(February 3, 2020 / JNS) With the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, world leaders and particularly European leaders came to Jerusalem not just to commemorate the attempts of Jewish genocide that took place on their soil, but to once again see the rapid ascension of Israel as a world power in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
For Cathy Berx, the governor of the Antwerp Province in Belgium, as well as a legal scholar and university professor who came to Israel along with dozens of other world leaders, the Jewish state “represents the summary of humankind.”
In addition to being “the beginning of the beginning” in terms of the foundation of monotheism, Berx tells JNS that “the resilience of a population that is always being confronted with challenges and keeps on finding new ways to tackle those challenges” is a model for Western civilization.
Among trips to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and meetings with various governmental and security agencies, it is perhaps Israel’s private industry that inspires Berx most.
“It’s quite amazing to see how Israelis dream big work and work hard to develop innovations—and not just innovations for the sake of being innovative. Israelis tend to have a strong sense of what the challenges are throughout the world and finding very smart solutions to deal with them,” says Berx.
She was inspired by her visit to Mobileye—a company that develops autonomous vehicles and solutions to prevent traffic accidents.
For Berx, part of her role as governor is implementing “Vision Zero,” an initiative to fully eliminate traffic fatalities. “We really have a problem with people dying in traffic,” she says, noting that “traffic, and safety and security, is a major challenge,” and more so “as populations continue to rise” in years ahead.
The Belgian leader is also interested in turning local municipalities within Antwerp into smart cities and looked to Israeli innovation in those fields.
“It begins with culture,” she says. “You have to build up a nation, but you need also the soft power. For ages and ages, and for centuries, Jewish culture contributed to writing, music, theater, opera—in everything.”
She suggests that same cultural history is now manifesting itself “in science and medicine, and so on.”
“You see it with the USB stick. You see it with cherry tomatoes. You see it on water solutions. You see it on renewables and sustainable energy,” says Berx. “I think few people are really aware of all the innovation that started in Israel. Maybe you should work harder on your promotion as the Dutch do and really show to the world what all began here in Israel.”
Committed to fighting anti-Semitism, terrorism
And yet, in Belgium recently, Judaism has been portrayed in a negative light. A carnival in Aalst notoriously lost its status with UNESCO after parading large floats portraying ultra-Orthodox Jews with stereotypical large noses. Berx acknowledges that anti-Semitism is still embraced by some and recognizes the dangers of bigoted rhetoric.
“I think that now most of the people in Belgium are sensitive to anti-Semitism,” states Berx. “But we know what happened in Aalst with the carnivals. To show Jewish people with specific features—like copies of what the Nazis did in the 1930s and ’40s—and the same goes with some anti-Semitic newspaper columns, you never come to a very aggressive stage or to what happened during the Holocaust without first having the discourse and the narrative. So you have to be very alert for the narrative as well.”
Berx says she is committed to fighting anti-Semitism within her district. “I think we will have to be very self-critical and keep on being very alert,” adding that education is key to combating it. “And, of course, remembering, remembering, remembering … because whoever forgets is deemed to repeat the past.”
The governor has made sure that local authorities view security as a serious matter for the Jewish community, many of them religious and visibly so. “In Antwerp, we are taking [measures]—also the mayor is very sensitive to it—so we have soldiers in the Jewish neighborhood; police invest a lot. Also, we have taken certain preventative measures to make sure that the buildings are as safe as possible.”
Eli Ringer, executive vice chairman of Belgium’s Forum of Jewish Organizations (FJO), further explained, “The authorities try to do the maximum to secure the Jewish community. And indeed there is a collaboration—a very close collaboration—between leaders and the Jewish community almost every week in order to do the maximum, to give a certain security and safety to the Jewish community. And we give thanks for it.”
Berx says she recognizes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes contributes to growing anti-Semitism across Europe. “I think there’s also very naive perspective, as if it is a conflict between the good and the bad. That’s really a misunderstanding.”
The governor acknowledges that Palestinians have a long way to go to take advantage of available opportunities should they formally stop inciting towards the elimination of Israel.
“Israel was recognized in 1948 as an independent state. Most all of the countries in the entire world recognize Israel,” says Berx. “It has to be very clear for everybody that you should have to recognize the existence of a country.”
She insists that Palestinians must give up all forms of terror, including the “pay-to-slay” practice, whereby the Palestinian Authority provides stipends to terrorists and the families of so-called martyrs killed in the act of attempted murder. She adds that it’s improper to continue funding the P.A. unless the terror-financing practice has been discontinued, and that “an independent audit” of the program is required to ensure that European funding is not going into the hands of terrorists or their sponsors.
“Any terrorism that has as an aim to destroy a nation, it’s unacceptable. And that should be clear,” states Berx. “I think we need—and I think everybody has to accept as a deontological code—that you do not give money to an organization that has as an aim to fund terrorists, to fund those who have as an aim to destroy a nation.”
Nations working together on issues
Berx hopes to again visit Israel, and to continue strengthening the bond between Belgium and Israel, noting that the King of Belgium was in Jerusalem for the World Holocaust Forum on Jan. 23.
“Next month, there will be a delegation from East Flanders,” she says. “So, of course, the links are close, and I think we have to work harder on that base that we already started. I am very positive about it, and I’m looking forward to continue to work together.”
Her visit was organized by the Israeli-Jewish Congress, an Israel-based organization that seeks to create bridges with Jewish communities around the world and support Israel in the international community, as well as by Belgium’s FJO.
“There is no denying that the governor came to Israel amid a heightened climate of anti-Semitism in Belgium and on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day,” says Arsen Ostrovsky, executive director of the Israeli-Jewish Congress. “However, she also comes as a true and close friend of the Belgian Jewish community and the State of Israel, unequivocally committed to both combating anti-Semitism, but also seeking to deepen connection with Israel and learn what makes the Jewish state such a success story.”
“It is important to recognize that, notwithstanding many challenges facing Israel and Jewish communities in Europe, most notably from rising anti-Semitism and the threat of BDS, we also have many friends and allies, such as Governor Berx,” he says. “And it is therefore imperative we find ways to support and amplify their voices.”
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