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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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?”