Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein addressed the Belgian Federal Parliament last month ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and his visit left behind a perturbed Flemish-speaking Jewish community, to which he has now reached out to make amends.
“Recently, the Antwerp Municipality attempted to move the city’s Holocaust memorial to a ‘quieter place’ where it would have ‘less of an impact’ on traffic,” Edelstein said in his speech, a remark that caused upset at the municipality and in the city’s Jewish community, which said the statement was untrue and in fact related to a move Mayor Bart De Wever was planning for the benefit of the Jewish community.
“The mayor was furious,” Rafy Werner, chairman of the Forum of Jewish Organizations – which represents the Jews of Antwerp and its surroundings – told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Andre Gantman sent Edelstein a letter immediately after his speech: “I am a member of the Antwerp City Council, former vice mayor and an active member of the Antwerp Jewish community. This afternoon I attended the commemoration of the Shoah in the Federal Parliament. I very much appreciated your speech except when you mentioned the City of Antwerp with respect to the Shoah monument.”
“I assume you have been wrongly informed about the real situation in Antwerp,” Gantman continued. “The mayor Bart De Wever did not ask to remove the existing monument to a place out of the sight of the people. The annual commemoration on May 8 takes place in his presence in the Chabad building due the fact that this activity causes a significant traffic jam. Presently the mayor and the Forum of Jewish Organizations are talking about a new monument; a special commission has been installed to that effect upon request of the mayor.”
Gantman added that the mayor has always strongly condemned antisemitism and that the Antwerp police and the Belgian Army are constantly protecting Jewish sites. The mayor, he noted, is a supporter of Israel.
The Antwerp-based Joods Actueel (“Jewish News”) published a story on the brouhaha on Monday. Editor-in-Chief Michael Freilich told the Post that the mayor had spoken about moving the monument, not because it disrupted traffic, but rather so that it would be more accessible.
He had discussed the idea with Jewish community leaders but as the mainstream Jewish community of Antwerp expressed its opposition, he dropped the idea. The subject was raised as the mayor is planning to build a second monument, to include the names of all the Belgian Holocaust victims. The mayor had suggested combining this into the original monument, which is where the idea of moving it came from, Freilich said.
“It seems like he [Edelstein] came in like a bull in a china shop,” Freilich remarked.
The New Flemish Alliance party, of which De Wever is the leader, said it was “not amused” by Edelstein’s remarks, Joods Actueel reported.
WERNER SUGGESTED that Edelstein’s confusion on the subject may have been caused by the fact that he only met with the French-speaking part of Belgium’s Jewish community, and not with the Flemish-speaking Jews who reside in Antwerp.
A spokesman for Edelstein told the Post that “the Knesset speaker already clarified that of course he had no intention of causing any harm, and certainly not to the Jewish community.”
The offending comment was made as Edelstein cited examples of antisemitism in Europe, and his spokesman said that “he wished to illustrate the complex situation in which Jewish communities in Europe must defend themselves, including terror threats and Holocaust denial.
“Of course, also in the Knesset speaker’s official visit, the intention was to meet with all of the Jewish community, and the Knesset ensured that a full representation of the Belgium community was invited to a meeting with the Knesset speaker,” the spokesman added.
But Werner said his part of the community never received an invitation.
Edelstein has reached out to the community to make amends. On Wednesday, Joods Actueel reported that his office sent a letter to the Forum of Jewish Organizations and to Gantman, stating that it was never his intention to put the Jewish community in a difficult situation and that Israel is well aware of De Wever’s support for the Jewish state. “We also appreciate his statements and gestures toward the Jewish community,” Edelstein said.