The relationship between Israel and Belgium once enriching is now troubling and turbulent
By David E. Kaplan
Present relations between Israel and Belgium are worrying. This past February, we saw at the annual carnival in the Belgian town of Aalst, a procession featuring Nazi uniforms, costumes of Jews as vermin despite the fact that the Nazis deported about 25,000 Jews from occupied Belgium to the Auschwitz death camp, where most were murdered. This followed a float in the previous year’s parade depicting puppets of hook-nosed orthodox Jews with rats sitting on money bags that led to UNESCO withdrawing it from its “intangible cultural heritage” list.
This February also saw Israel angry at Belgium for what Jerusalem said was a systematic campaign to demonize the Jewish state at the United Nations by using its privilege of holding the rotating presidency of the council in February by inviting speakers who hold anti-Israel bias.
However, despite recent hiccups, Israel and Belgium have enjoyed an enriching relationship revealing some fascinating history.
When famed Israeli football coach Guy Luzon – currently managing of Maccabi Petah Tikva – was appointed the coach of the Belgium football club Standard Liège in 2013, it reflected a long and enriching relationship between the Benelux country and the State of Israel.
While few in Belgium had ever heard of Luzon before he took Standard Liège close to winning the national title, few in Israel, knew too much about Belgium, beyond its chocolates, waffles and beer and for the more politically attuned that Brussels is the capital of the EU.
Food for Thought
While there are many restaurants in Israel offering European, Asian and American cuisine, has anyone ever seen a Belgium restaurant?
Curious as to what food is typically Belgium, this writer put the question to Sophie Katz from Tel Aviv who grew up in Antwerp, which is Belgium’s second largest city and has a Jewish community numbering some 18,000 people.
“French fries,” she replied. Hardly what this writer would have guessed as typically Belgium!
Contrary to conventional wisdom, ‘fries’ – that is, deep-fried chipped potatoes – are thought to have originated in Belgium. This revelation is substantiated by a book entitled Curiosités de la table dans les Pays-Bas-Belgiques written in 1781, which described how inhabitants of Namur, Dinant and Andenne around the Meuse River had eaten fried potatoes since around 1680.
Though made popular across the globe by the United States as “French Fries”, it is believed – without casting aspersions on American’s understanding of world geography – that Yank soldiers during the First World War erroneously thought they were being served the dish in France. In their defense, the way that trench war shifted, borders were somewhat blurred!
War has a way of shifting lives.
In the spring of 1943, the Jewish Defense Committee in Belgium conceived a bold plan to halt a deportation train to Auschwitz. Having learned the exact date and time of an impending deportation from the Mechelen transit camp, the resistance planned for action. On the night of April 19, 1943, as the train began its journey to Auschwitz, three members of a resistance unit sprang into action. Under the command of a young Jewish physician, Georges Livchitz, the group forced the train to stop by signaling it with a red lantern. Livchitz held the engineer at bay with a small caliber revolver, while his comrades forced open the doors of several cars. Under a hail of gunfire from the German guards, some prisoners escaped, some of whose descendants made their way to Israel.
Belgium stood with Israel at its moment of rebirth in 1947, when it voted in favor of UN resolution 181 calling for the partition of British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Following this, on January 15, 1950, Belgium recognized the State of Israel and ever since, the relations between Israel and Belgium have been friendly, as evidenced by the numerous reciprocal high-profile visits and tokens of friendship.
Most notable was the 1959 visit of Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, the grandmother of the present king, who helped save Jews during World War II and was granted the title of “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. In welcoming her, Israel’s president Yitzhak Ben Zvi referred to her as “our great and faithful friend”.
Literally ‘cementing’ this relationship, a plaque in memory of her husband King Albert I, was unveiled in February 2010 at the Albert Square in Tel Aviv in the presence of the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ron Huldai, and Ambassador Bénédicte Frankinet.
There was good reason to honor the King. On a visit to Palestine in 1933, he stood beside Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and expressed his deep support for the renewal of Jewish life in its ancestral homeland.
In the ensuing years, particularly following the late King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola’s meeting Israeli president Zalman Shazar when they came on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, there has been a steady flow of Belgian ministers visiting Israel on official business and Israeli counterparts welcomed in Belgium.
Many cultural, scientific and economic bilateral agreements have been signed over the years between the two countries. Several Belgium-Israel friendship associations organize activities in both countries to promote and strengthen bilateral relations.
Each year, a number of scholarships are granted to Israeli students to study in Belgian universities and Belgian students also come to study in Israel each year thanks to scholarships offered by Israel. The faculty club and guesthouse of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, known as Beit Belgia, was built with the financial aid of the Belgian Friends of the Hebrew University. Sylvain Brachfeld, a Holocaust survivor, is a well-known journalist for the Belgian and Israeli press and is an expert on Belgian Jewry. He immigrated to Israel in 1974 and writes extensively on Belgian Jewish history. In his most recent book ‘200 Years of the Jewish Community of Antwerp’, he writes about the contribution of Belgian Jews to the State of Israel, both philanthropically and “how immigrants from Belgium have excelled in Israel in varied fields.”
Belgium is one of Israel’s most important commercial partners (largely due to the diamond industry) and a great number of Israeli companies have their European headquarters there as well.
Following impressive bilateral trade between the two countries, in March 2010, Israel and Belgium signed a new tax treaty agreement to improve the competitiveness of Israeli companies operating in Belgium and to encourage Belgian investment in Israel.
A ‘sporting’ example of this relationship was the 2013 ‘export’ to Belgium of Guy Luzon as coach of the Belgium football club Standard Liège.
A Gem of a City
Since the fifteenth century, when Antwerp Jewish diamond cutter, Lodewyk van Berken, invented the scaif, diamond cutting has been a major traditional Jewish craft both in Israel and in Belgium. “As I recall,” says Sophie Katz, “most of the fathers of my friends were one way or another connected to the diamond history in Antwerp.” This corroborates with records showing that in the second half of the 20th century, the diamond industry was emerging as the main occupation for the Jews of Antwerp. Today, most of them remain either high skilled artisans who specialize in executing the most professional stages in the process of turning raw diamonds into high quality precious stones or merchants who are connected to the global network of diamond trade. “The diamond bourses of Antwerp are located inside the Jewish districts of the city and are closed on Friday afternoons before the onset of Shabbat (the Sabbath) and are deserted during Jewish holidays.”
In recent years, changes in the world diamond industry have brought about a decline in the importance of Antwerp with resulting in a diminishing influence of Jewish-owned companies on the market.
“Many of my friends have moved to Brussels while others have or are considering immigrating to Israel,” says Sophie.
Winds of Change
In recent years there has been a spurt of younger Jews from Belgium immigrating to Israel. This phenomenon has come about in part because of an increase in anti-Semitism across Europe, “which was never the case in Antwerp when I was growing up,” says Sophie. “While the Jewish community there was divided between the ultra-Orthodox, traditional and secular, and my family fell in the secular group, the entire community was very insular; we all went to Jewish Day Schools and belonged to Jewish youth movements. Come school holidays, we were off to either summer or winter youth movement camps. It was a wonderful, secure life and the Jewish community prospered.”
It is hardly surprising that with its relatively large concentration of orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews that Antwerp has been nicknamed the last ‘shtetl’ in Western Europe. This honorific is more evident when walking around the district of Pelikanstraat near the diamond district and Jootsewijk, home to 12,000 orthodox Jews. Here men dress in the Hassidic garb of black mantles and fur hats and speak Yiddish.
Contributing to Antwerp’s ‘shetl’ image, each community has their own synagogues – about thirty in all – batei-midrash (houses of Jewish learning), kosher butcheries and restaurants. Jewish education is provided by four main Jewish schools with more than eighty-five percent of the Jewish children in Antwerp attending Jewish schools, one of the highest rates anywhere in the Diaspora. Student and youth organizations include Agudath Israel, Bnei Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair, and Hanoar Hazioni, of which, Sophie and all of her friends had been members.
Jewish communal life is rife with a number of welfare Jewish organizations, two senior citizen homes and even a hospital.
The Romi Goldmuntz Center serves as the stage for many cultural events of the community, the Royal Maccabi Sports Club is the main Jewish sport center in Antwerp and its Belgisch Israelitisch Weekblad (“Belgian Jewish Weekly”) is the largest Jewish newspaper in Belgium.
However ‘the good life’ has begun to lose some of that ‘sparkle’ as Jews again are experiencing sporadic outbreaks of anti-Semitism.
In August 2019, Dimitri Verhulst claimed in an op-ed in the newspaper De Morgen that “being Jewish is not a religion, no God would give creatures such an ugly nose.” He also accused Jews of harbouring a superiority complex due to the notion of Jews as the chosen people and said “talking to the Chosen is difficult” because they unjustly accuse critics of antisemitism.
Belgian-Jewish journalist Cnann Lipshitz has written that what is most troubling about the current state of antisemitism in Belgium is the fact that officials and opinion-shapers have often defended the perpetrators of antisemitic incidents on the grounds of “free speech” or that no offense was supposedly intended. According to Lipshitz, “classic antisemitism” of a type he had thought “impossible in an established Western democracy in the heart of Europe,” is now “mainstream” in Belgium.
Mark Geleyn, a former Belgian ambassador to Israel, recently condemned his country’s policy towards Israel as “not the attitude of a friend.”
Speaking at a conference on diversity in Brussels in late 2019, Gelwyn said Belgium was an anti-Israel country that, unlike most others in Western Europe, has not opposed the ‘Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)’ movement.
Geleyn is honorary president of Belgian Friends of Israel and former Belgian ambassador to Israel and Germany.
He said, “After the creation of the State of Israel, the first Jews of Belgium, survivors of the Great Persecution, left our country to become citizens of the new state. By obtaining Israeli nationality, they would lose their Belgian nationality. But the survival of the new state, and its citizens, was very uncertain. Then the Belgian government at the time, rue de Loi (prime minister) and rue Quatre Bras (foreign affairs), decided that the Jews who were making aliyah and becoming Israeli citizens could, in fact, retain their Belgian nationality. No-one knew if they would ever come back. Thus the possession of dual nationality, so common now, originated in Belgian law. Belgium, and its government, was a friend of Israel.”
He went on. “In the seventies, many Soviet Jews wanted to leave the Soviet Union. Two or three international conferences were organized to help them claim their right of emigration. One of these conferences, under the slogan LET MY PEOPLE GO, was held in Brussels, in the very room where you are now. It required a certain diplomatic courage on the part of the Belgian government vis-à-vis the powerful Soviet Union to host this conference in Belgium. Belgium, and its government, was a friend of Israel.”
But times have changed. He notes that when those in authority today visit Israel, they hesitate to accept an invitation to plant a tree, because they want to avoid the Zionist symbolism that planting a tree might imply. This is exactly the opposite of the attitude of which the former generation was proud. It is far from being the attitude of a friend.
And with the ugly parades in Aalst in 2019 and 2020, it appears Belgium is not embarrassed to “parade” its antisemitism.