Belgian resident William Echikson reflects on the disturbing trends in his country and looks to the Netherlands for a glimmer of hope
In the run-up to the European Parliament elections in May, half a dozen leaders of Jewish groups in Brussels, including myself, assembled in a closed-door meeting to debate the vote.
“We need to oppose the far right”, a student representative demanded. “What about opposing the Corbyn left?” asked a right-wing, pro-Israel voice. “It’s even more dangerous than the populists.”
Although everyone agreed that the continent’s resurgent far right nationalists looked like the natural enemy, many saw dangers in other, unexpected places. The vote’s outcome, a victory for mainstream pro-European forces despite a rise in populist support, leaves few satisfied and the Jewish voice divided and frightened.
Consider first Europe’s populists. Many, such as Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, continue to trot out antisemitic tropes to rally support. Orbán blames his country’s problems on a Jewish financier, George Soros. His Fidesz party won, big time.
Although it is easy to see Orbán as a natural enemy of the Jews, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu disagrees. He treats Orbán as his best buddy. Netanyahu has visited Budapest to salute Orbán even though Hungary’s Jewish community told him to stay away. Netanyahu has also befriended Italian populist Matteo Salvini, Poland’s Jaroslav Kaczynski, and other such characters who minimise their own countries’ responsibilities for the destruction of European Jewry, attack Muslim and Roma migrants and resurrect fascist symbols.
The Israeli logic is that these right-wing populists admire a strong nationalist Israel and support Netanyahu’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Netanyahu has made clear his belief that Jews have no future in Europe. He wants us all to move to Israel.
On the other side of the political spectrum, left-wing European leaders attack Israel, even calling into question the legitimacy of the Jewish state. European Jewish leaders and politicians accuse the UK Labour Party and other European socialists of encouraging resurgent antisemitism within their party ranks.
Amid this bleak landscape, some light shines. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice president and Dutch Social Democrat, did well in the European elections. His party beat the right-wing party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and an upstart populist group, and Timmermans has a decent chance to become the next European Commission President.
Thanks to his leadership, the present European Commission has done far more to protect Judaism than its predecessors. Timmermans has underlined how only a Europe with Jews can fulfil the goal of a tolerant, multiethnic and multinational Europe. “There is no Europe without the Jewish community” is the line that he repeats. He has appointed the first European coordinator against antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, and calls out countries for trying to rehabilitate Holocaust war criminals and minimise their own guilt. He has also unlocked millions of euros in grants to fight antisemitism and back interfaith projects.
But this news is accompanied by real danger, not least in my adopted homeland Belgium. I’ve lived here for two and a half decades. Until May’s election, Belgium appealed to me for its tolerance and love of the good life, its beer, chocolate and fries. Then came the recent elections. The far right Vlaams Belang won about 20 percent of the vote, an increase of 14 percent. This surge comes after a series of antisemitic incidents, ranging from a carnival float depicting religious Jews as rats, the banning of kosher slaughter in most of the country, and the acquittal of the Bruges football club, whose supporters chant “all Jews are gay.”
It is not just the individual incidents that worry me. It is the silence of Belgian politicians and judges who should denounce them. The carnival float was condemned by the European Commission. But Belgian leaders told protesting Jews to “get a sense of humour”. At the trial, the judge said the antisemitic chant ought to be viewed as “neutral and inoffensive”.
This message is impossible to ignore: more than ever, the dangers of European Jews come from both the right, the left – and from the ignorant centre.
William Echikson is the director of the European Union for Progressive Judaism office in Brussels.
This article also features in the July 2019 issue of JR.