In Antwerp, fear setting the tone of daily life

antwerp, belgium | Angry, frustrated and fearing for his children’s safety, Jumi Hoffman, an Orthodox Jew, no longer lets them play in the park.

This port city has been rife with racial tensions for several years between Arabs and Jews and white extremists. But Orthodox Jews living in the heart of Antwerp’s famed old Jewish quarter of late feel increasingly targeted.

Last month, a 16-year-old Jewish student nearly died after being stabbed outside his school. Days later, a 43-year-old Jewish man was beaten unconscious. In a drive-by prank, a toy gun was pointed at three Jewish teenagers.

“It’s really incomprehensible. Why do our kids have to be attacked?” said Hoffman. “My children should be able to go freely to the park to play.”

Police and Jewish leaders believe some of the attacks were by Arab youths with anti-Semitic motives. None of the assailants has been caught. Some Muslim leaders say, though, their community is being wrongly accused.

Antwerp boasts a large immigrant community, with some 10 percent of its 500,000 inhabitants of North African descent. The city is also home to a 17,000-strong Jewish community, many of whom are Orthodox and wear their distinctive black garb.

Some community leaders say blame is being cast unfairly.

“For every anti-Semitic attack, which we condemn, they blame us for it,” said Mohammed Chakkar of the Federation of Moroccan Associations. “The culprits haven’t even been picked up yet by the police, so we don’t even know for sure if they are Arab. Other nationalities are also involved here.”

The city has seen a surge in support for extremists, who have been loosely linked to the far-right Flemish Bloc party. Two years ago, an extremist was blamed for the shooting death of a teacher of Moroccan descent.

Eli Ringer, head of the Forum of Jewish Organizations in Dutch-speaking Flanders, said a root cause has been a lack of integration of immigrant communities. Many arrived after World War II to fill a need for cheap labor.

Ringer, a diamond trader who has lived in Antwerp all his life, said Arabs in Antwerp are using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to lash out at Jews.

“This has been seen across Europe, and there is a rise in it,” he said.

Antwerp’s Provincie Street has become a fissure line between the two communities.

Henri Maneles runs one of the last Jewish businesses there, the Kleinblatt bakery, and fears the conflict half a world away has made its way to his street, which was mostly Jewish before immigrant communities — including Moroccans, Poles and Africans — moved in a few decades ago.

Some observers fear further racial turmoil and polarization due to the rise in popularity of the far-right Flemish Bloc, which won a third of the vote in Antwerp in recent elections.

The party was recently convicted of violating Belgium’s anti-racist laws. It rose fast in popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s, advocating an anti-immigrant line and seeking the expulsion of those who fail to assimilate.

It is now campaigning for a tougher response to crime — a proposal welcomed by some members of the Jewish community, despite the party’s reputation for also being anti-Semitic.

“The unthinkable is happening, when you get Jewish people voting for the Flemish Bloc. I know people who have,” said Maneles, the bakery owner.

“It’s a perception of security they are offering … It’s insane.”