Jews likely first settled in modern Belgium during the early-13th century, although the exact date of their settlement there cannot be ascertained. Today, the Jewish population of Belgium numbers approximately 30,000 – the 15th largest Jewish community in the world.
Much of Jewish settlement in Europe began with the Roman conquests. Jews followed the path of the Roman legions to Belgium in the years 53-57 CE. Written evidence, however, only dates back to the 13th century. Hebrew tombstones and street names like “rue des Juifs” have been traced to 1255. Other sources mention Jews as early as 1200 in the Brabant province. Anti-Jewish measures can also be traced back to the 13th century.
In his 1261 will, Duke Henry III ordered all Jews and usurers to be expelled from the Brabant province. At about the same time, theologian Thomas Aquinas suggested the Jews be taxed and forced to perform manual labor to prevent them from becoming wealthy as usurers. Although these measures did not adversely affect the Jewish population in Belgium, the 1309 crusade did. Jews who refused baptism were massacred.
Under the protection of Duke John II, the Jewish community was able to rebuild and by 1311 had its own rabbi. The community grew even larger when expelled Jews from France began settling in different parts of Belgium, the community in Mons being the most important.
In 1326, a converted Jew was put to death in Cambron, on a charge of stabbing an image of the Virgin. In 1337, the count of Hainaut renewed his protection of the Jews. A census on this occasion showed 18 Jewish families, comprising 35 adults
All this progress was erased with the onset and aftermath of the Black Death (1348-49). The Jews who did not perish from sickness were slaughtered by the populace or the authorities who blamed them for poisoning the wells to cause the plague. Only a handful of families survived, most of whom were burned at the stake in 1370 charged with desecrating the Host.
The role and number of the Jews in medieval Belgium were unimportant. Mainly petty moneylenders, their restricted numbers prevented them from wielding any influence in the economic life of the country. They were generally regarded as foreigners and as such exposed to violent hostility.
Jews returned to Belgium in the early 16th century after the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions of 1490s. Many Sephardim enjoyed rights and safety as “New Christians“ (converts to Christianity, many of whom still secretly practiced Judaism) and concentrated their presence in Antwerp, bringing with them the skills of the diamond trade. Marranos who settled in Antwerp at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century played an important economic and financial role there as key figures in opening up the precious-stones industry, including diamonds and pearls, and developing the sugar trade as well as the first international stock exchange in Europe in 1536. Between 1650 and 1694, a secret synagogue conducted services in Antwerp.
When Austria began ruling Belgium in 1713, it allowed for a more open society, attracting Ashkenazi Jews. Nevertheless, Jews still had to pay special taxes to limit their numbers, which provoked protests from the community.
Under French (1794-1814) and later Dutch (1814-30) rule, the roughly 800 Jews in the country enjoyed greater freedoms. The principal communities in Belgium at the time were in Antwerp, Brussels, Herentals, Liège, and Mons.
Belgium became independent in 1831 and officially recognized Judaism immediately. Brussels, with a more French influenced Jewish community, had a higher rate of assimilation, while Antwerp, influenced by Yiddish and Flemish, retained traditional forms of Jewish life, a trend that remains today. The community’s central administration was the Consistoire Central Israélite de Belgique in Brussels.
Belgium’s Jewish population grew significantly after 1880, when Eastern European Jews began fleeing hostile areas and settling in Belgium. Antwerp’s Jewish community grew from 8,000 people in 1880 to 50,000 in 1939, comprising twenty percent of the total population. The community thrived as more and more synagogues, religious schools, and Zionist organizations were created.
The sudden impetus given to the diamond industry by the discovery of mines in South Africa opened numerous possibilities of employment in Antwerp. After an interruption during World War I, when part of the Jewish population migrated to Holland, the Jewish community again began to grow. Massive immigration to Antwerp, as well as the local particularism, rapidly resulted in a marked difference in character between Antwerp Jewry and the main body in Belgium, not only from the economic aspect, but also from the aspect of Antwerp Jewry’s anxiety to retain the traditional forms of Jewish life. The Antwerp community resisted assimilation with more success than neighboring Brussels. This was also due to the care taken to ensure that almost every child should attend a Jewish school.
The Jewish community of Antwerp remained faithful to its East European origins and was rightly considered as a bulwark of European Judaism. The Brussels community, as well as the smaller communities, had also benefited from a strong numerical contribution from Eastern Europe, but this had little effect on its structure or character. The Belgian government’s restrictive naturalization policies encouraged the continued cohesion of the Antwerp community, whose members represented some 75% of the local manpower employed in the diamond industry and commerce.
At the outset of World War II, more than 100,000 Jews were in Belgium, including 55,000 in Antwerp and 35,000 in Brussels, with smaller communities in Ghent, Liege, Arlon, Mons, Charleroi, Namur and Oostende. At least 20,000 were German refugees, who, along with thousands of others, hoped to flee to the United States.
Anti-Jewish measures began in the autumn of 1940 and grew worse over time. The first prohibitions included ritual slaughter and other religious rites. Other discriminatory actions followed with the Nazis prohibiting Jews from certain professions, such as the fields of law and education. By 1941, authorities started to confiscate property, including the diamond exchange, to set up curfews and to confine Jews to cities. The Nazis ordered Jews to wear yellow badges in early 1942 and, in September of that same year, began rounding them up by the thousands and deporting them, mostly to Auschwitz. Very few Belgian Jews survived concentration camps.
An active resistance movement supported by both Jews and non-Jews prevented a higher death toll. The exiled Belgian government, as well as the Catholic Church and the Belgian populace, still upset by the German occupation in World War I, resisted a second German occupation. A higher proportion of Jews were saved in Belgium than most other occupied countries. Initially, when the Germans had trouble identifying Jews because the Belgian constitution does not permit mention of religion on civil documents, most Belgians never assisted. In fact, many helped Jews. Christian families hid Jewish children and usually honored their requests against baptism. And after the war, almost all Jewish children were returned to their families. In 1942, the Nazis had difficulty finding Belgian police officers to help them put yellow badges on Jews. With the help of the Jewish resistance, about 800 Jews were able to hide in the city of Antwerp.
The largest Jewish movement, the Committee for Jewish Defense (CJD), affiliated with the national Belgian resistance movement, worked on several levels. The organization hid Jews, fought as partisans, forged identity papers and food ration tickets, obtained funds and set up escape routes. In the cultural realm, CJD distributed information and propaganda material, established a lending library, and maintained a Jewish press, printing in Yiddish, French and Flemish.
Ultimately, the Belgian resistance was not strong enough to fend off the Nazis and their collaborators. Between 1942-44, more than 25,000 Belgian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
In the decades after World War II, thousands of Jewish refugees from Eastern and Central Europe made their way through Belgium, most awaiting immigration permits to other countries of permanent settlement. Belgium slowly rebuilt its infrastructure, the Jewish community included.
By 1970, Belgium’s Jewish population numbered about 40,000, primarily in Antwerp and Brussels. The 1970s saw the rise of Jewish political activism in Belgium. Several Belgian Jewish organizations came together to host the “World Conference of Jewish Communities on Soviet Jewry” twice in the 1970s. In 1976, 5,000 Jews enrolled in the Belgian Zionist Federation, A year later, the largest Jewish organizations merged into Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations.
Between 1979-1981, there were a number of Arab terrorist attacks on Jews, including a car-bomb, hand grenade thrown into a crowd of Jewish children and an attack on El Al passengers at the Brussels airport. The Jewish population dipped to approximately 30,000, split between French and Flemish speaking areas, but almost 50% (14,000) attended synagogue during the High Holidays. The Consistoire Central Israelite of Belgium, a state-recognized Jewish body established in 1832, reported 15 religious communities in seven cities. The liberal community grew as well, opening new congregations. During the 1980s, more than 6,500 students received some sort of Jewish education, either in a Jewish day school or synagogue.
Despite the rise of right-wing parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, Belgium remained committed to its Jewish community. In response to the growth of these parties, the mainstream parties enacted laws prohibiting Holocaust denial (1995) and strengthened existing laws against intolerance. In addition, several monuments were erected, and museums opened in a campaign to remember the Holocaust. The Ministry of education launched a nationwide awareness program called “Democracy or Barbary...50 Years after,” which included plays, movies and operas.
Belgium has long-recognized Judaism as an official state religion and continues to subsidize the general studies curriculum at several Jewish schools. The government even pays the salary of Belgium’s chief rabbi and funds the country’s main synagogue in Brussels. The Jews of Belgium also have a working relationship with the Catholic Church. The Jewish Consistoire works with several Christian organizations to promote interfaith dialogue. A Judeo-Christian Consultation Group was organized to further this goal.
Today, the total Jewish population in Belgium is approximately 30,000, with a high concentration in Brussels and Antwerp. Small Jewish communities exist in Charleroi, Oostende, Ghent, Liege, Mons, Arlon, Waterloo and Knokke. Jewish culture remains strong throughout Belgium. There are more than a dozen Jewish schools, five Jewish newspapers and more than 45 active synagogues. Most Belgian Jews belongs to the middle class and are active in the fur, textile, leather and diamond industries.
In 2002, as anti-Semitism flared throughout Europe and immigrants were rioting in Antwerp, some violence was directed at Jews in Belgium. In late November, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue in Antwerp (Jerusalem Post, November 30, 2002).
Classic revolutionary or social anti-Semitism is common within leftist groups in Belgium. This type of anti-Semitism sees capitalist Israel, supported by the capitalist United States, as one of the major evils in the world, and the Arabs as the main victims of capitalism. Such views are expressed in the publications of almost all leftist groups and explain the close ties between radical leftist groups, like the Marxist-Leninist PTB/PVDA (Parti du Travail de Belgique), and radical Muslim groups, like the AEL.
In 2000, historian Lievan Saerens published information revealing the role that Antwerp’s municipal police played in the deportation of Jews during World War II. Yet the Belgian political world seems unready to confront the realities of its past. In January 2005, the Belgian prime minister failed to make an official statement at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The first official statement made acknowledging the Belgian authorities; participation in the deportation of Belgian Jews to Auschwitz was made on February 17, 2005 by Philippe Moureaux, mayor of Brussel’s Molenbeek-Saint-Jean district and president of the Brussel’s Federation of the Socialist Party, when he expressed his and his administrations apologies for those crimes committed during World War II. He was the first politician of his rank to officially recognize the responsibility of those Belgian officials who had assisted in the deportation.
In January 2013, the Belgian Senate issued a strengthened version of an official resolution recognizing Holocaust-era complicity in the persecution of Jews. “The Senate hereby enacts the government’s statement made on Sept. 9, 2012, by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who acknowledged the responsibility of Belgian authorities, and through it that of the Belgian state, in the persecution of Jews in Belgium,” the resolution now reads.
The resolution revamps one that was based on a text passed by a Senate committee earlier in January 2012 that spoke only of “responsibility of Belgian authorities” without reference to the state or the authorities who had or had not cooperated with the Nazi occupation forces. Several Belgian Jewish groups, including the CCOJB umbrella group, called on the Senate to reformulate the resolution, as they found it minimized the role of the Belgian state as described in a report from 2007.
During 2014, multiple anti-Semitic attacks were carried out against the Jewish community. On Saturday May 24, a suspect later identified as Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in an attack identified by authorities as a clear act of anti-Semitism and terrorism. Nemmouche was a known terrorist thought to have spent time fighting and training with ISIS in Syria. Ex-hostages claim that he was known as “Abu Omar the hitter” and carried out unspeakable acts after kidnapping individuals for ISIS, including murdering a newborn child. The attack occurred inside of the museum and left four Jewish individuals dead and was approached as a racially and religiously motivated attack by the Belgian authorities. The gunman drove up to the museum, walked inside and fired shots with a Kalashnikov rifle, killing an Israeli couple, a French woman, and a Belgian man. The museum was closed for the next four months.
An attack carried out on a synagogue in Brussels on September 16, 2014, was treated as an arson by Belgian authorities. Belgian fire services have stated that the initial investigation is pointing towards a racially motivated attack, after a fire broke out on the second floor of Machzikei Hadath synagogue. The caretaker of the synagogue’s wife and two children suffered from smoke inhalation.
In 2015, the chief rabbi of Brussels, Avraham Guigui, said “there is no future for Jews in Europe” and that young people are leaving the country.
In 2018, two out Belgium’s three states – excluding Brussels – the techniques used in the kosher slaughter of animals was banned. Aimed at the production of halal meat, the bans are also hurting the production of kosher meat.
On October 27, 2019, Sophie Wilmes became the first woman and the first Jewish person to become the prime minister of Belgium. Wilmes belongs to the center-left MR party. Her mother is Ashkenazi Jewish and lost several relatives in the Holocaust. Her father is not Jewish.
In 1947, Belgium voted for the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish State at the United Nations General Assembly. Belgium was also among the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
Due to the large Arab-Muslim community in Belgium (20% of Brussels; citizens were born in Muslim countries), the Middle East conflict has become a domestic political issue with most political parties expressing support for the Palestinians to secure the Arab-Muslim vote. However, the government was forced to recognize the presence of Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism following a violent anti-Semitic demonstration at an Israeli-Belgian soccer game.
Tensions rose in the binational relationship between Israel and Belgium during 2002 when efforts were made to try Ariel Sharon in Belgium as a war criminal for his actions during the Lebanon War. The Belgian Supreme Court ultimately ruled Sharon could not be charged while he is prime minister but left open the possibility of doing so later. This led Israel to withdraw its ambassador and to advise many Israelis in and out of government to avoid traveling to Belgium to avoid the risk of being arrested and charged with some alleged past crime.
Two Israelis were injured in the March 22, 2016, terror attack on an airport and train station in Brussels. Multiple suicide bomb blasts rocked the Belgium national airport and the Maelbeek train station, killing 31 and injuring more than 250. The wounded Israelis, Chaim Winternitz and Mendy Farkash, were waiting to board a flight to Israel after visiting Brussels for a wedding when the bombs went off. Their injuries were not life-threatening, and they were flown back to Israel nine days after the attack.
Following the airport attack, in November 2016, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Security Minister Jan Jambon travelled to Israel with a delegation of security officials to learn from Israeli airport security. Subsequently, Jambon said that vehicle checkpoints with license-plate scanners like those at Ben-Gurion Airport would be installed at the Brussels airport.
In 2015, 287 Belgian Jews made Aliyah to Israel, the greatest number of Belgian immigrants recorded in a decade. From 2010-2015, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made Aliyah annually, and from 2005-2009, 133 Belgian Jews on average made Aliyah annually.
Approximately 15,000 Jews live in the French-speaking capital of Belgium. The population has stabilized in recent years due to a low birth-rate and a high rate of assimilation. Nevertheless, Brussels has more than a dozen synagogues, representing all streams of faith, from Reform to Orthodox and both Ashkenazi and Sephardi. There are three Jewish schools. Brussels is home to Regards, the leading Jewish newspaper, and Radio Judaica, the first European Jewish radio station. Brussels is also the headquarters of the European Union of Jewish Students and the Comite de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique (Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium (CCOJB), the Belgian Jewish communities’ roof organization.
Most of the Jewish sites are in the middle of the city. The Great Synagogue on Rue de la Regence, often described as a “stately Romanesque” building, was designed by Christian architect Desire DeKeyser and completed in 1878. The facade features a three-storied gabled midsection flanked by four-story towers. This ornate building also houses several Jewish organizations, including the Consistoire and the Communaute Israelite de Bruxelles, as well as the Belgian Jewish museum. The rest of the synagogues are scattered throughout Brussels.
The National Monument to the Jewish Martyrs of Belgium is on the corner of Rue Emile Carpentier and Rue Goujond, in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The monument depicts a menorah made of chains and a wall bearing the names of more than 23,000 Belgian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Close by is a smaller memorial to the Jews who fought in the Belgian Resistance. Several other memorials in Brussels honor Jews, such as the Louis Bernheim Monument in Square Marie-Louise. Bernheim was a Jewish general who became a World War I hero. The Jewish community of Brussels sponsors cultural events such as lectures, a Yiddish theater, concerts and art exhibits at several locations, but most often at the Centre Communautaire Laic Juifs at 52 Rue Hotel des Monnaies and the Martin Buber Institute at 44 Avenue Jeanne.
Flemish-speaking Antwerp (18,000 Jews) has one of the largest ultra-Orthodox communities in the Diaspora. And for this reason, Antwerp is sometimes regarded as the last shtetl in Europe. The city’s 30 synagogues are all Orthodox. These include the Hollandse Synagogue on Bouwmeesterstraat, which was built in 1893, and the Oosten Synagogue on Oostenstraat, which was constructed in 1913-1914. The Chassidic Jews follow the traditions of Belz, Ger, Satmar, Lubavitch, Vishnitz and Czortkow. Kosher food can be easily found in Antwerp; there are several kosher delis, restaurants and grocery stores.
Approximately 95% of Jewish children in Antwerp attend Jewish day schools and receive intensive religious education. While Flemish is often the language of instruction, most students know French, Belgium’s second language, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish, for prayer and cultural purposes and English, increasingly a necessity in the international diamond trade, a popular profession for Jews in Antwerp.
Jewish Antwerp is a self-contained entity, mostly on Pelikaanstraat and the surrounding streets. Pelikaanstraat begins at the central railroad station and runs six blocks parallel to the train tracks. Just around the corner from the train station is Diamondland, the diamond center, where visitors can view the different preparation processes of diamonds. More than 80% of the city’s Jews are involved in the diamond trade and Yiddish is the main language spoken at the diamond exchange. It is common for both Jews and non-Jews to say mazel u’bracha (luck and blessing) after reaching a deal. Further down Pelkinstraat, at number 106, are the offices of the largest Jewish newspaper in Belgium, Belgisch Israelitisch Weekblad. This weekly reaches every Jewish household in the country. Nearby, at 12 Nervierstraat, is the Romi Goldmuntz Center, which hosts Jewish cultural events such as Israeli folk dancing, lectures and concerts.
E. Ouverleaux, Notes et documents sur les Juifs de Belgique sous l'ancien régime (1885); S. Ullmann, Studien zur Geschichte der Juden in Belgien bis zum XVIII. Jahrhundert (1909); idem, Histoire des Juifs en Belgique jusqu'au 19e siècle (1934); E. Ginsburger, Les Juifs en Belgique au XVIIIe siècle (1932); J. Stengers, Les Juifs dans les Pays-Bas au moyen âge (1950); E. Schmidt, Geschiedenis van de Joden in Antwerpen (1963). HOLOCAUST PERIOD: R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (1961), 382–9; C. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682), 398–408; Belgium, Commission d'enquête sur la violation des règles du droit des gens…, Les crimes de guerre commis sous l'occupation de la Belgique 1940–1945: la persécution antisémitique (1947); Gutfreund, in: Yalkut Moreshet, 2 no. 4 (1965), 43–55; Liebman, in: Centrale (Bruxelles, March 1964); B. Garfinkels, Les Belges face à la persécution raciale 1940–1944 (1965); Steinberg, in: Regards, nos. 29 and 30 (Aug.–Oct. 1968); E. Schmidt, Geschiedenis van de Joden in Antwerpen (1963). CONTEMPORARY JEWRY: Centre National des Hautes Études Juives, La vie juive dans l'Europe contemporaine (1965), with Eng. summ.; J. Gutwirth, in: JJSO, 10:1 (1968), 121–37; idem, in: Les Nouveaux Cahiers, no. 7 (1966), 56–63; C. Lehrer, in: L'Arche, no. 62 (1962); S. Brachfeld, Het Joods Onderwijs in België (1966); A. Tartakower, Shivtei Yisrael, 2 (1966), 225–37. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: AJYB (2003).
Original article by Alden Oreck.
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Photos copyright Belgian Tourist Office - NYC/USA.