Hunched over a small island of memorial candles for the victims of the attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium, Paul Ambach is lost in thought.
“Once again, Jewish blood in Belgium, which is no longer Belgium,” said Ambach, a well-known Jewish musician from Antwerp, as he stared at the candles lit at a vigil May 25 for four people killed by an unidentified gunman at the museum the previous day.
The cold determination with which the shooter opened fire shocked many Belgians, but local Jewish leaders have long anticipated the possibility of such an attack.
The shooter who entered the museum in central Brussels on May 24 “approached each victim with calm, aiming only for the head without uttering a word in a manner that is shocking because of the level of training it suggests,” said Mischael Modrikamen, the Jewish leader of Belgium’s small, centrist Parti Populaire.
“Sadly, however, the actual attack comes as no surprise to us after years of living in an atmosphere of rampant anti-Semitism that often leads to violence,” he added.
Within hours of the attack, the local Jewish community and the European Jewish Congress’ Brussels-based Security and Crisis Center were operating a crisis management room complete with a telephone hotline and website — testament to years of preparation for a terrorist attack on one of Europe’s most at-risk communities.
The shooter, who fled the scene along with a driver, used an assault rifle to kill Israeli tourists Mira and Emanuel Riva, a married couple in their 50s; Alexandre Strens, 25, a Belgian man employed by the museum; and Dominique Sabrier, 66, a French woman who volunteered at the museum.
A manhunt is underway to capture the perpetrators of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in Western Europe since the French Islamist Mohammed Merah killed four people, including three children, at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.
Indeed, the characteristics of the museum attack follow the pattern observed at Toulouse, according to Claude Moniquet, a Brussels-based counterterrorism expert.
“It seems we are dealing with a small cell of operatives — Islamists or otherwise — with a low signature that minimizes their risk of being caught,” he said.
Yet Belgium’s Jews have experience with such violence that predates the Toulouse attack by more than 20 years.
In 1989, a Moroccan terrorist assassinated the community’s president, Joseph Wybran. A 1982 armed attack on Brussels’ largest synagogue, which is located 400 yards from the museum, wounded four. In 1979, 13 people were wounded in an attack on an El Al plane at the Brussels airport.
Some of the worst attacks on Belgian Jewry happened between the years 1979 and 1981, when Arab terrorists killed four people in a series of explosions, including a car bomb, and shootings directed at Jewish targets in Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter.
In more recent years, Belgium’s Jewish community of about 40,000 — divided more or less equally between Brussels and Antwerp — has suffered from rising anti-Semitism. The level of threat increased after the second Palestinian intifada in the early to mid-2000s, when Belgium began seeing dozens of anti-Semitic attacks each year for the first time since World War II.
“There is a silent exodus from Belgium, which is largely attributable to the country’s anti-Semitism problem,” said Joel Rubinfeld, president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and the former leader of French-speaking Belgian Jews. “We are facing an uncertain future and I am concerned.”
At the entrance to the museum, some 2,000 people, many with their small children, showed up for the May 25 vigil, held a mere 27 hours after the attack. Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and other ministers, who took time off from Belgium’s federal elections that same day to show solidarity with Belgian Jewry, also attended the gathering.
Also present was a group of young Muslim women.
“We don’t know who is behind this, and it doesn’t matter. We came because we are hurting and crying inside,” said one of the women, Yfia Souad.
Arie Zuckerman, a European Jewish Congress executive who has spearheaded Jewish communities’ preparations for crises after Toulouse, says the problem is not local.
“When governments perceive a threat, they know how to cooperate tightly and devote enormous resources, and we see this in the war on drugs, for example,” he said. “Sadly, no such pan-European recognition has emerged on the need to protect Jewish institutions, which often have to carry the burden of security costs.
“We saw it in Brussels, where the terrorists probably collected intelligence without being detected, but it could happen in many other places. The tragedy is in Belgium, but the problem is in Europe.”