Can Belgium protect its Jews Antwerp community has its doubts

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.

Children in Antwerp on March 24, dressed as soldiers for Purim photos/jta-cnaan liphshiz

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 during periods of elevated risk — including after the March 22 terrorist attacks that left at least 35 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.

On March 24, Rabbi Menachem Hadad of Brussels 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.

A Belgian Defense Ministry spokesperson responded in an email 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. In one of a handful of European cities where the Jewish holiday is celebrated on the street, the 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.

Following the terrorist 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 the Brussels airport on March 22.

Turkey said it had 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.

Many Belgian Jews feel their government is leaving them vulnerable.

The attackers also struck at obvious targets when officials should have been on high alert, say 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 of 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.” 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.”

Guigui’s hedged response differs markedly from that of French Jewish leaders. The heads of CRIF, France’s Jewish umbrella group, have often proclaimed their “utter confidence” in authorities’ ability to combat terrorism and protect the community against jihadism.

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.

France, too, has a jihadist problem that is driving record numbers of Jewish immigrants to Israel, but “It is also a superpower with a strong army and a determined leadership, which Belgium seems not to have,” said Alexander Zanzer, an Antwerp Jew who runs Belgium’s Royal Society of Jewish Welfare. “I don’t have the same confidence that many French Jews have in their authorities following the attacks in their country.”

Like Michaeli, Zanzer said that what most gives him a sense of security are Antwerp Jewry’s own volunteer neighborhood patrols, a service that is far more robust in Antwerp than in Brussels.

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent