Belgian Jews have gotten used to fearing for their safety. Every morning when parents drop off their children at Jewish schools across the country, they are greeted by heavily armed soldiers, stationed to protect the students.
And Jews know not to be too open about their faith, avoiding wearing kippahs or Stars of David on the streets.
So following Tuesday morning’s bloody attacks, when at least 34 people were killed in two separate incidents for which ISIS claimed responsibility, the country’s Jews—who number about 40,000—are on especially high alert.
“The Jewish community feels more threatened because we remain a target of those attacks. The fact that we have not been specifically targeted this time does not mean that we will not be [targeted] in the future,” Serge Rozen, president of the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations, told the Forward.
“Now the threat is becoming more tangible, but it’s not new, it’s something we’ve been accustomed to for years,” he added.
Indeed, two years ago a terrorist gunman with Islamist ties opened fire at The Jewish Museum of Belgium, killing four.
Belgian authorities have told the Jewish community that it is considered “a prime target” for future attacks, and leaders were instructed following Tuesday’s attacks to limit events to as few as possible.
Most Purim celebrations were to be cancelled, both due to security threats and in solidarity with the victims of the attacks.
Rozen remains pessimistic about the situation improving in the near future.
“I don’t see any change [being] possible. Things will get worse before they get better, because there is a limit to what the protection can offer,” he said. “Working on the source of the problems—which is the correct integration of the Muslim population—is going to take a long time.”
Europe has seen a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, and immigration to Israel is on the rise.
In France, where the majority of incidents have taken place, an all-time-high of 8,000 Jews left the country for the Jewish state in 2015.
In Belgium too, more Jews are leaving the country, Rozen noted, but he does not think that Tuesday’s attacks will have a direct effect on the number of people emigrating, since Jews were not specifically targeted.
Olivier Garçon, an active member of the Jewish community in Brussels, is staying in Belgium for the time being but believes he will eventually leave the country.
“I think we still have time, but it’s getting worse. In the long term it’s not going to end up well for [Jews in] Europe. I think I will leave when the threat reaches a boiling point, such as increasing violence against Jews and lack of support from the government—although some of that is already happening,” Garçon said.
Meanwhile, he feels mostly safe in the capital, due to the beefing up of security for Jewish institutions in recent years.
“Synagogues are more heavily guarded than other institutions. If they weren’t guarded, then the risk would be greater,” Garçon said. “Having police and military around, knowing they are invested in guarding the synagogues makes me feel safer.”
Increased security monitoring, however, is not without its costs. Michoel Rosenblum, who runs the EU Jewish Building, which houses over 20 European Jewish nonprofit organizations, said safety concerns don’t only take an emotional toll—but a financial one as well.
A quarter of his budget, Rosenblum estimated, is spent on security, which includes hiring private guards in addition to the security provided by the Belgian authorities.
“We don’t have an event that doesn’t have police and military [protection], and we staff armed guards. A lot of time, energy and effort goes into security concerns,” he said.
Rosenblum, who also serves as the rabbi for the European Synagogue, which is located inside EU headquarters, said many of his congregants—who mostly consist of Jewish expats working temporarily in Belgium—consider leaving the country.
“A lot of people are trying to see if they can relocate and work in other places. Having that said, no one really seems to know what would be the safer option,” he said.
Fear of Attacks Is New Normal for Belgian Jews
Josefin Dolsten is a former news fellow at the Forward, writing about politics and culture, and editing the Sisterhood blog. She received an MA in Jewish Studies and Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a BA in Government from Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @josefindolsten.