Brussels Fights Against Anti-Semitism

The city of Brussels, Belgium, may be short of water, but on May 4, 2014 the police in the city used water cannons to disperse a crowd of about 400 who had gathered to attend a rally proclaiming the virtues of the virus of anti-Semitism and to mouth hatred against Jews. The rally had been banned by Eric Thomas, mayor of Anderlecht, one of the 19 municipalities making up the Brussels region. A Belgian court had been expected to rule on whether the rally could be permitted but did not do so. The police therefore moved in to end the violence that had started with the throwing of bottles and chairs.

The rally, a would-be day of hate, had been organized by Laurent Louis, a member of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives, who has belonged to six different political groups in four years, who had been thrown out of the People’s Party to which he had originally belonged, and then in November 2013 founded his own party, Debout les Belges (Stand up Belgium). Louis is a wild, self-proclaimed anti-Semite whose utterances and behavior suggest the need for psychiatric treatment. On January 16, 2014 he used the parliamentary floor for his diatribe, “The Holocaust was set up and financed by the pioneers of Zionism.” He sees Israel as committing, unmentioned, Nazi crimes against Palestinians. He posed outside the parliamentary building for photos while trampling on an Israeli flag.

Louis may be an opportunistic clown but he is a dangerous one with his extreme, uninformed rhetoric and his appeal to the prejudiced. He is violent about Israel, which he labels a rogue state, and which is guilty of serious crimes: violating the national sovereignty of Lebanon; attacking Damascus on several occasions; planning to create a “Greater Israel” from the Nile to the Euphrates; and conspiring against Arabs. He proclaims that Israel is a state that practices Nazi politics.

The troubling problem is that Louis is not alone in Belgium in his hatred of Jews. Surveys show an increasing number of physical attacks on Jews. About one-third of teachers in higher education say they have witnessed anti-Semitic incidents, including some at soccer games. In February 2014, Nazi concentration camp stripped uniforms were being sold as costumes in the Delhaize supermarket chain until they were withdrawn after protest. Sick jokes were directed against Jews. In the Belgian Carnival parade in 2013 men were dressed as Nazi SS officers, and boys were dressed as religious Jews. In 2012 and again in 2014 passengers on a train near Brussels heard the announcement that the train was approaching Auschwitz and “all Jews are requested to disembark and take a short shower.”

All this animosity cannot help but remind rational citizens of Belgium of the inglorious past. In 1940, Jews in the country numbered 70,000 out of the total population of 8 million, part Flemish and part Walloon. People differed on attitudes towards Jews during World War II. One astonishing example that belatedly came to light was that some Jews were protected by Madeleine Cornet who was the sister of Léon Degrelle, the Fascist leader who joined the Waffen SS as well as collaborating with the Nazis.

There were three significant Fascist political parties, VNV, Verdinaso, and Rex (headed by Degrelle), besides collaborators with the Nazi occupiers. The town administration and police in the Greater Antwerp area helped distribute the yellow Star of David that Jews were obliged to wear, aided in the roundup of Jews, and wanted to integrate the country in a German-Flemish New Order. On the other hand, the mayor of Brussels, Jules Coelst, refused to help the distribution of the badges and also refused any assistance to the Nazis in tracing Jews.

It is commendable that 1,612 Belgians, the third highest number in Western Europe, have been honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, as “Righteous Gentiles” for helping Jews escape the Nazis. But it is also true that 29,000 Jews in Belgium, and a small number of Roma, were deported to extermination camps and less than 1,000 returned. Because of the friction and tension between the Flemish-speaking Flanders region and the French-speaking Wallonian region it took some time for a consensus statement to be agreed on the history of the fate of the Jewish population. About 25% of Jews in the French-speaking area were killed, compared to 75% in the Flanders area.

The then Belgian Prime Minister, Elio Di Rupo, formally and finally admitted the country’s guilt at a memorial ceremony on September 12, 2012 in Mechelen, the detention and deportation camp  from which 28 trainloads were sent to Auschwitz, between August 1942 and July 1944, and where a Holocaust Museum is now established. Rupo said the truth is “There was steady participation by the Belgian state authorities in the persecution of Jews.”

A 1,100-page report, Docile Belgium, written by eminent historians, released in 2007 relates the sad details. Many Belgians helped track down Jews. Not a single Belgian municipality refused the Nazi orders to register Jews. The police in Antwerp arbitrarily arrested 1,243 Jews and gave them to the Nazis. Only the mayor of Brussels, just mentioned, refused to hand out yellow stars. Belgium had collaborated with Nazi Germany for a mixture of reasons: economic as well as ideological and legal-administrative. The docile and cooperative attitude of the Belgian state helped the Nazis round up and deport the Jewish population.

All this is a reminder to present-day Belgium of the xenophobic and anti-Semitic culture of ruling circles in the 1930s that led to aiding the Nazis, or not resisting the persecution of Jews. The lesson has been learned and is applicable to recent anti-Semitic outbursts, and to the activities of the Muslim community that has increased to about one million, out of the total population of 11 million, and which at present is more than 35% of the population of Brussels.

A number of reports have been published since 2003 on the increasing discrimination and hate crimes against European Jews. A survey in Belgium showed that 88% of Jews in the country thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years, and that 28% said they had been personally affected, physically or verbally, in some way. As a result in January 2014 a new organization, the LBCA (Ligue Belge Contre l’Antisémitisme), was launched in Brussels on behalf of the estimated 30,000 Jews now in Belgium, to fight anti-Semitism in all its forms, not simply politically but in all aspects of social, intellectual and cultural life.

The LBCA, to accomplish its mission, would prefer dialog and pedagogy to prevent discrimination. But in face of hate speech and anti-Semitic discriminatory behavior used with impunity, it is also prepared to resort to legal methods, specifically to call for implementation of the 1981 law against racism and xenophobia, and the 1995 law against denial of the Holocaust against offenders.

It was in this spirit, by using the law and local official leaders that it fought against the May 4 rally, naming those who are known to have anti-Semitic views and who would be speaking at it, and succeeded in preventing the spreading of hate. The memory of the sequence of Nazi behavior is still fresh: marginalization of Jews, discrimination, persecution, deportation, and annihilation. So far, the anti-Semites, in Belgium as elsewhere in Europe have only started the early processes of discrimination, but the danger of further activity remains. A concrete wall must be built against increase of hostility and manifestation of hate against Jews. The Belgian group, LBCA, is showing the way to build.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.