Jews in Belgium Concerned That Party’s Banning May Backfire

Belgian Jews are worried that a court decision to criminalize one of Europe’s strongest far-right groupings might see the party bouncing back stronger than ever. The Nov. 10 decision by the High Court in Brussels to convict the Vlaams Blok came after the court found that the group had infringed upon Belgian law by continuing to advocate a racist and xenophobic platform.

The ruling means that under its current structure, the Vlaams Blok could be stripped of its rights to state funding and television access, thereby forcing it to disband.

The racist policy in question concerns the party’s advocacy of compulsory repatriation for “large groups of non-European immigrants,” a platform seen as targeting principally Muslim immigrants in Belgium.

The move was condemned by Vlaams Blok leaders with the party’s president, Frank Vanhecke, saying the Vlaams Blok had been “condemned to death.”

However, while admitting that the current party structure, its name and constitution would now be forced to fold-up, Vanhecke said that the Vlaams Blok would not be going away.

“We’re going to establish a new party. One that Belgium will not be able to bury. It is going to bury Belgium,” he said, referring to the party’s central platform calling for independence in the country’s Flanders region.

As the largest political group on the Antwerp City Council, the party has only been kept from political power by an unofficial agreement between all major parties to refuse to cooperate with it.

Nevertheless, even after the lower court ruling, the party polled close to a quarter of the votes in Flanders in European elections in June, and opinion polls regularly show it to be the leading party in the region.

The party had attempted to pre-empt the court decision by changing some of its statutes just days prior to the court’s ruling.

Out, for example, went the problematic clause calling for the expulsion of all non-European immigrants; in came a lighter one calling for the repatriation of those “who reject, deny or fight our culture and certain European values such as the separation of church and state, freedom of expression and equality between men and women.”

The party is also expected to change its name, a tactic which, at least in the short term, will enable it to avoid the ban.

Jewish groups though are not convinced by such changes, citing long-standing links between fascist elements during World War II and extreme Flemish nationalist groups, the precursors of the Vlaams Blok.

According to Claude Marinower, a Jewish member of Parliament from Antwerp, the court ruling would make the Vlaams Blok “change their wrapping but not their ideology.”

“Cola-Lite is still cola,” he told JTA in a telephone interview.

About 40,000 Jews live in Belgium — most of them in Antwerp and Brussels.

Marinower praised the court decision because it established that “freedom of speech has its limits,” although he said “it remains to be seen whether they’re really going to change their behavior.”

Other groups said the court ruling could end up doing more harm than good.

“This ruling could be a good thing for the Vlaams Blok because they’ll portray themselves as martyrs,” Diane Keeser, Secretary of the Forum of Jewish Organizations, an Antwerp community umbrella group, told JTA.

Moreover, she said, the group posed specific problems for the Jewish community.

“We need to be very careful because they’ve suddenly become friendly with the Jews and very pro-Israel,” she said.

Such positions, and particularly the party’s strong anti-Muslim line, have worried community leaders in Antwerp with persistent rumors circulating that certain members of Antwerp’s fervently Orthodox community have voted for the Vlaams Blok in recent local and national elections.

“The danger is that they’re very careful not to do anything openly anti-Semitic,” Keeser said.

Nevertheless, the party’s old guard still contained a number of problematic elements, she said, pointing out an ongoing court case the forum is pursuing against Roeland Raes, a leading Vlaams Blok official, who denied the Holocaust in an interview on Dutch television.

“If you look at what they did with Raes, it says a lot. They took away his official responsibilities in the party, but they haven’t throw him out,” she said.

Marinower said it was difficult to assess Jews who may have voted for the Blok because there were no statistics available, but that the phenomenon clearly existed.

“Certain people have become attached since they adopted new tactics in 2001 when there were the first incidents of attacks on Jews by youngsters of Arab origin,” he said. “Evidently, this ‘your enemy’s enemy’ approach has had an effect on some people.”

But that should not mask what kind of party the Vlaams Blok was, he said.

“These are people who continue to honor the memory of the most vehement collaborators” with the Nazis, “and they are still doing it at exactly the same time we are commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation,” he said.

Those comments refer to an August 2004 ceremony that honored three of Belgiums best-known wartime collaborators. The ceremony was attended by the Vlaams Blok’s senior leadership.

For her part, Frohman warned that people should not be fooled by the party’s attempts to curry favor with Antwerp’s Jewish population.

“At the moment it suits them to be good with the Jews and attack Muslims particularly after what just happened in Holland,” she said, a reference to the recent murder of a Dutch filmmaker who produced a film exposing radical Islamist elements in the country.

“But it always ends with the Jews,” Frohman said.

With the Vlaams Blok continuing to grow some are beginning to consider whether blocking the party from power in regional and local government has been an effective tactic.

Known as the “cordon sanitaire,” or safety barrier, the tactic has not stopped people voting for the Vlaams Blok, while the fact that it has not held power means that it has never been forced to present a positive agenda for governing, Keeser said.

“I don’t believe the cordon is safe,” Keeser said, adding that “once the blok is in government, people will see that they have no policies for the whole community.”

Such an approach has already had a certain degree of effectiveness in individual cases in Europe. In Austria, for example, Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party suffered an electoral downturn after it assumed governmental posts.

But there were clear dangers with such a tactic, said Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary-general of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress.

“The authorities in Belgium have sent a strong warning that there is no political cover for racism. The first step must always be to try to marginalize” far-right groups, Cwajgenbaum said.

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