Between fire and sword: Antwerp’s choice

Nick Ryan
19 May 2004

As dusk begins to fall, Belgium’s second city is coming to life. Around Antwerp’s cavernous central station the streets swarm with commuters. To the left of the rail tracks, jewellery stores hug the entire length of the station building. Behind them lie the gem traders and diamond houses that are the centre of the city’s historic diamond business, still crucial to the local economy.

This is also the Jewish quarter, home to approximately half of Belgium’s 40,000 Jews and a community that can trace its roots in Antwerp to the 13th century. Ultra-Orthodox Hasidim cycle by or stop to chat in Yiddish. Women in headscarves push their babies. The Hasidim live a closed lifestyle: no TVs, no radios. “Politically less aware,” as a “modern” Orthodox Jew described them.

To the right of the tracks, barely a few hundred metres away, a wide highway carves into an area marked as “Borgerhout” – an area of giant tower blocks that is home to 30,000 immigrants, most from North Africa. Here, Moroccans mix with Turks, Africans with Chinese.

It is a short walk between two different worlds: a difference that has led some Jews in this liberal, European democracy to call on the protection of the extreme right.

Belgium’s history has helped shape Antwerp’s distinctive modern politics. In reality the country is two nations squeezed into one since 1830 – Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. For years the poorer Flemish were dominated by the Walloons’ industrial economy; now subsidies from a resentful Flanders support the south. Home to the European Union and Nato headquarters, immigration (legal and illegal) has increased steadily over the years, particularly from North Africa and Belgium’s former Central African colonies.

Another great faultline in Flemish and Belgian politics was apparent in Antwerp even before 9/11, when young Muslims here complained of discrimination and police brutality, while themselves being associated in the public mind with rising crime and drugs – unfairly, but in the bars of Flemish towns and villages, surly places of brown faded wallpaper and suspicious glances, you find resonance with this belief.

10/11/02 demonstration - (c) Indymedia

The Arab European League’s controversial leader, Dyab Abou Jahjah, is profiled and interviewed in openDemocracy

Many of these young Muslims are trapped between two worlds, frustrated, unable to relate to an older generation still fixated on another life “back home”, amidst a hostile society riddled with what they see as institutional racism. For them, so-called militant Islam is seen not as extreme but as offering a meaningful path for the forgotten rights of a lost, but growing, minority.

One man who seeks to channel and focus their disaffection is the charismatic, Lebanon-born ex-Hizbollah member, Dyab Abou Jahjah, leader of the Arab European League (AEL). Arab disaffection has coalesced around Jahjah and his campaigning group, founded in 2000, which calls for Arabic to be recognised as one of Belgium’s official languages; for Arab unity over Palestine; and for Muslims to resist attempts at integration or assimilation.

10/11/02: Dyab Abou jahjah addressing the crowd, next to him Han Soete from Indymedia - (c) Indymedi

The multilingual former doctoral student has become a polarising figure in Belgium – for the actions of his followers as much as for the AEL’s programme.

Jahjah himself was briefly detained in November 2002 during riots following the murder of a Moroccan teacher by a mentally-ill Flemish man. AEL supporters attempting to introduce street patrols to monitor police “brutality” engaged in violent protests around Antwerp’s Jewish quarter in spring 2003. Jahjah’s declaration is emblematic of their militant impulse: “You do not receive equal rights, you take them”.

The rise of the AEL has both challenged and reinforced another significant actor in Antwerp’s political scene – the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Blok.

A third of Antwerp’s voters have supported the Blok’s brand of nationalism, which advocates an independent Flanders, the repatriation of foreigners, and authoritarian domestic security policies. The Blok’s slogan Eigen Volk Eerst (“Our People First”) conjures a unified, monocultural nation cohering around the image of a traditional family, one hostile to perceived threats: homosexuality, abortion, and of course immigration.

Vlaams Blok marching in Mechelen, May 2001 - (c) Nick Ryan

Filip Dewinter, the Vlaams Blok’s Antwerp leader and its most prominent public figure – as well as Dyab Abou Jahjah’s political adversary and target of his jibes – claims that people vote for the Blok in support of its pro-independence policy. But Cas Mudde, an expert on the extreme right in Europe, believes that immigration is the main stimulant for two-thirds of its supporters: “With Muslims, people feel threatened. There’s fear always of more coming in. People have the idea it’s the first part of a horde, an invasion.”

Also on Belgium’s Vlaams Blok and Dyab Abou Jahjah on openDemocracy:

An agreement by rival parties to keep the Vlaams Blok from power has not stopped it from winning almost 20% of the Flemish vote, and seats at local, regional, national and European levels.

The impact on Antwerp’s Jewish community of the political contest between these polar opposites, the Arab European League and the Vlaams Blok, is at first sight surprising. The far-right Blok openly declares its support for the Jews – and some of them are listening.

After an AEL “peace march” turned violent in April 2002, Filip Dewinter denounced the city council’s lax security and promised Jews: “You can count on us”. His message was simple: we will protect you against Moroccan youth and anti-Semitism. Since then, the Blok’s MPs have spoken out in parliament about issues affecting Jews – from physical assaults and attacks on synagogues to the attempted prosecution (under Belgium’s “universal jurisdiction law”) of Ariel Sharon for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon.


Hilde de Lobel, leader of the Blok’s twenty-two councillors in Antwerp (40% of the total) writes in a party publication: “The situation is explosive. Children of Orthodox Jews are stalked on their way to school. We are witnessing the first outbursts of anti-Semitic violence since the second world war. This is intolerable.” She demands Abou Jahjah’s expulsion from Belgium – although it is the Vlaams Blok itself which, in April 2004, an appeal court in Gent ruled was in violation of Belgium’s anti-racism laws.

“Lately, because of the rise of the Vlaams Blok and because of the Muslim problem – which is not a Jewish problem but a Belgian and European problem – Jews started to get involved in politics,” says Henri Rosenberg, Europe’s only rabbinical lawyer. “They started listening to what the parties are saying, and you have the Vlaams Blok making propaganda towards the Jews, trying to convince them that they would solve the problem.”

Its ready-made solution, he says, was to expel Moroccans. “In the same way they seduced some Jewish votes. And that’s what happened, some Jews said yes!” he exclaims. “Simultaneously, we had the problem of Israel, where the government or the traditional parties were taking a stance against Israel with the Sharon problem.” As Jewish relationships with the ruling parties became strained, “the Vlaams Blok were constantly asking Israel- and Jewish-friendly questions in parliament and this was of course published in Jewish newspapers.” Even some opinion-makers in the Orthodox community urged people to vote for the Vlaams Blok, though more liberal, secular Jews opposed this.

Nick Ryan is the author of Homeland: Into a World of Hate” (Mainstream Publishing, UK) and “Into a World of Hate: A Journey Among the Extreme Right” (Routledge, North America), and creative producer of the recent BBC TV drama “England Expects”.

But the connection is not necessarily dangerous, argues Rosenberg. “The Hasidim are less concerned with the symbols of Holocaust remembrance, they have a more historically-grown pragmatic and subservient attitude to the surrounding culture and politics. They will do what is good for the Jews (even if) that is to be submissive and to show gratitude and respect to the rulers.”

Not everyone in the community agrees. “I find it understandable, if not acceptable, why some Jews vote for (the Blok),” says Vivian Liska, director of Antwerp University’s Institute of Jewish Studies. The Vienna-born academic adds: “It is very dangerous and unethical. There might be pragmatic reasons, but this disregards what the Blok would do if Jews were the only foreigners. For Jews to vote for the Vlaams Blok means they have to make themselves blind to the principles behind the party.”

A longer version of this article appears in The Walrus magazine, and on Nick Ryan’s own website

The fissures in Antwerp politics are within as well as between its communities. The next battleground is the European and regional elections in June 2004. For now, the tension simmers – and all sides wait.

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