Media and NGOs, including Amnesty International, the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium, and Unia reported incidents of violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Muslims and Jews during the year. Unia reported 101 anti-Semitic incidents – which it defined as incidents against Jewish persons rather than against Jewish religious practices and tracked separately – and 307 complaints of other religious discrimination or harassment in 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 109 anti-Semitic incidents and 319 other complaints in 2017. Approximately 90 percent of incidents targeted Muslims. There were three incidents against Christians, 12 against Jewish religious practices, and four against nonbelievers. According to Unia, 37.1 percent of the incidents in 2018 involved speech in media or on the internet (slightly less than half of these media/internet complaints involved Facebook postings); 18.2 percent concerned discrimination in the workplace; and 23.3 percent occurred in the education sector (where a plurality of incidents involved restrictions or prohibitions on wearing of the hijab).
In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 65 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Belgium, while 34 percent said it was rare; 82 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 97 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 93 percent said they would be with an atheist, 92 percent with a Jew, 89 percent with a Muslim, and 92 percent with a Buddhist. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 97 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 89 percent if atheist, 82 percent if Jewish, 84 percent if Buddhist, and 71 percent if Muslim.
In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 50 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Belgium, and 48 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 57 percent; on the internet, 61 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 52 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 59 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 54 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 56 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 52 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 46 percent; and anti-Semitism in media, 45 percent.
In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 50 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Belgium; 38 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 40 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In January the Brussels Criminal Court sentenced an Orthodox Christian woman to three years in jail for stabbing her daughter in the abdomen and under the chin after the daughter converted to Islam and secretly married a Muslim.
According to media reports, on March 22, a driver cursed at and attempted to run over two veiled Muslim sisters while they were picking up their children from school. One of the women told the press that in 10 years in the country they had never experienced problems before. “I am still in shock,” she said. Police arrested the driver. As of year’s end no further information was available on the case.
Media reported that on June 11, security guards stopped an Iraqi man carrying three knives as he tried to enter the Romi Goldmuntz Synagogue in Antwerp during a Jewish holiday. Police arrested the man. As of year’s end no further information was available on the case.
Unia reported 56 complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion in 2018, compared with 82 in 2017. The reported discrimination principally targeted Muslims.
According to Unia, NGOs, and media, incidents of religious discrimination toward Muslims in both the workplace and educational institutions typically involved actions directed against women wearing headscarves and a failure to make accommodations for prayer, religious holidays, or dietary requirements.
In May Unia supported a complaint to the labor court filed by a Muslim woman who said the Brussels public transportation company denied her employment because she wore a headscarf. In its plea the Unia legal advisor alleged general discrimination specifically against Muslim women who wear the headscarf, rather than more broadly against Muslims or women within the company.
Unia preliminarily reported a doubling of notifications of online hate speech during the first six months of the year to 740, compared with 369 notifications during the same period in 2018. Unia stated notifications consisted of initial reports, not all of which it would, after investigation, accept as actual instances of discrimination. In addition, some notifications were duplicate reports of the same incident, and not all online hate speech notifications were linked to religion. According to Unia, the run-up to the general elections, which took place in May, was a “traditional peak” time for online hate speech.
During the campaign leading up to general elections in May, unknown persons photoshopped or tagged on social media anti-Semitic statements or caricatures on the campaign material or photographs from several candidates, including Prime Minister Michel. In April a Communist Party activist posted on Facebook a photoshopped picture depicting Prime Minister Michel as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. The man subsequently removed the post.
Jewish groups reported anti-Semitic statements and attitudes in media and in schools during the year, including on the Holocaust. La Derniere Heure, a daily newspaper, reported that on November 16, a high school teacher in Huy, who taught about Islam as part of the religious studies curriculum, posted on his Facebook page a video of an imam’s sermon. In the video, the imam said, “For those who cooperate with the Jews, work with the Jews, and those who plot with the Jews, O Allah, take them very quickly and without delay, O Allah, shake their bases and destroy their structures.” Education ministry officials in Wallonia said they filed a hate speech complaint against the teacher with police.
In September the European Jewish Association issued a statement protesting an online sign language video dictionary compiled by the public University of Ghent, which included a gesture signaling a hooked nose as the definition of “Jew.” European Jewish Association Director Menachem Margolin called that and another video depicting Jews racist and demeaning and asked the university to remove them from the dictionary. The university subsequently added a label under the video showing the hooked nose gesture indicating the sign had a “negative connotation.”
In March during the Aalst Carnival, the group Vismooil’n displayed a float depicting Orthodox Jews with crooked noses standing atop bags of gold coins, with one of the figures carrying a white rat on its shoulder. A number of Jewish groups, including B’nai B’rith International and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said they were “sickened” or “disgusted” with the display, and several, including the Coordination Committee of Jewish Organizations of Belgium (CCOJB), filed a complaint with Unia. In a statement, the groups said, “…at worst, this is a reproduction of the worst anti-Semitic caricatures of the Nazi era.” According to the Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper, a spokesperson for the European Commission stated, “It is unthinkable that such imagery is being paraded on European streets 70 years after the Holocaust.” While Unia did not assess the float to be illegal, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) condemned the parade and said it was considering removing the annual event from its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Citing freedom of expression, Aalst Mayor Christoph d’Haese said the float should be allowed. In early December, shortly before the date UNESCO had said it would announce its decision on the status of the carnival, d’Haese requested UNESCO remove the carnival from the heritage list, stating the organization was biased and had already made the decision to drop the carnival. On December 13, UNESCO removed the carnival from the heritage list, stating it had done so because of the “repetition of racist and anti-Semitic representations.”
In a February video posted on social media, students at Pater Jozefleten Catholic High School in the town of Melle were shown dressed as “Saudi Muslims.” One of the students dressed as a suicide bomber, wearing a black face mask and a belt of fake explosives. The video also showed female students wearing full veils and a fake imam leading students in a simulated prayer session. Following the appearance of the footage, there was a wave of criticism on social media. In a statement posted on the school’s Facebook page, the school principal later said the event in question was a school tradition, part of the pregraduation celebration for students in their senior year, during which the students dressed in different costumes on different days; their intention, he added, was not to insult anyone.
In April the Islamic Union in Brussels launched a “Good morning, I’m Muslim” campaign in that city and in the cities of Antwerp, Charleroi, Genk, Liege, and Namur. Muslim volunteers engaged in conversations with the public and distributed flyers and red roses in what organizers said was an effort to dispel anti-Muslim prejudice.