Brussels Shooting
European Gov'ts 'Not Protecting Jewish Citizens'

European Jews being left to fend for themselves against 'pervasive' anti-Semitism, says Belgian Jewish leader.

Ari Soffer ,

Protest against anti-Semitism, Hungary (file)
Protest against anti-Semitism, Hungary (file)

The police investigation is underway into yesterday's deadly attack on Brussel's Jewish Museum, but the Jewish community is still very much on edge.

Precious little information is available yet as to who precisely was responsible for the shooting which left three people - an Israeli couple from Tel Aviv and a French woman - dead, and another person seriously wounded.

Witnesses reported seeing a van drive up to the scene and at least one man get out, walk cooly to the museum's entrance and open fire indiscriminately, before making a speedy getaway.

Those images bear a chilling similarity to the 2012 Toulouse massacre, in which an anti-Semitic gunman murdered three children and a rabbi at a Jewish elementary school in France in a similarly cold-blooded fashion.

However, unlike in Toulouse - where the initial shock quickly gave way to confusion and panic - this time community leaders were able to cope as well as could be expected with the ensuing chaos and fear, thanks to a unique international effort to support Jewish communities coping with disaster.

The European Jewish Congress's Security and Crisis Centre, set up as a direct response to the lessons learned in Toulouse, sprang into action immediately, setting up a local crisis center in Brussels, where the EJC itself is based.

EJC activists and advisers worked hand-in-hand with Jewish communal leaders, police, medical officials, media and government agencies to help Brussels' 20,000-strong Jewish community deal with the tragedy as best it could.

It was no simple task.

"This happened at 3:15 on a Shabbat afternoon, so you have a lot of Zionist youth groups active at that time - there were a lot of kids around... and there were obviously certain problems with communication because of Shabbat," said Philip Carmel, who, as the Special Adviser on European Policy to the EJC, was at the front lines of the crisis center.

'Climate of hate'

Despite the hesitancy to say so out loud "authorities are saying they assume it's an anti-Semitic attack" - and given the target and singularly deadly intent, the Jewish community is itself in no doubt that it was a hate crime.

Carmel didn't want to speculate who could be behind the attack - be it the far-right, Muslim extremists or someone else - saying he didn't want to "prejudice the investigation by making wild guesses". But he was less hesitant about condemning the background of "pervasive" anti-Semitism which he said made such an attack all but inevitable, and meant that Jewish communities were having to come up with their own solutions, such as the Security and Crisis Centre.

"I think we need to adopt a position of caution at the moment in terms of pointing figures over who is to blame," he maintained. "But clearly there is an issue of a climate of incitement which enables the Jewish community to come under physical attack - that I will certainly say."

More specifically, he told of "a general climate of extreme anti-Israel incitement, which regularly targets the Jewish community."

"Whether that's in terms of verbal or physical abuse; whether that's in terms of graffiti or attacks in the press... That's a pervasive climate which exists in Belgium."

The shadow of anti-Semitism has become a part of daily life for Belgian Jews, with strict security arrangements in place at synagogues, schools and other gatherings.

"That's how Jews here live their lives," he remarked grimly.

Nevertheless, physical assaults against Jews in Brussels - which, unlike Belgium's predominantly-religious Antwerpian community, "is largely secular" - are rare, as Jews there "are not necessarily as 'visible'."

Either way, the scale of the attack is shocking, and points to serious failings in Europe's handling of its growing anti-Semitism problem.

Carmel identified what he termed as the three main sources of anti-Semitism in Belgium, adding that they could be applied to much of the rest of the continent as well. 

Apart from the far-right, which is "obviously a problem", he said the other main source of anti-Semitism came from "the relatively-new immigrant communities from north Africa and their children - who are mostly born in Belgium - who basically import the Middle Eastern conflict onto the streets of our cities."

He added that that was why anti-Israel incitement spilled out into overt anti-Semitism more often than in countries such as the UK, which also has a large Muslim community but experiences nothing like the levels of hate as countries such as Belgium, or indeed France - where two Jewish men were stabbed in an anti-Semitic attack just hours after the Brussels shooting.

"Countries like the UK simply don't have the kind of large immigrant community from Arab countries... the direct identity connection with the Middle Eastern conflict is not present in Britain as it is here or in France," he noted.

Compounding the problem was a more "general pervasive attitude across the political spectrum in Belgium of anti-Israel incitement, which quite regularly peels off into pure and simple antisemitism."

That hate has festered unchallenged for so long - in the media, academia and even popular culture - that Jew-hatred has become sanitized in many people's eyes.

European governments 'failing to protect us'

The response by Belgian officials to the attack itself was robust, with "continual contact between the Jewish community and the government," he said.

"We have had constant meetings since the attack with the Prime Minister, Interior Minister, Justice Minister and security services... There is ongoing and total coordination."

Yet Carmel accused European governments - including Brussels - of not doing enough to stamp out anti-Semitism in general and prevent such attacks from occurring in the first place.

More could be done in terms of "intelligence gathering" on hate-groups and incitement, for example, as well as "coordination between the security agencies in Europe."

"Far greater resources should be devoted to community security by governments" than currently is, he insisted. "This is their responsibility because we are citizens of these countries."

"The primary role of a government is to protect its citizens - and clearly Jews today are not being protected in Europe."

That position was echoed by EJC President Moshe Kantor, who in a statement issued earlier today decried the "laissez-faire attitudes" of European governments towards anti-Semitism.

"Attacks on Jewish targets in Europe do not exist in a vacuum, but are part and parcel of an overall climate of hate and incitement against Jewish communities," Kantor said. "Anti-Semitism begins in the public domain, it gains international legitimacy and becomes normative even in our national parliaments but it always ends in killing Jews."

"The time for laissez-faire attitudes by European governments to the scourge of extremism and hate is over," he demanded.

“After the horrific attack in Toulouse in 2012 at the Jewish school, we demanded and expected legislation to be implemented against the inciters of hate, proper prioritization of resources into intelligence and security coordination and a massive increase in security at Jewish community installations,

"The time has come for all European governments to implement not talk, legislate not prevaricate and protect their citizens."

Following the attack, security had been ramped-up significantly at schools, and several communal events scheduled for Sunday had been cancelled at the request of police. 

Nonetheless, Carmel vowed that life would go on for Belgium's Jews. 

"Jewish life needs to continue. We can't be held hostage by terrorists, and the best affirmation of tackling terrorism is for Jewish life to continue.

"That is the best way to counter this attack."