Dangerous but wonderful thing to be Jewish
Baron Julien Klener, who cuts a dashing and distinguished figure (see picture below), has presided over the Belgian Jewish community for the past years. He made it clear that he could not speak for Belgian, European or even Diaspora Jewry in general, but could only share his own personal experiences.
“This is me, talking about myself, and how I see Europe,” he told delegates to the World Zionist Organisation’s (WZO) Conference for Countering Anti-Semitism earlier this month.
He said he was not able to speak for Jews in general, but could recount his personal experiences as a young Survivor to date, and suggested delegates draw their own inferences from this.
Europe, said Baron Klener, president of the Consistoire Central Israèlite de Belgique for the past fifteen years, is “a continent that has seen tolerance, and a lot of intolerance”.
Europe had always been in a state of revolution, he said, and a major revolution was happening right now.
“My antennas were formed during the Second World War, and so maybe I am too hypersensitive. There are moments when you think about your own life-discoveries, I will share some of mine with you.”
When he was 2, he said, he had one of his greatest life-discoveries. He found out what had happened among his own community when he was a baby, a second-generation-born Belgian Jew living in Ostend during the interwar period – between the two world wars – and there were just 35 Jewish families living there, he told his spellbound audience,
The World Zionist Organisation’s Department for Countering anti-Semitism conference, “Tactics of Countering Anti-Semitism in the Face of Ongoing Media Incitement and Worldwide anti-Semitic Incidents” was held from December 5 to 7. While traditionally held in France, this year’s conference was in Belgium in solidarity with a community under severe distress. The author attended the conference.
“I discovered that there was a list of the Jews in Ostend. When the Germans invaded in 1940, the authorities had to make a list of all the Jews. I was 10 months old at the time.” When at the age of 20 he saw the list, he said, someone had written alongside his name the words “too young”.
And so he survived. He realised as he grew up that every Jew who lived on the continent of Europe and survived the war, had to explain why they survived. “You live with the reality that you escaped murder,” he said. “It is a matter of inches and seconds that you have to explain how and why you survived.”
In the summer of 1942 all foreign Jews living in Belgium were “removed” – he said, “locals lasted a bit longer”.
The Germans were building their Fortress Europe defences along the coast and so, in 1942, along with the gentile Belgian population living along the coast, “we were told we had to leave. We were given four choices of where we could go. My parents chose Brussels. My parents survived – you see, millimetres and seconds” – that is what had saved the Kleners for years.
LEFT: Baron Julien Klener, president of the Consistoire Central Israèlite de Belgique for the past 15 years
“What happened was that my parents gave me away to a gentile family.” It was the spring of 1944, explained Baron Klener – and the lady who had kept him was having an extramarital affair.
His parents were hiding in separate places from the Germans. She kept quiet about them as she knew that they knew of her affair. It was another lucky break.
Later, someone approached his father and said he knew they were Jews in hiding. He would go to the authorities if Klener senior did not pay him a bribe. “My father still had some money and he paid him off. What if my father didn’t have money? What if he had already been taken?”
At 40 he felt heightened anxiety
At 40-years-old, said Baron Klener, he had another of his great life-discoveries “I realised that I had always felt anxiety, but suddenly it was heightened. Why?” he asked his audience rhetorically.
Klener said that he absolutely believes that after the war, the European countries had an agreement, tacit or otherwise, to protect their Jews.
“Suddenly,” he said, “the Jew has become ‘the other’.” The Europeans had lost their feelings of guilt. They had become liberated again and there were no impediments to expressing their anti-Jewish feelings it in the open.
“I have a problem with the word anti-Semitism,” explained Klener at his use of the term anti-Jewish. “I am a professor of linguistics. One of the groups of languages is Semitic text. The concept of its racial connotations is a later development.”
Klener says there are no racial groups of people one can call Semites. Maltese is a Semitic language, so is Ethiopian. He added a string of diverse languages that fell under the general heading of Semitic languages.
“But it has nothing to do with bloodline. That is a scientific nonsense,” he insists.
Hidden agenda behind term ‘Semites’
There is a hidden agenda behind the concept of Semites, says Baron Klener. Jews have never been accepted in Europe. It was the 19th century German historiographer, Heinrich Goertz, who first came up with a concept where people must be happy. “He came up with the concept because in 19th century Germany, Jews were emancipated,” says Klener. But other Germans didn’t like it at all. And so, to calm the waters, Heinrich Goertz wrote about why and how Jews had enriched society.
It was in this context, says Baron Klener, that Goertz wrote of the Golden Andalucian Era – later believed to be a time of peace and progress between the 9th and 17th centuries where the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic citizens of Andalucía in Spain lived in idyllic harmony – and developed the arts and sciences beyond anything ever seen before.
“Maybe it was (historical) confusion– but there has never been a golden age of anything!” says the Baron emphatically. “People talk about Golden Eras, like the Golden Era of Spanish Jewry – it is poppycock!” he says.
“Why do people use this analogy?” he asks. “They tell us of the Golden age of Pericles, around 500 BCE – but people were dying in the streets.”
If in Europe you believe that an Andalucía can come back… he says, remember that it never was. He says he hears more and more Jewish people speaking of the hope that everything will go back to those sunny days after WWII, of Jews protecting their fellow Jews.
Klener’s prognosis is frightening
The tacit agreement among European leaders, says Baron Klener, can only continue as long as the numbers allow it to. In Belgium, where voting is mandatory, there are between 35,000 and 40,000 Jews, he says (at most 25,000 of voting age). He estimates that there are 500,000 Muslim voters in Belgium.
Today, 10 percent of Belgians – and 30 percent of Brussels residents – are Muslim. Baron Klener says the expectation is that by 2020, just five years away, 50 percent of Brussels’ population will be Muslim.
As an aside, Baron Julien Klener mentioned a recently-published book by David Motadel called “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” which, he says, includes enlightening new facts on the Arab/Nazi collaboration. It is published by Harvard University Press and we found this great review on FT.com
Baron Julien Klener (pictured at right honouring those who lost their lives in the Brussels Museum attack earlier this year), is at pains to say he is not planning to leave Belgium. The country has been good to him. He is one of the few Jews who have been ennobled there since WWII. His only child, a son, made Aliya at 18 and he says that hurts. But he does issue a series of graphic points in his closing:
- Beware for the word anti-Semite – if anyone ever says it to you, ask them what a Semite is? Is it a race? What about the Maltese?
- My high anxiety: Europe has another problem as I see it. If in 19th and 20th centuries Europe was the height of civilisation, how is it that it became a killing field? My son (his only child) made Aliya at age 18 – it hurts, still. He said he didn’t want to live on the ashes of his ancestors.
- I was lucky, both to have my life and make something of it.
- Have you looked at why people are against Jews? Have you seen lately? What happened in Ferguson? In New York? Europe is overdoing anti-Americanism. And as some of the Jews are being seen as the dominators of the US – they are associated.
- The arrival of large numbers of Muslims is dangerous to European Jews politically, the value of 15,000 voters vs. 500,000.
- In a number of political parties, the majority of members today are of North African and Turkish origin.
- Anti-Judaism never left Europe. It faded away for a while, but it is coming back. Since the 12th century the Christian religion has made sure that Jews were seen as “the others.”
- During the Renaissance, when Christianity was losing its grip, they played the anti-Jew card again. And where has it got them? Christians are the most persecuted religion in the world today.
- Vatican II and modern Christianity… they are helping
- What do I do when people ask me what they should do? I say you are a responsible person and you have to make your own choices. I am one of maybe ten Jews who have been ennobled since WW2.
- People are leaving. Slowly. To Israel and the US. And more and more people are getting proof of Jewishness – which says a lot…
- In Germany, in the 30s, you had optimists and the pessimists. The pessimists went to US, the optimists to Auschwitz.
- When will Jews not have to live like this? My mother had a shop and all of a sudden, early in the War, two Austrian officers started buying from her. Suddenly, one said: Are you Jewish? Why are you still living here? Get across the channel. “When will be your limit?” When will it be your limit?
- What will be my own personal limit? What should I tell other people who ask? I can only hope that people will use their own sense of timing.
- Of eight graduates from one small Jewish school – only one remained to study in Belgium. When you take your kids to school, there are police there. Is that normality? The same with Shuls?
- What is my conclusion: I don’t have answers, I have questions. My anxieties are becoming more and more Jewish realities…
From answers to questions
Q: How have Jews survived?
There are so few of us. How have we survived? The specialness of being a very unusual group who build and create, that’s how. Where are the Byzantines? Where are the Assyrians? It’s a dangerous but wonderful thing to be Jewish.
Q: Why do Jews stay?
Even with the hindsight of the 30s – It is difficult for people to move. Some don’t want to go. Others can’t afford to go. It’s not black and white, its shades of grey. You can advise people, but you can’t force them. My wife has wanted to leave for some time.
Q: As the President of the community for 15 years, were you able to talk to government as you are talking to us now?
I am more diplomatic. We can see any ministers anytime. But what do they think? Do they say ‘Oh here are those Jews again?’ I don’t want to be a guinea pig – Europe has a problem with Israel – Israel for a lot of Europeans is seen to be unethical. I am under the impression that Europe is going down the drain. Speak to Indians. Speak to Chinese. Europe has committed suicide twice – and both times it was liberated by the Americans. The fact is that more and more often the question about Europe seeing Israel as a burden is being raised. And that says a lot. It creates antagonism. As people, do they think the problems in the Middle East will be solved if there was no Israel? Of course not!
Q: Is anti-Semitism in Europe due to the Roman Catholic Church?
No. They have enough of a problem among themselves.
WZO Conference reads on SAJR.CO.ZA
17 Dec: GERMAN JEWRY IS “SITTING ON THEIR SUITCASES”
GABRIEL GOLDBERG of German Fed – on how it feels like to be a Jew in Europe in 2014
17 Dec: DANGEROUS BUT WONDERFUL THING TO BE JEWISH
BARON KLENER, Survivor& head of Belgian Jewry, tells how tough it is on European Jews
10 Dec: EUROPEAN ANTI-SEMITISM HEADING BACK TO 30’S
Introduction to series on December conference of WZO attended & written by ANT KATZ
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