Hundreds of Belgian Jews attended a recent Israeli immigration fair, indicating a massive upturn in interest in aliyah in a country that has seen a worrying rise in anti-Semitic incidents.
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This interest, however, is not yet being reflected in the immigration numbers. According to the latest Jewish Agency figures, in the first nine months of this year 181 Belgian Jews immigrated to Israel, compared to 172 in the same period last year. In the past five years, the number of Belgian Jews coming to Israel each year has fluctuated between 150 and slightly more than 250.
Earlier this month, an Orthodox Jewish man was stabbed in the neck on his way to synagogue in Antwerp. In May, four people, including an Israeli couple, were shot dead by a terrorist outside the Jewish museum in Brussels. The Jewish community of Belgium numbers about 40,000, split evenly more or less between Brussels and Antwep, which is home to a large ultra-Orthodox community.
A senior Jewish Agency official told Haaretz that Jews in Belgium are feeling less safe these days, which may explain why many more these days are inquiring about the possibility of immigration.
“A month and a half ago, we brought a joint delegation of Jewish Agency and Immigrant Absorption Ministry representatives to Belgium and northern France for an information fair on aliyah,” said Ariel Kandel, the newly appointed director of the French-speaking countries desk at the Jewish Agency. “In the past, when we’d hold functions like this, we’d have a few dozen people show up. This time, there were hundreds. We may not yet be seeing this in the immigration figures themselves, but if people are starting to show interest, we may begin seeing a change this summer.”
Kandel, who just returned to Israel from a stint as Jewish Agency envoy in France, said the organization is helping the community in Belgium to beef up security at Jewish institutions around the country.
“France is really the first example we had of a Western country where the situation for the Jewish community began changing very fast,” Kandel said. “So when things began changing in Belgium, we immediately knew what had to be done. Making sure the Jewish community is safe is our top priority.”
Although the Jews of Belgium were not leaving in great numbers as of yet, Kandel said, “We have our finger on the pulse, and in the event that things do change, we’ll be able to take charge.”
Even if immigration from Belgium eventually doubles or triples, he noted, “this is not France with a community of 500,000 Jews, so in the best-case scenario, we won’t be seeing an increase of more than several hundred a year.”