“We are like the canary in the mine”

“Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem. It is a societal problem. It is a sign of societal disease”, says Maurice Sosnowski, a spokesman for the Belgian Jewish community.

Øyvind Strømmen

July 2014: Two policemen stand outside the Jewish museum in Brussels. The museum in the tourist area of le Sablon (or Zavel) in Brussels is closed. A sign explains, both in French and Dutch, that the museum is closed for an on-going police investigation. One policeman holds a machine pistol. The other stands with his arms crossed.

A roughly 15-minute walk from the museum, past the Palace of Justice and toward the mediaeval city gate Porte de Halle, is the Institut Jules Bordet, a hospital named after the Belgian immunologist known for his work with whooping cough.

It’s not a large hospital, but as is so often the case, it is like a maze. Deep inside this labyrinth are the offices of Maurice Sosnowski, head of the anaesthesiology unit and a key spokesman for the Jewish community in Belgium, as leader of the Coordination Committee of Belgium’s Jewish Organizations (CCOJB). Sosnowski is a soft-spoken man. He speaks English with a marked French accent. He is worried.

“In a way, we were prepared”
He says the attack at the Jewish museum was, of course, a shock, but adds, “Still, we were prepared that something could happen, after what happened in Toulouse and after what happened 20 years ago in Argentina. In a way, we were prepared.”

The first incident he refers to were shootings carried out by the extreme Islamist Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in the spring of 2012, one of them targeting a Jewish school, Ozar Hatorah, where four people were killed, three of them young children (Read more: The Toulouse and Mountaban attacks). The other was a bomb attack against a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires on 18 July 1994 in which 85 people were killed. No one has been convicted of the latter attack and the investigation has been marred by mistakes. It is, however, widely suspected that the Lebanese militia Hezbollah was involved.

Belgian history has similar stories: In 1989, the leader of CCOJB, Joseph Wobryn, was shot outside the hospital where he worked. Wobryn, Sosnowski’s brother-in-law, died from his wounds the next day. No one has been convicted of the murder, even though the group Jund al-Haqq, linked to the Palestinian militant leader Abu Nidal, claimed responsibility.

“Returning Syria fighters are a threat”
Now Sosnowski fears more attacks, this time from extremist Islamists. He points out the relatively high number of young people, mostly male, who have left Belgium to participate in the Syrian civil war, many of them fighting with Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, that has now established a self-declared “Islamic state” in parts of Syria and Iraq. The group has committed atrocities against Shiite Muslims, Christians and followers of the Yezidi religion.

“These people are already indoctrinated when they leave Belgium,” says Sosnowski. “Those who return have radicalized further. There’s only a few people in the security services keeping an eye on returned Syria volunteers. This is a threat.”

Sosnowski said more attacks like the Brussels museum killings would not surprise him. He also points to wave of anti-Semitism in connection with the most recent war on the Gaza Strip; including attacks on French synagogues and demonstrations in several European cities, with protesters were chanting strongly anti-Semitic slogans. “It is like we have returned to the time of the pogroms,” he says, calling for clearer condemnation of anti-Semitism from European politicians. “Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem,” he says, “It is a societal problem. It is a sign of societal disease. Jews are like the canary in the mine.”

Read more: The Shots in Brussels.

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About Øyvind Strømmen

Øyvind Strømmen is a Norwegian freelance journalist, author and managing editor of Hate Speech International. He has written extensively on the extreme right and other forms of extremism since 2007, and has published the Norwegian-language books Det mørke nettet (2011) and Den sorte tråden (2013), the first of which is also translated into Swedish, Finnish and French.
View all posts by Øyvind Strømmen →

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