(JTA) – Growing up, trips to stay with my Jewish family in Brussels were a taste of freedom.
In my native Israel, waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks kept me under constant maternal surveillance. Fear of regular bus bombings limited my excursions to biking distance.
On the tranquil streets of the Belgian capital, by contrast, I could wander at will amid the mix of medieval architecture and glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Even riding the tram with my cousin Eli was exhilarating. The rails seemed to stretch out endlessly, and there was the added thrill of potentially getting caught without tickets, which we never bothered to buy.
On Tuesday, a series of explosions killed 34 people – 14 of them at Zaventem Airport and another 20 at one of the metro stations that Eli and I used to exploit.
“The anxiety is terrible,” Eli’s father, my uncle, told me, recalling quickly doing a family headcount after learning of the attacks. “But equally horrible is that these attacks reduce you to feeling happy that strangers whom you’ve never met died in them, and not your own friends and family.”
On a visit to Brussels earlier this month, I had sensed a change. The city no longer felt so free.
At a book signing by a Jewish philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, I was shocked to see that he was accompanied by a body guard. Outside the building, a dozen police officers stood guard.
Wasn’t this an official overreaction to the May 2015 slaying of four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum? I asked Joel Rubinfeld, head of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism.
“We are all targets now – philosophers, anti-racism activists, journalists, police officers, the people in this restaurant,” Rubinfeld said.
In a southern district of Brussels Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Shalom Benizri was still waiting for word from his loved ones when I called his home. A communications overload had disabled cell service by several providers, leaving many thousands unable to communicate with worried loved ones.
Benizri, who used to head a large Sephardic community in downtown Brussels before its members moved because of the rampant criminality in the heavily-Muslim area, recalled the museum shooting.
“We were the targets then, but now everyone is a target,” said Benizri, echoing Rubinfeld.
During the attack, Benizri was at the airport about to board a flight to Israel, where several of his children live. As chaos broke out and hundreds fled the smoking building, he returned to his car and drove back home.
In lockdown at home – a precaution which probably applies especially to Orthodox rabbis like him – Benizri told me he is among the local Jews who see no future for their families in Belgium.
“There is enormous concern not only among people like me, but also non-observant Jews,” he said. “As for me, my suitcases are packed to go.”
Wishing him a happy Purim, I hung up with a sinking feeling about what was happening to the city I love – which is situated only 130 miles from Amsterdam, where I now live with my wife and 4-month-old son.
Trying to put my finger on when things got out of control in Belgium and Western Europe in general, I remembered a conversation that I had had with Eli 20 years ago in a Brussels metro station.
Attuned to an inchoate rise in anti-Semitic violence to which I was oblivious as a foreigner, Eli had asked me to address him as “Ile,” an anagram of his name, when we were on the street. Maybe I should have known then.