Belgium – a laboratory for European antisemitism?

What is going on in Belgium? Joël Kotek is alarmed at the spread of an “anti-Israeli passion” across the entire Belgian political spectrum, and asks what is allowing the expression of unabashed antisemitism in Europe’s capital.


Manneken-Pis, Brussels


Brussels is 1h23min from Paris… and yet a whole universe separates these two countries. For example, nearly 182,000 French people demonstrated against antisemitism in France, compared with some 5,000 in Belgium, most of them Jewish. Another clue is the Flemish MP, Fouad Ahidar, president of one of Belgium’s seven parliaments. Here he is, not content to play down the genocidal sequence of October 7, describing it as a “small response”, but compares Israel’s action to the Shoah: “I, who went to Auschwitz in Poland, to see what genocide is… I can use this term… practically the same methods are being used”. It’s November 8… The danger of trips to Auschwitz that only last a day. There’s no need to dwell on the coarseness of the remarks made by the President of the Flemish Parliament in Brussels, given that our politician is a multi-recidivist. In 2012, he was already chanting “Hamas, Hamas, all the Jews to the gas” in Antwerp, alongside Flemish neo-Nazi militants. But don’t think our politician is a member of an extremist party. He belongs to the Voruit, the Flemish Socialist Party. The concern is that this incident is not an isolated act. It reflects the very particular climate of obsessive hostility to Israel that pervades Belgium today, from the media to the universities, from north to south, from right to left.

On the left, there’s no need to refer to the PTB, the Workers’ Party of Belgium, a Maoist-inspired communist party devoted to the hateful denunciation of Israel and the loving defense of China and Putin’s Russia. Let’s take a closer look at the statements made by leaders of the democratic left. For example, two French-speaking former Socialist ministers, André Flahaut, ex-Minister of Defense, and Jean-Pascal Labille, now head of the Mutualités Socialistes; the former comparing Gaza with the Warsaw ghetto, the latter Israel with Nazi Germany. The same goes for Éliane Tillieux, President of the French Socialist Party’s House of Representatives, who is reluctant to differentiate between Israel and Hamas “as long as the rules of international law are not respected on either side”. Or the current Minister for Development Cooperation, the Flemish socialist Caroline Gennez, who, the day after the October 7 massacres, declared herself “opposed to the display of the Israeli flag on our buildings”, before publicly admonishing Germany to finally let go of Israel on the pretext that Germans would find themselves “for the second time on the wrong side of history”. Incidentally, Germany has been on the wrong side of history four times: during the genocides of the Herero (1904), the Armenians (1915) and the Jews, not to mention the fact that German colonizers imported their racial visions of human relations into Rwanda. Still on the left, we might also mention the current Minister (Ecolo) for the Climate, Zakia Khattabi, who confessed her embarrassment at using the word “terrorist” in relation to Hamas, a term with a legal meaning she knew nothing about. An astonishing statement, given that she had been approached (unsuccessfully) by her party to sit on the Constitutional Court. Then there’s Bénédicte Linard of the same party, Minister for French-speaking Culture, who advocates Israel’s exclusion from Eurovision, or PS Senator Nadia El Yousfi who, on December 18, 2023, questioned the Israeli Ambassador in very unfriendly terms, stigmatizing the “rabbis who (…) call for the rape of Palestinian women”. A most inappropriate remark, given the reality of the events and the rapes of Israeli women on October 7. We could also mention the case of Petra De Sutter, Flemish Green Deputy Prime Minister (Groen), who in November 2023 called for the abolition of the Europe-Israel economic treaty, and felt authorized to disavow the President of the European Commission, Ms. Von Der Leyen, guilty of denouncing the antisemitic excesses of the Aalst Carnival in her State of the Union address[1]. In Flanders, it’s all the democratic parties that castigate Israel, whether left, center or right, secular or Catholic. In fact, a member of parliament from the CD&V, the former Catholic party that was once hegemonic in Flanders, has tabled a motion in the federal parliament calling for a boycott of Israeli products. And on the right, Egbert Lachaert, former president of the Flemish Liberal Party (VLD), the party of the current Prime Minister, came to the same conclusion during a parliamentary debate in Gaza, Molenbeek. In his view, “the strikes on Gaza are like dropping bombs on Molenbeek because terrorists have grown up there”. Has our liberal forgotten the heavy exchanges of fire on Rue de Dries and Rue des Quatre-Vents in 2016, during the hunt for Salah Abdeslam, the last living terrorist from the Paris attacks? According to Francetvinfo, these shootings transformed “the peaceful Brussels commune into a ‘war zone'”.

For many Christians, the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland was and remains ontologically unacceptable. Indeed, Zionism nullifies the alleged mission assigned to the Jews by the Christian Church since Saint Augustine: that of a people of witness, cursed and scattered to the four ends of the earth for not having accepted Christ’s message.

In Flanders, only the NVA party, though not all of it, opposes the stigmatization of Israel, a paradox considering that it is one of the two nationalist parties, heirs to the Flemish collaboration. On the French-speaking side, too, hostility to Israel is equally shared, with the notable exception of the Liberal Party (MR), despite the (Liberal) Foreign Affairs Minister’s presumably controlled outbursts. Mme Hadja Lahbib thought it wise to explain, last March, that Biden was trapped by the “sound and stinging” support of the Israelis. Times are changing, and it’s no longer Jewish, but Israeli gold that is corrupting US foreign policy. Nonetheless, were it not for the French-speaking Liberal Party, Belgium would have fully endorsed South Africa’s complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Perhaps all these positions would be less problematic if Belgian politicians were equally passionate about the Armenian, Kurdish, Uyghur and Saharan peoples. Belgium is only interested in Gaza. Clearly, there’s something rotten in the kingdom of Belgium. How can it be explained?

The triple dimension of post-Holocaust antisemitism

If you think about it, the anti-Israeli passion (there’s no other word for the current hostility to the Jewish state) stems from a combination of three factors. Firstly, an old Judeophobic habitus inherited from Christianity and Islam (primary antisemitism); secondly, a guilt linked to the Holocaust, described by German researchers as secondary antisemitism; and thirdly, a clearly opportunistic anti-Zionist stance, dictated by pure electoral calculations (tertiary antisemitism). Contrary to the recent analysis of Belgium’s pro-Palestinian tendency in the quarterly magazine Wilfried, I don’t think that concern for international law or human rights is the primary explanation. Following the example of Spiegel, which, back in 2021, wondered about the causes of Belgian politicians’ hostility to the Jewish state, it seems clear to me that antisemitism cannot be ruled out, a possibility that is never touched upon by the excellent French-language magazine.

Front page of the quarterly Wilfried

There’s no need to dwell too much on the prevalence of an antisemitic habitus on both the right and the left, since it’s clear that some people are taking advantage of the “windfall” represented by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to give free rein to their old opposition to Judaism. This is particularly the case in certain Christian circles. How can we forget the traditional opposition in Catholic circles to the idea of Jews returning to the Land of Judea? Even left-wing Catholics worried about a Jewish victory in Palestine in 1948. In the progressive Revue nouvelle of April 1948, we read: “In the hypothesis of a generalized Jewish victory, what will become of the Holy Places? (…) materialism, Marxism, nationalism are the only dogmas recognized by the new arrivals [2]”. For many Christians, the return of Jews to their ancient homeland was and remains ontologically unacceptable. How else can we understand that the Vatican was the last European state to recognize Israel de jure? Indeed, Zionism nullifies the alleged mission assigned to the Jews by the Christian Church since Saint Augustine: that of a witness people, cursed and scattered to the four ends of the earth for not having accepted Christ’s message. Thus, the Jews would have lost all rights to the Holy Land, unlike the Belgians. Indeed, how can we forget that in 1918, Belgium attempted to obtain a mandate over the former Ottoman Palestine, not to protect the rights of its Muslim inhabitants, but on the pretext of the Crusades. As the Belgian representative in London recalled: “every Belgian would be happy and proud to see his glorious sovereign succeed in Jerusalem, eight centuries away, to the leader of the crusades in Jerusalem, also a Belgian, who first ascended the throne there”. Certainly, unless we recall that Godfrey of Bouillon was not exactly Belgian, and that his army of henchmen exterminated all the Jewish inhabitants of the holy city, as well as most of the Muslims, in 1099.

This is the theological, not the political or moral, context in which to interpret the honeyed letter recently sent by Msg Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp, to “his Jewish friends in Antwerp”, in which he opposed, in resolutely preconciliary accents, the loving God of Christians to the vengeful God of Jews; in passing, he characterized Gaza as a children’s cemetery, a return of the repressed (ritual crime). Clearly, this diatribe has as much to do with primary antisemitism as with so-called secondary antisemitism, that characteristic hatred of Jews not in spite of, but because of the Holocaust, which the Israeli-Viennese psychoanalyst Zvi Rix summed up with this quip: Germans (and Europeans) will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. Hence the twofold temptation to minimize the Holocaust, on the one hand, and to turn Israelis into Nazis, on the other[3]. It seems clear that the good Bishop Bonn, “who can no longer keep his mouth shut”, does not forgive the Jews for the complicit silence of the Flemish Catholic Church in the deportation of 65% of Antwerp’s Jews, to which is added what I would call tertiary antisemitism.

Tertiary or electoral antisemitism

What was this all to do with? Antisemitism caused, not by the Holocaust, but by the supposed and, it must be admitted, sometimes actual enemies of the Jews. At issue, then, is the reality of a mobilized “Arab street”, obsessed with the Palestinian cause alone, to the exclusion of all other causes, including Muslim ones (Kosovar, Kurdish, Uyghur, Rohingya, etc.), and this in a very particular demographic context.

Window display of a Turkish café “admitting dogs, but Jews (“Yahudi”) under no circumstances”, in the province of Liège in 2014. The owner was not convicted.

It should be remembered that Belgians of Arab-Muslim origin outnumber those of Jewish origin by a factor of 16. In Brussels, undoubtedly the most inclusive European capital in the world, the practice of Islam now exceeds that of Catholicism; 48% of pupils in Brussels’ official education system take Islamic religion courses; some 25% of members of the French-speaking Brussels parliament are of Arab-Muslim origin; they make up almost 60% of the French-speaking Socialist group. Hence, of course, the partisan strategies that position Israel as a scarecrow to be torn down. This demographic reality explains why the overwhelming majority of political parties are driven to make concessions to Muslim sentiments on issues that are not perceived as priorities, such as the Palestinian question, the wearing of the headscarf or, more generally, secularism. Above all, it allows us to understand the astonishing anti-Israeli one-upmanship of the PS, Ecolo and the PTB, the Maoist-style communist party. Opposition to Israeli policy is one of the best ways for all the Brussels parties to attract Muslim voters at low cost – in short, to build up a clientele. Is it any wonder, then, that the only cooperation agreement ever denounced by Brussels regional parliamentarians, 22 years ago, was the one with Israel? The demonization here is pragmatic, entirely calculated to win the Arab-Muslim vote. Haven’t we heard the leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party, the brilliant academic Paul Magnette, claim that his party has always been pro-Palestinian? Certainly, Emile Vandervelde and Camille Huysmans, the two historic figures of the Belgian Workers’ Party (POB) between the wars, were supporters of the Palestinian cause, but… Jewish. Like Léon Blum, they had rallied behind Zionism as early as 1926.

Anti-Israeli one-upmanship

While the cultural integration of Muslims into Belgian society will eventually calm passions, it is clear that this outcome is not foreseeable in the near future.
In the meantime, it’s up to the PS, Ecolo and PTB to show the greatest hostility to Israel. And in this game, the PS and Ecolo are no match for the PTB, a Stalinist party and therefore antisemitism in the Soviet style. In January 2024, with 19.3% of voting intentions, this self-declared Maoist party topped the polls in Brussels, a region where the Muslim vote is decisive, as pointed out by journalist David Coppi in Belgium’s leading French-language daily Le Soir: “Explanation? … several observers point to the PTB’s Palestinian bias with regard to the war in the Middle East and the crushing of Gaza. Which would have an impact in its favor. Particularly with populations of Arab-Muslim culture”.

While right-wing antisemitism has always had the courage to assert its hatred of the Jews, the left on the other hand, more skilful or cynical, never ceases to proclaim its love of the Jews while damning them with murderous criticism. It is in the name of the Good and anti-racism that it denies the Jewish people (but not Pakistanis, Kosovars, Bosnians and, of course, Palestinians) the right to an ethnically-confessional state. The case is clear: by structuring itself around a national state, conveniently denounced as particularist, even racist, the Jewish people would be failing in its prophetic, in short tragic, vocation. When they’re not victims, Jews returning to Judea become, as they should be, the people who murdered Christ. Witness the words of one of the icons of the Belgian pro-Palestinian left, Me Jean-Marie Dermagne, who was active in the Ligue des droits de l’homme and taught human rights at the Université Catholique de Louvain. This former lawyer saw fit to point out in a Facebook post on Easter 2023 that the Jews chose to sacrifice the Galilean foreigner (?) (Jesus) rather than the Judean Barabbas. Catechism certainly leaves its mark on even the most hardened Marxists. As a reminder, this fervent defender of Putin and Xi went so far as to reproduce on her Facebook page a hoax from the fascosphere. It’s true that our critic of Israel and the Ukraine was once an advisor to Dieudonné. Of course, men of the “left” will always indignantly reject the slightest accusation of antisemitism.

Me Jean-Marie Dermagne’s post on social networks, April 10, 2023.
Antisemitism over human rights

Contrary to Wilfried’s seductive thesis, antisemitism, electoral calculations and Holocaust guilt are far more likely to explain Belgium’s mobilization against Israel than concern for international law or human rights. The issue is not that Palestine is loved and defended, but that it occupies all the political and media space, that it is invoked by any politician in need of strong emotion or media coverage. It’s up to the minister to make the most striking anti-Israeli statement. No, contrary to what Wilfried would have us believe, the defense of human rights is not the primary concern of our ministers, in which case their softness towards China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, not to mention Azerbaijan, which has just emptied the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh of all its Christian inhabitants, would be inexplicable. To claim that the DNA of Belgium’s policy is the defense of human rights is a little outrageous when one considers that the departure of Belgian peacekeepers from Rwanda on April 11, 1994 precipitated the massacre of a million Tutsis. The issue here is not that the State of Israel is being criticized, but that it is being criticized in such an unequivocal, impassioned and manipulative way, even in mainstream media like Le Soir.

It was false to write that the Court of Justice in The Hague considered that genocide was likely in Gaza.

RTBF, the French-language public broadcaster, has also published a number of anti-Israeli analyses. For example, this article on the testimony of French-Israeli hostage Mia Schem[4]. This article is truly mind-boggling, so much so that it is victim-blaming. No less than five experts, three university professors and two trauma psychologists are mobilized to discredit her testimony. While the article’s title is neutral (“What do the testimonies of former Hamas hostages tell us?”), the subtitle (“Propaganda as a weapon of war”) and the article’s heading set the tone for the charge. Headline: “The interview in question is broadcast by an Israeli channel, leaving room for doubt as to its objectivity and neutrality (…) in the face of Israel’s highly controlled communication, there is also that of… Hamas”. And the RTBF journalist points out that “On November 30, the Islamist movement broadcast a propaganda video of the young woman’s release, in which, smiling… she claims that everyone ‘was very kind to her’. A statement that contradicts what she claims today in her interview. Clearly, the journalist is pretending to be unaware that the Israeli press is free and that a hostage is prepared to do anything, even smile at his captors when he is freed from hell. Certainly not. Was Mia Scheme exaggerating on orders? That’s what the five “experts” consulted by our journalist suggest. Elena Aoun (Université Catholique de Louvain, UCL): “By not minimizing her testimony and what she experienced, this young woman may have become a propaganda weapon on Israel’s part (…) Israel’s effectiveness in communicating is unrivalled”. Michel Liégeois (UCL): “Some of the words {Holocaust and terrorist} used by Mia Scheme are inappropriate (…) And what is excessive is insignificant”. Ms Anne Morelli (Université Libre de Bruxelles, ULB): “There is a solid foundation of propaganda. All testimonies must be taken with a grain of salt (…) a reliable testimony is an immediate testimony, which in this case would have been given directly after the liberation”. Ms. Evelyne Josse, psychotraumatologist: “When you come out of a situation like hostage-taking, your ability to think is blurred by strong emotions”, and adds that “even before the aggression, i.e. the hostage-taking, this person has been subjected to propaganda that dehumanizes the other party… we are here in a context that leads to stereotyped concepts that sometimes become radical”. If we have understood correctly, the Franco-Israeli woman is not a victim of Hamas, but of the Israeli (racist) education system. However, the fifth specialist interviewed, psychologist Anne Delorme, tries to temper this, and, as a good humanist, grants the Israeli hostage extenuating circumstances for her exaggerations, pointing out that “we must bear in mind that Mia Schem was sequestered in a dark room for 54 days”. In short, all women’s words are good enough, except when they come from Israeli women. What’s even more astonishing is that Mia Schem’s testimony in no way resembles “war propaganda”. At no point does she claim to have been beaten or raped. She simply recalls her mistreatment, humiliations, hunger and constant fear of being raped. This is far from a score dictated by Mossad.

After forced conversion to Christianity, expulsion and outright annihilation, pragmatic antisemitism demands that Jews disassociate themselves from Israel. Belgian Jews will have no choice but to adhere to the anti-Zionist doxa, the new civil religion of the Belgians. At the risk of marginalization.


The increasingly open hostility towards Israel, and the consequent growing isolation of Belgian Jews, owes as much to antisemitism stricto sensu as to a series of aggravating circumstances. In addition to the latent antisemitism and guilt feelings associated with the Holocaust and (Belgian) colonization, there is an antisemitism that I like to call tertiary and/or electoral. In the self-righteous Belgium of the third millennium, which dares not attack China, Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan or Qatar, anti-Zionism acts as a phantasmatic evidence to serve as an expression of all kinds of resentment – towards US imperialism, capitalism, globalization, the failures of integration. Obsessive opposition to Israel certainly serves all kinds of purposes and audiences. It’s only a short step from there to making hostility to Israel the cornerstone of a veritable civil religion. In Belgium, a veritable state anti-Zionism has taken hold, functioning as a “cultural code” in the sense of researcher Shumalit Volkov’s definition. As was the case for Jews in the Christian world in the past, Israel has become an adjustment variable in the name of a politics of the lesser evil, to use the expression of Belgian Holocaust historian Maxime Steinberg. This politics of the lesser evil was that of Belgian communal authorities during the Second World War. For example, it led Joseph Bologne, the Socialist mayor of Liège, to provide the Nazis with lists of Liège’s Jews, in the name of protecting the majority.

A selection of antisemitic caricatures at the Aalst carnival on February 23, 2020.

In June 2021, the renowned German magazine Der Spiegel denounced Belgium’s strange antisemitic grip in an in-depth article: “If today the country’s elites are won over by the virus of antisemitism, it’s because in Belgium, antisemitism has for too long been a problem that only Jews really cared about. Whether it came from extremist circles on the right or left, or from certain parts of Muslim communities, it was never tackled head-on. In Brussels, the European Parliament and the European Council have adopted strong texts aimed at combating antisemitism, but the host country doesn’t feel concerned. It’s time for this to change, and Europe has an essential role to play, in action rather than rhetoric”. The German weekly concludes that it is up to Europe to “save Belgium from antisemitism”. Unless it is Belgium, the European laboratory, which is announcing the future fate of European Jews: choose between emigrating to Israel, a country without antisemitism, but at war, or living as a Marrano in a country at peace, but increasingly hostile to Jews.

Is Belgium an antisemitic country? No more than any other, except that the politics of the lesser evil, the anti-Zionist social pact negotiated at their expense, has reached an unprecedented degree of consolidation. On the one hand, the government has just created an inter-federal coordination mechanism for the fight against antisemitism. On the other hand, unlike most EU member states, it still refuses to appoint a national coordinator for the fight against antisemitism, much to the dismay of Yves Oschinsky, president of the Comité de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique (CCOJB), as if to organize its ineffectiveness in advance. Hence also the absence of any real reaction to the threats facing Belgian Jews. Proof of this is the inaction of UNIA, the federal anti-racism body, which keeps a low profile whenever it comes to prosecuting antisemitism. UNIA did not even take the organizers of the antisemitic carnival in Aalst to court…

Since the second Intifada, almost 25 years ago, a new tragic phase in the Jewish-Christian face-off seems to be taking shape. After forced conversion to Christianity, expulsion and outright annihilation, pragmatic antisemitism demands that Jews disassociate themselves from Israel. Belgian Jews will have no choice but to adhere to the anti-Zionist doxa, the new civil religion of the Belgians. At the risk of marginalization. Is a third way possible? This is the gamble of the founders of the Jonathas Institute, a brand-new center for study and action against antisemitism, whose primary aim is to enable Jewish life to continue in Belgium. With dignity.

Joël Kotek

Joël Kotek is a historian and Professor Emeritus at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is President of the Jonathas Institute, a center for study and action against antisemitism. He is the author of ‘Le siècle des camps, détention, concentration extermination, cent ans de mal radical’, with Pierre Rigoulot, Lattès, Paris, 2000; ‘Au nom de l’antisionisme : l’image des Juifs et d’Israël dans la caricature depuis la seconde Intifada’, with Dan Kotek, Bruxelles, Éd. Complexe, 2003; ‘La carte postale antisemite : de l’affaire Dreyfus à la Shoah’, with Gérard Silvain, Paris, Berg, 2005; ‘Israël et les médias francophones au miroir du conflit gazaoui’, CCOJB, Brussels, 2015; and ‘Shoah et Bande dessinée, l’image au service et la mémoire’, Denoël, Paris, 2017.


1 A few months earlier, the Belgian Minister of Justice, the liberal Quickenborne, tweeted “the Jewish lobby is working overtime, after Aalst, Washington”, blithely confusing the denunciation of antisemitism in Belgium with the stances taken by Israeli ministers visiting the United States.
2 See Catherine Berny, La Terre trop promise: Belgique-Israël, 1947-1950, Ciaco, 1988, and Guy Jucquois & Pierre Sauvage, L’invention de l’ansemitism racial. L’implication des catholiques français et belges (1850-2000), Academia Bruylant, Brussels, 2001.
3 As early as 1986, the philosopher Jankelevich was ironic about the “anti-Zionist” beau-âmes: “Anti-Zionism is an incredible godsend, because it gives us permission – and even the right, and even the duty – to be antisemitic in the name of democracy! Anti-Zionism is justified antisemitism, finally within everyone’s reach. It is permission to be democratically antisemitic. What if the Jews were Nazis themselves? That would be wonderful.”
4 ”Guerre Israël-Gaza : que nous dites les témoignages des ex-otages du Hamas? (translated: Israel-Gaza war: what do the testimonies of former Hamas hostages tell us?)” RTBF, Dec. 29, 2023 at 17:17, by Anne-Sophie Depauw

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