By Jeremy Havardi, journalist and author
Last Saturday an Israeli couple, Emmanuel and Mira Riva, were among four fatalities in an horrific shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium.
Almost immediately, Joel Rubinfeld, President of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism, described the murders as “the inevitable result of a climate that distills hatred” and called for the authorities to “silence the preachers of this hate”.
Benjamin Netanyahu made the same linkage, declaring that the murders were “the result of constant incitement against Jews and their state”.
Like many countries in Europe, Belgium has witnessed a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents. Only three weeks before the shooting, some 500 far-right extremists, describing themselves as the “European Congress of Dissidence”, gathered in Anderlecht, where some performed the quenelle.
The gathering was later dispersed, much to the credit of Belgium’s interior minister. It was organised by Laurent Louis, a member of Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives, who once spoke of “how Zionists financed Hitler and created the Second World War” and how they had become the “masters of the world”.
It isn’t just the far-right who make incendiary comments on Israel. European Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht said in 2010: “Do not underestimate the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill. There is a belief among most Jews that they are right.”
It’s little wonder Raphael Werner, a leader of Flemish Jewry, said pro-Palestinian politicians “don’t make a difference between Jews and Israelis”.
Last year, a Belgian website linked to the Education Ministry featured an image by Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff, which compared Israel with Nazi Germany. Latuff is notorious for mocking Jews and the Shoah in his political cartoons.
With such toxic attitudes becoming more widespread, it’s not surprising anti-Semitic abuse and violence are on the rise, up by 30 percent in 2013.
But there is another dimension to this which cannot be ignored – namely an Islamic one. According to a leading Belgian anti-terror expert, Saturday’s killings are “reminiscent of Toulouse” (referring to the murders committed by Mohammed Merah) and “resembles other similar attacks, including by Islamists”.
This points to the fact that the main propagators of hate within Belgium are likely to have come from within the country’s Muslim community.
Belgium is home to more than 600,000 Muslims, some 300,000 of whom live in metropolitan Brussels. In recent years, there is much evidence of growing radicalisation within the community, particularly among the young.
According to a report by French intelligence think tank CF2R, “Second-generation Belgian-Muslims have been significantly influenced by the growth of extremism” and much of this is put down to overseas jihadists.
Salafism, the ultra-conservative pan-Islamic movement, is popular in Belgium and contributes to deepening divisions and a lack of integration. The radical group Sharia4Belgium has called for the country to become an Islamic state and issues denunciations of democracy and homosexuality.
Meanwhile, it is widely believed that dozens of Belgian Muslims have fought with jihadists in Syria.
Not surprisingly, such extremism has gone hand in hand with racism. Brussels University’s Mark Elchardus carried out a survey of 4,000 schoolchildren aged between 14 and 18 in Antwerp and found shocking levels of anti-Semitism among Muslim youth.
Some 50 percent of those surveyed totally agreed (another 24 percent partially agreed) with the statement that Jews incite war and blame others for it. A total of 35.4 percent completely agreed and 37 percent partially agreed with the statement that Jews had too much influence in Belgium. Other clearly anti-Semitic views received similarly strong levels of support.
It hardly takes a genius to connect the dots between radical jihadism, anti-Semitic attitudes and the horrific murders witnessed last weekend. It will therefore come as little surprise if there was Islamist involvement in the Brussels museum attack.
Fortunately, extreme acts of physical violence have been rare in Europe since the 1980s. But violence and terror become more likely when they are fostered by a climate of hatred.
Unless that hatred is tackled at source, both in Belgium and across the continent, its results could become more frightening.