Nazis in sequins, Hassidim with the bodies of insects, crematoria on floats – it sounds like a debauched nightmare. It is. It is also a horrible new trend that seems to be occurring in carnivals that are taking place in Europe.
Offensive medieval stereotypes and imagery from our darkest time in history, the Holocaust, seem fair game for decorating floats and inspiring dance routines. To say that this is hurtful and offensive is an understatement. Just 75 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of death camps like Auschwitz, Majdanek and others and the decimation of Europe’s Jews, this repugnant imagery accompanied by rhetoric that is just as vile, has reared its head once again in towns and cities across the continent.
In the Belgian town of Aalst, just a few kilometres from the capital, Brussels, an annual parade has captured headlines around the world. Once celebrated and endorsed by UNESCO for its nod to cultural heritage, the parade has been condemned and delisted – the first in the history of the UN agency. The reason for this is because of overt antisemitism and racism. For several years, Jews have been the punchline in the joke that is the Aalst parade. Nobody is laughing. The caricatures of Jews that feature ugly, medieval stereotypes are dangerous and profoundly hurtful. The imagery and accusations hearken back to the darkest time in Jewish history and it is puzzling that Belgium, who saw tens of thousands of Jews deported to death camps has allowed for this to resurface. In 2019, the floats featured exaggerated images of Orthodox Jews, with enlarged hooked noses, bags of money and surrounded by rats. This year, the same theme of vermin took centre stage. This year’s float featured men wearing Hassidic hats with the bodies of insects, fake hooknoses and silver face paint. The float also featured a large parchment sign proclaiming six “regulations” handed down by the made-up “Jewish festival committee.” They include “No Jews in the procession; no mocking Jews; don’t ever tell the truth about the Jew; what the Jew wants will happen; all drugs and black money is ours.” Every ugly stereotypic anti-Semitic trope was trotted out for the world to see and it sparked outrage –except it seems for the people of Aalst. The town’s far right leaning mayor declared that it would be “unavoidable” that Jews would be mocked again. The citizens of the town were defiant.
“This is just a joke, and we can joke about whatever we want here,” said a man, who claimed he was 26 years old and works in computers. Global Jewry is not laughing. At a time when levels of antisemitism are at alarming levels, events like this are profoundly unnerving and dangerous.
The parade might have had its roots in the Middle Ages, and it seems that it has hardly progressed since then.
What has seemingly started in the Belgian town of Aalst, seems to be finding a home in Spain as well.
In the last month, Spain has been home to two of these carnival parades.
In the town of Campo de Criptana, a parade was held as part of the annual Castilla La Mancha festival. As part of their parade, they featured women in costumes depicting concentration camp victims carrying Israeli flags and men wearing replicas of the uniforms of SS officers from the German army. They paraded and danced to loud dance music emitted from a float that carried two towers that resembled smokestacks. They twirled, they danced, they wore sequins.
The Auschwitz museum condemned it for trivializing the Holocaust and Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, Arancha González Laya, also said on Twitter that she was “horrified by the performance.” After contacting the organizers, she said they have apologized to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. They apparently thought that they were “paying tribute”. Some tribute!
The same day, the town of Badajos, situated west of Madrid, had their own carnival parade which featured participants wearing uniforms that were part SS and part concentration camp prisoner while holding up signs reading “the same”. There is no tribute here, only an ode to bad taste.
I took to social media to see what people were saying. Perhaps I should not have – the results were disturbing.
Words like “spectacular” and “wonderfully artistic” were used and when I responded to one post asking whether genocide was spectacular, I was roundly told off – and called ignorant. The irony is staggering – but it is evident that now more than ever, Holocaust education is necessary.
This type of antisemitic posturing is not new. Last April, Polish villagers at an Easter procession beat and burned an effigy of a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew, particularly painful given the old accusation of deicide and Poland’s tragic Jewish past.
Historians familiar with the antisemitic record of Europe’s carnivals; the emergence of this theme in modern-day parades is an organic continuation of a centuries-old tradition. This type of antisemitism is often seen at the religious Carnival that celebrates Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter.
It is going to take a lot more than a costume change to fix the hurt and offence caused by these carnivals of the grotesque. It is going to take education and a deep search into Europe’s soul to ask the question:
“Has anything been learnt from the Continent’s painful and tragic record of Jewish persecution?”
Arab writers respond to perplexing ‘plaguing’ issues in the region
Is Coronavirus a Conspiracy?
By Abdullah Bin Bakhit
Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 14
We live in an age of fake news and conspiracy theories not only in the Islamic world, but also in America, where they have become more popular than ever. Today, there are books, magazines and online forums dedicated solely to the topic, many of which have been energetically covering the issue of the coronavirus epidemic. Did the virus originate from bats? How come it only broke out now and not in prior years? How come it emerged just as the US government exerted greater economic pressure on China? Did the Chinese physician who discovered the disease die of infection or was he killed? What are the Chinese authorities hiding from the rest of the world? Each of these questions generates tales, books, dialogues and interviews that neither the Chinese government nor news agencies can answer. Refuting these claims is not enough when people who are so skeptical of the existing world order.
The way in which people respond to these events – pandemics, accidents and wars – is no different than the way avid fans watch important sports matches: Everyone knows the details of the game, but everyone is keen to know the details behind what the facts hold and what the news says. Sadly, real news is often void of juicy stories that the public is looking for. Very few people possess the ability to hear the truth and act on its basis. There is also a big difference between conspiracy theories in America and those in the Arab world. Conspiracies in America stem from a mistrust in political institutions. The average American politician cannot capitalize on it. Conversely, in the Arab world, conspiracy is propagated by politicians. It’s always used to galvanize the masses. A review of the history of conspiracy theories in the Middle East will reveal that the conspirator always has a name: Zionism, the Mossad, the CIA, Freemasonry.
Abdullah Bin Bakhit
Coronavirus: Between Reputation and Safety
By Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 17
One of the biggest lessons we can learn from the coronavirus epidemic is that public health is an interconnected issue requiring cooperation by many different actors. Countries cannot combat the virus alone, and any attempt to conceal incidents of the disease might cause it to spread even more. The anger directed toward governments is further exacerbated by various rumors and conspiracy theories that have been spreading around, including the idea that the virus originated from a military laboratory at a biological-weapons hospital. The truth is that epidemics have accompanied people since ancient times. With the boost in global travel and environmental change being brought about by human activity, viral epidemics are only expected to grow. Governments can only be blamed for one thing: if they choose to advance their political reputation over the safety of citizens. The Chinese government, for example, is said to have contacted Li Liang, the first doctor to warn about the corona danger, threatening him to cease his warnings. Unfortunately, Liang was right, and he himself died of the virus he warned the world about. The good news so far is that the spread of infection within China has slowed for the first time since its outbreak. Because of corona, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces the most challenging time of his term since he stepped into office seven years ago. He deliberately took to the streets, accompanied by the media, and visited patients at different hospitals with a mask on his face. Clearly, the current state of panic surrounding the disease is far more dangerous than the virus itself. Despite the fact that coronavirus mortality rates stand at less than 2%, the news coming from China has been causing major concern in the West.
The main concerns are that there is no vaccine to prevent the illness, no drug to treat it, and death occurs within three weeks of infection. Popular anger is a natural consequence of helplessness and fear, and if the scientific deficit persists in discovering treatments and vaccines over the next few months, the situation will become even more complicated, particularly at the political level. Economic breakdown, civil disobedience, travel boycotts and halts to trade are only a handful of the possibilities. Governments around the world have already resorted to harsh measures to prevent the virus from spreading in their own jurisdiction, including through the forceful isolation of anyone returning from Asia. These are harsh measures, but they are becoming more and more common. They might very well be the only way to stop the spread of the disease.
Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed
Idlib in the International Arena
By Riad Naasan Agha (former Syrian minister of culture)
Al-Etihad, UAE, February 15
Many observers believe that what is happening in Idlib these days may inadvertently lead to the outbreak of a world war if the situation continues to get out of hand. Undoubtedly, the international community is keen on disarming this Syrian bomb for fear of getting involved in a bloody war. Unfortunately, Idlib, which used to be called the “forgotten city”, has become one of the most infamous places in the world. Today, over 4 million Syrian civilians are held there as hostages. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled. Instead of reducing tension and violence in Idlib, it seems like regional powers are turning the city into a site of never-ending bloodshed. The entrance of Turkish forces into Idlib Province to support rebel groups, concurrent with a growing Russian campaign to empower a local pro-Assad government, presents a real danger of escalation.
Indeed, the Idlib land mine might explode in the faces of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States and NATO following the failure of the Astana and Sochi agreements, which had been doomed to fail due to each actor’s own goals. Time and time again, I have called on our Arab brethren to restore their role in the conflict and demonstrate leadership at a time of need. There is no need to solve the Idlib crisis in the corridors of Geneva or Washington, but rather in the hallways of the Gulf. It is time for the Arab world to step up to the plate and fight to make sure that the Syrian people can finally live a free and dignified life.
They, too, understand that Syria is the gateway to greater security in the region.
I have a message for the EU, a little bit of Israeli history that I believe is quite appropriate right now after their action to boycott all Israeli businesses, products and services that are located in Yehudah and Shomron.
You know, the history of boycotting the Jewish people isn’t new, but I will not dwell on the distant past, I will take you to April 1, 1933. On that day, the Nazi Party (NSDAP) that had seized control of the German nation, decided to launch a mass boycott of all Jewish businesses, professionals like doctors and dentists, and educated men and women who taught at Germany’s universities and colleges. This was the primary and first governmental anti-Semitic act of the new government-and what did it achieve?
Well, firstly it brought Albert Einstein to the United States and it laid the groundwork for the most massive pre-statehood immigration of Jews into the homeland. In 1935, 61,834 Jews from Germany and Central Europe, fleeing for their lives, made the trek to the former British Mandate and what did they bring with them other than the meager belongings that they were permitted to carry on their persons. Let’s see, they brought the talent that would create the now, Israel Philharmonic, the boycott brought dozens of doctors, dentists, lawyers, and university lecturers to what had been, for the most part, a tiny agrarian, socialist economy that had not been able to attract this caliber of person, and it laid the foundations for a burgeoning middle class that would build hundreds of factories, create the groundwork for huge industrial enterprises and give renewal and revival to dozens of established and soon to be established, vibrant communal settlements all over the country.
But why stop there? In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee (the organization of anti-Jewish terrorists of its day) called a general strike all over the mandate that closed shops and factories and ports and impoverished the local Arab community by threatening to murder any Arab that dared to go to work or open his shop or harvest and sell his produce. So, what was the Jewish answer to this boycott? Well, we brought thousands of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki (Salonica) and other Greek ports where the Jews were the dockworkers, the stevedores, the longshoremen, and WE answered the Arab strike with the creation of the port of Tel Aviv, which had no port previously. We built a Jewish owned shipping industry and built what is today the Israel Shipyards – one of the largest shipbuilding and repair facilities in the eastern Mediterranean. We expanded and built new Jewish owned and operated businesses and our farms grew to take up the slack and maintain the market that the Arab boycott had shuttered.
With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Arab League opened the Office for the Boycott of Israel in Damascus, where it is still located today. The member states of the Arab League threatened to seize any business and boycott any individual that dared to do invest or build in the Jewish state. They also refrained from opening their markets to Israeli goods and refused our ships docking privileges in their ports. So, what did we do? WE created an Israeli shipping line, the ZIM line, to carry our goods all over the world. WE built the port of Eilat to bypass the Suez Canal and deal with the new nations of Africa and Asia. WE improvised, adapted and overcame by building an economy whose products and services would be demanded by the civilized world and this brought us investment, venture capital and billions in outright donations that has created an economic powerhouse in a nation so small, so lacking in natural resources, that today, Israel’s shekel is among the strongest currencies traded anywhere in the world. International corporations that have brought their major R&D centers here, like Intel, Microsoft and Cisco Systems, where entrepreneurs from all over the world have invested billions of dollars in Israeli companies, as has Warren Buffet, who made his first ever, international investment to the tune of $4 BILLION in an Israeli company in the Western Galilee that makes, among other items, the blades for jet engines and razors. Israel has more businesses listed on NASDAQ than Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea combined, and more startups than America’s Silicon Valley which is represented in EVERY Israeli city. Personally, I don’t believe that Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe or the Disney Corporation were really upset that their films could not be shown in Beirut, Damascus, Ammann or Cairo. Even, “Cleopatra,” could not be shown in the Arab world because its star Elizabeth Taylor was a Jew.
But, let’s get to the present, shall we? Over 25,000 “Palestinian” Arabs work in Yehudah and Shomron, all of them receive the same pay as their Israeli equivalents in the same industry, they all get National Insurance benefits, health care and, most importantly, they get paid regularly. I know this for a fact as I see the Arabs who work for my town, line up at the local branch of Bank Le’umi and collect their wages on the 5th of every month. These workers support their families and the EU is threatening the livelihoods of the very folks it wants to grant independence too? How can they ever be independent if by your boycott you force the places where they work to re-locate within the “Green Line”?
Will your anti-Semitic boycott make us leave our land? Will this act of pernicious Jew hatred weaken our resolve? History teaches us otherwise. More Jews will come to Yehudah and Shomron, build new factories and new farms and new communities. Israeli exports are ever increasing, if not to the creeping decrepitude that is so obvious in a dying, Islamicized Europe, devoid of courage and full of cowardice and prejudice, but to the growing economic powerhouses of India, China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea-Israel’s economic future and success is in the East, in the Pacific Rim and all over a sleeping giant continent called Africa.
Your boycotts have strengthened us, your hatred has united us and your utter contempt for truth and your obeisance to hypocrisy and cowardice has made you contemptible and beyond rescue.
And, to top it all off (to use a gas station phrase) maybe Moses made the correct turn after all, for we have found natural gas deposits that are in the trillions of cubic meters, and, dare I say the word, OIL! Sure, it’s shale, but with all your technological universities and research centers being urged to cut their ties with us, I guess we’ll just have to put our Jewish heads together and solve the problem ourselves, in typical Israeli fashion-after all, you have always forced us too. Thanks again.
Irwin Blank was born in NYC in 1952 and has a BA in Political Science from Colombia University NY. He was part of the Speakers’ Bureau American Zionist Youth Foundation and editor of the Zionost Organization of America. He made Aliyah in July 2008 and lives in Maaleh Adumim.
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.
It was a journey about a man and even the actor that played a man.
Maybe it was a journey about me, or you, or all of us.
It was a journey that resonated in my soul, tugging at my heart and moving me on so many emotional levels.
Because it was a journey about a certain time – yet it was also a journey about all time.
It was a journey about the Jewish people and what it means to have a home – a home that you are forced to defend with everything that you have, because without that home, you truly are alone.
The movie I watched was an old Kirk Douglas movie called Cast a Giant Shadow.
It was about an American army officer, Mickey Marcus, who was born Jewish yet never really cared much about it. He always saw himself as American first and the Jewish part was just something he was incidentally born into – yet never really formed a part of his essence. But he suddenly found himself thrust into the very centre of Jewish life as pre-state Israel Jewish agents asked for his help in early 1948 just as the new country was preparing to declare independence. All of this was happening while being threatened by the entire Arab world. And even though many were saying it was a lost cause, there was a hope and a stubbornness in its people that refused to accept that.
For Israel was a country that truly stood alone. While an arms embargo was in force against it, the British were continuing to arm the Arab legions around her as well as providing training and actual British officers.
It was a country that was without weapons, without an air force, without an army and without international friends who would support it.
It was a country surrounded by fanatical enemies who were dreaming of unleashing a campaign of terror that would fill the streets and the alleys and the beaches with the blood of the Jewish people.
It was a country made up of many of those who had survived absolute hell on earth in Europe, only to be fighting for their lives once again.
Yet it was not a hopeless country. In fact it was a country in which hope was its biggest asset.
Hope and belief that the People of Israel were back in the only place on earth that could truly be called their home.
At the time, the British, who had betrayed the Jewish people by reversing their promise to create a Jewish homeland, were trying desperately to stop Jews from entering the country in the hope of appeasing the Arabs. They turned away ships full of Holocaust survivors returning them to the lands on which the blood of the families still soaked the soil. And those they did make it to the Promised Land, were being herded off to internment camps on Cyprus, rather than being allowed to remain there.
But the will of the Jewish people is strong – stronger than the mightiest armies on earth, and the Jews continued to make their way to Eretz Yisrael – enduring harsh conditions on leaky boats just to get home.
In a scene that was particularly moving, a group of survivors, Jews who had lost everything and everyone in the world, managed to get ashore only to be confronted by a British army patrol. The British officer ordered the survivors to step forward so that they could be detained. But from over the hills, Jews who were already living there, including Micky Marcus who had come to see what was happening, flocked towards them, mingling with the new immigrants, making it impossible for the army officer to distinguish who had just arrived. So the British officer once again ordered the new arrivals to step forward, ordering his men to fire a warning shot over their heads.
And yet, the people didn’t flinch and didn’t take a single step forward. A battle of wills ensued with the army officer warning them that the next shots would be aimed at them. His soldiers lined up their weapons, aimed at the ragtag group of people. And yet, they continued to stand defiantly, refusing to move. The officer warned them again that on the count of ten, his men would open fire. But still the people continued to stand, bracing themselves for what would come, knowing that they would and could no longer bow to anyone in their own land. The countdown continued, closer and closer – and yet there was no movement. Perhaps in that moment, Micky came to understand just how strong the will of the Jewish people – his people – was.
Eventually the count reached ten and the army officer realised that these were indeed a stubborn people who could no longer be bullied anymore. So he ordered his men to lower their rifles and the people cheered. “I suppose they’re going to dance now,” he quipped, as the people rushed past him to join their fellow Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
Jews are a stubborn people. A people who refuse to die and refuse to bow and refuse to give up on being Jews. It’s our strength and our belief and our hope that has sustained us through thousands of years of persecution and oppression and even genocide.
Because there exists a spark in all of us – a Jewish spirit if you like – that continues to defy what the world tells us and refuses to give up our identity. A spark that that will continue to fight for our rights and our dignity despite so many wanting to take that away.
Micky Marcus, who always saw himself as American first, realised that no matter where he was or where he lived, he was and always would be a Jew – and that was a part of him that couldn’t be ignored, even if he tried. It called to him, igniting that spark and making it burn inside him with such fierce pride that it was a flame that could never be extinguished. It was that spark that made him ignore his comfortable life in America to throw himself into helping the newly formed Jewish state – his people – to survive.
In a way, Kirk Douglas was the same. He was born to poor immigrant Jewish parents, and fought hard to fit into American society, ignoring his Jewish side. And yet throughout his life, he was drawn to Jewish projects and Jewish stories – including making this movie about the birth of the Jewish state. The spark within him never died. It was always simmering. And later in life, when he rediscovered his Jewish roots, that spark – that small flame that was always inside him – ignited and his Jewish soul took flight. He became a fiercely proud Jew who stood up for his people and stood up for his Jewish country of Israel. So much so that when he died, he left behind a Jewish legacy that all Jews can be proud of.
The Jewish spark lives in all of us. It calls us, sometimes in quiet voices in the night, sometimes in loud booming trumpets in the middle of the day. Sometimes we hear it early in life and sometimes much later. And tragically there exists those among us, who don’t simply ignore it, but do everything in their power to put it out.
Yet, it is a flame that cannot be put out, because it continues to burn in all of us, igniting a pride that we feel deeply, a pride that causes our hearts to swell, our chests to rise, and allows us to walk a little taller among the nations of the world. We need to hold onto that pride and to guard it jealously, because it is our strength – an unflinching belief in who we are as a people, and a stubbornness to never let it go.
Justin Amler is a noted South African-born, Australia-based writer and commentator on international issues affecting Israel and the Jewish world.