Jews in Belgium expect already dire anti-Semitism problem to get worse, says AJC
LISTEN: People of the Pod'Once a taboo has been broken, it ceases to be one'

Jews in Belgium expect already dire anti-Semitism problem to get worse, says AJC

Episode #10: AJC Transatlantic Institute’s Daniel Schwammenthal gives a sobering debrief from Brussels * Former Israeli ambassador to China Matan Vilnai says ties will only grow

This week on People of the Pod, we discuss Belgian anti-Semitism and the burgeoning ties between Israel and China. The podcast, produced in partnership between the American Jewish Committee and The Times of Israel, speaks with Daniel Schwammenthal, Director of AJC’s Transatlantic Institute, and then hosts Israel’s former envoy to China Ambassador Matan Vilnai in AJC’s New York studio.

Weekly podcast “People of the Pod” is produced in partnership between the American Jewish Committee and The Times of Israel to analyze global affairs through a Jewish lens.

Schwammenthal joins co-host Manya Brachear Pashman in a phone conversation from Belgium, which is marked by a recent constant stream of anti-Semitic episodes — and the government’s reluctance to do anything about it.

Examples include a parade float “humorously” playing on the trope of Jewish greed, Flemish sign language’s use of a large hook-nose to signify “Jew,” and a local politician proudly displaying his “art” — a swastika emblazoned with “And God created Hitler.”

What makes Belgium stand out, said Schwammenthal, is the lack of non-Jewish condemnation of such blatantly anti-Semitic events.

A model gesturing a hooked nose on the website if the University of Ghent, Belgium. (University of Ghent via JTA)

“There is a lack of public outrage,” said Schwammenthal, and an almost “dismissive response” to the Jewish community’s concerns. “We now have such an accumulation of incidents that we see a sort of normalization,” said Schwammenthal.

“Once a taboo has been broken, it ceases to be one,” he said.

According to recent polling, Belgium is ranked in the top three countries in terms of perceptions of anti-Semitism, said Schwammenthal. He adds, however, that it is not fundamentally different from its neighboring countries.

Many people have contemplated leaving the country due to rising anti-Semitism, Schwammenthal said.

“People are really concerned about their children,” he said. “The expectation is rather widespread that things are going to get worse and not better.”

Illustrative: An Orthodox Jew and a boy pass two police officers in Antwerp, Belgium, on May 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

The appointment of new caretaker prime minister Sophie Wilmès, a Jew, is not necessarily a step towards amelioration of the country’s anti-Semitism, he said. “I would not consider it a reason to be now at ease,” said Schwammenthal.

Schwammenthal urges the government to acknowledge the country’s anti-Semitism problem, whether it be a denial of the right for the existence of the State of Israel to classical forms, and adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.

“If we don’t even recognize it, then obviously we can’t fight it,” said Schwammenthal.

Matan Vilnai, a Cabinet minister and former general, will be Israel's next envoy to China. (Photo: Flash90)
Matan Vilnai, a former Cabinet minister and general, ahead of his appointment as Israel’s envoy to China. (Photo: Flash90)

Next, former Ambassador Matan Vilnai speaks with Kogen and compares and contrasts China’s ties with Israel since both countries’ foundation until today. Initially, said Vilnai, China was extremely pro-Palestinian. Only later, the country recognized Israel’s strengths in technology and innovation, and began diplomatic relations in January 1992.

That being said, Vilnai emphasized that the sole supporter of Israel from a strategic perspective is the United States. This idea became a mantra for Vilnai during his time in China, to the consternation of his staff. “Because I am the ambassador to China, I would like each one of us to remember the importance of the United States for Israel,” Vilnai said he would remind his staff.

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According to the understanding with the Americans, said Vilnai, Israel is not allowed to have any military dealings with China, only civil.

Co-host Seffi Kogen raises the question of the implications of China’s increasing ownership of Israeli companies and ports, as well as the country’s construction of major infrastructure in Israel. Vilnai said this is not unique to the Jewish state, but the increasing ties are.

“For the Chinese, the most important thing is technology and technology is innovation,” said Vilnai. This is where Israel steps in, he said. “Israel is smaller than America and in many aspects we are some kind of a bridge, some kind of a gate, between China and the US.”

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