The Jews of Belgium
Mende Glazer - April 24, 2009
The very first Jews in Belgium likely arrived as Jewish slaves or merchants with the Romans in the early first century but not much is known about their lives or activities in those days. There are some historical records that refer to Jews being residents in the city of Brabant as early as 1200 but those early Jews suffered terribly from the Crusades and forced conversions of those times. At the end of the fifteenth century there were some Marranos or secretly practicing Jews who settled in Antwerp and they were joined in the sixteenth century by Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain.
Jews in Belgium enjoyed an open society with the advent of Austrian rule in 1713 when they were given religious and civil rights by the Austrian emperor Joseph II's "Edict of Tolerance". These conditions would only improve further with emancipation under Napoleonís rule and later under the Dutch as the Jewish population grew slowly with immigrants from France, Germany and Holland.
In 1831 Belgium became and independent country and in one of its first acts the new parliament recognized Judaism and other religions as official religious denominations. More Jewish immigrants would arrive; this time primarily Polish and Hungarian in the 1880ís to be joined by Sephardic Jews who came from the Ottoman Empire. Over 20,000 Jews from Germany arrived in Belgium in the 1930ís as Hitlerís armies were massing and Jews were being singled out for particularly harsh treatment. By 1939 it was estimated that there were as many as 90,000 Jews in Belgium with large communities in Antwerp and Brussels and smaller Jewish settlements in Liege, Charleroi, Ghent, Oostende, Namur and Arlon.
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