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January 25, 2021 3:51 pm

Antwerp Mayor Claims Belgian City’s Jews Are Risking ‘Wave of Antisemitism’ Over Alleged Non-Compliance With COVID-19 Protocols

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An Orthodox Jewish man is seen in the city of Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Reuters/Belga Photo Dirk Waem.

The mayor of  Antwerp has claimed that the Belgian city’s historic community of Orthodox Jews risk bringing a “wave of antisemitism” upon themselves because of non-compliance with COVID-19 social distancing and testing requirements.

Commenting on the disclosure from district health officials that the pandemic’s infection rate in Antwerp’s Jewish quarter is four times higher than in the rest of the city, Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever said on Monday that the “Jewish community has to realize one thing: they are following their own logic, but I see the repercussions in my mailbox, and it’s frightening.”

Concluded De Wever in a newspaper interview: “If we really want a wave of antisemitism, let’s continue like this.”

The mayor noted that Antwerp police had raided the same synagogue twice on Shabbat, evicting 37 worshippers from morning services and then 22 people who gathered there later on.

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De Wever then threatened to close the synagogue in question, which The Algemeiner understands is affiliated with the Belz Hasidic community.

“I never imagined that I would be the mayor who would still be closing synagogues in the 21st century: I imagined my term as mayor differently,” he declared. “But that’s what we’re heading for, and it’s dramatic. It’s extremely regrettable.”

Antwerp’s Jewish community of 25,000 is served by 50 synagogues. Under COVID-19 restrictions, no more than 15 people are allowed to attend synagogue services at one time, including the ten adult males necessary for a minyan.

The community is regarded as more vulnerable to the pandemic because its members frequently travel to London and Manchester in the United Kingdom, where they retain strong family and religious ties with the various Hasidic communities in those cities.

De Wever also criticized the Jewish community for an allegedly not responding to a mailed call to 6,500 residents of Antwerp’s Jewish quarter to test for the virus over the weekend. He said the low response was especially alarming because of the newer, potentially stronger variant of the COVID virus that had recently emerged in the UK.

A local councillor representing one of the city’s Jewish districts pushed back against De Wever, however, saying that the poor turnout was the consequence of holding the tests on Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath.

“It is logical that on Saturday there were no Jews at the [test site],” the councillor, Samuel Markowitz, told the Dutch newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “You won’t see anyone getting into their car or jumping on their bike on Saturday.”

Markowitz asserted that De Wever, “with whom the Jewish community works in good harmony, knows this.”

The mayor “would have done better to say: stay safe at home on Saturday and get tested on Sunday or Monday without fail. Let’s wait until Monday evening to take stock,” Markowitz said.

The spokesman for the Forum of Jewish Organizations (FJO) — the representative Jewish communal organization in the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, where Antwerp is located — contested that claim, saying that the testing site had also been open on Sunday and Monday, as well as Shabbat.

“Very few showed up on Sunday or on Monday either,” Hans Knoop — the FJO’s Antwerp-based spokesman — told The Algemeiner on Monday.

Asked whether he thought De Wever’s remarks could further stoke the COVID-19 related antisemitism that has mushroomed in Belgium and Europe more widely, Knoop said that the mayor had been “undiplomatic” in his choice of wording.

“He was outraged and emotional,” Knoop said.

But he added that De Wever was “a close and good friend of the Jewish community.”

“I don’t have the slightest doubt about his sincerity and his intentions,” Knoop said.

Knoop said that he personally had “never before seen such antisemitic emails” prior to the pandemic. Asked whether he was concerned about the entire Jewish community being blamed for the spread of infection — as De Wever’s comments may have suggested — Knoop observed that Flemish society was not especially knowledgable about its Jewish community.

“For the Flemish population, every Jew is alike, they think we are a homogeneous bloc,” Knoop explained.

Knoop stressed that the vast majority of Antwerp’s Jews were observing the COVID-19 regulations.

“Out of 25,000 Jews, it’s just a tiny minority who don’t care,” Knoop said. “All Jews are abiding by the rules, except for perhaps 500 or so.”

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