Antwerp Jews Brace for More anti-Semitic Attacks

In wake of last Saturday's stabbing of a young Hasid, Jewish community taking measures to protect itself – from organizing volunteer patrols, to hotline for psychological aid in Yiddish.

Shlomo Papirblat

Pelikaan Street begins near the entrance to the main train station in Antwerp. On this street, nearly all in a row, are fine jewelry shops with names like Shay Diamonds, Ilan Diamonds and Riki Diamonds. Men in skullcaps stand near the doorways, chatting in Hebrew or Yiddish. Bearded yeshiva students rush by as ultra-Orthodox women push baby carriages down the street.

Last Saturday, just after 9 A.M., Yehoshua Malic, a Belzer Hasid, was walking down this street on his way to synagogue when, as he crossed a bridge that runs beneath the railroad tracks, an assailant with a black hoodie concealing his face approached him, sharp object in hand. At first the attacker tried to stab Malik near the heart. Failing to do so, he then stabbed him in the neck and fled. Malik collapsed on the spot, bleeding profusely.

Daniel Werner from the community’s Hatzalah emergency service was the first to arrive. He tried to treat the victim and speak to him. This week, in the office of his architecture firm not far from the scene of the attack, he described those first minutes.

“I was also getting ready to leave for the synagogue when I was received the call on the radio. I jumped onto my motorcycle, turned on the blue flasher and drove quickly ... The police car that was summoned to the scene was right behind me and arrived at the same time as I did. The guy was lying on the sidewalk, his chest hurt, his head spinning, and I could see the stab wound deep under the jaw. I didn’t move him until the ambulance arrived a few minutes later.”

In those few minutes, Werner was able to speak to the young man. “He told me that the assailant did not look Arab, but European. I was glad he was breathing well, despite the stabbing. He was very lucky – in the area where he was wounded, another millimeter to the side or down and it could have ended differently, God forbid. He’s doing alright now. He’s at home, recuperating.

"This is a very gentle fellow we’re talking about, a yeshiva student who sits and learns. There’s no way this had to do with some kind of dispute. All the signs point to an anti-Semitic attack,” says Werner.

Other people who were in the vicinity, as well as the victim himself, were not able to provide anything more than a very basic description of the attacker. The police have had no luck in locating him.

“The police had actually installed many cameras in this area of the city where Jewish life is concentrated, but when they were needed, they failed to do their job. They did not capture the incident or track the assailant – and it’s making us a bit nervous,” says Werner.

Shlomo Papirblat

Werner, 32, previously served as the Antwerp Jewish community’s security coordinator. These are volunteers from the community who, as elsewhere in Europe and in other places, undergo a certain amount of training and also act as liaison with local authorities. Since the stabbing, members of this community watch have increased their activity in Antwerp; more patrols are scouring the city, keeping an eye out for suspicious figures and activity.

“We inform the police beforehand about any mass events, like the installation of a new rabbi or the holidays, of course, and we’re in contact with the schools. We conduct various drills with them about what to do in the event of an attack, and we provide both passive and active protection 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the local Jews.

"It was extremely time-consuming and it was becoming hard for me to run my architecture firm at the same time, so I left and I trained instead for the community’s Hatzalah organization, which sends paramedics to provide immediate medical assistance, so now they only call me when there’s really something happening ”

Antwerp has a Jewish population of about 20,000, from all streams and ethnicities, “but if you walk around this area you think there must be at least 200,000,” Werner says with a smile.

The community is highly organized and operates numerous volunteer organizations besides the security and paramedic organizations. These include a hotline for emotional aid, for anxiety, and so on.

The hotline is run by a psychologist and offers support in several languages, including Yiddish. Another organization run by Hasidim, called Haveirim, offers assistance in technical areas. Say your water boiler burst, the electricity isn’t working or a lock is stuck – the fellows from Haveirim will be right over.

People in the community infrequently encounter anti-Semitism in their everyday lives, says Werner. But when things like last summer’s Gaza war are going on, the level of tension rises here as well.

“There was one incident where a Jewish woman went into a shop and was told ‘We don’t sell to Jews here.’ The employee said later, ‘I took a stand because of what’s happening in the Middle East.’ That’s just the thing – anti-Semitism is outlawed in Belgium, so it’s cloaked in anti-Zionism.”

In the wake of last Saturday's attack, the question is how long the community can maintain the high state of alert. “People have their own lives,” says Werner. "Antwerp has more than 30 synagogues that need guarding, and the police don’t have the manpower to cover them all. So the situation is not at all simple."