Sunday, October 08, 2006

Belgian far-rightist calls on Jews to join battle against Muslims

By Assaf Uni, Haaretz Correspondent

The taxi driver who brought me to the home of the most popular extreme-right leader in Europe is an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan. Tomorrow, he says, he will not hesitate to cast his vote for Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest).

Vlaams Belang is the right-wing Flemish party whose platform calls for getting tough with the Muslim population. It was outlawed in 2004 because of incitement to racism, and subsequently changed its name.

"[Party leader] Filip Dewinter is not the racist everyone says he is," the taxi driver said. "He only cares about the local residents like it should be." About half a million Antwerp residents will go to the polls today in what has been defined as a watershed election for the extreme right in Europe.

Surveys show that more than a third of this port city's population is expected to vote for Dewinter's party. The outcome may force its adversaries to cooperate with it in a coalition in the local government after years in a political wilderness.

The position of its 20,000-strong Jewish community on Dewinter is causing a stir in the city, especially rumors of support by its 4,000 ultra-Orthodox members. Dewinter himself, in a last-ditch effort to gain legitimacy, declared last week in the media that he is certain that "one-third of the Jews will vote for me." The Jews, Dewinter told Haaretz, "are our brothers-in-arms in the battle against extremist Islam in Antwerp."

According to Dewinter, "the Jews are part of European culture. Islam is not. It is foreign to the residents of the Continent and it threatens them." An extremist Muslim, according to Dewinter, is anyone who refuses to send his daughter to a swimming pool attended by both men and women, who demands his wife wear a head scarf outside the home and opposes the inclusion of pork on the menu of public-school lunches.

"There is a common interest between Jewish and Flemish people in the struggle against Islam in Europe," Dewinter says.

Such opinions, together with declarations that he intends to work to deport unemployed Muslim workers, annul the official status of Islam in Belgium and prevent the transfer of funds to Islamic institutions have ostracized Dewinter in some quarters. They have also boosted his popularity among the Flemish, who see immigration as the greatest threat to their lifestyle. Even the murder by a young Belgian man of a nanny from Mali together with the baby in her charge did nothing to reduce support in the party.

According to Professor Marc Swyngedouw of the University of Louvain, who analyzed the results of the last round of voting, "We see support for Dewinter in the lower socioeconomic classes in Flanders (the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium) and among young people."

And what about the Jewish vote? Can Jews connect to a party whose founders collaborated with the Nazis? Can they vote for a party that holds commemoration ceremonies for a leader who is quoted as having said, "After the Jews are sent to the extermination camps, we will be able to breath in Belgium"?

Swyngedouw says his analysis of voting in Jewish areas of Antwerp reveal that "there are voters for Vlaams Belang in the Jewish community," although he could not say how many. Despite Dewinter's claims that "talks with liaisons to the ultra-Orthodox community, political activists and analysis of past voting" lead him to be sure he will get at least 30 percent of the Jewish vote. However, no ultra-Orthodox person would admit to Haaretz that he was a Dewinter supporter.

According to Louis Davids, the editor of a Jewish weekly whom Dewinter identified as one of his connections, "there are Dewinter voters among the ultra-Orthodox. After all, he is an enthusiastic supporter of Israel and deals with many problems that are relevant to them." Davids added that he does not vote for a right-wing party.

According to the candidate for the Flemish Liberal Party, Claude Marinower, who is Jewish, "Dewinter wants to break the social taboo on voting for a right-wing party by presenting a picture that even the Jews, despite his movement's past, vote for him." Marinower says a minority of Jews vote for Dewinter, doing so because they have suffered harassment at the hands of Muslims in recent years.

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