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Did Jewish vote help Belgian rightists?

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ANTWERP, May 20 (JTA) — A right-wing extremist party continues to gain votes in Belgian elections — and this time, observers believe, part of the reason may be the support of Chasidic Jews. In Sunday’s elections, the Flemish Bloc — known for its anti-immigrant platform and its flirtation with neo-Nazi movements throughout Europe — received 19 percent of the vote, becoming Belgium’s third-largest party. In the Antwerp district, the party’s results were stunning: Among the 24 representatives from the various parties who will take up seats in the national Parliament, the bloc’s seven members will make up the largest group. Strangely, according to insiders in the Jewish community, the bloc’s success is partly owed to the Antwerp Jews, in particular the Chasidic community. There are about 40,000 Jews in Belgium — too few to gain even one seat in the Parliament — divided equally between Antwerp and Brussels. In Brussels, the community is overwhelmingly secular and traditional, while the modern Orthodox and the Chasidic are the majority in Antwerp. Jewish groups in the past have been instrumental in keeping the bloc on the sidelines of national politics. Since the bloc’s first major electoral success in 1992, the mainstream political parties in Belgium agreed not to cooperate with the party, effectively banning it from any government coalition. Known as the “cordon sanitaire,” the ban was established partly at the request of Jewish politicians from mainstream parties, as well as representatives from Belgium’s Jewish community. Their objection to the Flemish Bloc was clear. In 1992, everyone agreed that the bloc’s program, known as the 70 Points, strongly resembled the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws. It was known that party leader Filip Dewinter frequented neo-Nazi meetings throughout Europe, counted right-wing Austrian politician Jorg Haider among his friends and referred to the Holocaust and its gas chambers as “a detail in history.” Likewise, it was widely known — though Dewinter denied it — that the bloc was linked with the Saint Maartenfonds, an organization established in 1953 by Belgian members of the S.S. and former fighters with the Germans from the eastern front against the Soviet Red Army. Several prominent bloc members continued to openly attend St. Maartenfonds meetings. Yet the strength of Jewish opposition to the bloc piqued Dewinter’s interest. If the Jews were the main obstacle to the bloc’s acceptance by the political establishment, he figured, they also could open the door to government for the bloc. Over time, Dewinter changed the party’s policies, pushing the bloc’s neo-Nazi theories to the background. Dewinter also made sure to denounce racist or anti-Semitic statements by any of his party members. But the wave of anti-Semitic attacks that accompanied the intifada was the bloc’s big break. Late in 2000, when Moroccan youths increasingly attacked Orthodox Jews verbally or physically — an average of one incident per week was reported for several months during 2001 — the bloc openly and loudly declared that it supported the Jews. They also conducted outreach to the Chasidic community, both in person and in frequent mailings. According to some reports, the bloc began sending regular mailings to the Jewish community beginning as far back as 1995. The bloc also made sure that when its members were to speak in Parliament about issues affecting Jews, they let the Chasidic community know about it. Days in advance, they delivered their speeches from home to home, often translated into Yiddish. Their message was simple: We want to protect you against the Moroccan youth and their anti-Semitic actions. In the weeks before the elections, rumors began to circulate that more than 80 percent of the Chasidic community — and a similar percentage of modern Orthodox and even secular Antwerp Jews, according to some reports — would vote for the bloc. As the day approached, so did the internal debate in the Jewish community. Political leaflets were distributed at most Jewish stores and community houses, and even synagogues. While the support by Chasidic Jews for a far-right party might seem surprising, some observers say it is not. As a group, they say, the Chasidic are highly susceptible to propaganda: Their community is isolated, most of their homes do not have a television, and many also do not have a radio or receive newspapers. Not only do many Chasidic Jews live apart from general Belgian society, they also often know very little about it — least of all its politics and the workings of modern political propaganda. The Flemish Bloc’s strategy to “convert” the Chasidic Jews went unnoticed for a long time by the mainstream Jewish community. Only in the weeks before the elections did various factions in the Jewish community discover what had been going on for years. One reasons was an open letter, distributed through a Jewish mailing list on the Internet, by a Dutch-born Jewish supporter of the bloc, Tami Lorje, urging readers to vote for the bloc. The letter led to heated debates in the Jewish community. In a last-minute attempt to convince Antwerp Jews not to vote for the bloc, Henri Rosenberg, known from his many Jewish Web sites, organized an informational evening. To attract religious Jews especially, the meeting took place in the building of the Chasidic Agudat Yisrael organization, with separate seating for men and women. The main goal of the evening was to warn the Jews of the danger from extremist parties, both from the bloc on the right as well as from the left, such as the party named Resist — a reference to the Arabic word intifada — of Muslim firebrand Dyab Abou Jahja. Only about 50 people turned out for the meeting, where Jewish politicians Fred Erdman of the Socialist Party — who was retiring as a member of Parliament — and Claude Marinower of the Liberal Party tried to convince the audience that extremism poses a danger to the Jewish community. Marinower — an Antwerp city council member and president of the city’s modern Orthodox community, who was elected to Parliament on Sunday — argued that the bloc’s apparent support for the Jews did not have any real content. “They only make a lot of noise, but it’s meaningless: Most of what they say they prefer to say loudly,” Marinower said. “In fact, I was the one who first spoke up about the anti-Jewish attacks from Moroccan youths, pulling Chasidim from bikes or physically attacking them,” he said. “I still am the one who discusses these incidents first, and makes a real effort to change the situation.” It is hard to gauge the actual amount of support the bloc received from the Jewish community: No systematic or official polling was done among Antwerp Jewry before the elections, and the election results so far have been published only by city or district, not by neighborhood, which might show how the Chasidim voted. Regardless of the bloc’s ultimate success among Jews, however, many here consider it remarkable that Jewish politicians, such as Erdman and Marinower, from mainstream political parties did not try to counter the bloc’s propaganda among Jews until days before the election. Erdman and Marinower say they acted as soon as they learned what the bloc was doing.

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