Brussels is the capital of Belgium. A Jewish community existed in Brussels by the mid-13th century. Its cultural standard is attested to by the fine illuminated Pentateuch completed there by the scribe Isaac for Ḥayyim, son of the martyr Ḥayyim, in 1310. The Jews of Brussels were massacred during the Black Death (1348–49). A few subsequently resettled, but a further massacre followed an accusation of desecrating the Host (May 1370), and the Jews were officially excluded from Brussels until the end of Spanish rule in Belgium. The memory of the reputed sacrilege was preserved, as the wafers became an object of worship, still commemorated on the third Sunday of July. The episode is depicted in the stained-glass windows of the St. Gudule Cathedral of Brussels. Marranos, however, found their way to Brussels from time to time, such as the Mendes family in the 16th century. In the 17th century several Marranos, including Daniel Levi (Miguel) de Barrios, served in the Spanish army in Brussels. Some of them later settled in Amsterdam where they openly professed Judaism.
After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Belgium came under Austrian rule and Jews began to settle in Brussels. Decrees of expulsion were issued in 1716 and in 1756, but were averted by gifts to the crown. In 1757, the community of Brussels consisted of 21 men, 19 women, and 26 children, many of whom had moved there from Holland. In 1783 Philip Nathan, who received the right of citizenship of Brussels, asked the authorities to assign a site for a new Jewish cemetery. With the annexation of Belgium in 1794 by France, Jews were able to settle freely in Brussels.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the Brussels community recognized the authority of the rabbinate of Metz. The Napoleonic edict of March 17, 1808, included Brussels in the Consistory of Crefeld. When Belgium was united with Holland, Brussels became the head of the 14th religious district of Holland. Belgium became independent in 1830 and the constitution of 1831 accorded religious freedom. Brussels became
The Nazis occupied Belgium in May 1940. A committee of the Association de Juifs en Belgique (AJB) was created in Brussels. All Jews were subjected to direction from this organization under the pretext of providing social relief for their brethren. The local Jews were sent to the labor camp of Mechlin (Malines) and from there they were sent to the extermination camps in the east.
From 1945 until approximately 1950, the Jewish population of Brussels was as large as it had been before World War II (about 27,000), owing to the temporary sojourn of thousands of refugees from Eastern and Central Europe there. After that period, however, immigration to Belgium decreased and an important wave of emigration began to the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and Israel. The total population was not known precisely, but certain statistical data, such as the average family size (which is 2.6 persons), indicated that it did not substantially exceed 18,000. The age distribution, owing to a low birthrate and an increasing trend of assimilation, points to the fact that the population had become stationary and was on the road to natural diminution. The community's reconstruction after World War II was severely hampered by Belgium's economic instability and the process of rehabilitating war victims. Furthermore, as the majority of Jews were foreigners, it was difficult for them to obtain work permits. In 1946, a monthly average of 4,500 persons required relief or some form of aid from Jewish agencies, while only a few hundred were still in need in 1970. Priority was given to the creation of general institutions for social assistance and public services, such as L'Aide aux Israélites Victimes de la Guerre (now the Service Social Juif), L’Heureux Séjour, an old-age home, and the Caisse de Prêt de Crédit, to cope with the needs of the postwar Jewish community. The important contributions of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany to the institutions largely supported by them for 20 years eventually tapered off. A central fund-raising agency, La Centrale d'Oeuvres Sociales Juives, unifying 15 institutions, was created in 1952.
In 1970, Brussels had two primary Jewish day schools run on different ideological bases: one religious-traditionalist, l’École Israélite, and the other, Ganenou, more specifically Zionist-oriented. The Athénée Maimonide high school was run by the same board as the École Israélite. These three schools were recognized and subsidized by the state. Participation in a Jewish curriculum was also been expanded through other endeavors, such as the creation of Sunday schools, a school of Yiddish language and literature, and a number of Hebrew classes. Three ideologically different communal centers also provided educational and leisure activities. Apart from its four legally recognized religious communities (three Ashkenazi and one Sephardi), Brussels had several groups that organized their own religious services. In 1966, Belgian Jews and American Jews residing in Belgium created L’Union Israélite Libérale de Belgique, which had a Progressive ideology. The Centre National des Hautes Études Juives, created by the Free University of Brussels and subsidized by the state, promotes research and studies on contemporary Jewry and played an active role in the cultural renewal of the community.
The community grew slightly in the ensuing decades and reached a population of around 15,000 in 2002, representing about half the Jewish population of Belgium (with the other half in Antwerp). In addition to maintaining its three Jewish schools, the community saw to the religious instruction of those in public schools in voluntary classes taught by Consistoire-appointed rabbis, with around 60% of Jewish public school children in attendance. The community had over a dozen synagogues and a yeshivah operated in the borough of Forest, where Orthodox Jews were concentrated. A Jewish Studies Institute operated within the framework of the Brussels Free University. The Jewish Secular Community Center (Centre Communautaire Laic Juifs) offered lectures, seminars, and Hebrew and Yiddish classes.
Today, Brussels has a Jewish population of approximately 20,000, about a dozen synagogues, two schools and a radio station. Downtown Brussels, once the main Jewish area of the city, has seen wealthier members of the community moving to more affluent areas. Two of its four synagogues, the Sephardic Synagogue and the Rogier Street Synagogue, closed as did the Maimonides School. The two remaining synagogues, the Stalingrad Synagogue and the larger Clinique Synagogue, are both in decline as the population shifts. On the positive side, the two remaining Jewish schools, located in the southern part of the city have never had higher attendance and three synagogues opened in the same area in the last 30 years.
Salah Abdeslam, the mastermind of the November 13, 2015, attacks on Paris who evaded capture for months, was arrested in Brussels, Belgium on March 18, 2016. Four days later, three individuals carried out massive coordinated suicide attacks at the national airport and the Maelbeek train station, killing 31 and injuring more than 250. The attackers were identified at brothers Ibrahim (29) and Khalid (27) el-Bakraoui, and Najim Laachraoui, all of whom had previous criminal records but no known links to terrorism. The Bakraoui brothers had been detained by Turkey and deported to the Netherlands in mid-2015 however, under suspicion they were attempting to travel to Syria. The Islamic State took responsibility for this attack in the immediate aftermath. The Jewish community of Brussels cancelled their Purim celebrations in the wake of this tragedy, originally scheduled for March 24, citing security concerns.
On May 24, 2014, a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, killing four people. Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national of Algerian origin, was arrested in connection with the shooting. The trial for Nemmouche and an accomplice began in January 2019.
On September 16, 2014, two days after the Jewish Museum reopened, a synagogue was set on fire by an arsonist. Three people, the wife and two children of the synagogue’s caretaker, were treated for inhaling smoke.
In 2015, the chief rabbi of Brussels, Avraham Guigui, said “there is no future for Jews in Europe” and that young people are leaving the country.
H. Ouverleau, in: REJ, 7 (1883), 117–38; 8 (1884), 206–34; 9 (1884), 264–89; M. Kayserling, in: REJ, 18 (1889), 276–89; R. Orfinger-Karlin, in: AJYB, 49 (1947), 325–30; JYB (1964), 171; W. Bok, in: Deuxième colloque sur la vie juive dans l'Europe contemporaine (1967); W. Bok and H. Helman, in: Jewish Communal Service (1967), 69–75; M. Flinker, Young Moshe's Diary (1965). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: AJYB (2003).
Sources: Kenneth R. Scholberg, Max Gottschalk and Willy Bok, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
“Jewish community in Brussels cancels Purim events after terrorist attacks,” The Sofia Globe, (March 22, 2016);
“Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting,” Wikipedia;
Cnaan Liphshiz, “As Two Brussels Synagogues Shutter Their Doors, Belgian Jews Look To An Uncertain Future,” Forward, (February 5, 2019).