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.

Following terrorist attacks, Antwerp Jews told not to wear Purim masks

Following terrorist attacks in Brussels, the crisis management center of the Jewish community of Antwerp urged locals not to wear masks on Purim.

In addition to this instruction, the  Jewish Crisis Management Team in Antwerp requested in an announcement Tuesday that revelers, including children, refrain from carrying toy weapons or using firecrackers or any other device that produces loud bangs.

“With the police and army on very high alert, all these cause confusion and are potentially dangerous,” the announcement reads.

Antwerp’s Jewish quarter is among a handful of areas in Western Europe where the holiday of Purim, often referred to in Belgium as “the Jewish carnival,” is celebrated publicly on the street. Thousands of members of the city’s large Haredi community take to the streets in colorful costumes for the holiday.

The unusual announcement follows bombings Tuesday morning at Brussels’ main airport, where 14 people were killed, and at a Brussels metro station, where another 17 died.

A concert planned for Antwerp featuring the Gat Brothers, popular Hassidic singers from Israel, was cancelled after the singers, who were en route to Belgium when the attacks happened, were redirected to the airport of Liege south of Brussels, the website Kikar Hashabbat reported.

Two large Purim events planned for Brussels also were cancelled.

Dutch Jewish school closed after anti-terrorist raid in Belgium

The only Orthodox Jewish school in the Netherlands was closed on Friday as a precautionary measure after an anti-terrorism raid in Belgium left two suspects dead.

There was no concrete threat against the Cheider School in Amsterdam, Dutch national broadcaster NOS said, citing the school's Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs. School phones went unanswered Friday morning.

Jewish schools in Antwerp and Brussels are also temporarily closed after two terrorism suspects were killed in a raid in Verviers, Belgium, on Thursday.

Dutch Jewish schools and prominent Jewish monuments – including Amsterdam's Anne Frank House and Jewish Historical Museum – have had extra security since June, on advice of the country's national anti-terrorism office.

That followed a terrorism-related shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, in May that killed four.

Survivor: Betty Hyatt

“Mommy, mommy.” Five-year-old Betty Hyatt, then Betty Prins, frightened by the unfamiliar low, rumbling noises in the sky, jumped out of bed and ran screaming for her mother. It was early morning on Friday, May 10, 1940, the day she and her father were planning to travel to Holland to visit relatives. Instead, Betty and her family sought shelter as planes flew low overhead in formation, dropping bombs on Antwerp. “I was terrified,” recalled Betty, who had never before seen an airplane.

Betty was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on Dec. 16, 1934, to Esther and Nathaniel Prins. Her brother, Fred, was born in November 1939. 

Betty’s father built and operated a factory for machine embroidery, employing 30 workers. It was located behind the family’s house in Borgerhout, an Antwerp suburb.

The business was successful, and Betty lived a privileged life with a nanny and vacations at beach resorts. She briefly attended private school before the war broke out.

After Belgium was attacked, Betty’s father contacted the Dutch consulate and arranged for passports to Surinam, a Dutch colony in South America. To get there, the family needed to pick up visas in Marseilles and then board a ship in Portugal. 

Betty’s parents closed the house, gave Betty’s dog to a neighbor and left in their “big, monstrous-looking Packard,” according to Betty. The road was crowded with other evacuees, many walking with bundles, pushcarts and donkeys. 

After crossing into northern France, they stopped at a Red Cross refugee camp. Betty’s father then returned to Antwerp for Betty’s mother’s parents, her mother’s sister and the sister’s fiancé. 

The first day out with all eight family members, the car was sideswiped and sent tumbling over an embankment, rolling over several times. No one was hurt, but a tire was destroyed. It took three days to locate a replacement. 

The family then drove to Reims, stopping for the night in a church converted to a refugee camp. Before daybreak, Betty’s father arose and insisted, against other family members’ wishes and for no apparent reason, they leave immediately. They were barely five minutes away when they heard a loud explosion. The church had been bombed and, they later learned, 500 were people killed.

The family eventually stopped in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Rue, where they lived in an abandoned hut. Betty attended school, learning French fluently. She befriended a golden retriever, naming her Mirette. The dog came to live with the family and subsequently gave birth to 12 puppies. Local farmers, needing guard dogs to fend off looters, bartered milk, eggs, butter and bread for them.

Seven months later, the family left, giving Mirette to a farmer. On the day they departed, Mirette howled inconsolably, and Betty cried until she fell asleep. “It was a terrible loss,” Betty said. 

After many months and many stops, the family arrived in Marseilles. But it was Vichy France, and as Jews and non-French, they were unable to travel any farther. Plus, having run out of money, Betty’s father was forced to sell the car. 

The Dutch consul suggested they go to Lamastre, a nearby village, where Betty’s father found a job as a janitor. Betty and her family lived in a second-floor flat with no water. 

As foreigners, Betty’s family was required to report to the police station weekly. One week, however, Betty’s grandfather inadvertently revealed to the police that the family was Jewish. 

A few nights later, a woman dressed in black knocked at Betty’s parents’ flat. “Do not be afraid,” she said. “I work with the maquis (the French resistance).” She told them that the Germans were planning to round up young people and deport them to Germany to work.

Betty’s aunt and fiancé decided to flee, heading to Portugal on foot. The resistance arranged false papers and employment for Betty’s father, relocating him near the Pyrenees. But he was betrayed for working as a Frenchman, arrested and later, on Jan. 31, 1943, transported to the Drancy transit camp outside Paris.

Less than a month later, Betty’s grandfather was picked up in Lamastre and also sent to Drancy. Betty discovered after the war that he died en route.

Soon after, learning that the Germans were rounding up women and children, resistance members took Betty and Fred by bicycle in the middle of the night to a farmer’s house, where they were united with their mother and grandmother. After a short stay, the family found an abandoned stable in the higher regions of Ardèche, in south-central France. 

There was no furniture, and they filled bags with hay to use as beds. Betty remembers lice and bed bugs as well as huge rats that ate the chestnuts they gathered. 

Betty’s mother joined the French resistance in the nearby town of Gilhoc-sur-Ormèze, taking Betty with her to meetings. Betty became a child courier, alerting local farmers to light bonfires designating safe landing places for Allied special forces being parachuted in. 

At those meetings, Eugénie Brunel, a midwife and resistance member, took a liking to Betty and offered to give her a home. Betty’s mother handed her over on the spot. “At that very moment the bond between my mother and me was broken,” recalled Betty, who was 8 at the time. 

Betty lived under the false name of Berta Lambert. She attended school whenever possible and worked for the resistance as needed. Occasionally she walked uphill to visit her family. “Eugénie was a magnificent woman,” according to Betty, who later nominated her for Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” designation, which was granted in 1981. 

The war ended in France in August 1944, and a few months later Betty returned with her mother, grandmother and brother to Lamastre. Betty’s mother subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown, and in 1945, Betty and Fred were sent to a displaced persons camp for children in central France. 

They were later put in another camp for children in northern Belgium, but then found themselves living with their mother and grandmother in a run-down apartment in Brussels. 

One day, Betty’s mother announced that she had remarried. “My father. My father,” Betty screamed. Her mother told her that he had died in a concentration camp, but Betty didn’t want to believe her. “It was unbearable,” Betty said. Years later, she learned that her father had been shot in Auschwitz by an SS soldier the day before the camp was liberated.

The family moved back to Antwerp, but Betty and Fred were again put in a displaced persons camp. Then Betty’s mother’s brother, who had gone to New York before the war, returned for the family. They arrived in the United States on Sept. 17, 1946.

Betty was enrolled in several schools in New York, but with no foundation and poor English skills, school was very difficult. Eventually she attended Forest Hills High School in Queens, where a teacher befriended her and introduced her to arts and literature. “When that happened, I had something to live for,” Betty said. 

Betty met her future husband, Fred Hyatt, in the standing-room section of the Metropolitan Opera, and they married in 1955. They moved to Los Angeles a year later and had two sons: William, born in 1957, and Kenneth in 1961.

In 1972, Betty began working for the State of California. She retired as a foster care licensing program analyst in 1996. 

Today, Betty, 78, works as a docent at the J. Paul Getty Museum and speaks at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. She also enjoys visiting with her sons, daughters-in-law and two grandsons.  

“Everything that happened in my life is sheer luck,” she said.

Chabad opens new center, synagogue in Antwerp

Chabad has opened a new synagogue and Jewish community center in Antwerp.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s new building in the center of the Flemish region capital cost about $3 million and was dedicated last week. It has 43,000 square feet of floor space, a library with multimedia room, and a synagogue that can accommodate 250 people, according to Rabbi Shabtai Slavaticki, head of the Chabad operations in Antwerp.

Slavaticki told JTA that the new building, which is adjacent to Chabad’s original headquarters in Antwerp — will in the near future feature a museum about Judaism and about the Holocaust.

Kris Peeters, prime minister of Belgium’s Flemish region, attended the dedication ceremony and told the hundreds of guests that his government was “determined to combat anti-Semitism, including through education.” The Flemish region is one of three autonomous regions that make up the federal Belgian state.

Separately, the Jewish community of Edegem, a southern suburb of Antwerp, on Sunday introduced a new Torah scroll to its main synagogue in a procession attended by several dozen people. The scroll was made in Israel and took about one year to complete, Tali Goldstoff, the chairwoman of the Edegem synagogue, told the Gazet van Antwerpen.

The synagogue was established in 2010 at the initiative of Menachem Hertz, another Chabad rabbi, for the 600 Jewish families living in the southern Antwerp suburbs of Edegem and Wilrijk.

In Antwerp, a Charedi pariah forces school to go coed

With a soft smile and two young boys in tow, a mild-mannered Moshe Aryeh Friedman appeared undeserving of his reputation as the scourge of the local Charedi Orthodox community as he walked his sons to school on Monday.

Until, that is, he led them straight into Benoth Jerusalem, a girls-only public school that was forced by a judge to admit Friedman's boys on the grounds that Belgian schools cannot discriminate on the basis of gender.

In the Charedi community, gender segregation is the norm, and Friedman's push for admission is considered so sensitive that Belgian police assigned an escort, lest the Friedman boys be attacked upon their arrival.

“This is a fascinating development in our society,” Friedman told the 15 or so Belgian journalists who had turned out to see his sons — Jacob, 11, and Josef, 7 — attend their new school. “Finally boys and girls can study together, ending centuries of discrimination.”

Friedman, a 40-year-old Brooklyn native, is an unlikely champion of gender equality in Jewish schools. The Charedi rabbi became a pariah after attending a 2006 conference in Iran questioning the Holocaust and for his friendship with the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A fierce anti-Zionist, Friedman has befriended the leaders of Hamas and has cast doubt on whether 6 million Jews actually died in the Holocaust.

As a result, Friedman was excommunicated by Jewish communities in Antwerp and Vienna, where he had lived for several years, and his children were denied entry to communal institutions. In 2007, Friedman sued the Viennese Jewish community after three of his daughters were expelled from Talmud Torah, a private school. Friedman said it was because of his trip to Tehran; the school cited unpaid fees.

In 2011, Friedman returned to Antwerp with his wife, Lea Rosenzweig, a Belgian national. When no Charedi schools would admit their sons, Friedman tried to enroll them in schools for girls. That failed, too, so he sued.

“We had very few public schools to choose from,” Friedman told JTA. “The element of collective punishment against my children is well known.”

Friedman says the Jewish community is taking “revenge” on him because of his opinions.

Aron Berger, the father of one of Benoth Jerusalem’s 200 female pupils, acknowledged that Friedman was left with little choice. But he added, “We need to ask why this community and the one in Vienna left him no choice. There’s trouble wherever Friedman goes.”

In a separate and pending case, Friedman has sued a Zionist all-boys yeshiva in Antwerp for denying admission to his daughters.

By involving the Belgian courts, Friedman has violated the Orthodox norm of resolving conflicts internally — a move that is unlikely to improve his standing in the community. Perhaps even more important, he has compromised the Charedi community’s pedagogical autonomy and separation of the sexes — two hyper-sensitive points for a devout group striving to insulate itself from Belgium’s secular and often unsympathetic society.

“It’s a sad day for the community, which has lost a battle which is important to it and its tradition,” said Michael Freilich, who as editor in chief of the Joods Actueel Jewish monthly has been writing about Friedman for years.

At an improvised news conference outside the school, Friedman declined to comment on the Holocaust, his private life, his past and the various accusations made about him. Instead, he confined his remarks to the legal issue at hand, which he presented as a matter of gender equality. Friedman did not respond to further questions by JTA by phone and email.

Friedman has been a thorn in the Jewish side for years. In 2006, The Associated Press reported that he had announced a new “coalition” between himself and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, after a meeting in Stockholm with Atef Adwan, a senior Hamas figure. Friedman also has been accused of having dealings with Austria's extreme right.

A Jewish umbrella group in Flanders filed a complaint against Friedman for Holocaust denial a few years ago. More recently, a lawyer from Antwerp accused him of not paying off debts in the United States and in Austria. In 2007, Friedman reportedly was attacked by Jewish pilgrims during a visit to Poland.

“Pretty much any Charedi community would shun Moshe Friedman,” said Freilich, who maintains that Friedman's problems are less about his politics than his tendency to “use the law as an instrument of terror, which makes the community afraid of him.”

For now, the Benoth Jerusalem school is struggling to adjust to its sudden fame. The leader of the Belz Chasidim community, to which the school is affiliated, asked community members to let things take their course regardless of their personal feelings. The school sent parents and staff a letter asking the same.

But the community is anything but resigned to the new status quo.

“For 30 years I have managed to do my work in silence and devotion but now, to our detriment, we have been made famous by Moshe Friedman,” said Leibl Mandel, the school's director. “It’s bad for education.”

It may also be bad for Friedman's children, as they may be sucked deeper into the escalating fight. Henri Rosenberg, a lawyer from Antwerp who has compiled a file on Friedman’s business transactions in Vienna and the U.S., last month called for a probe by child welfare services into their domestic circumstances.

“Enrolling them here is child abuse,” Berger said. “They can have no social interaction here, when the girls play among themselves.”

Protesters chant ‘Hamas, Jews to gas’ in Antwerp

Belgian extreme-right and extreme-left activists participated in a demonstration in Antwerp where some participants reportedly called for Jews to be gassed.

Approximately 150 demonstrators gathered Sunday afternoon outside the Provinciehuis, a concert hall in the Flemish capital, to protest the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra’s performance there, according to the online edition of the Flemish-Jewish magazine Joods Actueel.

Several demonstrators can be heard chanting “Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas” in recordings from the demonstration, which Joods Actueel posted on its news website. They will be filed to police along with an official complaint over hate speech, the paper reported.

One wing of the demonstration comprised members of center-left and extreme-left movements, including Fouad Ahidar, a Brussels alderman and member of the Socialist party SP-A. One of the protesters there carried a sign reading: “Tzahal, you are stinking murders (sic).”

Another wing of the demonstration comprised activists from the extreme right, including Eddy Hermy, an activist of the N-SA movement, Joods Actueel reported. He has been twice convicted of racist speech. His articles are regularly published on the neo-Nazi website

A commentary by Joods Actueel on the incident read: “We are not surprised by this. When it comes to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments, we find these groups together.” 

The IDF orchestra’s tour in the Netherlands and Belgium began two days before Israel launched operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas on Nov. 14.

Several European cities, including The Hague and Brussels, have seen protests against the IDF offensive against Hamas, which Israel launched in response to the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Antwerp mayor announces new monument naming city’s Shoah victims

The mayor of Antwerp announced plans to build a monument to commemorate every Antwerp Jew murdered in the Holocaust.

“It is unacceptable that unlike other European cities, the municipality of Antwerp has never erected a single monument in memory of the history” of the Holocaust, Mayor Patrick Janssens said on Wednseday.

The city’s only monument to the Holocaust was the initiative of the Forum of Jewish Organizations, which represents Flemish Jews, Janssens said.

Speaking at a commemoration ceremony at city hall, Janssens announced plans to erect a monument and engrave into it the name of every Antwerp Jew known to have been murdered in the Holocaust.

He was speaking to about 100 people at a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the first deportation of Antwerp’s Jews.

In addition, he said, the municipality will soon unveil a memorial plaque at city hall. The proposed text for the plaque acknowledges the complicity of Antwerp’s municipal authorities in the deportation of the city’s Jews.

The transports were “organized by the Nazis in close cooperation with the municipal authorities [which were] in charge of the police. Dozens of policemen were involved. Most cooperated obediently, some exercised violence. A few policemen resisted, and sabotaged the Aug. 27 transport. Others tried to save Jews,” the proposed text reads.

The text also says that more than 10,000 Jews from Antwerp were deported, and that the police was involved in the detention of more than 3,000. “Almost all of the deportees perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau,” it reads.

Eli Ringer, honorary chairman of the Forum of Jewish Organizations, called the ceremony “impressive”.She added: “Complicity of local authorities was a complex issue. On the one hand, there was wide-spread cooperation on the part of Leo Delwaide, who was mayor then. On the other, we have testimonies that he personally helped some Jews save themselves.”

Haredi Orthodox burn Israeli flag in Antwerp

Dozens of haredi Orthodox schoolchildren participated in a Lag b’Omer bonfire in Antwerp that featured the burning of an Israeli flag.

An eyewitness who photographed the event on May 10 said the boys attended a cheder of the Satmar community—an anti-Zionist Chasidic stream of approximately 150,000 adherents worldwide.

The picture, taken in an interior courtyard, shows a middle-aged man burning a handmade Israeli flag as some 30 boys watch.

“This is one of the first times we have seen this sort of thing in recent years,” Michael Freilich, editor in chief of Belgium’s leading Jewish publication, Joods Actueel, told JTA.

According to Freilich, the flag-burning ceremony provoked “a lot of anger” within Antwerp’s haredi Orthodox community. Followers of the Chasidic schools of Lubavitch and Belz spoke out against the burning, Freilich said, but the Satmar leadership in Antwerp remains unrepentant.

The last organized instance of flag burning by Belgian Jews was in the 1980s during a few demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy.

The Satmar movement opposes Zionism because it believes the establishment of a Jewish state should only come after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah.

“Regardless of the complexities of attitudes to Israel in the ultra-Orthodox world,” Freilich said, “many feel that the political act of burning a flag is wholly inappropriate during a Jewish holiday like Lag b’Omer, which is meant to unite, not divide.”

Antwerp’s Diamonds, Jews Are Forever

If you own a diamond, you can be 80 percent sure it’s been to Antwerp, Belgium, at some point in its life. Perhaps it was graded there in the heart of ancient Europe — or ground, polished, valued, bought or sold there.

Diamonds might be everlasting, but there is another fascinating continuum in Antwerp. This becomes obvious immediately upon arrival at the city’s Central Train Station. A unique feature of the city is the presence of a large Chasidic community, which is mainly located within the diamond district. There are between 15,000 and 20,000 Jewish citizens in Antwerp now, whereas before the Second World War, there were more than 55,000.

The Jewish presence in Antwerp is certainly not a new phenomenon. There have been three major immigration phases, beginning as early as the 13th century. At that time, Ashkenazi Jews moved from Central Europe to Antwerp and offered vital financial support in developing the Duchy of Brabant. The residents of the Duchy of Brabant, however, swiftly forgot their gratitude in the need for a scapegoat for the plague. Jews were blamed for the onset of the illness and, as a result, Brussels and Antwerp powers that be had them all killed or expelled.

At the end of the 15th century, the Catholic kings of Spain and Portugal saw fit to expel all Jews. This was the reason for the second wave of Jewish immigrants to Belgium. Many Marrono Jews from Portugal settled in Antwerp, but Emperor Charles V was not happy with this. He did his utmost to have them banned from the city, but the magistrate of Antwerp closed his eyes and let them continue to live and practice their trades secretly: this was not opportunistic, but a sign of respect for fellow human beings. Having said that, they had become essential to the financial development of Antwerp as the new world harbor … keeping a low profile was order of the day and surely not too pleasant.

During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, things became a little better, although extra taxes and the passing of a law stating that only the oldest son of a Jewish family could marry ensured that the Jewish community in Antwerp remained very small.

Emperor Joseph XI of Austria changed all this. Thanks to him and his Edict of Tolerance, Jews were again allowed to integrate completely in the social and economic life of all cities under Austrian rule — of which Antwerp was one.

This integration was authenticated by the French Republic in 1791 and continued under Napoleon. Surprisingly, the Jewish group in Antwerp remained very small, (numbering only about 38 families) under the Dutch regime and even later, after Belgian independence.

The Central Consistory of Israelites in Belgium was founded in 1832, and continues to remain the officially recognized superior institution of the Jewish community in Belgium.

Things started to change after 1880 when a third immigration wave bolstered the Jewish presence in Antwerp. Many Eastern European Jews immigrated to escape the pogroms and settled in Antwerp where they found work in the diamond industry. By 1901, there were 8,000 Jewish inhabitants. By 1933, this number had risen to 55,000. This group of 55,000 no longer represented one Jewish way of living or one Jewish way of thinking. All the different political and religious views were proudly represented within its numbers.

The Nazis invaded the Benelux countries on May 10, 1940. As in other Nazi-occupied countries, many Jews "left in the night" and were transported to concentration camps. The Nazis, however, were often irritated to the extreme by the "soft" attitude of the Belgians toward the "Jewish Problem." Indeed, many Belgians saved Jewish children by hiding them wherever possible, sometimes even adopting them into their own families.

In 1993, the Jewish population of Antwerp relished the solidarity of the Antwerp people as documented by Flemish author Jan Walgrave in his article to commemorate the 26th World Diamond Congress. "The diamond world is a business for insiders and its basis, therefore, is in trust and tolerance and in moments of danger, in the solidarity of the whole world of the diamond."

Today, the Jewish world in Antwerp is, in a certain way, a closed world. The community is very visible but it is difficult for an outsider to gain access into the fascinating heirloom of this antique world. Ancient traditions are faithfully perpetuated. "The Scribe" works in a small office above a shop. This is an ancient and revered form of employment. He writes out religious texts by hand using a quill pen and special ink. Couples getting married, for example, often request handwritten passages from the Torah appropriate for weddings. The past is omnipresent and skills are handed down from parents to children: a hatter, a baker and a cobbler to name but a few. Every day in the synagogue, men and boys study and debate religious texts. Aged diamond merchants speak with passion about diamonds; each diamond is unique and they can decide on the qualities of each one with just a look.

Jewish and kosher shopping abounds. Anything from butchers to books, furs to falafel, watches to wigs. There are top-quality kosher restaurants.

The diamond business in Belgium is No. 1 in the worldwide rating and is Belgium’s sixth largest export industry, so in recognition of this, Antwerp now proudly boasts a shiny new Diamond Museum. It is housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building and cost the provincial government $5.12 million to develop. Buzzwords like "high tech" and "interactive" fly off the promotional flier like sparks from a diamond-cutter’s drill.

After visiting Antwerp and returning to Brussels, or journeying on to London or Paris, one is left with the feeling that some things change too fast these days. But it is perhaps interesting to note that a cut diamond not only refracts, diffuses and reflects light, but also slows down its speed.

However, diamonds haven’t slowed things down too much in Antwerp. A Web site, owned by Jewish Antwerp, aims at becoming the meeting place for all of the city’s Jews, and for all those inside wishing to interact with them. A Web site is fine, but if you want to discuss something important, even confidential, it’s just as easy to cross the street. This is the way things have always been in Antwerp’s Jewish Quarter.