Between Haider and a hard place
Filip Dewinter is a fascinating phenomenon in Belgian and European politics. Under his leadership, the Vlaams Blok party has become a leading political force.
BRUSSELS - On a hot day in late June, the only way to escape the heat was to jump into the cold water of one of the city's swimming pools. Such was the scene on Sunday, June 26, at the outdoor De Molen pool on the western side of the city, a particularly popular pool in an area that overlooks the river. But then, several Muslim youths began to behave violently. Unable to maintain control, the authorities decided to close the pool and send the swimmers home, much to their chagrin.
Violent incidents involving Muslim youths at swimming pools are nothing new in Antwerp, but this time one of the members of the municipality had an idea about how to solve the problem. In a meeting the next day, Filip Dewinter, chairman of the far-right Vlaams Belang (The Flemish Interest) party in Antwerp and leader of the party, proposed establishing a quota system to limit the entry of young Muslims to public swimming pools. First, he suggested, known lawbreakers should be barred from entering public pools for two years. Second, priority should be given to families - "Flemish, Muslim or Jewish," he said - and only then would Muslim youths be allowed to enter. The expression "Muslim youths" meant Belgian-born citizens who have no criminal record, but whose parents or grandparents immigrated to Belgium from a Muslim country. The Belgian media immediately called this proposal "selection."
"Suddenly a great riot began," Dewinter told Haaretz in an interview several days after the incident. "People started to say that `Dewinter is a racist, he's instituting apartheid methods, he's placing a yellow patch [as used on Jews in the Holocaust] on young Arabs.' All I suggested was to offer free entrance to families, without any ethnic discrimination, in order to decrease the number of young Arabs who try to take over the pools. I say there is a problem and that most of the people at these pools are young Arabs who make problems."
This ostensibly marginal incident, familiar to only a few outside of Antwerp, perhaps reflects the essence of the relationship between the Muslim community in Belgium (and in Europe as a whole) and the non-Muslim population: the lack of integration by some of the Muslims and the criminal activity that stems from this; the inability of the political establishment in many countries to deal with this phenomenon; and the consequent strengthening of far-right movements that offer problematic and sometimes even repugnant solutions. This relationship also touches on the Jewish community, which is often hurt by expressions of anti-Semitism. And, in the specific case of Belgium, this relationship also involves the State of Israel. Indeed, during recent years, Dewinter has made himself into Israel's "No. 1 Belgian friend" and he is now interested in making an official visit.
Leading political force
Filip Dewinter, 43, is a fascinating phenomenon in Belgian and European politics. Under his leadership, the Vlaams Blok party - which was forced to reestablish itself as Vlaams Belang in November 2004 after the state's supreme court declared that it "continually incites toward racial discrimination and segregation" - has transformed itself from an ephemeral party into a leading political force. Dewinter is probably the most successful leader of the far right in Europe today: His party is the second largest in the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) part of Belgium, with about 25 percent support. In reality, it is actually the largest single party because the Christian-Democratic bloc (with about 27 percent support) comprises several parties. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the party has grown steadily; with every election - municipal, regional and federal - the number of the party's supporters increases.
The other parties have adopted a policy toward Vlaams Belang that is defined as a "cordon sanitaire" - and involves an absolute political boycott of the party, with a commitment never to invite it into any coalition. This is because of the party's violent and racist style and content. Thus, it turns out that one in four Flemish voters is not really represented in the political arena and the court has officially declared the party's representatives to be racists. And that is not all. In the heart of an expanding Europe, not far from the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, there is a strong political force whose declared aim is to dismantle Belgium ("within 15 years," Dewinter promises) and whose style is diametrically opposed to the pleasant manner and sweet talk of most European politicians.
Dewinter is now trying to break the boycott imposed on his party, and the municipal elections scheduled for next year in Antwerp (including a mayoral contest) constitute a crucial test for him.
"The year 2006 is critical for him," says Bart Brinckman, the political editor of the De Standaard newspaper, who has followed Dewinter's career for about 15 years. "Dewinter's future and his political career are in jeopardy. After 20 years in politics, Dewinter must show he is advancing."
Cas Mude, a political science professor at the University of Antwerp and a researcher of far-right movements, believes this is the reason for Dewinter's intensive courting of the city's Jewish community and the State of Israel. In order to fulfill his aspiration of gaining control of the city, Dewinter needs the Jewish economic elite that controls one of the leading commercial branches in the city: diamonds. According to Prof. Mude, Dewinter hopes that the State of Israel and the Jews will pave the way to the city's business community and legitimize his image in local popular opinion.
"I'm interested in visiting Israel," Dewinter says in the interview. "First of all, from a geopolitical point of view. We in Western Europe should realize that our allies are not in the Arab or Muslim world, but rather in Israel. This is not just because we have a common civilization and values, but also to balance out the Islamic forces in the Middle East that are getting stronger. The State of Israel is a sort of outpost for our Western society, an outpost of democracy, of freedom of speech, of protecting common values within a hostile environment. You are surrounded by Islamic states, some of them fundamentalist, which are interested in only one thing: to throw the Jews into the sea.
"I also think that Islam is now the No. 1 enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world. After communism, the greatest threat to the West is radical fundamentalist Islam. There are already 25-30 million Muslims on Europe's soil and this becomes a threat. It's a real Trojan horse. Thus, I think that an alliance is needed between Western Europe and the State of Israel. I think we in Western Europe are too critical of Israel and we should support Israel in its struggle to survive. I think we should support Israel more than we do because its struggle is also very important for us."
But Dewinter admits that he wants to visit Israel for other reasons. "It's very important to me as leader of a right-wing national party [he rejects defining the party as "far right" - A.S.] to say that we respect the State of Israel and the Jews. To all of those who regard us as neo-Nazis, we say: `No, we want good relations with the Jews.' We should distance ourselves from all of those individuals and groups with anti-Semitic tendencies and from Holocaust deniers. I have no connection with these things. Because I am a leader of a right-wing party, some of the Jewish leaders in Antwerp do not believe that I am sincere. They think that this is a pose, that I am doing this to avoid being regarded as a neo-Nazi and that I am afraid they will call me a fascist. I'm interested in visiting Israel to express my affinity, but also to prove that I'm sincere."
Dewinter hopes to visit Israel during the coming year, but clarifies: "I'll come only if I know I am wanted. Only if there is a consensus about the visit in Israel and in Belgium." He has yet to take any explicit initiative and has not approached any officials about this, but it seems that he would receive quite a chilly response. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has made it clear that Israel would not be the one to violate the cordon sanitaire and that Israel's policy is largely derived from the official Belgian policy. Thus, for example, Israel's embassy in Brussels is not in contact with Dewinter's party, despite its size, and does not provide it with information as it does in the case of other parties in the parliament. According to Jerusalem, its policy represents an ethical stand because Vlaams Belang is a xenophobic party that opposes immigrants and expresses racism. In addition, the party advocates the dismantling of Belgium and the establishment instead of an independent state in the Flemish part. Thus, an Israeli connection would be seen as intervening in the internal affairs of Belgium.
The possibility of Dewinter visiting Israel has also stirred an uproar in the Jewish community in Belgium. Vivian Teitelbaum is a Jewish member of the parliament in Brussels. (In Belgium, in addition to the federal national parliament, there are also parliaments in the Flemish region, the francophone region and the region of Brussels, the capital city.) Teitelbaum says she would feel ashamed if Dewinter visited Israel and adds, "I don't know how I would cope with this." Claude Marinower, the only Jewish member of the federal parliament, is even more vociferous and says he would come to Israel and hold a press conference at every stop on Dewinter's itinerary to warn against him. Both MPs believe that the answer to the central question of whether Dewinter can be trusted is "No."
Members of the Flemish nationalist movement established Vlaams Blok in the late 1970s. Many members of this movement had openly collaborated with the Nazi regime during World War II. "My view of the party has not changed," says Marinower during an interview at his Antwerp office. "The founders of the party were collaborators, anti-Semites and racists." And not much has changed since then, he adds.
Prof. Mude thinks the party is not officially anti-Semitic because there are no anti-Semitic references in its official literature, which he says he studies carefully. However, he notes, there is indeed anti-Semitism among its grass-roots activists. "Dewinter has no problem associating with anti-Semites," he explains. "And you can almost always find someone anti-Semitic around him. The reason is that he is not philo-Semitic; he's philo-Flemish. His goal is to take over Antwerp and act on behalf of the Flemish. The question of whether this is good for the Jews does not interest him."
Brinckman, however, is certain that Dewinter himself "harbors anti-Semitic feelings. He always associates with anti-Semitic circles and it is impossible that he changed his mind. He now needs to maneuver between his voters, many of whom are very extremist, and the public arena, which demands that he demonstrate moderation."
"How can I prove it to you?" Dewinter says in the interview when asked whether he is moving closer to Jews and Israel for only tactical reasons. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating," he says with a smile. "I am proving it through my political activity in parliament. I am a politician and this is what I can do."
What about the party's past? Many of the party's founding fathers collaborated with the Nazis. Do you condemn this collaboration?
Dewinter: "Many Flemish nationalists collaborated during the war because they thought - and now it is clear that they were wrong - that this would help them achieve independence for Flanders. This is the whole story. The overwhelming majority were not Nazis. They collaborated in order to attain independence and because the Church called upon them to go out and fight the Communists - something that Western Europe continued to do for 50 years. Now, in 2005, it is easy to say: `The collaboration was a mistake.' The collaboration did not help our country at all; we just became a vassal state of Germany. At the time, it was logical, because of the Church, because of communism. But this has no connection with Nazism."
Gustave "Staf" de Clercq, the Flemish nationalist leader during the war, openly collaborated with the Nazis. After the deportation of Jews began, he was said to have remarked: "Now we can breathe easier." Nevertheless, many members of your party revere his memory and participate in ceremonies to mark the anniversary of his death.
"He is one of the historic leaders of the party. This is part of the history of the Flemish nationalist movement and it is impossible to deny this. We are the descendants of this movement. Some of the members of the party attend these events because they want to honor the heritage of the Flemish movement. This does not mean that they agree with Nazism. Not at all. I understand that this is hard to understand as a Jew. I respect very much that Jews have a problem with this. But Jews must also understand that this is not as simple as it seems. Not all of the [Nazi] collaborators wanted to kill the Jews in Europe. Most of the collaborators had other motives. I think that if they were living today, most of them would be ashamed of what happened to the Jews. The only thing I can do today is to say that I respect very much the suffering of the Jewish people, to express my sympathy and condolences about what happened and to try to move far away from this. But the Jewish people must understand that not every collaborator was necessarily anti-Semitic."
This does not help those whose relatives perished in the Holocaust.
"That is clear. But we are politicians of today. We should be judged by our actions of today, not by the things others did 60 years ago."
Close to Le Pen
Hanging on the wall of Dewinter's office, where the interview takes place, is a large poster from the 1960s that reads: "Europe, free yourself!" The banner is signed by an organization of nationalist parties in Europe, including the Italian Socialist Movement (MSI), the neo-fascist party established by Mussolini's supporters, and the German National Democratic Party (NPD), one of the most extreme far-right movements in Europe, which some say is really neo-Nazi. On the windowsill are several small flags of sister parties of Dewinter's party: the party of Austrian Joerg Haider, the French National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the German Republican Party. Among these parties, Mude explains, Vlaams Belang is very close to Le Pen's party - more extreme than Haider, but more moderate than the German NPD. Mude considers it one of the most extreme, well-organized and successful movements in Europe.
There is also another flag on the windowsill: the flag of Israel. Dewinter's affinity for Israel, on one hand, and these far-right parties, on the other hand, does not seem problematic to him. "You should know, the real enemies of Israel today are not on the right, but rather on the left: the socialists and the Greens," he says.
Dewinter's blunt attitude toward foreigners, in general, and Muslims, in particular, is a source of concern for many Jews. MP Teitelbaum talks about a proposal Dewinter recently put forward to attach a type of electronic handcuff to the wrists or ankles of people seeking refuge in Belgium so police can track their movements. (He says in response: "What, is it more humane to hold them in detention camps for six months like they do in other countries?")
On another occasion, Teitelbaum proposed a bill in parliament condemning the raping of women in Congo by UN soldiers. In response, members of Vlaams Belang asked to add an amendment to the bill to specify a condemnation of rapes of white women in Brussels and Antwerp by foreigners. Says Marinower: "There is no such thing as half racist. If they are racists, then it is not only against Muslims." His fear is clear: Today, Dewinter wants to "deal" with Muslims, tomorrow it will be the Jews.
What bothers you about the Muslim culture?
Dewinter: "Islam cannot be compared to any other European religion. It is a way of life that organizes the entire society, with its own set of laws (shari'a). I think it is an illusion to think that a moderate Islam exists in Europe. It is very dangerous to think this way. Islam should also not be underestimated. The essence of this religion is to rule. Once they are in power, they will not be tolerant of any other culture or religion. What is happening today is that Muslims are not integrating into our society because they are interested in preserving their own way of life. They should become Europeans like us."
He adds, for example, that in schools with a large number of Muslim children, the separation of boys and girls has been proposed; parents are demanding that crosses be removed from the walls of public schools and the eating of pork is prohibited. "They always tell us: `This hurts them. We must be multicultural and tolerant.' I say that we must not do this. They must integrate into our society and not us into their society, and that is what is happening today. If you look at any large city in Europe, it will seem to you more like Casablanca or Marrakesh and less like a European city. I think that in its current situation, Europe is like the Roman Empire - indulged, decadent, flooded with immigrants and unprepared to fight for its culture."
You are opposed to the wearing of Muslim veils in public and argue that all of the Muslims should learn Flemish. Many of the ultra-Orthodox Jews here also do not speak Flemish and they also wear traditional clothing.
"It is clear that the Jews integrate into the surrounding society without any problem. They don't bother anyone. They respect the law. I've never heard about a case of an ultra-Orthodox Jew attacking anyone or making declarations against the West or against the Flemish. The Jews are good citizens. Maybe they have a few habits that seem a bit strange to us, but they do not oppose our way of life. That is the big difference: Radical Islam, which is growing rapidly in Europe, opposes our society. This is a real Trojan horse and we not only let it in, but also feed it. My problem is not with any particular item of clothing. The problem is that it becomes a symbol of hatred toward our society. In this way, they are telling us: `Our culture is better than yours and we want to keep a distance from your way of life.' It is a political symbol of fundamentalism and radicalism, and we must say `No' to it."
In this conversation, there are two words that drive Dewinter crazy: multiculturalism and tolerance. "Multiculturalism is destroying the immune system of Europe," he explains. "Multiculturalism and political correctness lead to extreme tolerance for everyone and everything. It destroys our ability to mount a counterattack. Belgium is the most politically correct country in Europe. Even in Germany one can speak about Leitkultur (leading culture) - that is, one main national culture into which all of the others integrate. If you talk about this in Belgium, they say you are a racist."
On this issue, even Dewinter's opponents say there is some truth in his words. A reporter for Flemish public television who covers the far right (and who asked to remain anonymous) calls this a failure of the political elite in Belgium. "For 20 years, they ignored the cultural problems in the state, pretended that everything was fine with us and only told people: `We must not be racists.'" Even Teitelbaum, who speaks very critically against Dewinter, says he "raises the right questions that others fail to raise. The issue is how he raises them."
Dewinter responds by saying that he is proud of these reactions: "This is one step forward. Once, they said other things about me. I think that we also have the correct solutions."
Do you have any Arab or Muslim friends?
"Yes, you'd be surprised. I have several friends - well, what exactly is a friend? People I know and conduct discussions with. If they are prepared to integrate into society, I am happy to accept them."
Would you allow your 17-year-old daughter to date a Jewish boy?
"My daughter, date a Jew? Certainly. It's up to her."
With a Muslim?
"Ahh ..." Dewinter pauses and then responds: "It's up to her. I raised my three daughters in a way that will leave this completely up to them."
And perhaps the worst scenario from your perspective, with a francophone?
"No, no - it's up to them. I don't intend to tell them what to do. I think that intercultural marriages are not easy, but the decision will remain theirs."
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