Murder of British Jew heightens racial tensions in Belgium

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The Independent Online

A British orthodox Jew and aide to a local rabbi was shot dead in Antwerp yesterday, heightening racial tensions in Belgium's second city after recent turbulence in neighbouring Netherlands.

A British orthodox Jew and aide to a local rabbi was shot dead in Antwerp yesterday, heightening racial tensions in Belgium's second city after recent turbulence in neighbouring Netherlands.

The Belgian authorities said it was too early to tell whether the murder of Moshe Naeh, 24, who had four children, was linked to an upsurge of anti-Semitic acts in Belgium, adding that there was no evidence of a racial or extremist motivation.

Nevertheless the attack has shocked the sizeable Jewish community in a city with a combustible ethnic mix, and which is a stronghold of Belgium's far-right, anti-immigration Flemish nationalist party, the Vlaams Bloc. Mr Naeh was shot in the head as he unloaded his car in front of his home.

Two passers-by, who found Mr Naeh at 2.20am, initially believed him to be the victim of a car accident. He died 14 hours later in the city's St.Vincentius Hospital. Police have all but ruled out robbery as a motive, since Mr Naeh's wallet and watch were not taken.

The Belgian authorities refused to confirm that Mr Naeh had been carrying a large sum of funds from the synagogue, money which was not taken. The victim's friends denied that claim yesterday. The authorities are investigating motives for the attack other than racial ones and expect to make a statement today.

Mr Naeh, a theology student who also worked at the Mercatorstraat synagogue, was a well-known member of the Jewish community and identifiable as part of the Hassidic congregation because of his dress.

As the news that Mr Naeh had died reached the synagogue yesterday afternoon, Joseph Brand, a friend, said: "This was not a coincidence and this was not about money. He was 24 and not the type you would expect to be carrying money. He was a guy who just about makes ends meet. He had no real private life. He was either at home or here doing his job."

One member of the congregation blamed the murder "either on racists or Arabs".

But another said: "We live in peace and freedom with all our neighbours. We are not involved in politics and we respect all other cultures and all other people. I cannot imagine any reason why this should happen."

Tensions have been heightened across the region since the murder in neighbouring Netherlands of Theo van Gogh, who had made a film critical of the treatment of women in Muslim society. That sparked attacks there on mosques and a school, and a mosque was attacked in eastern Belgium last week in an apparently related incident.

Laurette Onkelinx, the Belgian Justice Minister, said yesterday she and other politicians had received death threats. Mimount Bousakla, a Belgian Senator, went into hiding after receiving threatening phone calls. Senator Bousakla's parents emigrated to Belgium from Morocco and she has criticised some aspects of Islam including forced marriages.

With a Jewish community of up to 20,000, and about 50,000 immigrants of North African origin, many believe the city will try its hardest to down play any racial element, for fear of exacerbating tensions.

Asked if he had confidence in the Belgian investigators, Mr Brand replied: "Personally, no."

Nevertheless, the type of attack did not suggest any link to previous attacks, to specific far-right groups or to Islamic terrorism. Dominique Reyniers, a spokeswoman for the Antwerp Public Prosecutor, said: "I would like to stress there is no evidence of a racially motivated crime. The investigation is following other avenues, although robbery is considered unlikely."

There had already been increased security since June, when a 16-year-old Jewish student nearly died after being stabbed outside his school. Days later, a 43-year-old Jewish man was beaten unconscious.

Jewish groups have said there has been a rising tide of anti-Semitic crimes in Europe since 2000, when tensions between Israelis and Palestinians worsened in the Middle East. Belgium's official anti-racism centre said in July it had registered as many anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2004 as in the whole of 2003. Last week Patrick Dewael, Belgium's Interior Minister, promised to clamp down on Arabic-language radio stations and websites in Belgium that were spreading anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda.