Can Belgium protect its Jews? A community has its doubts
The hundreds of rifle-toting police and soldiers who patrol Isaac Michaeli’s neighborhood have done little to improve his sense of safety.
“When the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, the soldiers might as well be cardboard cutouts,” he said.
A jeweler in his 40s, Michaeli lives with his family in Antwerp’s Jewish quarter, a small neighborhood of 12,000 that is one of the largest haredi communities in Europe.
The troops have been assigned to protect the neighborhood, with its 98 Jewish institutions, since May 2014, after four people were killed in a terrorist shooting at Brussels’ Jewish Museum of Belgium. Since then, their presence has been beefed up at periods of elevated risk — including after Tuesday’s string of terrorist attacks that left at least 31 dead and 300 wounded in Brussels.
Belgian Jewish leaders have praised the patrols and the government allocation of $4.5 million for the community’s protection. But amid reports of repeated failures in Belgian authorities’ counterterrorist efforts, Michaeli’s dismissive attitude is shared by other Belgian Jews. Many feel that their government is less competent in defending civilians, Jews and otherwise, than its neighbors, including France.
On Thursday, Menachem Hadad, a Brussels rabbi, told Israel’s Army Radio, “Belgian authorities have no understanding of security issues — zero.” He said soldiers posted outside a synagogue and the city’s Chabad House told him that for months, they used to guard the area with no bullets in their rifles. “It was just a show. It’s not normal,” he said.
Responding to Hadad’s claim, a Belgian Defense Ministry spokesperson wrote in an email to JTA that the soldiers posted in Brussels “are adequately armed and trained,” adding the ministry is nonetheless looking into the claims about the synagogue and Chabad House.
In Antwerp this week, hundreds of soldiers and police patrolled the Jewish quarter, where children wore costumes for Purim. One of a handful of European cities where the Jewish holiday is celebrated on the street, Antwerp’s Purim event this year paled in comparison to previous ones. Revelers were prohibited from playing music, wearing masks and using toy guns to avoid alarming soldiers and offending a grieving nation.
“We celebrate but we are broken,” said Mordechai Zev Schwamenfeld, 57, a member of Antwerp’s prominent Belz Hassidic community. Holding a basket of sweets he was delivering to friends – a Purim custom — he noted that two Belz yeshiva students were lightly wounded in the Brussels attacks. “It affects everyone, we’re not in a bubble,” he said.
Jewish children in Antwerp, Belgium, dressed as soldiers on Purim, March 24, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz
Following the attacks, Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign over the alleged failure to track one of the attackers, an Islamic State militant, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, expelled by Turkey last year. He blew himself up at Brussels airport on Tuesday. An accomplice suicide bomber struck a subway station less than an hour later. Authorities are hunting for more accomplices, who they fear might strike again, possibly at Jewish targets.
Turkey said it warned Brussels specifically about El Bakraoui. According to Haaretz, Israel told Belgium just weeks ago that an attack was planned at the airport. European Union security agencies recommended airport security measures that were not implemented, according to reports.
The attackers also struck at obvious targets when officials should have been on high alert, said critics. Just four days before the attacks, authorities in Brussels arrested Salah Abdeslam, an Islamist alleged to have participated in a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in November.
The arrest, too, led to charges of incompetence. After four months on the run, Abdeslam was found on March 18, hiding a couple thousand feet from his parents’ home. He escaped police several times, including in November, thanks to regulations prohibiting home searches between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Having confirmed his whereabouts after midnight, police found an empty apartment in the morning.
Albert Guigui, the chief rabbi of Belgium, said that despite these apparent lapses, “Belgian authorities are now doing all they can following the trauma at the museum.” The attack on the unguarded building in 2014 prompted authorities to significantly beef up security “in an unprecedented way,” Guigui said. But asked whether Belgian authorities have the desire and the ability to stop attacks, he said: “I don’t know, I’m not a security expert. I’d like to believe so.”
Guigui’s hedged response differs markedly from that of French Jewish leaders. The heads of CRIF, France’s Jewish umbrella group, have often proclaimed their “utter confidence” in authorities’ ability to combat terrorism and protect the community against jihadism.
“I wouldn’t say I have full confidence,” said Joel Rubinfeld, founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCOJB umbrella of French-speaking Belgian Jewish communities. But after a long period of half-measures, he said, authorities took “robust steps to secure Jewish sites in 2014. It’s a positive step for which we are grateful.”
Amid increases in anti-Semitic incidents and a worsening sense of personal safety, immigration to Israel from Belgium has increased dramatically over the past five years.
People gather to show solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Nov. 14, 2015. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Last year, 287 Jews immigrated to Israel from Belgium, which has a Jewish population of about 40,000. It was the highest figure recorded in a decade. From 2010-2105, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made aliyah annually — a 56-percent increase over the annual average of 133 new arrivals from Belgium in 2005-2009, according to Israeli government data.
France too has a jihadist problem that is driving record numbers of Jewish immigrants to Israel, but “It is also a superpower with a strong army and a determined leadership, which Belgium seems not to have,” said Alexander Zanzer, an Antwerp Jew who runs Belgium’s Royal Society of Jewish Welfare. “I don’t have the same confidence that many French Jews have in their authorities following the attacks in their country.”
While in France, “there is leadership capable of making decisions, in Belgium the [bureaucracy] runs itself,” he said. And while this may be the sign of a functioning democracy in times of peace, he said, “in case of emergency, strong leadership is a necessity.”
Zanzer recalled how for 20 months in 2012-2013, a political standoff prevented the formation of a government in Belgium — a binational federal state of 11 million people divided between the richer Flemish, Dutch-speaking, population and the French-speaking south. Like Michaeli, Zanzer said that what most gives him a sense of security are Antwerp Jewry’s own volunteer neighborhood patrols — a service that is far more robust in Antwerp than in Brussels.
Michael Freilich, the editor in chief of the Antwerp-based Joods Actueel monthly, said the violence and the security presence in the Jewish quarter are taking a psychological toll, though he commended the work of special police patrols. After the Brussels attacks, one of Freilich’s three sons had a mild anxiety attack at his Jewish school, which is under constant military protection.
In their spacious home in the heart of the Jewish quarter, Freilich and his wife, Nechama Freilich, said they are unsure of what they should tell the 8-year-old.
“You want to reassure them that things will be alright and we tell them we’re safer here than in Brussels, but you can’t tell them it won’t happen here. It might,” Michael Freilich said.