2016-03-30 / Home

Can Belgium protect its Jews? A community has its doubts

By CNAAN LIPHSHIZ JTA


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. 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.

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’ counter-terrorist 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. .

Return to top