Belgian shechita crackdown is part of a bigger, sadder story

Many Belgian students attend university abroad to escape hostility on campus.

May 16, 2017 16:34

Belgium’s lingering antisemitism is being fanned from an unexpected direction. A threatened ban in the French-speaking southern half of the country on the ritual slaughter of animals is hitting both Jewish and Muslim communities, although they have yet to unite against the measure.

Animal welfare activists are seeking to replicate the insistence on stunning in abattoirs already being introduced in Dutch-speaking Flanders. The furore risks reopening many of the scars of antisemitism that Belgians had thought long healed.

Antisemitism is, though, far from dead. Only three years ago, the fatal shooting of two Israeli tourists and two staff members at Brussels’s Jewish Museum made headlines around the world and stirred much soul-searching among Belgium’s political leadership. Critics said that many politicians had failed to spring to the defence of the country’s Jewish population. It took almost another year before Prime Minister Charles Michel formally denounced antisemitism by emphasising the important role Jews played in Belgian society.

The largely Muslim Molenbeek and Anderlecht areas of the capital are branded as breeding grounds for terrorism, and have become no-go areas for Jews wearing a kippah or any distinguishing feature. It can be hard to distinguish between antisemitism in Belgium and anti-Zionism. Cries of “Death to the Jews!” have been heard at demonstrations against Israeli settlements. Simone Susskind, a socialist MP in Brussels’s regional assembly, says that such outbursts show how ignorant young Muslims are.

Muslims are far from the only group harbouring antisemitic attitudes. Traditionalist Christians, and adherents of far-left and far-right politics have long been part of the problem. Another Jewish MP in the Brussels regional assembly, Viviane Teitelbaum, argues that “extreme anti-Zionism is often antisemitism under the guise of pro-Palestinian sentiments.” She adds that a good many students from Jewish homes in Belgium nowadays go abroad for their university studies as they fear a hostile atmosphere on campus, and a small number of families have left Belgium to live elsewhere.

Opinions differ on the degree to which antisemitic insults turn into violence on campus. Ms Teitelbaum reckons that it has increased the most on social networks. She says she has been insulted several times for being a Zionist and a Jew, and she worries about the long-term effect of Jewish children having to go to school and a sports centre where they are protected by armed guards.

Belgian policy-makers are aware that they must use a number of instruments to fight antisemitism.

As well as the zero-tolerance law enforcement set out by Mr Michel, there is the more pro-active approach to civil rights advocated by Simone Susskind, a socialist MP in Brussels’s regional assembly. She runs a project called Israel Palestine: for a Better Understanding that educates 16 to 1 7-year-olds in Brussels’ schools about the history of the Middle East, and the truth behind the news.

Belgium, like France, is host to a large and fast-growing Muslim community, mainly from North Africa.

Ms Susskind adds that young Muslim are generally unware of the close connections that once existed between Muslims and Jews in countries like Morocco. Her scheme involves sending students for a week to Israel and Palestine so they can talk to other young people on both sides. “It’s a positive shock,” she says.

May 16, 2017 16:34

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