Antwerp has the most visible Jewish community in Belgium. Many belong to the Hasidic (or at least Haredic) tradition; they are particularly associated with the diamond trade, where Antwerp is literally a world leader - about 85% of the world's rough diamonds, 50% of cut diamonds, and 40% of industrial diamonds are traded in Antwerp each year. There are 18,000 Jews in Antwerp, of whom around half are estimated to be members of the Orthodox traditions (as they are generally referred to). The eruv in Antwerp includes the entire city centre.
Antwerp is the largest city in Flanders, and at the last municipal election, the populist right-wing New Flemish Alliance, N-VA, became by far the largest party on the council, and governs in coalition with the Christian Democrats (CD&V) and Liberals (Open VLD), the same coalition as in Flanders as a whole and indeed in Belgium (the latter with the addition of the Francophone Liberals, the MR). The NV-A leader, Bart De Wever, has been the mayor of Antwerp since they won in 2012 - the first non-socialist to be elected mayor since 1932. In 2007, he had infamously criticised his predecessor’s apology for the complicity of Antwerp municipal authorities in the Holocaust, in which two-thirds of the city’s Jews were killed.
The elections are coming up again this September, and the Christian Democrats came up with what must have seemed a neat idea: Aron Berger, a 42-year-old poultry trader from the Orthodox Jewish community, was announced with great fanfare as a candidate on the CD&V list. The CD&V currently have only three members on Antwerp Council, so putting Berger in the ninth place on the list meant that he would have needed a lot of individual votes to get elected (Belgium has an open list system). But his photograph would have appeared on all of the party literature, sending an important message about diversity.
Too diverse, it turned out. Berger’s candidacy flamed out within days, almost within hours, as his attitudes to sex, gender and sexuality were probed. In fairness, he had made some very odd statements in the past, which deserved (and received) scrutiny. But the sticking point turned out to be the question of whether or not he would shake hands with a woman, contrary to his own tradition. It transpired that the CD&V had made this a condition of his continued candidacy and that the rabbinic authorities had actually authorised Berger to do it if necessary. But Berger himself decided to withdraw at this point, saying that a photograph of him shaking hands with a woman would lose the party 2,500 votes. In an interview yesterday, CD&V leader Wouter Beke confirmed that the handshake that never happened was the deal-breaker.
It’s all a bit of a mess. Berger reflected that Antwerp is not yet ready to elect a Jew to the city council. (It also turns out that there is a skeleton in his closet regarding his management of the property of a dying neighbour several years ago.) To me the whole thing indicates a couple of more worrying problems.
There is a general point about needlessly enforcing Belgian-style secularism in the name of universal values onto cultural practices and traditions that actually do no harm, the burka ban being another example. Most Belgians do shake hands with each other, and indeed kiss each other in greeting, much more often than the British, or the Americans, or the Orthodox Jews. In some Asian cultures (represented in Antwerp’s population) a respectful bow is normal. Why are we drawing lines for the necessary level of physical contact to give to business acquaintances and political activists before you can qualify as a candidate? Surely citizenship should be enough, as long as your behaviour is not harmful? Is British reserve acceptable, but Hasidic reticence not? It seems so.
And there is a specific point about anti-Semitism. When you tell a particular group that the rights they should have as citizens (such as standing for election) are in fact conditional on fitting in to the dominant traditions of society and not looking or behaving differently, and that their civic loyalty is suspect because of their origins, you are on a very slippery slope; and that is the message that was sent to Aron Berger and his community this week by the CD&V, and indeed the entire Flemish political establishment (including the N-VA, whose minister for equality gleefully jumped into the debate). I don’t think this has been a proud moment for Belgian democracy.