As Jews in Brussels, We're Trapped Between the Jihadists and the Far Right

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Belgian riot police at a protest by right wing demonstrators at a memorial site for the Brussels terror attacks, Brussels, Belgium, March 27, 2016.
Belgian riot police at a protest by right wing demonstrators at a memorial site for the Brussels terror attacks, Brussels, Belgium, March 27, 2016.Credit: AP

One of the most notable differences in Brussels since last Tuesday’s attacks has been the reduction in drivers honking impatiently. There are fewer people on the streets, and certain metro stations are still closed, as well as some restaurants and stores. Some synagogues cancelled their Purim celebrations; a few did not. The Francophone university remained open, but the Flemish one stayed closed for three days. My friends and I have been giving each other hugs in addition to the typical single cheek kiss that marks Belgian greetings.

I was lucky to not be anywhere near either the airport or the metro station, although one of my acquaintances from the Jewish community lost a limb in one of the attacks. I experienced the events of yesterday foremost as a Brussels resident, someone who happily adopted this city as her own years ago.

I do not feel more threatened because I am Jewish. When people comment that, “Oh, now this has finally hit home,” as opposed to it happening in Paris or elsewhere, I reminded them that terrorism already came to Belgium — when four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in May 2014. Yes, they say, but the threats then and since were directed at the Jewish community.

They might continue — but the warnings against Jewish targets were isolated, "exclusive" threats, and those threats are somehow "tolerable" because, well, that is what happens to Jews. We Jews here in Europe get threatened. The police and soldiers in front of our synagogues, community centers and schools are somehow "our" normal and to be expected, because, well, we are Jews. That perspective should have been shattered by the latest attacks.

We Jews should have been seen as the canary in the coalmine. We may be some of the first who get hit, but we are not the last. After the attack on the Brussels Jewish museum, the official reaction expressed solidarity. But most people saw it as an attack against Jews, and not as an attack on a pluralistic society in which different sorts of people live together.

After the terrorist attacks on Paris this past November, journalists remarked that the victims at the Bataclan and in the restaurants were attacked for being "normal" people doing "normal" things, the first such attack on "normal" people. But that was also not the case; the victims of the January 2015 attack on the kosher supermarket were also "normal" people doing something as "normal" as shopping for food. Yet somehow because those shoppers were Jews, they were seen as something apart, as somehow different. Their deaths were somehow less cruelly random.

Europe has a long history of treating Jews badly. I have had many experiences of anti-Semitism from non-Muslim Europeans. My French colleagues are not asked if they support the National Front in job interviews, but I was questioned about my political allegiances, prompted by my resume, that notes I speak Hebrew and did an internship in Israel (I have since taken Hebrew off my CV). I often go out of my way to avoid mentioning that I am Jewish, never sure when it will mark the end of a conversation or provoke snide remarks.

I am not equating social slights with murderous attacks, but they are related. Yes, currently the reason we have soldiers outside our synagogues is due to a heightened threat from jihadists. But I see this threat as aggravated by the lack of full acceptance of Jews (and Muslims) on the part of so many non-Jewish and non-Muslim Europeans. I emphasize non-Jewish and non-Muslim because, contrary to the racist rhetoric of the rising far-right politicians, Europe’s non-Jewish and non-Muslim populations are by far the majority and hold most positions of power in European society.

And I worry about the reactions that are likely to follow Tuesday’s attacks: increased populist rhetoric, further stigmatization of the “other”, and the erroneous belief that a homogenous society with “traditional European values” is what can keep us safe.

It seems to me that all the hard work that Europe put into promoting the values of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in the post-war period has been taken for granted so much that people are forgetting why this work was necessary in the first place. I worry that if people don’t recognize the connection between how Jews and Muslims (and Roma and refugees and women and LGBTQ people) are treated, and how we are able to live as Jews or Muslims safely and without stigmatization, we are going to continue regressing into an even more dangerous environment of intolerance and socially acceptable racism. I am equally concerned by the (re)rise of the far-right nationalists as I am by ISIS, and feel equally threatened by both.

I am often asked about the atmosphere within the Brussels Jewish community and our sense of safety. My impression (based on social media, newsletters and many conversations) is that the Jewish community is reacting with the calm which the Belgian and European leaders have called for from everyone. I myself feel sorry that the bag checks and other security measures that has become so normalized for the Jewish community have now spread to everyone. In the aftermath of the attacks, as politicians and leaders call for unity, I really hope that people understand this to mean the importance of speaking out when any one group in society is threatened, in order to save our society as a whole.

Nehama Sobernheim has been living in Brussels for five years and is an active member of the Jewish community there.

The writer is using an assumed name to protect her identity.

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