Dewinter's Tale

by Sarah Wildman | January 22, 2007

ON A BALMY day in Antwerp's medieval city center, not far from the offices of Vlaams Belang, the right-wing Flemish nationalist party,the boulevards were crowded. At a clogged artery on a mainthoroughfare, as the light turned, a tram pulled away and a van driven by an orthodox Jewside curls and black yarmulkevisiblebecame stuck in the pedestrian crossing. Walkers, annoyed,muttered to themselves. And then, from the back of the crush, agroup of teenage boys began to yell, "Fucking, fucking yood!" and to bang their fists on the car.

It was just the sort of incident that riles Filip Dewinter, the 44-year-old leader of Vlaams Belang. Dewinter's party, like its far-right counterparts across Europe, has a long history of racismand xenophobia. But sitting in his office, filled with sleek Italian-style furniture and overseen by a massive Rubens painting of Nicholas Rockox, a mayor of Antwerp in the mid-seventeenth century, Dewinter's anger takes a surprising turn. "We should stand with the Jewish community, and we should do everything possible to protect them," he says. "Jewish values are European values!" Then he launches into an earnest plea for Jews to come home to his extreme-right"right-wing," he gently correctsparty.

Dewinter is at the forefront of Europe's new philosemitic far right. Along with his French homologue, Marine Le Pen, daughter ofHolocaust minimizer and Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Dewinter has spent the last few years proclaiming his support forJews and championing their rights. No matter that Vlaams Belang's founders were Nazi collaborators or, simply, that the idea of the Jew as "European" is itself a novelty for his base constituency. Since 2003, Dewinter has loudly and consistently spoken out againstattacks on Jewscalling Judaism a "pillar of European society" to Time magazine and condemning anti-Semitism and, very specifically, anti-Zionism, to Haaretz and New York Jewish Week. This fall, whenelections fell on Sukkot and religious Jews would have missed goingto the polls, it was Dewinter's party that helped collect theirproxy ballots. In October, he promised the press he would bring inone- third of the Jewish vote on Election Day and told Haaretz thatJews were his "brothers in arms." This may seem like a positive development, but Dewinter's newfound love of the Jewish people conceals some very un-brotherly motives.

FILIP DEWINTER has been committed to the far-right Flemish cause since his teens. Born in the tourist-friendly town of Bruges, Dewinter moved to Antwerp to attend university at 18 and quickly became active in radical Flemish separatism, founding the student movement that became aligned with Vlaams Blok, an extreme-right Flemish nationalist party formed in the late '70s. Known for his militant views and brawls with liberal students, Dewinter was eventually groomed for office by the founder of Vlaams Blok, Karel Dillen, a man infamous in European anti-racism circles for translating the works of French neofascist Maurice Bardeche into Flemish. With Dillen's urging, Dewinter became, at 25, Belgium's youngest-ever Parliamentarian. By the early '90s, Vlaams Blok was winning big in Antwerp and worrying mainstream politicians. "We loudly say what people quietly think," Dewinter would say.

Under Dewinter's leadership, Vlaams Blok continued its xenophobic positioning. In 2002, Dewinter and his colleagues ran on the platform "Eigen Volk Eerst!": "Our People First!" The slogan, also the title of a book Dewinter wrote in 1989, appeared to echo the 1930s mantra of Flemish fascist nationalists, "Antwerp is Ours! Jews Out!" Posters were festooned with images of a broom (sweeping out bad elements), another '30s image. That same year, Dewinter publicly called for Austrian Nazi sympathizer Jorg Haider, theformer leader of the controversial Freedom Party, to lead a Europe-wide far-right movement.

But, unlike his far-right counterparts in other European countries, Dewinter carefully refrained from anti-Semitic rhetoric. The targets of his ire were Islamic immigrants. Like France, Belgium had welcomed North African Muslim workers in the 1960s and the early '70s. When the work dried up, the workers stayed, encouraging family members to join them. By the '90s, Vlaams Blok was calling for wholesale deportations of unemployed immigrants, ending political asylum, and getting tough on crimecode for a moratorium on immigration. "In the beginning, their topics were mainly turning around Flemish nationalism, Flemish extremism, and the drive for the independence of Flanders," says Claude Marinower, a Jewish Antwerp parliamentarian with the Liberal Party. "Their breakthrough came when they switched priorities to foreigners and whatever has to do with foreigners and fear of foreigners."

At the same time, Dewinter also began to court Jews. His theory was simple: If Jews were targeted, especially by Muslim immigrants,then Jews and the far right were "natural allies." In 2003, he began condemning violence against Jews by North African youth--which had increased after the second intifadaand linking it to his party's advocacy of an end to immigration and deportationof illegal immigrants. "We are seeing the first pogroms in Belgium since World War II," Dewinter told the Daily Telegraph that year."How can this be happening in a democratic country? We've got the most left-wing citizenship laws in Europe that let people havenationality after three years, even if they come illegally. "

In 2004, the Belgian Court officially dismantled Vlaams Blok for incitement and racism. But Vlaams Belang, its successor, rose days later from its ashes. The party has toned down the anti-immigrant rhetoricas Cas Mudde, a University of Antwerp political scientist, puts it, "Vlaams Belang rarely still mentions immigration or immigrants in its posters because there is no one in this country who doesn't know that the Vlaams Belang is against immigrants"but the party's leadership and goals remain, more or less, the same. Violence against Jews is still useful fodder for campaign promises and evidence of the Islamic threat.

Dewinter's commitment to protect Belgium's Jews poses a tempting proposition. In the last six years, they have suffered a marked increase in attacks, including physical assaults and the firebombing of synagogues. In one recent incident, a gang of young North Africans attacked a group of Jewish teenagers, repeatedly stabbing one boy and leaving him with a punctured lung. And, foryears, many Jews have been uncomfortable with the way their liberal representatives talk about, and relate to, Israela concern that Dewinter has shown he is acutely aware of. "Socialists and Greensare Israel's most dangerous foes in Europe," he e-mailed me, echoing previous statements he has made to Jewish constituents andto the press. "They even tend to identify Israel and Zionism with Nazism."

In November, Gidon Van Emden, an Antwerp-based policy officer of a liberal Jewish group, praised Dewinter's message. "The current coalition of socialists, liberals and Greens have done too little to combat the anti-Semitism and racism that are still found here," Van Emden wrote in the Jerusalem Post. "Dewinter has done a fabulous job of looking respectable to the Jews, taking consistently pro-Israel stances and creating good contacts with certain rabbis in the community."

But, in her cheerfully light-filled townhouse, surrounded by books she has penned on children in the Holocaust and Belgian Jewry,Brussels Liberal Party Parliamentarian Viviane Teitelbaum Hirsch is worried. Before the election, an Antwerp Jewish women's group invited her to explain why it should not vote for Vlaams Belang."To the Jews of Antwerp, I always say the first victims of the extreme right are the Muslims. But the next ones on the list are the Jews," she warns. "And I find it very scary. As a European."

Indeed, Dewinter is a model of respect when it comes to discussing Jews"Israel is an island of democracy and free speech," he tells me. "We should support them much more than we are doing now"but a fiery bigot when it comes to Muslims. "If you visit some of our neighborhoods, you would think you are in the casbah of Marrakech, not in a Western European town anymore!" Dewinter practically shouts during my visit. "You can't integrate or assimilate a whole community who sticks together, who has nothing to do with our life, our civilization! At least an important minority of them despises us," Dewinter continues, catching his breath. "And if Turkey becomes a member of the European Union? Well!" he laughs. "Jews," on the other hand, "are a part of European culture."

But Teitelbaum Hirsch is not the only Jewish leader who is concernedby what she sees as Dewinter's championing of Jews as a way to spread hatred against Muslims. "Jewish people have suffered in their blood and flesh where racism can bring you," M.P. Marinower says, leaning back in a leather chair, his face pouchy and tired. Marinower's father survived Bergen-Belsen but died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. "How could a Jew be in favor of a party condemned for racism? And condemned specifically for ...ostracizing a part of society?" Agrees Teitelbaum Hirsch, "I think we have to act strongly to be the guardians of democracy," she says of both the Jews and the liberal parties, "and never leave any important principle to be defended by the extreme right, because we know their way of caring for it is not sincere."

Dewinter's critics also point out that his wooing of Antwerp's 15,000 Jews is a crass political calculation. Since the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, and London, xenophobia--especiallyagainst Muslim immigrantshas become an acceptable European cultural anxiety. Seizing an opening created by liberal and mainstream conservative politicians who have panicked in the faceof failed integration policies, the far right's newfound love for Jews is designed to exploit this ever-expanding group of anxious voters.

It also helps Vlaams Belang rehabilitate its extremist image. Since 1991, every other party in Belgium, in a cordone sanitaire, has prevented Dewinter's party from joining government coalitions. But a widely publicized endorsement from a strategically placed rabbior, better yet, an invitation to Israelcould be their ticket to political legitimacy. Formerly fascist Italian parliamentarian Gianfranco Fini followed this path and emerged, rehabilitated, after touching down in the Holy Land in 2003. In that vein, France's Marine Le Pen has made pandering statements like Dewinter's, including a promise that the Jewish community "can count on us to defend it." "Vlaams Belang and the Front Nationalare trying to become mainstream parties," says Jean-Yves Camus, a Paris-based researcher and expert on xenophobia in political discourse. "This is a big change. You still see [openly] anti-Semitic parties, but they are fringe movements."

As a political strategy, philosemitism seems to have worked forVlaams Belang. On October 8, 2006, Dewinter led his party to win some 33.5 percent of Antwerp votes. Vlaams Belang picked up voters in the suburbs and gained everywhere else around Flanders. "The Vlaams Belang did extremely well," says Mudde, the political scientist. "It almost doubled its seats in local councils."

Exit polls don't ask for religious affiliation in Belgium. But voters lulled by Dewinter into believing his far-right party truly embraces Jews may be chagrined to hear what he is planning. Nextyear, Vlaams Belang will form a coalition in the European Parliament with two unapologetically anti-Semitic far-right Eastern European parties: Ataka, from Bulgaria, and the Greater Romanian Party. His face falls when his allies' anti-Semitic demagoguery is mentioned. "I am not happy about it," Dewinter declares, peeved by the turn of the conversation. "I don't have anything to do with it. Look, we have a large Jewish community in Antwerp, and we have very good relations with them, and I have always had a lot of respect for the Jewish community." He runs his fingers nervously through his hair and pivots the conversation backto his core message: "Because Jewish values are European values! And Jewish civilization is one of the roots of Western civilization. Rome, Greece, Enlightenment, and Jewish-Christian values. Those are the key words of our European civilization."

Sarah Wildman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a recipientof the Milena Jesenska Journalism Fellowship from the Institute forHuman Sciences in Vienna, Austria. This article appeared in the January 22, 2007 issue of the magazine. 

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