Sunday, January 11, 2009
Belgium's large Jewish community is on the alert after becoming the target of attacks and riots triggered by the violent conflict in the Middle East. The crisis has reverberated most sharply in the port city of Antwerp.
Extra police are being poured into the city's Jewish quarter, a bustling area famed for its diamond trade and peppered with Kosher restaurants, which has now become a high-security zone. Antwerp, home to over 22,000 Jewish people, is one the largest communities outside Israel.
"Our community is under attack as some people are trying to import the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," says Diane Keizer, who heads up the Belgian Forum for Jewish Organisations. "There have been arson attacks and some Jews have received death threats."
Last week, around 100 protesters were arrested after a march morphed into a riot, with participants attacking cars and buildings as they headed towards the Jewish neighbourhood, brandishing anti-Jewish slogans. In a separate incident, one Jewish house was attacked by arsonists. There have been other incidents in Brussels, including an attempted arson attack on a synagogue.
Many are pointing the finger at the most extremist fringes of Antwerp's Muslim community for the unrest. "There has been a series of protests against the strikes on Gaza, although most people are peaceful demonstrators, there's a hardcore group that is using what's happening in the Middle East to attack Jews," Keizer says.
Some local residents complain that the incidents have sparked a climate of fear in the neighbourhood. "I know no longer feel safe walking around beyond this area dressed as I am," says the bearded, elderly owner of a Kosher grocery shop, who, like many men in the neighbourhood, wears the distinctive kippah skull-cap and a black overcoat.
Out of proportion
There has been a noticeable rise in the numbers of officers patrolling the streets and police vehicles are out in force at the slightest whiff of a fresh protest. "There's palpable tension in the Jewish area, though not elsewhere in the city, most people have looked on in shock at recent events," says Sven Lommard, spokesman for Antwerp's police force."It's very tricky right now because we just don't know how the situation is going to evolve. We have to stay very alert. It's a long time since we experienced something like this."
Around 30,000 Arabs live in the city of 470,000. Various Muslim groups have complained that the recent events have been dramatised. "We musn't blow this out of proportion. Yes, there have been isolated incidents sparked by hooligans, which we condemn absolutely. But it's not the case that Jews and Muslims here are on a collision course. This is a village really, we live together," says Mohammed Chakar of the Federation of Moroccan Associations. "I think that some of the harder-line Jewish organisations have blown up the scale of the problem to attract attention and to help their case," he adds.
Both Jewish and Muslim groups single out the Arab European League (AEL) for the worst of the unrest, an organisation described by Belgian authorities as anti-Semitic and which orchestrated the recent protests. "The AEL misused the occasion to raise their profile and spread fear," says Chakar. But the AEL says it is being unfairly targeted. "Police have been arresting people in Muslim areas who had nothing whatsoever to do with the protests. Racist intimidation is part of day-to-day policy. Civil rights are trampled on when it comes to Moroccans," the AEL states on its website.
Note: the AEL is an extreme rascist and islamist organization, active for years in the Netherlands and Belgium. On a question of a journalist, one of the leaders of the AEL said: 'Am I an anti semitic'? 'So what is the problem'?
They sued the Dutch government last week for what happens in Gaza...