Threats Against Jews Flare In Belgium

Anger over the events in Gaza appear to be connected to a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment in Belgium, including death threats against Jews in Antwerp and an arson attempt at a synagogue in Brussels.

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Protests against Israel's Gaza offensive turned violent in several cities around the world today. In Pakistan, demonstrators tried to attack a U.S. consulate. Security forces had to use tear gas and batons to stop them. And in Brussels, Belgium, 30,000 people clashed with police. Ten of them were arrested. That country has become a flashpoint in the past several weeks, and Jewish residents are living in fear. Teri Schultz reports from Antwerp.

TERI SCHULTZ: The violence in Gaza is reflected in the streets of Europe, where the perception among Muslim populations that Israel is being favored has boosted support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

(Soundbite of protest)

SCHULTZ: Belgium has seen some of the worst unrest. It started New Year's Eve with a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Antwerp that degenerated into a downtown rampage headed toward the city's Jewish area. While police stopped it, this set the stage for a surge of anti-Semitic attacks, mostly in Antwerp, which, with some 22,000 Jews, has one of the largest Jewish populations outside Israel. People have been beaten in the streets. A Jewish home has been set on fire. Synagogues have been attacked.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Ms. TERRY DAVIDS (Publisher, Joods Actueel): (Foreign language spoken)

SCHULTZ: For Terry Davids, who publishes the Jewish magazine Joods Actueel, the situation has hit very close to home. She and her staff have received death threats, including one warning, you Jews are not safe, suggesting a suicide attack to avenge the lives of Gaza children by killing Jewish children. Davids says unfortunately, while this is a bad situation, it's not a new one.

Ms. DAVIDS: We are used to this. It's very, very sad. But we are always used to being scared.

SCHULTZ: She acknowledges that many Jews are making adjustments in their daily lives. In her family, that's meant men foregoing the traditional skull cap in certain areas of the city.

Ms. DAVIDS: I feel horrible about it. But it still affects, and I don't want to take any unnecessary risks.

SCHULTZ: One group often blamed for inciting conflicts here is the Arab-European League, AEL, which defines itself as a political and social organization supporting Arab and Muslim causes, and encouraging rallies for Hamas and Hezbollah.

(Soundbite of rally)

SCHULTZ: Mohammad Ben Hadu(ph), president of AEL's Antwerp Chapter, insists his group had nothing to do with the riots of December 31st, or actions like death threats. But he does think Belgians are overreacting to these incidents and under-reacting to what's happening to Palestinians in Gaza.

Mr. MOHAMMAD BEN HADU (President, Arab-European League's Antwerp Chapter): People having bombs over a thousand pounds dropped on their roof, that's what you should get frustrated about and not about some 18 cars who got their side mirror, you know, kicked off.

SCHULTZ: Antwerp politician Hicham El Mzairh, a Muslim, agrees that Gaza suffering must be put higher on the European agenda, but says what's happening here is not helping that cause. He and Mikhail Freilich of the Jewish magazine Joods Actueel last week issued a joint call for the Muslim and Jewish communities to focus on what they have in common.

Mr. HICHAM EL MZAIRH (Politician, Antwerp, Belgium): I'm convinced that the people of Antwerp are strong enough to come over this. It's just a period that's going to pass, and we have to just learn and get over it and live together.

SCHULTZ: But the Arab-European League's Ben Hadu says unless European leaders do more to stop Israeli attacks, they will see more conflict at home.

Mr. BEN HADU: We will escalate. People are getting more and more angry. Things will get hotter here in Antwerp and in Brussels, and in the whole of Europe.

SCHULTZ: Terry Davids says while she may be nervous, she won't be intimidated.

Ms. DAVIDS: I believe in God, and I hope he'll protect me. I'm sure he will.

SCHULTZ: And the Belgian government has posted thousands of extra police officers around Jewish neighborhoods, shops, schools and religious sites to help maintain peace and restore peace of mind. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Antwerp.

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