No Packed Suitcases, but Definitely Fear in Belgium

Though Jews in Europe are used to the need to be careful, and perhaps also for the need to leave. Brussels shooting may just push them over the edge.


BRUSSELS – Belgium is a very open country, to everyone. Since its founding in 1830, many people have found a home and shelter here, including Alexandre Dumas, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; the latter two even wrote the “Communist Manifesto” there. It’s also a permanent transit country with deep Jewish ties: 2 million migrants from all over Europe – mainly the east and Russia – sailed from Antwerp to America from 1870-1935, about one fourth of them Jews. A minority of these wandering Jews remained in Belgium, joining the small community that always existed in the Low Countries.

Before World War II, the community numbered about 75,000. Around a third were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, survivors and refugees returned to Belgium, and many others passed through it en route to America, Canada, South America and, later, Israel. Today, the community numbers about 42,000, and is gradually shrinking. Jews don’t feel safe in Belgium, and that’s the emotional background against which Saturday’s horrific attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels occurred.

To a some degree, Belgium’s openness – and that of many European countries – is also the background to the European Parliament elections that ended on Sunday, in which separatist, nationalist parties with a veiled message of racism did well in several countries. In Belgium, too, a separatist Flemish party won a plurality of votes in both the European elections and the national ones held the same day. Party leader Bart de Wever – who, ironically, is also mayor of Antwerp – usually makes headlines by demanding that the country split in two, but also by talking about migrants, especially from North Africa. Last year, for instance, he said Belgium should build a jail in Morocco to house criminals of Moroccan origin, of whom there are many in Belgium. His proposal caused a political uproar, but it also garnered quiet support that was expressed in Sunday’s voting.

About a tenth of Belgium’s population is of foreign origin: two thirds from other European Union countries and the other third from elsewhere – mainly Congo (a former Belgian colony) and neighboring Francophone African countries, with the rest from North Africa, primarily Morocco. As in other European countries, most of these people either immigrated legally or fled their own countries in search of a better life for themselves and their families. They generally manage to learn the language and acclimate, even if some – especially older and first-generation immigrants – retain their traditional dress and mother tongue. Many work and integrate into daily life, and into politics as well: Belgian openness is quickly translated into power.

But some migrants don’t acclimate and feel alienated – especially young unemployed men. And if they’re Muslim, they may also be exposed to anti-Western and anti-Semitic incitement. At least 200 such men are known to have gone to fight in Syria. A few dozen have already returned. They aren’t many, but they hate. Their hatred is proclaimed loudly, and Belgium’s Jewish community has warned of this more than once. But the warnings weren’t heard, or at least not loudly enough.

It’s not yet known who committed the murder at Brussels’ Jewish Museum. The video clip the authorities released shows a young man cold-bloodedly shooting two people with a Kalashnikov, continuing into the building, shooting again and fleeing. This is a man familiar with guns. Maybe he learned to shoot in Syria, or maybe not. But when he pulled the trigger, he didn’t just kill four people innocent of any crime; he also destroyed the already shaky sense of security of Belgium’s Jewish community.

Jews in Belgium, and in Europe in general, are used to the need to be careful – always. And perhaps the need to leave. They aren’t sitting on packed suitcases, but neither are they living in security.

The community here, as in other places, is thirsting for security. It guards itself and wants to believe the Belgian state will protect it, but the doubts are always there. At the moment, these doubts are being expressed in agony, and the community is curling up inside itself, traumatized.

As time passes, will these doubts take on a different aspect – perhaps another wave of Jewish emigration? It’s not yet clear. But one thing is clear – the doubt. That will always remain.

The author is a strategic consultant and historian living in Brussels, and a former senior UN official.