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Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Interior of Great Synagogue of Brussels, renamed Great Synagogue of Europe in 2008
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Shabbat Table display in the Jewish Museum of Belgium
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

courtyard in the Jewish Museum of Belgium-
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


By Rhonda Spivak, June 23, 2014

Ever since the anti-Semitic shooting  attack on May 24, 2014 at the Brussels Jewish museum killing two Israelis, a French woman and a young Belgian man citizen, I have been thinking about the day I spent last February in Brussels visiting this very museum, the antique shop next door and the nearby Great Synagogue of Brussels.

On my way back from Israel, I had stopped in Brussels and found myself wandering around the old part of central Brussels  when I happened across the Great Synagogue on  Rue de la Régence . Finding the door locked, I rang to see if I could get in and a  man wearing a kippah who worked at the synagogue opened it. Except for he and I, there was no one there, and my jaw dropped as I marveled at the beauty of this resplendent Romanesque synagogue constructed in 1878. This regal synagogue  had survived the Holocaust,  in which 25,000 Belgium Jews had perished.  The  building of this Great Synagogue was a political act since  in the 19th century,  responding to  the  Age of EnlightenmentGreat Synagogues were built in many capitals of Europe to show that Jews were full and free citizens.


I asked the man who had let me into the synagogue  about  anti-Semitism in Belgium. "Yes, there is anti-Semitism," he answered, nodding his head, in a way that made it clear to me there was no doubt in his mind  about it. As if to re-enforce his words, I noticed that on February 12, 2013,  a day after my visit to this Great Synagogue, the Anti-Defamation League had issued a statement expressing its outrage that a group of participants in the UNESCO-affiliated Aalst Carnaval paraded through the streets of Aalst, Belgium dressed as Nazi SS officers on a rail car reminiscent of those used to deport Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. Photos in the Belgian media showed the men dressed in full Nazi regalia with a Hasidic Jewish boy character on a railcar, decorated with posters depicting pails labeled, “Zyklon,” the chemical used in the Nazi gas chambers.

Just down the street from the synagogue, I noticed the Belgium Jewish Museum, located in a nineteenth century town house  and went inside. The clerk at the desk explained to me that "This is not a Holocaust Museum", albeit there was one room that featured artwork done by a Belgium Jew who  depicted the rounding up of Belgium Jews by the Nazis. There  clerk who wasn't Jewish, also intimated to me  that funding for the Museum was limited. When I walked around a display with a Shabbat table and a JNF pishka box,  I do remember thinking that although the Museum is intended to be a museum about Jewish life, it didn't feel very lively and I thought it felt more like it  was recording the diminishment of Jewish life.


At the time I was at the Museum there was no security, (the museum was one of the few Jewish institutions of the Brussels that did not have constant police protection), but as a result of the recent terror attack the Belgian government will earmark up to $4 million for improving security around Jewish buildings, a Brussels-based daily has just reported. It's interesting to note that the Museum had asked the Belgian government for an upgrade in security prior to the attack given its limited budget, but were turned down. . The Belgium police  have arrested a  suspect of the shooting attack, French jihadist  Mehdi Nemmouche who spent time fighting in Syria for a year, crystalizing fears that Muslim radicals will parlay their experiences in Syria into terrorism back in Europe and elsewhere. I unfortunately think those fears are well founded, and European governments have only woken up to the problem too late. (Already, hundreds of people have left from France alone to fight in Syria's three-year civil war with Islamic extremists.)


There is a terrible irony to all of this. That's because on June 4, 2008, the Great Synagogue of Brussels where I  visited was dedicated by President Jose Manuel Barroso as a focal point for European Jews, being renamed the "Great Synagogue of Europe." At the time in 2008 it was hoped that the building would become a focus for Judaism in Europe, as  St. Peter's Bascilica is for Roman Catholics. I don't think that in light of this recent terror attack this hope is likely to be realized. In fact, quite the opposite- The  Great Synagogue of Europe is now more likely to be remembered as place  very nearby a  terrible terror attack on a Jewish institution in what can only be construed as a sign of increased anti-Semitism in Europe. 


One must ask how hopeful European Jews are of sustained and renewed Jewish life in Europe? The answer in short is that they appear to be losing confidence. A poll of European Jews  found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed believe anti-Semitism is on the rise in their home countries and close to one-third have considered emigrating because they don’t feel safe. The poll  conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights included research among Jews from Sweden, France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Latvia.  A third of Europe's Jews have weighed leaving because of safety fears | The Times of Israel . In France, the numbers appear to be even worse as nearly 75 percent of thousands of French Jews who participated in a recent survey by the Paris-based Siona organization of Sephardic French Jews said they are considering emigrating.

And so, it appears that, the Great Synagogue of Europe in Brussels less than  6 years after its rededication may well become a symbol of what can only be described as diminishing Jewish life in Europe.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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