Some historians mention Jews — originally part of the Roman army’s rear-guard — as having settled in Belgium as early as the 4th Century CE. But written evidence only goes back to the 13th century. (A Hebrew tombstone has been found dating to 1255, street names such as “rue des Juifs” have been recorded, and there is at least one known expulsion order dating from that time.) The community was devastated by the usual blood libels, mass burnings, and forced conversions (one of these “heroic” episodes, involving supposed torturing of the Host in 1370, is “glorified” to this day in the stained glass windows of Saint-Gudule Cathedral in Brussels). Marranos settled in the port of Antwerp in the 16th century, and lived in semi-toleration until given religious and civil rights at the end of the 18th century by the Austrian emperor Joseph II’s “Edict of Tolerance” and then emancipated by French revolutionary (later Napoleonic) law. Upon independence in 1831, the newly established parliamentary regime lost little time in recognizing Judaism as an official religious denomination (together with Catholicism, Protestantism, later Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity and Islam). The influx of East European Jewish immigrants, and later refugees, swelled the Jewish population to approximately 85,000-90,000 on the eve of WW II. Many were able to flee before the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, but more than 25,000 perished in the Shoah.
Today, about 40,000 Jews live in Belgium, with the main centers in Brussels, the capital, and in Antwerp, a leading European center of traditional orthodox Jewry.
There are scattered small Jewish communities in Knokke, Ostend, Ghent, Liege, Charleroi, Arlon, Waterloo, and Mons.
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