For the Jewish community of Belgium the past year was one of trial and difficulty.
Because of the intensification of the economic crisis and under the influence of the extremely nationalistic tendencies in various countries, especially Hitlerite Germany, the foreign question in Belgium has been thrust into the limelight.
It is no secret to anyone in Belgium that when foreigners are spoken of as “superfluous” it is primarily the Jews who are meant. The past year began with a number of ruling aimed against foreigners, and to all appearances the situation now, at the end of the year, is even worse in this respect.
The first decree was one ordering “yellow cards” of identification for foreigners who have the right to reside in Belgium. These cards must be renewed every two years. The government, in issuing this ruling, naturally had in mind not ### high tax upon foreigners but also its right to withdraw identification cards at the end of the two year period. In the course of the year the Belgian government has issued a whole series of decrees covering even the slightest transgressions, those for which native Belgians cannot be punished. For example, for the non-payment of debts or taxes, or for polishing diamonds in Germany.
This anti-foreign tendency does not cease even when the foreigner assumes the status of a citizen of Belgium.
The government has not only manifoldly increased the difficulty of becoming naturalized, but is even taking steps to limit the rights of foreigners after they have become naturalized. Despite the fact that the Belgian “League for Human Rights” has protested against such proposals, they will probably be passed.
All these laws and the foreign tendency now reigning in practically all strata of Belgian society have made the Jews of Belgium “re-evaluate values.” The tendency to become rooted in the land which they had begun to regard as their new fatherland, has, despite the fact that during the past few years it had been rapidly strengthening, greatly declined.
This breach, which certainly is the result of the events in Germany, has to a considerable extent placed its stamp on practically everything which the Jews of Belgium accomplished in the social field during the past year.
MARKED EFFECT IN YOUTH
The new tendency had a tremendous effect upon Jewish youth, which had been preparing for intellectual pursuits, and upon the “Yahudim,” especially in Brussels who had heretofore only remembered on Yom-Kippur that they were Jews. The effect upon the so-called nationalist progressive Jews was also considerable. These Jews had begun to feel that the time had come for the Belgian Jews to take part in the politics of the country, demanding cultural autonomy and similar considerations due national minorities.
The offensive against the Jews, both under the guise of fear of the stranger and in the form of openly anti-Semitic agitation on the part of the Fascist groups of various leanings, has thrown Belgian Jewry back into a state of constantly having to apologize â€” of having to point out to the Belgians that Jewish numbers in the land are small, considerably smaller than the Belgians imagine, considerably smaller than the anti-Semites assume; that the Jews, too, are suffering from the crisis no less than are the Belgians; and that not only did the Jews not ruin the diamond industry in Antwerp, and the leather pocketbook industry in Brussels, but that the opposite is true. The Jews created these two branches of industry; they created the markets for these products. Thanks to the Jews, a great part of the population of Belgium became wealthy. And so on and on.
All these various explanations were uttered by representatives of Belgian Jewry in the course of several evenings devoted to a discussion of the Jewish question. Such evenings were arranged in various cities last winter, and special brochures were issued by the committees for the defense of Jewish rights.
ALIENS USED AS LIGHTNING ROD
The government, on its part, attempting to win the favor of the populace, of the impoverished middle class and the thousands of unemployed, used the foreigner as a lightning rod, thus stealing the thunder of the Fascists and the anti-Semitic groups.
The matter of the German refugees also served as material for anti-Semitic incitement. Outlandishly exaggerated reports of their numbers were circulated. In this case, too, the government catered to the extremists, adopting drastic measures against the refugees, to whom, originally, it had granted asylum. Suddenly hundreds of refugees were ordered out of the country. And those who did not leave at the specified time were arrested. Distressing scenes occurred until the Jewish representatives on the government’s refugee committee succeeded in the eliminating of the original harshness and inconsiderateness of the decrees. At present there are left only those refugees who expect a chance to cross the sea. Several hundred refugees have already migrated from Belgium to Brazil, Palestine and other lands.
Because of the constant state of uncertainty, the Jews of Belgium did not, during the past year, pay as much attention to the development of their local institutions as they have in the past. The Jewish hospital of Antwerp, almost an actuality a short time ago, now seems to have become a thing of the very distant future. The central Jewish social service organization, famous for its exemplary activity, is now waging a bitter struggle for existence. This despite the fact that among the Jewish population the economic need daily is becoming worse.
CULTURAL UNITS HARD HIT
A few years ago the cultural organizations of artisans, market-dealers and workers occupied a prominent place. Today their situation is critical. On the other hand, however, the number of Zionist leagues, chalutz youth organizations, training farms and the like, all institutions tending to prepare immigrants for life in Palestine, are on the increase. And that not only among the youth, but also among Jewish merchants in Antwerp and in Brussels, who have begun to think it really necessary to settle in Palestine. Many diamond merchants have bought land in Palestine and have started plantations in various parts of the country, particularly in the neighborhood of Kfar Jonah, a colony named after the late Belgian Zionist leader, Jean Fisher.
Campaigns for Zionist funds last year were successful, despite the fact that a great many of the old supporters of the Keren Hayesod and the Keren Kayemeth have become impoverished. During the Zionist drives this year the rise of the Brussels community was quite noticeable. Brussels aims now to equal Antwerp as a nationally potent force.
The prospects for the coming year, to all appearances, do not include significant changes unless the number of German refugees increases. That is, if the status of the German Jews does not grow worse, there is some hope that a certain degree of calm will be arrived at in Belgium.
The Jews of Belgium will consider 5694 the most difficult of the fifteen post-war years.