Can Belgium protect its Jews? A community has its doubts

By CNAAN LIPHSHIZ  JTA

ANTWERP–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.

Hasidic Jews dressed in costumes for Purim in Antwerp, Belgium, March 24. JTA photo by Cnaan Liphshiz.
Hasidic Jews dressed in costumes for Purim in Antwerp, Belgium, March 24. JTA photo by Cnaan Liphshiz.

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 the 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.

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 last 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.

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. An accomplice suicide bomber struck a metro station less than an hour later.

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.”

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.

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.

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