I have been watching the Netflix series Shtisel. It’s about an ultra-orthodox family living in Jerusalem. Their sorrows and joys are welcome entertainment during a pandemic year, offering a sympathetic window to this otherwise closed-off Jewish community. It reminds me of how, on my first visit to Israel, I went to see the well-known ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood but was turned away as they don’t welcome outsiders. When we later moved to Belgium, I kept my distance from the orthodox community even though it dominates official Jewish life here, particularly in Antwerp. My family became members of Beth Hillel and then later helped found the IJC. The Orthodox lived their way and we lived ours and there was no need or possibility for our paths to cross.
The relationship between the orthodox and reform communities has been strained since the early 19th century when reform Judaism was founded. After emancipation, many Jews wanted to unshackle the religion from the strictures of the old shtetl life and customs. The Jews who wanted to fully participate in their societies longed for a religion that could evolve with modern times.
The political struggle between orthodox and progressive Judaism still exists. This is particularly true in the parts of the world where the state is involved in supporting religion,including Israel and many European countries. The situation is made more complex in Belgium where the relationship between the government and the Jewish community is governed by the Consistoire, a Jewish Council that is a relic of Napoleonic times. The Consistoire represents the orthodox communities. It doesn’t recognize any other Jewish religious sensibilities. The IJC has been asking for state recognition for more than a decade -- without success.
Why is it so important to be recognized by the Consistoire? All ministers of recognized religious communities in Belgium are paid by the state, so if the IJC became recognized, our rabbi would become a civil servant and his or her salary supported by the state. It’s also important that the government, as well as the public, gain a realistic image of the Jewish community. If only orthodox Jews are recognized and represented, it would be a distortion of today’s Jewish reality.
Liberal and progressive Judaism may be minorities in Belgium, but they represent the largest group of Jews in the world. Our movement is in tune with Belgian society. We respect gender equality as well as LGBTQ rights, both protected by law in Belgium. In the past year, the IJC has hired a lawyer to attempt to resolve the recognition issue. We have also been in contact with UNIA, the Belgian anti-discrimination agency, and it is following our case.
We’re about to put in a formal request to the Ministry of Justice, backed by the World and European Unions of Progressive Jews and the Belgian Central Coordinating Committee of Jews, of which we are a member. I’m hopeful that the IJC will finally get its rightful status and that the discrimination towards us will end soon. It is a pity that the orthodox community see us as a threat and not as allies. As a minority religion, we should work together to better Jewish life in Belgium.
The fictional Shtisel family made me realize that more unites than separates us. All Jews love their families, community, and friends. We each want to practice Judaism in a way that fulfils us and feels right. We share the same ancient texts. They are still relevant, even if interpretation varies. We all belong to the same extended - if dysfunctional -Jewish family. We are asking the Belgian government to recognize our reality and to stop the discrimination.