Security outside Jewish school in Antwerp (file)
Security outside Jewish school in Antwerp (file)Reuters

Jews from Brussels demonstrated in Antwerp against the city and its Jewish community for refusing to use memorial cobblestones to commemorate Holocaust victims.

In a move that highlighted the spreading of Belgium’s binational divide to its Jewish communities, a dozen protesters from the Brussels-based Association for the Memory of the Shoah, or AMS, picketed on Monday outside Antwerp City Hall while the leaders of Antwerp’s Jewish community were attending a commemoration service with Mayor Bart de Wever at a monument elsewhere in the city.

The city, with backing from the local Jewish community, has refused to allow the placing of Stolpersteine - the German name for the small brass stones set into the sidewalks in front of buildings from which Jews were deported. More than 50,000 of them have been laid in 18 countries in Europe.

Brussels received its first Stolpersteine last year following lobbying by AMS. But Antwerp Jews, who increasingly have been seeking independent representation from Brussels, in resisting the Stolpersteine cite concerns that they could lead to vandalism in heavily Muslim areas or the indignity of animals relieving themselves on the cobblestones.

The Antwerp-based Forum of Jewish Organizations also is resisting the initiative because the group says it would be unfair to Holocaust victims who have no relatives to arrange a stone. Instead, it favors erecting a monument with the names of all of Belgium’s Holocaust victims.

Belgium, which is home to  40,000 Jews, is a binational federal entity made up of the Flemish Region, where a dialect of Dutch is spoken, and the French-speaking Walloon Region, as well as the federal entity of Brussels, where both languages are spoken. In recent years, Flemish secessionism has become a mainstream policy in the Flemish Region, a development that split Belgium’s political establishment along national divisions.

This development triggered a split within the Jewish community of Brussels and that of Antwerp, which are of equal size but are further separated by the fact that Antwerp is a predominantly haredi Orthodox community while Brussels Jews are mostly secular.

In the 1990s, Antwerp Jews pulled out of the Brussels-based CCOJB umbrella group of Jewish communities and set up their own group, the Forum. In recent years, the two groups have sparred over issues connected to Israel, but have since restored understandings put in place to prevent clashes.

The binational aspect is present also in the debate about memorial stones, according to Michael Freilich, editor-in-chief of Antwerp’s Joods Actueel monthly. He told JTA Wednesday that while the Forum has put forth valid arguments for not placing cobblestones, its resistance “may in part also be a knee-jerk reaction to an idea coming from Brussels.”

Freilich also noted that AMS was playing up ethnic divisions by suggesting that the Flemish population was more complicit in the Holocaust than the Walloon one.

In a statement published Tuesday on its website, AMS wrote that Jews who moved from Antwerp to Brussels before the war “doubled their chance of surviving,” adding that the death rate of Jews in Antwerp “is almost as the one achieved by the Dutch government, with broad support by the Dutch population.”

About 75 percent of Dutch Jews were killed in the Holocaust, compared to 60 percent in Belgium.