Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at The (New York) Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.
Despite Rally, Israel's Friends Face an Uphill Battle in Europe
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BRUSSELS, May 29 (JTA) -- "Incroyable." Only a few hours to go before Wednesday's pro-Israel demonstration begins and already a disinformation campaign is under way, says a furious Joel Rubinfeld.
"Incroyable," he repeats, his phone in one hand, cigarette in the other. A local merchants association has circulated an "urgent communique" warning that thousands of "extreme right-wing" demonstrators will be coming through. "It has been confirmed that certain acts of violence could result," reads the letter, which was faxed to 60 local businesses.
"Madame Bertram, why are we described by you as extreme right?" asks Rubinfeld, 33, a founder of the new Belgian-Israel Friendship Association, which helped coordinate the march.
Rubinfeld isn't expecting extremists: The marchers will be Jews from across Europe, most of them liberal. Jeannine Bertram, who signed the urgent letter, is apologetic but indignant. First she blames police for issuing a vague warning. Then she says she was referring only to possible counterdemonstrators, though the letter doesn't mention this. Finally she agrees to send a clarification to those who received her first letter.
"This is a rally to support Israel and peace," Rubinfeld says, stubbing out another cigarette. All ends politely, with "madame" and "monsieur." But the scene is emblematic of the frustration that supporters of Israel face in Europe today.
"It drives me crazy," says Frederique Ries, a member of the European Parliament who supported Wednesday's demonstration in Brussels. "It is disinformation. One plus one plus one makes a lie. And it's always in the same direction."
The march, which drew nearly 10,000 people to the home base of the European Union, was peaceful and colorful. Participants from across Europe, from Greece to Great Britain, waved Israeli flags and the banners of their home countries. Umbrellas opened for a while, but ultimately the sun broke through.
Rubinfeld became involved in pro-Israel activism last year. It began when he wrote a letter of complaint to a local TV station and copied it to about 100 friends. That mailing list turned into a forum for discussion on media coverage of the Mideast, which now has nearly 2,000 participants.
"I was always very Zionist and very involved in Judaism and Israel," Rubinfeld says. He and his wife, Maryll, have a daughter and live in a suburb of Brussels. His sister and her family, his grandmother and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins live in Israel.
"People have become accustomed to a kind of anti-Zionism that has become, in Belgium at least, a kind of anti-Semitism," Rubinfeld says. "When people ask me, 'Why are you so involved--would you do the same for Belgium?' I answer, 'Don't ask me to choose between my mother and my father.'"
Rubinfeld's letter to the TV station related to a demonstration of some 250 people in front of the European Commission building. A local TV news reported that there had been 30 protesters. "I wrote to the chief of the station, 'I am used to disinformation, but today I was there. I am not in the West Bank when you are reporting, I am not in Israel. But this time I was a direct witness.'"
"We are sorry," the station responded, "We didn't know. When we came there were only 30."
The response to his mailing list convinced Rubinfeld that it was time to do more. He and several friends founded "Belisrael.be," the Belgian Friends of Israel organization--www.belisrael.be.
"I am now working almost 90 percent of my time for Israel," Rubinfeld says, adding that his private advertising agency has suffered. "I cannot work as much. It is a pity, but there are not enough people today doing this, and I made this choice."
Rubinfeld meets with Belgian and Israeli politicians, arranging meetings between them in an attempt to improve relations between the two countries. "It's rare and great to meet these people, but what is really great is that I feel maybe I can change something, maybe I can really help Israel," he says. "People think Israel is like South Africa was 20 years ago and that Sharon is like Milosevic," he says.
"They are wrong, but I am not angry at those people in the street; I am angry at the media."
He also is concerned for his future.
"At the moment, life is OK for Jews in Belgium. But if the anti-Semitism goes on, they will feel like pariahs," he says. "I want to live in Belgium. I was born and grew up here. But my mother was born in Morocco and had to flee like a thief. And my father was born in Austria and had to flee after Kristallnacht," the Nazi-led pogrom against Jewish property and synagogues in November 1938. "I want to have the privilege to live where I was born, but maybe I will have the same fate as they," he says.
During the demonstration, Rubinfeld stood at the side of the podium, looking out over the sea of people waving flags. Contrary to the worries of Madame Bertram, demonstrators did not break any windows, and not one person was arrested.
Afterward, as the crowd broke up and the sanitation trucks swept the cobblestoned plaza, Rubinfeld bought himself a dish of ice cream from a vendor. Demonstrators lingered on the green, and a few stray blue and white balloons drifted skyward.
"Oh, it was exciting," he says. "And when it is finished, it makes me a little sad."