By Steven Jaffe
In Belgium, armed troops are still deployed outside synagogues and Jewish community premises – an unnerving sight, particularly at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, scene of a horrific terrorist attack in 2014.
That’s what made the Shalom Festival particularly intriguing, surprising – and welcome.
Right in the heart of Antwerp, Belgium’s second city, the Jewish community and Christian friends gathered in the main square, in front of the cathedral, to celebrate Israel – as if doing so was the most natural thing in the world. And it was the seventh or eighth such Shalom Festival – which takes in Brussels as well as Antwerp each year.
There were stands around the square, from Bnei Akiva, the local branch of Bnei Brith, Ort and the Council for a Beautiful Israel, alongside a number of Christian stands promoting Israeli products.
The children waved Israeli flags. The singers and dancers were mainly Nigerian – powerfully performing Hebrew and Biblical-based songs. Jewish and Christian speakers took to the platform – including the deputy ambassador of Israel.
In the meantime, Antwerp passers by, emerging from the nearby Metro, stopped to take in the music and the spectacle – and partake of the Danish pastries and falafel on sale from some of the stalls.
So I found myself on a platform in front of several hundred festival goers and passers by, having my words instantly – and expertly (I hope!) translated into Flemish.
I was there to provide some background regarding the Shalom Declaration, a Christian initiative to show appreciation for Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and the only country where the Christian community is growing. My friend, Dr Evangelos Evangilides, had invited me to Belgium because, through his initiative, the Declaration is being supported by a growing number of Christian ministries there.
Suitably translated, the Declaration was presented by Christian supporters to the president of the local chapter of Bnei Brith.
Antwerp is a fascinating city from a Jewish perspective. Quite a few of those passing through the square were from the city’s strictly Orthodox community based in the city’s diamond area – although I learnt that the diamond trade has seen much better days.
Many members of the Belgian community who were participating in the festival told me of children living in Israel and elsewhere. Not all of them saw a Jewish future in Belgium itself.
Following the festival I had meetings with a leading and well-connected Christian pastor, representatives of the European Jewish Congress and an old friend from Belfast, Alex Benjamin, who is director of Europe Israel Public Affairs.
Belgium presented such a mixed picture of normality and the absence of normality, which characterises Jewish life today in much of Europe. As I boarded the Eurostar for the amazingly quick two hour journey back to St Pancras I dreamt of Shalom festivals in city centres across Europe.
Steven Jaffe is the Board’s Grassroots Consultant on Israel