Museum attack comes as no surprise to Belgian Jews

Cnaan Liphshiz

Belgian police gather at the scene of the attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels that left four dead on May 24, 2014.

Belgian police gather at the scene of the attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels that left four dead on May 24, 2014.

BRUSSELS (JTA) — The cold determination with which the shooter at Belgium’s Jewish museum murdered four people shocked many Belgians, but local Jewish leaders have long anticipated the possibility of such an attack on their community.


The shooter who entered the Jewish Museum of Belgium on Saturday in central Brussels “approached each victim with calm, aiming only for the head without uttering a word in manner that is shocking because of the level of training it suggests,” said Mischael Modrikamen, the Jewish leader of Belgium’s small, centrist Parti Populaire.

“Sadly, however, the actual attack comes as no surprise to us after years of living in an atmosphere of rampant anti-Semitism that often leads to violence, ” he added.

Within hours of the attack, the local Jewish community and the European Jewish Congress’ Brussels-based Security and Crisis Center were operating a crisis management room complete with a telephone hotline and website — testament to years of preparations for a terrorist attack on one of Europe’s most at-risk communities.

The shooter, who fled the scene along with a driver, used what appeared to be an AK-47 to kill Israeli tourists Mira and Emanuel Riva and two of the museum’s staff, a man in his 20s and a female volunteer, Belgian authorities said.

A manhunt is underway to capture the perpetrators of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in Europe since the French Islamist Mohammed Merah killed four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.

Indeed, the characteristics of the Brussels museum attack follow the pattern observed at Toulouse, according to Claude Moniquet, a Brussels-based counter-terrorism expert.

“It seems we are dealing with a small cell of operatives — Islamists or otherwise — with a low signature that minimizes their risk of being caught,” he said.

Yet Belgium’s Jews have experience with such violence that predates the Toulouse attack by more than 20 years. In 1989, a Moroccan terrorist assassinated the community’s then president, Joseph Wybran. An armed attack on Brussels’ largest synagogue — which is located 400 yards from the museum — left five wounded in 1982, three years after 13 people were wounded in a grenade attack on an El Al plane at Brussels’ airport.

Some of the worst attacks on Belgian Jewry happened between the years 1979 and 1981, when Arab terrorists killed four people in a series of explosions, including a car bomb, and shootings directed at Jewish targets in Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter.

“That track record means that no one thought this couldn’t happen here,” said Joel Rubinfeld, president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and former leader of French-speaking Belgian Jews. “In fact, most of us knew it could and would, especially in recent years. So I am shocked but not in the least surprised.”

The level of threat increased after the second Palestinian intifada, when Belgium began seeing dozens of anti-Semitic attack each year for the first time since World War II.

Recent years saw another development not only because of Merah — who inspired a slew of anti-Semitic attacks across the French-speaking world — but because “of the arrival to the scene of new patrons of anti-Semitism in the French-speaking world,” Rubinfeld said, a reference to Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, a French comedian whose blatant anti-Semitism has emboldened anti-Semites.

Earlier this month, Belgian authorities banned a conference organized in Brussels by several individuals with a track-record of promoting anti-Semitism, including Dieudonne, French activist Alain Soral and Belgian lawmaker Laurent Louis.

But Rubinfeld said that Belgian authorities have generally had “a more lax attitude” toward anti-Semitism than their French counterparts. The banning of the conference earlier this month “was the first case of its kind in recent years, where we saw a determined stance,” he added.

Modrikamen noted that police maintained no permanent presence outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium. “Even when police do place protection, it means two cops in a car parked outside a building and nothing comparable to the security provided in France,” he said.

But Arie Zuckerman, a European Jewish Congress executive who has spearheaded Jewish communities’ preparations for crises after Toulouse, says the problem is not local.

“When governments perceive a threat, they know how to cooperate tightly and devote enormous resources and we see this in the war on drugs, for example,” he said. “Sadly, no such pan-European recognition has emerged on the need to protect Jewish institutions, which often have to carry the burden of security costs. We saw it Brussels, where the terrorists probably collected intelligence without being detected, but it could happen in many other places. The tragedy is in Belgium, but the problem is in Europe.”

Cnaan Liphshiz is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Europe. Based in the Netherlands, he covers the mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions that is European Jewry. Born in Israel, he used to work as foreign news editor for Ma’ariv and as a reporter for Haaretz.