Polls are suggesting that Filip Dewinter, chairman of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) Party in Antwerp, could become the Belgian city�s next mayor and the most successful far-right politician in Europe, bypassing the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Jorg Haider in Austria.
Perhaps surprising is that Dewinter, who has been called a �Haider without the anti-Semitic background,� is reaching out to the city�s 20,000 Jews and receiving support from a small but growing number.
They are seeing Dewinter, 43, in a more favorable light because of his pledge to protect the Jews from attacks by Muslim immigrants who come mostly from Morocco and Turkey, according to Hans Knoop, a retired Dutch journalist who now runs his own media consulting agency and has lived in Belgium since 1990.
�Orthodox rabbis openly support him, and he has started a charm campaign to the Orthodox community and to Israelis,� Knoop said. �He gave an interview to [the Israeli newspaper Haaretz] in which he said there is a danger from the left and from Muslims. He is successful because some Jews fall for his charms. They say that if he hates the Arabs, he is our friend.�
Attacks against Jews and Jewish property � including an assault on the chief rabbi of Brussels and the firebombing of a Jewish bookstore in Brussels � prompted The Simon Wiesenthal Center in April 2002 to issue a travel advisory urging Jews to use �extreme caution� when traveling to Belgium.
The ban remains in effect, according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center�s associate dean, because Belgian authorities have made no concerted effort to arrest and punish the perpetrators.
�The Jewish community does not feel physically safe, especially in Antwerp where there are all sorts of daily intimidation and where the community tradition is not to be aggressive through the democratic process,� Rabbi Cooper said. �They have an old European view of things.�
In Antwerp, a city of 450,000 about 30 miles north of the capital Brussels, the vast majority of Jews are fervently Orthodox. They are concentrated in the center of the city in what has been described as the last shtetl in Europe.
Most of those Jews are involved in the diamond industry and have made Antwerp the world�s largest diamond trading center. It is estimated that 80 percent of all rough diamonds in the world are traded in Antwerp, and that as much as half of the trading in cut and polished diamonds also occurs there.
Dewinter is capitalizing on the fear in the Jewish community and on its support for Israel, which he openly champions while many other Belgian political leaders view Israel as an occupying power.
�A lot of individuals ... cannot follow anymore those in the Jewish establishment who say they should vote for the Liberal Party,� said Henri Rosenberg, a chasid and law professor at Catholic University in Holland.
�In the last few years, the Liberal Party has taken into its midst some extremist elements who support Hezbollah and Hamas, while Dewinter is very charming and has been interviewed in Jewish newspapers and he meets with rabbis,� he said. �A lot of Jews are not following the establishment and will vote for him.�
Rosenberg cited instances in which members of parliament from the Liberal Party flew to Syria and �shook hands with [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and then traveled to Palestine. And when Mr. Arafat came to Belgium, he received the red carpet treatment in parliament, while a few weeks later [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon came and they did not want him in parliament. So as a face-saving gesture, the president of the parliament invited him to his office. And the only party to object [to Sharon�s treatment] was Dewinter�s.'
Rosenberg added that Dewinter is �a friend of the Jews, and he says Israel is the only democracy in the region and should be supported by the European Union.�
Party Of Holocaust Deniers?
But Claude Marinower, a Jewish member of the Antwerp City Council and the only Jewish member of the federal parliament, said that although �you will never catch� Dewinter saying anything anti-Semitic, �he sits next to people [in his party] whom he doesn�t condemn and who say the most hurtful things.�
�The founders of the party were to be found in the circles of a lot of former Nazi collaborators and the Flemish pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic movements,� he said.
In an e-mail interview, Dewinter did not deny that his Vlaams Belang Party has attracted Holocaust deniers and that �some youths with Nazi sympathies think we are their allies. But we are not. They are not welcome.
�There are some very small Nazi groups in Belgium, but they hate us,� he said. �They say we are the accomplices of international Jewry and that we betrayed nationalism in return for Jewish money, that we kowtow for international Zionism, and so on. You certainly know that kind of slander.�
Knoop dismissed critics who call Dewinter�s party �fascists� and �anti-Semites.� But he said he cannot �whitewash the fact that high-ranking party officials of Vlaams Belang in the past openly denied the Holocaust. ... The fact that those who have denied the Holocaust in the past could remain party members casts serious doubt� about his support for Jews.
�It is not an anti-Semitic party, but a party where anti-Semites feel at ease,� Knoop said. �I am afraid that during the next election more Jewish voters will support him because he stands firm behind Israel and the safety of the Jewish community in Antwerp.�
In a regional election in June, one poll had the Vlaams Belang Party receiving 5 percent of the Jewish vote in Antwerp. Overall the party, which espouses anti-immigrant views and seeks independence for Belgium�s Flemish-speaking northern Flanders region, won 24 percent of the vote, making it the second largest party in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.
A poll published in October � just one year before the 2006 municipal elections � found that support for Dewinter had increased to 33 percent. And 54 percent of those questioned in Antwerp said Vlaams Belang should be a part of the city administration next year.
But Julien Klener, president of the Consistoire Central Israelite de Belgique, the official representative body of Belgian Jewry that is composed of representatives of both Orthodoxy and the secular Jewish organizations, said the number of Jewish votes Vlaams Belang receives is largely irrelevant.
�Who cares if a number of Jewish people who don�t realize what is going on in the outside world should vote for the party?� Klener asked. �The majority of Jews in Antwerp are definitely not voting for the extreme right. Why do people keep repeating the same thing? Two thousand or 500 or 10 [Jews] voting for the extreme right, what does it change anything when you have 30 percent of the people in Antwerp voting for it?�
Klener said the press has written that Dewinter is �sucking up to the Jewish community because he needs all the votes he can get to realize his dream of being the mayor of Antwerp. When someone is sucking up to you, what lies behind it?�
He added: �On a personal level, I feel uneasy with what really is going on, what the party really thinks about Jews and Judaism. I was born before World War II and I�m overly sensitive to extremist rightist parties. � They frighten me. It�s better to watch them carefully.�
Kenneth Jacobson, assistant national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it would be �shortsighted for Jews to vote for extreme right-wing parties.�
He suggested the Belgian government could sway voters from such a party by �lowering the anti-Israel rhetoric and making Jews feel secure by dealing forcefully with those who commit acts of violence� against them.
The increasing support for Dewinter and his party comes just a year after Dewinter�s original party, Vlaams Blok, was declared racist by Belgium�s Supreme Court on Nov. 9, 2004. The court found that the party �continually incites toward racial discrimination and segregation� � action that could have led to a ban on the party.
Five days later, leaders of Vlaams Blok adopted their new name, Vlaams Belang, in order to continue receiving government funding and avoid being prosecuted for associating with a banned party. But little else changed.
Dewinter acknowledged in the e-mail interview that �we have not changed so much since our conviction ... but the conviction was a sham. It was a political process aimed at curtailing an opposition party.
�The laws used in this conviction were specially concocted to eliminate our party,� he said. �In the United States we would have been acquitted under the First Amendment protecting free speech.�
Rather than hurt Dewinter, the court action appears to have helped fuel the party�s climb in the polls, support that has consistently increased over the past 20 years. And Dewinter himself has been transformed into what one newspaper called a �leading political force.�
Deputy Mayor Concerned
Uneasy about Dewinter�s growing support, Baron Leo Delwaide, deputy mayor of Antwerp, came here in September to meet with Jewish leaders and explain to them that if Dewinter were to win the mayoralty next October, it would not be a sign that there is any �structured or governmental anti-Semitism� in the city.
�Votes for [Dewinter and his party] do not reflect an increase in anti-Semitism,� Delwaide insisted.
Were Dewinter and his party to win in Antwerp next October, Delwaide noted, it would be despite the cordon sanitaire (safety barrier), a coalition formed by the four other parties in Antwerp to keep Vlaams Belang from having any say in local government. In the last municipal election in Antwerp in 2000, Dewinter�s party won 20 of the 55 seats.
�The problem is if we continue it [the cordon sanitaire] we give [Vlaams Belang] the image of martyrs and there is also no way for people to vote against the coalition� except to vote for Vlaams Belang, Delwaide said.
Also increasing support for Vlaams Belang, Delwaide said, is the fact that Belgian law says every city must accept illegal immigrants and provide money for them to survive. He said many of the illegals are �dumped� in Antwerp, which adds to the city�s burdens and creates social unrest.
�To get rid of them, people vote for Vlaams Belang because they call for the illegals to be forced out [of the country],� Delwaide said. �And they say that foreigners can only be accepted if they integrate � speak Flemish and follow Flemish rules.�
He went on to say that �Dewinter is not anti-Semitic, but the danger is that when you hear speech about the exclusion of illegals and foreigners who don�t integrate, the move to anti-Semitism is an easy jump. We have to be careful.�
Dewinter scoffed at that assertion, saying that reasoning could be applied to President George W. Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
�First they go after radical Islam, then they will go after the Jews,� he said. �In our view, Judaism and Islam are absolutely not two of the same kind. On the contrary, they are foes. One has to choose sides. Which side are you on in the war on terror? The side of Western democracy and Western civilization, with its Judeo-Christian roots, or the side of radical Islam? The side of Great Britain, America and Israel, or the side of Iran, Sudan and the Taliban?�
Asked about those who say that Jews should not vote for a party that espouses xenophobia, Dewinter replied: �Xenophobia is not the word I would use. If it absolutely must be a �phobia,� let it be �Islamophobia.�
�Yes, we�re afraid of Islam. The Islamization of Europe is a frightening thing. Even distinguished Jewish scholars as Bat Ye�or and Bernard Lewis warned of this. If this historical process continues, the Jews will be the first victims. Europe will become as dangerous for them as Egypt or Algeria. So, I return your question. Should Jews vote for a party that wants to stop the spread of Islam in Europe?�
Dewinter�s claim that he is Islamophobic prompted a multicultural youth organization and an anti-racism group in Belgium to lodge a criminal complaint against him late last month for inciting racial hatred. And the Council of State was asked to investigate whether Vlaams Belang should be deprived of public funding.
Marinower insisted that Jews who vote for Vlaams Belang are comparable to those who would vote for the Ku Klux Klan in America if it pledged to protect Jews. But Dewinter said that analogy doesn�t work because his party does not have a criminal record and has never written anti-Semitic texts.
�You may examine all our publications since the day our party was founded,� Dewinter said. �You won�t find any attacks against Jews or Judaism. On the contrary, very often we were the only political group defending Israel, both in publications and in parliament.�
Marinower said the discussion about the views of Dewinter and his party is healthy because �if, God forbid, he would get a majority next year and be the next mayor, no one in the Jewish community or others would ever be able to say you didn�t warn us.� n