'They seek to slyly buy our property in the Jewish quarter'

Allegations of greed and antisemitism taint Belgian urban pollution dispute

A gold refinery situated in a heavily Jewish part of Antwerp claims it’s the victim of Jews pretending to be worried about their health to take over real estate

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

An undated image of Jacob Jacob Street in Antwerp, which houses the Value Trading gold refinery. (Google Maps)
An undated image of Jacob Jacob Street in Antwerp, which houses the Value Trading gold refinery. (Google Maps)

A dispute about urban pollution in the Belgian city of Antwerp has escalated into a political maelstrom involving gold and allegations of greed and antisemitism.

The fight, which has been brewing for years, involves the Value Trading gold refinery, which is situated in the heart of a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Antwerp, home to about 18,000 Jews, most of whom are Haredi.

Following recent protests by Antwerp Jews over alleged pollution by the refinery, the latter suggested the allegations and campaign were part of an attempt to take over the firm’s real estate by Jews pretending to be worried about their health.

The affair, which prompted accusations of antisemitism against Value Trading, is unfolding amid concerns by Antwerp Jews for the viability of their community due to antisemitism by Arabs and nationalists, as well as bans on the practice of Jewish customs by a coalition of xenophobic right-wingers and liberals who prioritize secular causes over freedom of worship.

Residents have for years alleged that pollution from the refinery is causing health problems in the neighborhood, ranging from a stinging sensation in residents’ eyes to what the locals say is an abnormal number of cancer cases in people living near the refinery. Value Trading has dismissed these claims, stating that it strictly adheres to safety procedures.

This week, dozens of Haredi women demonstrated outside city hall to protest the situation, which two left-leaning opposition parties and the ruling right-wing party agree is untenable. It was the first city hall protest in years by Antwerp Jews, whose leaders have sought minimal friction with authorities and with the non-Jewish population.

Attention to the case in Belgian media prompted Value Trading to go on the offensive, making allegations that are unusual for the blunt references to the rivals’ Jewish identity and allusions to their alleged greed and dishonesty.

A spokesperson for the refinery, Frederik Picard, told the media in a statement: “The incessant, random allegations make us wonder whether the residents are really worried about their health, or whether they’re trying to slyly make sure they can buy our property in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood.” He added: “It wouldn’t be the first time that they fight a local business through harassment and false allegations to buy off their property.”

The Forum of Jewish Organizations, the main umbrella group representing Jews in Belgium’s Flemish Region, one of three federal regions whose largest city is Antwerp, responded Wednesday with an unusually strongly worded statement accusing Value Trading of antisemitism.

Value Trading is trying to make its alleged pollution a “Jewish problem,” the Forum wrote. The firm’s “antisemitic discourse seems like it was taken from 1930s Nazi Germany, not Belgium in 2023, and it is unacceptable,” the statement said.

A majority of lawmakers in Antwerp’s City Council seem to be in favor of setting up a committee of inquiry to look into the claims of a health hazard, though a vote on this issue has not yet been scheduled. Philippe Scharf, the co-chairman of the Forum, told The Times of Israel that “this is not a strictly Jewish issue, many non-Jewish residents of Antwerp are concerned both by the potential pollution and the expressions of antisemitism” around it.

In 2019, two out of Belgium’s three regions banned kosher and halal slaughter of animals, causing several kosher butcheries to shut down. Belgian physicians, medical associations and multiple activists have been lobbying vocally to also ban the non-medical circumcision of boys. Belgian media, especially in the Flemish Region, has often faced allegations of encouraging antisemitism.

Antwerp Jews, who are easily recognizable, are also frequent targets of antisemitic assaults, especially during periods of violence or tensions involving Israel.

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