One of the more obscure words I know in Flemish is besnijden. As in, my son is besnijden. Circumcised. I’m an American Jew living in Belgium, in the Flemish-speaking north, and sometimes I feel the need to give the heads-up to his caretakers that he is, well, a little different from the other kids.
Last week Brussels witnessed a horrific attack on the airport I recently traveled through and on the metro I’ve ridden to the European Parliament for meetings. Friends and family ask: What’s it like being Jewish and living in Belgium, especially now?
“I’m nervous” is what I’m supposed to say. Which is true, but not the full story. Or maybe, “I worry about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe,” so that I can confirm what my Jewish American cousins suspect. And I am. But that’s also only partly true. And because I don’t want to misrepresent a country that has been extremely welcoming to me and because I love my new Belgian family dearly, I find myself wanting to say the opposite: It’s 100% normal to be Jewish in Belgium. But that isn’t entirely accurate either. The truth of my experiences is more complicated, and it only got more complicated last week.
I did tell my son’s preschool teacher last month that he is besnijden, because I needed a way to tell her that we’re Jewish, that we won’t be celebrating Easter this spring in our house, that on days when pork is served in school I will pack my son’s lunch instead. Her response? “That’s fine; we welcome differences. I just don’t know what he can and can’t eat so please make sure to tell me.”
I do keep my eye on the rising tide of anti-Semitism in parts of Europe. I am not persuaded by the claims of the left that it’s coming just from recent immigrants. Nor am I persuaded by claims from the right that Belgium is hostile to Jews. And still, as an American with an American passport, I have told my Belgian husband that we are moving to the United States on the first airplane out of here if things start to feel like 1930s Germany. I’m not waiting for 1939.
But that’s not how things feel, not to me as a Jew, not even close. It feels more like New York City did when I was in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Like there might not be such a thing as a “safe” place anymore. But I also know that millions of people around the world don’t get to live in a safe place, whether they are living in fear of state-sponsored violence or ad hoc violence. Should I be any different? Or: How can it be different for all of us, not just the privileged in the West?
The answer I got from my son’s preschool teacher has been the standard response I’ve received whenever my Jewishness comes up: We welcome your differences, we just don’t know much about them. The Christian Belgians I’ve met want to know: Why don’t you celebrate Christmas? Why don’t you eat mussels? Curiosity, not ill intention, has greeted me in this tiny European country.
I’m in favor of curiosity. But here’s where it gets complicated. We know that learning about others is one of the best ways to stave off mistrust. I don’t understand why they don’t know just a bit more about Jews and Judaism. Antwerp boasts a predominantly Orthodox and Haredi Jewish community of 15,000, with a total of around 30,000 Jews in Belgium. Jews are a minority in this country, but a visible one. So visible that Belgians sometimes say to me: “You’re Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.” What they mean is: I wear blue jeans and don’t cover my hair and so I don’t look Haredi. In fact, I look very Jewish and have been told so all my life: curly brown hair, pale skin, Semitic nose, not that tall. Believe me, I look plenty Jewish.
I do wonder why the excellent Belgian school system doesn’t do a more consistent job educating their students about other religions. That not all Jews are Haredi. That our dietary requirements are called “kosher.” And it makes me wonder something else: What is the Belgian school system doing to educate their students about Islam, a religion practiced by close to 700,000 people in Belgium? Do Belgians learn that Islam has five pillars of faith, that Muslims, like Jews, don’t eat pork, that their dietary requirements are called “halal,” and that their boys are also besnijden?
I worry about this particularly now, in the aftermath of this past week’s attack, because the names of the suspected terrorists are all Middle Eastern or North African, Islamic names. I know how easy it is to fear the other, the unknown. And with groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda taking credit for some of the most horrific acts of violence we’ve seen in recent years, Islam has become our generation’s most controversial religion.
But the Ku Klux Klan claimed to be acting in the name of Christianity, and you’d be hard pressed to find a practicing Christian who sees members of the KKK as true Christians. I don’t see any reason to equate ISIS with true Muslims.
So when you ask me what it’s like to be Jewish and living in Belgium today, the truth is that I am vigilant for signs of discrimination, but I’m as vigilant for signs of discrimination against Jews as I am for signs of discrimination against Muslims. Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and I know how it feels to be a stranger in Belgium. I hope that the welcoming society I live in will continue to extend itself to all the strangers in its midst, especially now that doing so is harder than it was before.
Ilana Sumka teaches Jewish education and conversion classes at a progressive synagogue in Brussels. She is a founding member of Een Andere Joodse Stem/Another Jewish Voice and is the director of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.