Belgian Jews Struggle to Find Leader As Community Faces External Threats

A seven-month disputed election is racking a Jewish umbrella group in Belgium as the community there faces external threats that members say require strong leadership.

Part of what distinguishes the two candidates vying for the presidency of the Coordination Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations is their approach to the rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel rhetoric in their country.

One candidate, Joel Rubinfeld, 38, says the committee has not done enough to tackle anti-Semitism in Belgium. His opponent, Norbert Cige, 65, does not see anti-Semitism as a pressing problem.

In a June 27 election, Joel Rubinfeld was just shy of the 60 percent of votes needed for victory. Rubinfeld picked up 65 votes to 47 for Cige, with one abstention. It was the sixth vote held by the committee, with Rubinfeld gaining each time. He started with 29 votes.

The failure to produce a new president is causing a rift in a community where consensus has reigned since the group was founded in 1970. The committee’s board will convene in early September to review election procedures.

Some 42,000 Jews live in Belgium, a country that receives attention beyond its size due to the presence of European Union institutions there, including the European Parliament in Brussels and the European Commission.

Israel’s ambassador to Belgium, Yehudi Kinar, criticized the Jewish committee for being too passive last year in defending Israel during the Lebanon war with Hezbollah. Kinar noted also that the French regional government is funding The Year of Palestine cultural program next year based on a request by the Palestinian Authority’s Belgian representative.

There are 400,000 Muslims living in Belgium. The community has been a victim and victimized in racist violence that has plagued Europe.

A member of the European Parliament for Belgium said recently that she would like to “strangle” Israel’s ambassador if he discussed Israel’s security with her.

Veronique De Keyser was addressing an organization called the European Left Group at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The event was part of a campaign seeking the release of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah terror leader serving a life sentence in Israel for his role in several murderous attacks.

De Keyser complimented the Palestinian Authority for its “moderation and maturity.”

“I wonder how they are able to limit violence in the territories given the background,” she said. If the Israeli ambassador comes in the future to speak of Israel’s security, I feel like I want to strangle him.”

As to anti-Israel rhetoric in the Belgian media, Kinar noted an opinion piece in a Flemish left-wing daily headlined “Bad Western Smell in Palestine” by a peace organization leader that blamed Israel for the chaos in Gaza and the West for not dealing with Hamas.

“The way the press reports, there is a lot of delegitimization of Israel,” Kinar said. “We try to get articles published that show the other side, but journalists almost never call us for comment.”

Rubinfeld says the Jewish committee is too passive and needs to establish a more open dialogue with government officials.

“Our biggest problem was the rise in anti-Semitism since the second intifada in 2000,” Rubinfeld told JTA. “There were rabbis attacked in the street and Molotov cocktails at Jewish stores. My rabbi was being stoned by young Muslims.”

Rubinfield says he wants to launch a more public discussion of anti-Semitism and educate Belgian society as to why the issue is not only significant to Jews.

The number of violent anti-Semitic acts in Belgium increased from nine in 2005 to 16 in 2006. Overall there were 66 incidents reported to the committee in ’06, compared to 60 the year before.

“The CCOJB plays down the problem while Belgian Jews can’t even wear kipas on the street,” said Rubinfeld, who owns an advertising firm but in recent years has spent his time writing articles about anti-Semitism and helping to bring Belgian legislators on image-boosting trips to Israel.

Cige, the former principal of the Ganenou Jewish school in Brussels, told JTA that the committee is sufficiently active, has excellent relationships with all political parties and should not be hampered by “shouting from the rooftops every time there is an anti-Semitic incident.”

“We should only take action when there is something major so that we have strength when when we need it,” he said.

Philippe Markiewicz, the committee president since 2001, also bristled at the suggestion that his organization does not sufficiently support Israel a criticism that dates back to 2001, when the Belgian courts allowed a lawsuit against Ariel Sharon for war crimes. The charges stemmed from the 1982 massacre by Lebanese militia troops allied with Israel of more than 800 Palestinians in Lebanon when Sharon was Israel’s defense minister.

Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, said at the time that Belgium was run “by a government of bastards.” Markiewicz stood up for the Belgian government.

“I am an integrated Belgian Jew,” Markiewicz said. “Olmert’s behavior was distasteful.”

Henri Benkoski, founder of Radio Judaica and a board member of the committee, said those who seek to depict Rubinfeld as strident and outside the mainstream are playing with fire “when this Year of Palestine could bring out a lot of negativity against us.”

But Michele Szwarcburt, president of the Jewish Community Center of Belgium, said, “If Rubinfeld wins it will be a catastrophe. He is supported by right-wing extremists, and all they do is talk about anti-Semitism when we need to be building bridges with the Muslim community.”

Julien Klener, president of the Consistoire, which represents the religious concerns of Belgian Jews to the government, said the Belgian Jewish community might just “be moving towards the right, as in the normal political scene.

“Look at Sarkozy and Merkel, even in Belgium,” Klener said, referring to the leaders of France and Germany. “The Socialists lost ground in this year’s elections; so why should we be any different?”

Some say the group’s drawn-out voting process reflects their country’s ties to surrealism.

“We are the country of the painter Magritte, and what could be more surrealistic than such an election?” said Benkoski.

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