A leading human rights organisation in Belgium is stepping up its campaign for the reintroduction of a watchdog tasked with combatting anti-Semitism in the country.
Unia – the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities – has asked the federal minister responsible for Equal Opportunities Kris Peeters to take initial steps towards creating an inter-federal action plan that would push back against a rising tide of discrimination and racism that has gripped Belgium in recent years.
The calls being made by Unia comes in response to a large scale new survey of 16,000 Jews in 12 EU countries by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights which revealed a sobering picture of the on-the-ground situation. Other than in France, the agency found that Belgian Jews experience more hostility on the streets of Belgium than they do in any other place in the European Union.
Unia says that among those surveyed, 81% mentioned public spaces as the place with the most hatred directed at Jews.
“These are figures reveal that a structural approach in the form of a vigilance unit and a plan that overarches policy areas is required,” said Unia’s director Els Keytsman.
“Anti-Semitism has many faces,” Keytsman added. “Different forms of Jew-hatred exist… we also see that at Unia. They are forms rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also others that stem from the extreme right. We can also see a sort of ‘everyday anti-Semitism’ in the form of stereotypes and everything that has to do with negationism. The polarising zeitgeist makes people far more inclined to berate or hurl racist abuse at each other.
Serious incidents are today, fortunately, punishable by law. In 2018 Unia was a civil party in a case against involving a vandal who caused serious damage in the Jewish quarter of Antwerp. Unia was also a civil party in a case that concerned an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
Unia says that the level of recorded anti-Semitism is low throughout Europe as people do not quickly report incidents and Belgium is no exception.
“This ‘tip of the iceberg’ phenomenon also occurs among other groups. On the one hand, this has to do with mistrust and on the other with victims who find racism so normal that they no longer react to it. Unia regularly meets with Jewish organisations to keep their finger on the pulse of what’s going on.”
Unia, though, warns that it is clear that there is still a long way to go before widespread anti-Semitism can be challenged in the EU.
“Fortunately, Unia has also received positive signals from another study by the PEW Research Centre,” says Keytsman. “When people were asked if they would accept a Jew as a relative, 94% of Belgians found it not to be a problem.”