Anti-Zionism in Belgium - The Country's Civil Religion
that Reflects the New Anti-Semitism
An Interview with Joel Kotek
Anti-Zionism has become a civil religion in Belgium. Its credo is that the Palestinians are always right and the Israelis are always wrong.
Classic anti-Semitism in Belgium is manifest, but probably in decline. Yet an unprecedented outburst of anti-Semitic acts is taking place due to violence by youngsters mostly of North African origin.
The Jews have become an instrument in Belgian politics. Opposing Israel serves many segments of Belgian society. Hatred of Israel is used both as a tool for electoral reasons and to enable Belgium to act on the international scene.
Mainstream Belgian Jews are more and more isolated and not understood by society. Many Jews think about leaving Belgium. Very few will do so because it is difficult for them.
Anti-Zionism: A Civil Religion
"Anti-Zionism has become a civil religion in Belgium. Its credo is that the Palestinians are always right and the Israelis are always wrong. Its bible is that everything that happens in the Middle East is the fault of Israel. Arafat is its messianic figure. Its saints are the Palestinian child suicide murderers. Sharon is its devil. Its inquisition was the trials against Sharon, claiming that he is a war criminal. Its moments of communion are the various anti-Israeli meetings at regular intervals; its crusades, the boycott against Israeli products."
Dr Joel Kotek is a political scientist at the French-speaking Free University of Brussels. He refers to the general attitude in Belgium toward Israel, which reflects the ambiguities and limits of the 'so-called new political culture'. Kotek mentions as an example the law of international competence, which purpose was to enable the prosecution of human rights violators throughout the world. This law, which meant to place ethics above politics, was intended to turn Belgium into the champion of human rights. Yet the gap between the dream and reality was too wide for a country that lives exclusively off its exports and has large Arab and Islamic minorities among its citizens.
"The Belgian elite gradually realized the limits of its self-proclaimed crusade. How could one envisage attacking China on its human rights violations in Tibet, Russia on those in Chechnya, and Morocco on those in the Sahara? So Belgium decided to limit its 'universal crusade' to lesser countries such as Austria, Rwanda, Chile, Nepal and, of course, Israel."
Kotek observes: "Firstly, the Jewish state has the advantage of being small in reality, but disproportionately large in the international fantasy. The power of Israel is often compared to that of China, Russia or even the United States. Secondly, to be against Israel is supposed to please the large Muslim majority of new Belgian voters." He wonders whether that is anti-Semitism and replies, "Yes and no. No, in the sense that Israel and Sharon were chosen because they were 'feasible' targets. Yes, because Israel is never selected as a scapegoat by chance. It goes back to an old Christian tradition."
A Proud Anti-Zionist Country
"If it goes too far to say that Belgium is anti-Semitic, it certainly can be said that it is a very proud anti-Zionist country." When asked how he defines this, Kotek replies that the Belgian population broadly believes that Israel is the cancer of the world. "Therefore, it is Belgium's duty to expose that and defend the Palestinian cause in all possible ways, including through its press and international institutions. In addition, a new phenomenon has arisen - an outburst of anti-Semitic acts, physically violent and otherwise, by youngsters, mostly from North African origin."
Kotek remarks: "Anti-Zionism is largely anti-Semitic in character. Israel is considered the absolute evil, as the Jews were in the past. If one had said that four or five years ago, it would have been considered absurd. Today the evidence is overwhelming. Many documents prove it."
He observes: "I wonder whether the situation will deteriorate so far that any Jew who wants to keep a respectable place in Belgian society will have to declare that he is an anti-Zionist. For me it recalls the situation of a few centuries ago where one had to convert to Catholicism in order to be an integral part of the community." Kotek adds that the Belgian case is particularly interesting because it could well be representing the new place of identified Jews in the third millennium, marginal in society if not pariahs.
A Relatively Calm Life
"Broadly speaking, Belgian Jewry has lived a relatively calm life from the end of the Second World War until the year 2000. The Jewish community, whose religious members are largely concentrated in Antwerp while its secular constituency is strong in Brussels, lived serenely. Its activities were developing. The Belgian Jews are personally happy, but suffer from the attacks on Israel. For those who do not care about Israel, the situation is apparently fine.
"Already after the 1967 War extreme leftists and anti-Zionist Jews were attacking Israel. At the time this was a small group which operated in the margin of Belgian society. The Lebanon War greatly changed Israel's image. For the first time, the Belgian people were confronted by television pictures which presented Israel in an unfavorable light. The main component was when Christian militia massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila.
"In the following decades, anti-Zionism has grown. Initially this process took place mainly among segments of the university elite and in non-government organizations. Well before the first Intifada, one already felt an anti-Israeli climate among intellectuals and media people. It was limited to discussions. I have had to face this discourse for a long time, both at the Free University of Brussels and at the French-speaking University of Louvain. It was not evident externally, and the Oslo Agreements in 1993 interrupted the trend.
"The anti-Zionist climate at the universities was created by minority groups of Marxist origin. Today the norm is to be anti-Zionist without knowing why. There is a great similarity in the attitude toward Israel to that toward South Vietnam at that time. To be a Zionist nowadays is like being pro-white South Africa. This is a reflection of a mood, rather than a pogrom in the making. At the same time there is, for instance, an excellent Jewish studies center in Brussels."
Explosion of Latent Feelings
"The second Palestinian uprising in 2000 led to an explosion of latent hate feelings which, previously, one had only suspected that they existed. There was a sudden flood of anti-Semitic semantics - as if a dam had been broken. Many people finally felt they could speak freely about Jews and Israelis. A broad left-wing discourse erupted which before had been limited to small circles. It spread widely on campuses, television, in the radio and the daily press.
"This showed that the extreme left has become dominant among intellectuals. Their ideology says that Jews are not entitled to a state, and have to integrate into general society. This post-Marxist discourse presented Israel as an imperialist nation in the pay of the United States.
"One surprising aspect of this discourse was that it was simultaneously Marxist and Christian. It was largely the Jesuits who created Belgium. Unlike France, it is even today substantially Catholic, and so is part of the elite. Christian anti-Semitic sentiments manifested themselves, which reproached the Jews of being a separate people, not interested in mixing with others.
"Several press articles used passages from the Bible saying that Israel behaves badly toward the Palestinians. Simon Pierre Nothomb, descendant of one of Belgium's founding Catholic families, compared the Gaza strip to the Warsaw ghetto. Cardinal Joos of Gent, who passed away in November 2004 - and who was appointed by Pope John Paul the Second - made anti-homosexual and anti-Semitic remarks from time to time."
Kotek observes: "Classic anti-Semitism in Christian countries is manifest, but probably in decline, even though it originated there. For instance, fewer and fewer people have a prejudice against marrying Jews. The paradox is that, at the same time, opportunistic anti-Semitism is growing. It plays a major role in the attacks on Israel. Opposing Israel serves many segments of Belgian society: on the left and on the right, Catholic and secular, immigrants as well as Walloons and Flemish.
"Opportunistic anti-Semitism may be an even stronger factor than ideology in the pro-Arab policy of most political parties. The tendency in Belgian politics is to be anti-Israeli. Often, politicians are not anti-Semites or anti-Israelis, but have the feeling that such an attitude pleases voters of North African origin."
Jews as Scapegoats
"Belgian society has not integrated most Muslim immigrants and their descendants. Many have no work, so why not satisfy them concerning Israel? This is the typical concept of the scapegoat. This attitude also ignores the fact that many secular North Africans do not care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Belgium is a federal state with three regional parliaments, for Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. In regional elections there has been heavy competition for the Arab vote. All parties try to have Muslims on their list. It is particularly true in the Brussels region where the percentage of Muslims is - at twenty percent - higher than in Wallonia or Flanders. These are not all Arabs, but Turks and Senegalese as well.
"The opportunism derives from the consideration that there are only 30,000 Jews in Belgium. The high visibility of the 5,000 Hasidim, almost exclusively in Antwerp, is due to their dress. Most Belgians think that there are many more ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many Jews, however, are very assimilated; thus, the electoral weight of the community is even less important. The Jewish vote is also extremely small compared to the Muslim one."
Whom to Take On?
"The political phenomenon of European double standards toward Israel, besides being of a general nature, also has specific Belgian aspects. For Belgium, attacking Israel is almost ideal. Because of the powerful image of the Jews, it can feel important and courageous.
"The Belgian authorities wanted to bring Sharon before a Belgian court because of so-called war crimes, as they could not prosecute Russian President Putin. They also attacked President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and not President Joseph Kabila of Congo, a country with great raw material wealth.
"It was already like that in the Middle Ages. By taking on the Jews you indirectly attacked the local nobles who protected them. Belgium cannot take on the United States, so they attack Israel. When, out of naivety, complaints were brought in the courts against American leaders - like those against Sharon - reality forced the Belgian parliament to amend the law of universal responsibility in 2003, and to limit its scope. For years it seemed that this law existed almost only because of Sharon. One day a study will probably be written which will bring to light the incredible hatred which has dominated Belgium on this subject."
Passionate and Opportunist Anti-Zionism
"The Socialist party, in both the French and Flemish regions, has embraced the Palestinian cause. This position could be genuine or simply opportunistic. On the one hand, one can be a genuine Israel-hater as is the case of Pierre Galand, the President of the Belgian-Palestinian Association and a radical "anti-Zionist" who even opposed the Oslo Agreements. Galand regularly makes statements which depict Israel as the most evil country in the world.
"On the other hand, even the radical opposition to Israel could be simply opportunistic, because of the major Muslim vote. In the new Brussels regional parliament, since the June 2004 elections, among the 26 elected Socialists there are 14 Belgians of Arab origin.
"The Belgian politicians go to the extreme in their anti-Zionism also because they believe that in addition to obtaining voting support, they can buy community peace with the Muslims in this way. This goes much further than what the French politicians did when the wave of anti-Semitic incidents broke out in France a few years ago.
"This policy is absurd: most MPs from Arab origin are secular and consider themselves Belgians first. One is a friend with whom I visited Israel. He is not anti-Zionist at all.
"One might say that in Belgium, like elsewhere in Europe, there are important politicians who are not anti-Semites but who have decided to follow an opportunistic radical anti-Zionist policy. This is not a new phenomenon. Pierre Laval, Prime Minister in the Vichy government of Marshall Pétain, was not an anti-Semite before the war. He even had Jewish collaborators and friends. When the Germans became dominant in Europe, he followed an anti-Semitic policy because it pleased them.
"This opportunism is the reason why the Wallonian Socialist party choose to co-opt Pierre Galand to the Senate (he was not elected). At the same time, they put on the list an anti-Zionist Jew, Baron Paul Halter, who is 78 years old and President of the Auschwitz Foundation. That sounds good for the public because he is associated with the Shoah. He was not elected."
The Vlaams Blok
"In Antwerp, perhaps the most xenophobic town in Europe, and in some other parts of Flanders, the extreme right-wing party 'Vlaams Blok' - renamed as Vlaamse Belang - is very strong. In Wallonia the extreme right is much less important but is also growing.
"Perhaps even more Belgians will turn to the extreme right out of despair. In the last regional elections, in June 2004, the number of extreme right voters also increased in Wallonia, even if they do not have a dominant leader there."
The anti-Zionist mood in the media is strong. Kotek gives a few examples from mainstream papers: "Vif l'Express, the only French-language weekly in Belgium, attacks Israel week after week. Their fundamental outlook is that the Palestinians are good and the Israelis are bad. They write about the subject in the style of 'cowboys vs. Indians.'
"Francois Perrin, a retired secular professor from the University of Liège wrote in this paper that the Jews have invented genocide, basing themselves on the story of Yoshua." Kotek observes that one never sees the French reproached for the many barbaric acts their Gaullic ancestors committed.
"The leading French-language daily Le Soir printed (in 2003) a two-part caricature. The first shows a court which announces: 'Bring in the next accused, Attila the king of the Huns.' The second shows two policemen and between them, Sharon. Another French daily, La Dernière Heure printed a cartoon showing Sharon as the absolute criminal kneeling in a corner of a room, painting the entire floor red. The Flemish daily Nieuwsblad printed a cartoon of Sheikh Yassin on the cross, in a wheelchair, under the title "Israel kills a spiritual leader."
"Some cartoons are outright anti-Semitic. After a major theft of diamonds in Antwerp the Flemish daily De Standaard printed a caricature in which the robbed diamond dealers were represented in a stereotyped illustration as ugly-looking religious Jews, even though nowadays most diamond dealers are non-Jews. In 2002 a very popular Flemish periodical, P-Magazine, compared the Jewish religion to a 'lonely worm.' The article contained all the elements of the new anti-Semitism, i.e, Jew-hatred in the name of human rights and anti-racism. In the same paper Cardinal Joos explained that Bill Clinton became President of the United States thanks to Jewish money.
"Some extremists go even further. Pierre Lambert, an ecologist, proposed that Zionist Jews be excluded from the Belgian bureaucracy because they are not loyal toward Belgian society. This webmaster of a 'progressive' site also proposed that the Belgian nationality should be taken away from certain Jews. Though this is incitement to racial hatred, he was not prosecuted."
Muslim Attacks and Preachers of Hate
The outburst of physical violence against the Jews took both the authorities and the Jewish community by surprise. Kotek says that statistics show that most violent attacks on Jews are carried out by descendents of North African immigrants. The victims' declarations and the few arrests made confirm this. Those attacked were mainly religious Jews, recognizable as such. Some of Antwerp's Hassidic Jews are anti-Zionist, but that does not make them less of a target. About 80 percent of the violent attacks took place in Antwerp with its sizeable ultra-Orthodox community, while about 20 percent were in Brussels.
"In Antwerp, many extremist Arabs are organized in the Arab European League (AEL), whose ideas are close to those of Hizballah. This secular organization creates a poisonous atmosphere enflaming the tensions between Arabs and Jews. The AEL proclaims the 'liberation of Antwerp, the world capital of Zionism,' saying that it should become a fortress of pro-Palestinian action. It organizes demonstrations against the Vlaams Blok, which often end with shouts of 'death to the Jews.' In the 2003 regional elections it had a common list with the PTB, an orthodox Marxist-Leninist party.
"A number of imams preach hatred of the Jews in mosques. The media rarely report on this. One can only speculate why the press does not mention these hate-mongers. One explanation may be that journalists are afraid of extreme Muslims. Another is that they simply do not know how to interpret these developments.
"Violent North-African youngsters are also influenced by Arab media propaganda via satellite TV. All this together creates the climate in which these youngsters feel free to attack Jews. Many Muslims are frustrated because society doesn't give them equal opportunities. They vent part of their frustration against a smaller and weaker minority, the Jews."
"There is both significant unemployment and substantial anti-Muslim racism in Belgium. The authorities think that through their anti-Zionism they can deflect tensions between the established population and young Muslims. Racism is, however, a cultural phenomenon independent of the number of 'others.' There is no doubt that a generation of young Muslims is being educated with hate. Not only will the Jews pay the price but the Belgian society at large too.
"The Belgians are as if hypnotized and cannot cope with what is happening. They want - in particular since 11 September 2001 - to avoid all problems in society. The immigrants' importance is increasing as children born on Belgian soil automatically get Belgian nationality. In Brussels a large number of the pupils in schools are descendants of Muslim immigrants. As the number of Muslims increases in Belgium, this tendency to try to maintain social peace at any price is also gaining strength.
"Few people understand that the only way to achieve social peace is by being firm about the separation of religion and state. At the same time one has to make an effort to integrate youngsters of immigrant origin. One can even have positive discrimination. Under no circumstances should one foster fundamentalism by denying that it exists and by negating the anti-Semitism in Muslim circles.
"The French also denied the anti-Semitism problem initially, under the Jospin Socialist government at the time. After two years, however, right-wing President Chirac came around, albeit slowly, and is now firmly committed to fight anti-Semitism. In Belgium, only after four years, is it starting to be understood that many members of the Muslim minority are racists."
"Before the Intifada, there were many good relations between the Muslim and Jewish communities. Since then the situation has deteriorated, in particular with the North Africans. Attempts have been made to reestablish these contacts. Relations have remained relatively good with the Turks.
"The situation is not as desperate as it seems. There are many young people of Moslem origin who refuse to let themselves be hypnotized by the radical anti-Zionism. Many of my friends come from that community including some elected officials who are opposed to Israel's demonization. They do not want their youth to be radicalized, the more so as they have already been destabilized being the prime victims of Belgian racism.
"I even know a member of an anti-racist organization who has publicly reproached Jews who were promoting anti-Zionism in a school with many immigrant children. He said that they wanted to destroy Arab youth through propagating the worst anti-Israeli myths.
"He is one of the few people who understand that anti-Zionism serves the purpose of those who do not want Belgian Arabs to take their responsibilities by trying to integrate. Yet at the same time there are Belgians such as Pierre Galand, who want to mobilize all Arabs for the Palestinian cause. Another expression of the unhealthy Belgian climate is that the Marxists are against all nation states other than the Palestinian one."
Kotek repeats that nowadays a Belgian Jew who wants to show that he is integrated in society has to prove that he is anti-Israeli. "In particular anti-Zionist Jews have to be extremely anti-Israel to show that they truly belong to the leftist segment of Belgian society.
"These extreme left-wing Jews are organized in the 'Union of Progressive Jews of Belgium' (UPJB). This body numbers about 300 former Communists and Trotskyite Jews. They are regularly invited to express themselves in the media and in schools where they condemn Israel harshly. At the same time, both out of fear and in order to please the young Muslim immigrants, they are against the prohibition of the veil in Belgian schools. This is a very different position from that taken by similar political groups in France.
"The UPJB members have even signed a petition titled COIF, which supports the wearing of the veil. This is as if to say, 'I am a good Jew because I criticize Israel and because I am in favor of the veil.' If you were to ask them about their attitude toward the kippa, they would probably say that they are against it.
"Mainstream Belgian Jews are more and more isolated and not understood by society. Never before - with the exception of the Shoah - has the abyss between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens seemed so great. In a Eurobarometer poll, 63 percent of the population consider Israel - the only democracy in the Middle East - as a major threat to world peace. The atmosphere in the country is such that some righteous gentiles have sent their Yad Vashem certificates back to the Israeli embassy stating that they do not want to have anything to do with Israel."
Changing Jewish Voting Patterns
"The Jews have also changed their voting patterns. They traditionally voted for the left, and in particular supported the Socialists, because anti-Semitism was strong among the Catholic parties. The present leader of the Wallonian Socialists, Elio di Rupo, is however, immersed in the pro-Arab wave. Until recently he denied that there is Arab anti-Semitism, not because he believes this, but rather because he thinks that it will help him to remain in power. In reality, Israel doesn't interest him.
"Many Jews now vote for the liberal right. The Liberal Party is closest to the Jews. The sole Jewish deputy in the National Parliament, Claude Marinower, is a Liberal. Many Jewish voters believe that they can no longer vote Socialist because the Party has become too one-sided. Yet one also finds extreme anti-Zionists among the liberals. One of their senators is Jean-Marie Dedecker, who after a visit in the Middle East compared Gaza to Auschwitz. There are also very strong Catholic declarations against Israel, not so much from politicians but out of Christian anti-Semitism.
"There is a new myth that the Jews in Antwerp support the Vlaams Blok. This is an anti-Semitic argument which tries to say that the Jews are the worst anti-Arabs. There may be a few Jews who vote for the party, but their percentage of Jewish voters is far below that of Flemish voters. Marinower was elected in the first round of the national elections with preferential votes. Neither the Flemish nor the Arabs supported him. He got almost all Jewish votes.
"The same has happened in the regional elections for the Brussels Regional Council. Viviane Teitelbaum was chosen in the first round on the Liberal list. Formerly she was a member of the Socialist party, but she could not stay with them because Jews don't exist for them. Teitelbaum is a former journalist, editor of Regard, the journal of the secular Jewish community center. She is very much at the left, pro-peace, but she could no longer consider the Socialist party her home."
Jews Thinking about Their Future
"Among the few Belgians to support the Jews is Pierre Mertens, a well-known French writer. He is not pro-Zionist, but denounces anti-Semitism. Mertens has understood that the Jews have become an instrument in Belgian politics and that hatred of Israel is used both as a tool for electoral reasons and to enable Belgium to act on the international scene.
"Many Jews think about leaving Belgium. Very few will do so because it is difficult. Where should they go? Israel is a tough country to live in even if they like it. What remains - United States, Australia? Identified Jews do not know what to do, even if they ask themselves questions about their future in Belgium."
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
* * *
Dr. Joel Kotek was born in Gent in 1958. He studied history at the Free University of Brussels, and at Oxford University. He has a doctorate in Political Science from the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po) in Paris. Kotek teaches Political Science at the Free University of Brussels, specializing in the subject of European Integration. He is also director of Training at the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Paris.
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