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What Brussels Taught This Israeli About Terror — and Tolerance

It was the end of the summer of 1994 when my family and I left Israel for the Zaventem airport in Brussels. Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. Murmurs of peace still permeated the air, muddled with the tumult and rise of terror: Muslims praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron had been murdered by Baruch Goldstein, an American Israeli.

None of that was on my mind as my mother ushered my brother and me onto our first plane ride. I was six years old and didn’t know about terror. All I knew was that I was leaving the only place I’d ever called home.

This past week, after terrorists blew up two bombs in that same airport, and another in a nearby subway train, I’m very far away from the doe-eyed six-year-old I once was. I know a lot about terror. But my five years of growing up in Belgium delayed my awareness of it. Thanks to Brussels, I spent my early youth without fear. I spent my most formative years learning about tolerance, not terror.

When I talked to a friend of mine whose parents lived in Brussels for a while, she remarked that it was such a quiet, ordinary place. “It makes it seem all the more surreal for something like that to happen in a city that is truly so unremarkable,” she said. It’s true. Brussels is no Paris. Its most famous cultural landmark is a tiny fountain statue of a little boy named, aptly and economically, “Manneken Pis” or pissing boy.

Brussels was the first place I ever saw my identity as a Jew as being “other.” In Israel, I had grown up in a school and a city where everyone was Jewish. But going to a Jewish day school here was different. I became aware that the public schools did not have guards. That there were people who did not grow up celebrating the same holidays as I did.

The attack on Brussels this past week was an attack on the heart of Europe, quite literally. Brussels is the capital of the E.U., and Belgium its founding member. It houses many of the offices of the U.N. and, as such, it is a hub of multiculturalism. A place where diplomats from all over Europe, and all over the world, come to live.

When my dad transferred jobs, we were sent to a “fancier” new school. It was an international school, where my classmates were from South America, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Everyone had to speak English.

As I was learning languages and cultures, malls and cafes were blowing up in Israel. Rabin was assassinated and peaceful coexistence became a distant hope. But I did not have to worry about that — not quite yet.

That year, my youngest brother was born and we moved to a bigger house that had a spare room for a live-in nanny. Her name was Afida. Sometimes, if I barged into her room without warning, I would find her kneeling on a sheet of white cloth, with her head bent toward Mecca. She had the Quran and I lent her my religious texts of the era, tomes of Judy Blume translated into French.

This Wednesday, as I saw crowds mourning in the city I had once called home, I realized that just as it was the center of Europe, Brussels was also the pivotal center of my life. This city, the birthplace of Tintin, was where I fell in love with comics and decided to become a cartoonist. It was the place where I learned to speak accent-less English.

That same inadvertent sense of pride that sometimes hits me when I talk about an Israeli invention or achievement is what I feel when I tell people that no, actually, they’re BELGIAN fries; that once every two years, in Brussels, the Grande-Place is home to one of Europe’s most magnificent flower carpets.

When we left Belgium, it was 1999. Afida cried. I threw tantrums. But Israel exerted a pull that my parents could not resist. It was family. In 2000, the Second Intifada began; I had my bat mitzvah and became an adult, finally inducted into a world where terror was a daily reality.

Now, the place that once saved me from terror has been hit by it: 31 people were killed in the attack on March 22. The sights reminded me of Israeli news reports from the early 2000s – outside of the Dolfinarium and in the cafes of Tel Aviv. People drenched in blood, shocked, unbelieving that this has hit them. Bodies in the streets.

A boy I grew up with in Belgium, who bears the same surname as me, was just parking his car at the Brussels airport, about to board a flight, when he heard the two bombs go off, followed by the yelps and the panicked scattering of the crowd. His parents, still at home, were loading suitcases into their car. They had a flight to catch a few hours later.

“I feel self-conscious talking to Israelis — they have to live with this terror every day,” his mother told me, shaken. “The Belgians are behind the Israelis,” she added. “They don’t know yet how to deal with terror.”

If the attacks this past week taught me anything, it is that nowhere is safe anymore. But, before I panic and react with hate and fear, I remember Afida. And I remember that this is an attack on her, too. That she and the Muslim community are as much Bruxelloise as anyone.

Yes, Brussels has a long way to go when it comes to dealing with terror. But the city’s iconic spirit of multiculturalism and tolerance should not be sacrificed along the way.

Je suis Bruxelloise.

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