the Muslims are taken care of, Van der Sande quickly dismisses the idea. The party has nothing against Jews and has never come out against them, he claims. He adamantly denies the party’s problematic relationship with the past (in its official publications, the period of Nazi occupation is mentioned as a glorious period for the Flemish nationality, with no mention of the killing of civilians, Jewish or otherwise) and with the manifestations of Holocaust denial within it: “This is not the party’s position. It’s impossible to control what each person says, but the party thoroughly denounces these positions.”

A `revenge’ vote

Jews in Antwerp (photo: Charles Roffey)

Jews in Antwerp (photo: Charles Roffey)

M., a young Jewish resident of Antwerp, was even afraid to share his inner political deliberations before the elections with his wife. “A very tough battle went on inside me,” he says. “I had every reason to vote for Vlaams Blok, but I still couldn’t do it. Logic and cold reason said to vote for them, but my emotions wouldn’t let me. Everyone told me that Vlaams Blok are dangerous and that one mustn’t vote for them, that if they come to power one day, they might expel the Jews. I also asked myself how it would affect the Jewish community and my children. But I checked into it and read a lot, and I become convinced that they are no worse than the others. Twenty years from now, we won’t be able to go out on the street because it will be all Arabs here.”

His vacillations continued until the last moment. As a compromise with himself, M. decided to vote for a Vlaams Blok representative for the lower house of Parliament and for the Christian-Democratic representative for the upper house (the Senate). The Belgian system allows a voter to punch in the name of his preferred candidate, and M. chose Filip Dewinter. “As a community,” he says, “the Jews must not vote as a solid bloc, because that way they will ruin their relations with the other parties. But as an individual, I can vote for whomever I want.”

Even now, he says that hardly anyone knows that he voted for Vlaams Blok. His wife was flabbergasted when he told her. “I used to vote the way that everyone did,” he says. “But this time I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore, if just for the sake of vengeance, so the other parties would know that we have an alternative, that we aren’t in anyone’s pocket.” He says the vote he cast for Vlaams Blok made him feel good. “My conscience would have bothered me more if I hadn’t voted for them.” In any case, he says, it grieves him that he felt compelled to vote for Vlaams Blok and that the situation is such that the only choices were between a lesser and greater evil.

Gantman says that Jewish votes for Vlaams Blok is not the result of a pragmatic approach, but an emotional reaction. The portrayal of things as black versus white, of the good guys (the Palestinians) versus the bad guys (Israel), removes the Jews from the consensus and leaves them no place in society. It’s no coincidence, he says, that many people feel anger and resentment, which spawn a desire for revenge: “The question is how to live as a Jew in Europe nowadays. The Belgian political and social establishment couldn’t care less about alienating the Jews, because the Muslims matter more to them right now.”

Jewish community leaders like to say that in Antwerp, “the Jews live well.” Yet, Eli Ringer, often called the leader of the community, seems to express the feelings of many. In his office on the 11th floor of a building in the heart of the diamond district, from which the muezzin’s call can be clearly heard: he says, “When it comes down to it, the Jews again feel like they are far off in the Diaspora.”