(JTA) — A Jewish candidate from the Belgian city of Antwerp withdrew his candidacy in a local election over his fraud conviction and amid criticism over his refusal to shake hands with women per his haredi Orthodoxy.
Aron Berger announced last week that he would not run for a seat on the city legislature representing the Christian Democratic and Flemish party. Antwerp, which has a haredi community of 18,000, is the capital of the Flemish Region – one of three autonomous states that make up the federal kingdom. Municipal elections there are scheduled for October.
The Correctional Tribunal of Antwerp last month convicted Berger, who was expected to occupy the party’s ninth slot in a bid to appeal to haredi voters, of stealing nearly $34,000 from an older and “vulnerable” person, according to the Knack news website. Berger cited “sensitivities” around his candidacy. He was given a warning but not punished, as it was his first offense, Knack reported.
Before the conviction came to light, Berger’s critics within his center-right party and beyond charged that his refusal to shake hands with women was inconsistent with the party’s strict policies on integration into society and the duty to live by Belgian norms. The party has spoken out against some Muslim immigrants’ alleged reluctance to integrate because of religion.
Berger said he had obtained the permission of his wife and rabbinical leaders to shake hands with women during the campaign to defuse the criticism, the report said, but he maintained “it is not within my faith” to shake hands with a woman.
Asked about the scandal surrounding Berger, Kris Peters, a former Flemish prime minister and Christian Democratic and the Flemish party’s candidate for mayor of Antwerp, told the Gazet van Antwerpen daily last week that the Jewish community had recommended Berger.
“Aron Berger was put forth by the Jewish community itself,” Peters said. “This man was appointed by his whole community as a spokesperson.”
But in an open letter to the Gazet van Antwerpen, the chairmen of the Machsike Hadas and the Shomre Hadas communities, Pinkas Kornfeld and Laurent Trau, respectively, flatly denied the claim, Joods Actueel reported Sunday.
The boards of neither congregation – by far the main ones within the haredi community of Antwerp – were “aware of this candidacy,” the chairmen wrote. “By the way, the Jewish communities never in their history put forth a candidate in their name.”