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Jews holding babies
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Street in Brussels near the Jewish Museum of Belgium
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


by Rhonda Spivak, July 28, 2013

In Brussels six months ago on my way back from Israel, I happened upon the Jewish Museum of Belgium, and the exhibit that I most remember was of a chess set of “Christians” against “Jews.” It was a very unusual chess set, one which gave a portrayal of circumcision and I stopped to stare at it, having never seen anything like it.

The Jews (see accompanying photo) in the chess set were ultra-orthodox (all men except for one woman), with long gray beards. One held a menorah, another appeared to hold a lulav, and another the Torah with the words in Hebrew “Anochie Adonai”. The other Jews were holding babies, in what appeared to be a “depiction” of circumcision. In fact, the middle Jew in the set had a baby in one hand and a very very large knife in the other. The depiction of circumcision had screaming babies. I wondered whether the depiction had antisemitic overtones.,

The Christians in the chess set were all holding candles, and wearing white, no doubt symbolizing purity and holiness. The men (looking like monks) with the tops of their heads shaved all appear to be Catholic, and one of the Catholics appears to be wearing a papal hat or a bishops hat.

I was practically the only one who was in the Musuem when I saw the chess set and couldn’t find any English signs explaining it, nor have I found anything on it in the Museum’s website which is in French.  There was no date on the chess set so I do not know when it was made.But since researching this on the internet I have found that the set was made by Gianni Toso, an orthodox Jew and the last in a line of Jewish venetian glassblowers, who grew up in a glassmaking family on Murano, the center of Venetian Jewish glassblowing for hundreds of years.

I am guessing (and only guessing) that through the chess set Giovanni is expressing the antisemtism that Jews have faced historically vis-à-vis the Christian world, almost in a satirical way.

What’s amazing about the chess set is that in its depiction of circumcision it is addressing issues that are at play in Europe today, ones that naively we may have thought belonged to a different era that had long ago ended. 

Circumcision has indeed undergone a lot of scrutiny and assault in Europe lately. In June 2012, for example, a regional court in Cologne Germany ruled that circumcising young boys for religious reasons amounted to bodily harm, even if parents agreed to it. An Israeli parliamentary committee denounced the ruling in Germany banning ritual circumcision, saying the decision infringes upon religious freedom.

Committee chairman Danny Danon said "Circumcision is one of the pillars of Judaism, and the last time it was restricted was in Germany during its darkest hour." He added that Israel would not tolerate restrictions on the practice of Judaism anywhere in the world, "and certainly not in Germany." (

Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg of the Brussels-based Rabbinical Centre of Europe told Ha’aretz that the ruling "contravened the EU's convention on human rights, to which Germany is subservient and harms the basic freedom of religion enshrined in the German constitution".

After the political outrage as a result of the ruling, the German government “was set to pass legislation that would legalize ritual circumcisions if they are performed by a medical professional, as reported in, the Times of Israel)

What’s more amazing is that the description of a Jewish circumcision in the mainstream Danish media recently, which made me think of the chess set.

“Around the baby stand ten black-clad men – a must in every Jewish circumcision," the text in the Danish media declared. "As usual in Judaism, women aren’t allowed to be present. An untrained rabbi mutilates the baby, who cries and bleeds profusely as the men pray.”


Politicians in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries have expressed views in favour of banning circumcision, and Denmark has investigated whether it violated health codes.

In May 2013, a caricature that appeared in Norway's third largest daily, depicted what some construed as Jews torturing a baby during a circumcision.(The cartoonist denied it was a depiction of Jews). The Anti-Defamation the cartoon in Dagbladet, “deeply offensive and appalling.”  As Manfred Gerstenfeld, a scholar of anti-Semitism  said the caricature “cannot be viewed separately from centuries of libels in Christian circles that try to establish a link between the ritual abuse of blood and the Jewish faith.”

To see the cartoon, click here:

In considering the issue of how circumcision is being portrayed in Europe, it is important to note that there are other disconcerting trends that exist regarding Jewish life in Europe. As Shmuel Rosner wrote in the New York Times on Aug 27, 2012:   

“A report released last week by the Jewish People Policy Institute connects this debate on circumcision to many other dots... The paper claims that the recent German ban, which is supported by 45 percent of Germans, stands alongside “the ban on Jewish ritual slaughter (already effective in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland — resting on animal rights claims), the proposed abolition of eternal cemeteries (in Switzerland, resting on a claim of environmental interest), the rejection of requests for accommodation of public examinations in light of the Jewish calendar (in France and Switzerland, resting on a claim of separation between Church and State), the rejection of requests for non-electric entry access in private condominiums (in France, resting on security claims), the reconsideration of the traditional massive public funding of Jewish cultural institutions (in France and other countries, resting on equity claims), the increasing pressure on Jewish day schools (all over Europe, resting on ethnic non-discrimination claims), and more. That’s a long list.”

After seeing the chess set, I decided to look up the number of Jews who have been great chess players. Here’s what wikipedia says in the first line:  “Jewish players and game theoreticians have long been involved in the game of chess and have significantly contributed to the development of chess, which has been described as the "Jewish National game". Of the first 13 undisputed world champions, over 50% were Jewish, including the first two.

Postscript: Since the chess set was in the Jewish Museum of Belgium, it sparked my interest in looking up the historic treatment (in brief) of Jews by Christians in Belgium. The first Jews to arrive in the present-day territory of Belgium arrived with the Romans between the years 50 and 60 AD. In 1261, Duke Henry III ordered the expulsion of Jews and "usurers" from the province. The Jewish community suffered further during the Crusades as many Jews who refused to be baptised were put to death. This early community mostly disappeared after the Black Death persecutions 1348-1350, and finally the Brussels massacre, of 1370. (following accusations of  host desecration twenty Jews were burnt and property confiscated.) In the 16th century, many Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain settled in Belgium and the Netherlands. In addition, many Marranos (crypto-Jews who outwardly professed Christianity) settled in Antwerp at the end of the 15th century.The status of Jews in Belgium would improve under  Austiran ,French and Dutch rule. Before the Holocaust, the Jewish community of Belgium was at its peak of roughly 70,000 Jews. Approximately 45% of Jews in Belgium were deported to concentration camps, primarily Auschwitz, and only 1200 of them survived the war.Today, there are around 42,000 Jews in Belgium.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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