Since the day that Mehdi Nemmouche stood in the hallway leading to the reception of the Jewish Museum in Brussels and shot and killed four people, the museum has been closed to the public. “The pain and confusion were terrible,” Philippe Bondin, the president of the museum, said as he stood in the same place during a meeting held in French before the museum’s official reopening on Sunday.
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Emanuel and Miriam Riva, an Israeli couple, and two local employees, Dominique Sabrier and Alexandre Strens, were killed in the attack on May 24 this year.
“Since then, every time we — members of the staff and the management — come here and stand at the entrance, we feel as if we are in the victims’ place,” said Blondin.
On Tuesday, at a brief, modest ceremony with no invitations to official representatives of Israel or the victims’ families, museum officials unveiled a copper memorial plaque affixed to a wall of the building, near the entrance. The plaque bears the following words in French, English and Flemish: “In Memoriam: Myriam and Emmanuel Riva, Dominique Sabrier, Alexandre Strens, victims of a cowardly murder by a terrorist in this place on May 24, 2014, at 3:39 p.m.”
Unlike many Jewish institutions throughout the world, the museum in Brussels had no special security measures and did not search visitors. “That was our philosophy — to provide a feeling of freedom to those who came to us,” Blondin said. “As far as I am concerned, all of that is gone. It’s an awful situation. It’s inconceivable, but in light of reality there is nothing to be done. We will have to prepare differently as far as security measures go.”
Indeed, against the backdrop of the old street near Grand Sablon Square, just a few steps away from the well-known shrines to chocolate of Pierre Marcolini and Godiva, the police officers armed with automatic weapons that are now stationed at the museum entrance look completely out of place.
Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo will be giving a speech at the museum’s reopening ceremony on Sunday. One it reopens, the museum’s first event will be a lecture by Viviane Teitelbaum, president of the French Council of Women in Belgium, on women in Judaism.
According to the ruling issued by the investigating judge Berta Bernardo-Mendez, the area where the attack took place must be left unchanged in case a re-enactment of the incident should become possible later on. So far, 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect, has refused to re-enact the incident since France extradited him to Belgium and he was jailed in Bruges. The museum management has promised that until security measures such as metal detectors and a wall of reinforced glass are installed, the museum will have a permanent police presence during its opening hours.
Blondin and the museum’s general manager, Norbert Cige, spoke about the decision to reopen the museum. “We wanted to open the place as quickly as possible, and all the staff members agreed and were partners to that. We did not want to let that awful man, that detestable murderer, decide about our lives that way. But we still needed a break. Over the past few weeks, we reached the conclusion that it was time; we would no longer be silenced. We chose Sunday, September 14, which is the European Day of Jewish Culture, as the day that the museum would open its gates once more.”
In the meantime, it seems that the investigation of Nemmouche, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, is progressing slowly. Nemmouche refuses to cooperate. Recent reports by French journalists formerly held in Syria that Nemmouche was their captor, and that he tortured prisoners held by the Islamic State group, got no special response from the Belgian prosecutors. “Since these acts were not committed on Belgian soil, we cannot take them legally into consideration,” an official from the Belgian state prosecutor’s office told the local media.
But as far as the attack on the museum is concerned, since Nemmouche was extradited to Belgium in July he has been taken twice from his prison cell in Bruges to the court in Brussels — under extraordinary security precautions — for extensions of his remand on charges of “murder in a terrorist context."
Nemmouche was arrested a week after the attack in the southern French city of Marseilles, when a random search of his belongings turned up a Kalashnikov submachine gun, a handgun, a GoPro camera, clothing and a baseball cap similar to the one seen on the shooter in security camera footage taken at the time of the attack.
Nemmouche’s defense attorneys, Sebastien Courtoy and Henri Laquay, did not ask for his release from remand even though they claimed during the hearing that “there was no scientific proof at this stage, or official eyewitness testimony, placing the suspect at the site of the incident when the shots were fired. Therefore, it is too early to link the suspect to the act, and he is allowed to benefit from the right to be considered innocent.” As they left the court building, they told reporters in a mysterious tone, “The judges know why we did not ask for his release, but the public can only guess.”
These two attorneys, who are known for their close association with the far right, became famous when they defended the controversial French comedian Dieudonne, who has been accused of anti-Semitism, in court and even performed the illegal gesture known as the quenelle, or inverted Nazi salute, which has caused uproar in Europe over the past two years. As a sign of gratitude for their efforts, Dieudonne dubbed them “knights of the golden quenelle” at a public ceremony.