The Islamic State claimed responsibility for last week’s terror attacks at Belgium’s airport and subway that killed at least 35 — including four Americans — and injured more than 300, but within hours Palestinians or their Arab sympathizers injected an anti-Israel tinge.
In two videos and a photo posted online, they are seen at first defiling and then destroying an Israeli flag that had been placed along with flags from more than a dozen other countries at the makeshift Brussels attack memorial in Place de La Bourse.
In a photo, two smiling men are seen sticking the pole from a Palestinian flag into an Israeli flag that was on the ground at the memorial. In a video, a man is seen placing a Palestinian flag over the Israeli flag. And in another video, a Muslim woman wearing the traditional hijab is seen gingerly stepping into the memorial of candles, picking up the Israeli flag and ripping it up.
But on Sunday after a man wearing a head covering favored by North African Muslims stood at the memorial shouting “Palestine” and anti-Israel slogans in Arabic, onlookers began to boo him. He then started walking into the memorial to reach an Israeli flag near the center of the site. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency said some shouted in Flemish and French, “Shameful.”
As the interloper grabbed the Israeli flag, another man approached, shoved him to the ground and yanked the Israeli flag from his hands as the crowd cheered. Two policemen then walked up to the man lying on the ground and escorted him away.
In another incident, two Arabic-speaking men who covered an Israeli flag with a Palestinian flag were confronted by a third man who was filmed saying in French: “This is an apolitical place, don’t do this.”
Gil Taieb, a vice president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, wrote in an op-ed that even bloodless insults against symbols must not be tolerated at a time when the West is grappling with killers who are waging a war of symbols. He said these anti-Israel actions crack the unity Europe finds after terror attacks.
Anti-Semitic anti-Zionists, Taieb wrote, “remind us they do not consider us to be like the rest, and that whether we are in Paris, Tunisia, Bamako, Brussels, whether we are Charlie or police officers, we will forever be but Jews and Israel to them.”
While disturbing to many, the drama around the Israeli flags pales in comparison to violence that broke out at Place de la Bourse on Sunday, when police dispersed a group of black-clad men who had mounted the steps of the stock exchange in the square and started chanting slogans against the Islamic State. Some members of the group were seen making Nazi salutes, confronting ethnic minorities and throwing flares.
A poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League last year found a marked increase in violence against Jews in Belgium. And compared with the ADL’s 2014 poll, concern about violence against Jews increased by 31 percent in Belgium. The poll found also that fully 68 percent of Muslims in Belgium harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, compared with 21 percent of the overall population.
Joel Rubinfeld, president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former leader of French-speaking Belgian Jews, said he has witnessed numerous anti-Semitic and anti-Israel demonstrations in Belgium the last several years.
Speaking to The Jewish Week by phone from Washington, where he had attended the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Rubinfeld said these attacks Jews began the day after the Palestinian intifada began in Israel at the end of September in 2000
“My rabbi became a victim of insults, with young people spitting on him and throwing stones all because he a rabbi with a synagogue in a Muslim neighborhood,” he said.
Rubinfeld, who last Friday conducted a special briefing for Jewish leaders at UJA-Federation of New York, noted that fully one-third of Brussels’ population of 1 million is Muslim and that Jews number just 20,000.
The violence included Molotov cocktails thrown at synagogues and culminated in 2014 when a French Algerian terrorist killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
Each time Israel is forced to go to war with Hamas or Hezbollah terrorists, Rubinfeld pointed out, “you saw hundreds and thousands in the street with anti-Israel demonstrations, hold anti-Semitic banners, waving the Hezbollah flag and shouting, ‘Death to Jews’ in Arabic. This is why what is happening today is very logical. The climate we are experiencing today has been going on for 15 years.”
Asked if the authorities were aware of it, Rubinfeld said he had personally warned about it for years.
“I said if you do not tackle this anti-Semitism, it will spread and tomorrow everybody will be a target. I said, ‘If you don’t do it for my kids, what we are experiencing will happen to your kids. … There are some people who don’t see red when Jewish blood is spilled.
“They have to understand that Jews are the canary in the coal mine, and when the canary is dying it means bigger problems are coming. So it starts with killing and harassing Jews, and if not stopped, this movement becomes uncontrollable.”