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Extreme Right Woos Jews in Belgium

DW staff (mry)April 24, 2005

Belgian extreme-right party Vlaams Belang has a long history of racial incitement and intolerance. But now the Flemish nationalist group is gaining support from an unlikely source: Antwerp's large Jewish community.

Many Antwerp Jews work in the city's diamond tradeImage: AP

Last year, Belgium's supreme court upheld a verdict that found the far-right Vlaams Blok guilty of "permanent incitement to segregation and racism." The ruling shut down the anti-immigration party, but it was quickly reformed under the new moniker Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest).

The previous incarnation of the party was long one of the most popular political groupings in Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flanders region. But Vlaams Belang is even garnering support in the most unexpected places. Apparently fear of Arab immigrants is driving members of Antwerp's Jewish community to support the right-wing extremists.

An estimated 20,000 Jews live in Flanders' largest city, of which many are active in the city's famous diamond trade. Antwerp also has a growing number of Arab immigrants, mostly from North Africa. Friction between the two groups has surged in recent years, culminating in the death of a Jewish boy who was killed by a group of Arab youths.

As anger over the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has spilled onto Belgium's streets, some Jews have found themselves feeling more and more threatened. That has led them to support some of the polices of Vlaams Belang, which supports ending immigration from Islamic countries.

"Just because the Jews experienced the Holocaust doesn't mean that they're all democrats and have stopped being racist. And if you say the problem will be solved if you send all Arabs back home, many don't even consider that racist," Henri Rosenberg, a Jewish lawyer in Antwerp, said.

Some from the city's Jewish community say the inherent Jewish-Arab conflict is aggravated by the social standing of the two groups in Antwerp. Whereas many Jews work in the diamond trade, many new Arab immigrants are poor.

"One reason for the current anti-Semitism is that many youths from North Africa haven't found their place yet. They are often unemployed and are upset about the news from the Middle East. They want to move this conflict over here, which naturally worries us," said Eli Ringer, head of a non-religious Jewish forum in Antwerp.

Jewish support

Gericht bestätigt Vlaams Blok ist rassistisch
Vlaams Blok leaders were forced to disband the party for inciting racism.Image: AP

It's an open secret that many Jews voted for the Flemish nationalist in the last election and with their support Vlaams Belang hopes to take control of Antwerp in a municipal vote in the next couple of years.

"It's clear that a minority of the Jewish community, as a sign of their desperation or dissatisfaction, could vote for a extreme-right party. Some people live constantly with anti-Semitic aggression and they feel the authorities aren't doing anything about it," said Ringer.

Some observers believe Vlaams Belang is actively courting Jews to reform the party's image of being anti-Semitic. Following the death of the Jewish boy at the hands of Arabs, there were political flyers distributed touting the nationalists as the solution to the Jews' problems. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" read the message.

"I think Vlaams Belang is right in thinking that Jews could be their tactical allies when it's about getting rid of the Arabs or at least those Arabs that commit crimes," said Rosenberg. "It's very symbolic for Vlaams Belang. It's the chance to show they aren't anti-Semitic."

However, while anti-Semitism is often only attributed to prejudice against Jews, Arabs, too, are a Semitic people and many would consider Vlaams Belang as being virulently anti-Arab.

"No one has sympathy for us. We're always the bad ones," said Abdel, an Arab baker whose shop shares a street with a Jewish bakery. "But the police will ensure the Jews' safety."