'I got used to being called a dirty Jew'
What happens when a Jewish girl from Belgium is brutally attacked by Muslim schoolmates? Police fail to handle incident, while school and politicians turn a blind eye. Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent meets Oceane Sluijzer, whose assault has shocked Europe's Jewish communities
The fear to walk on the street on her own still paralyzes her, ever since that Friday, about two weeks ago, when five girls of Muslim descent, her schoolmates, humiliated her in public and assaulted her.
"Dirty Jew – go to your country," they told her, grabbing her hair and slamming her head against their knees. Then they just left her there, at the sports center, not far from the school, while those who witnessed the incident quickly ran away.
Oceane is not alone. Camilla, 16, studies in the European school, considered the most prestigious in Brussels, where children of European representatives are sent to. She recently decided to leave the educational institution and move to the Jewish school after being harassed over her opinions and support for Israel.
But it seems that in Belgium of 2011, the law authorities, government and educational system have already given up. Complete disregard is apparently the way Belgians respond to anti-Semitic attacks these days.
"The police suggested that I keep quiet about the incident. They asked me, 'Don't say that it's anti-Semitism,'" Oceane reveals. "They even suggested that I avoid going to the hospital."
According to her father, Dan, "The police said they would collect the five girls' testimonies and settle for that. If they attack her again in the future, they promised to act differently. The police wanted to bury this affair as soon as possible."
The educational system's response was similar. Oceane returned home that day and didn't leave her house for the next 10 days, but no one at the school even bothered to check on her. Her schoolmates disappeared too.
"A week later, the principal called and asked me to visit his office with Oceane's mother," the father says. "He said he had decided to suspend the girls' leader. I informed him that my daughter would not be returning to a school which is incapable of protecting her. As far as he was concerned, it was enough. It was the ideal solution."
Balance of fear
In her first interview, a day after she agreed to leave her house following the incident, Oceane reenacts the trauma. "I'm over the hemorrhages and physical pain," she says, "but mentally I feel hurt."
She finds it difficult to look up when she speaks, her head is bent down, her voice is faint. Her father says his daughter has changed. "Suddenly I can't touch her," he notes. "A pat on the shoulder and she flinches. I'm very concerned."
Apart from her testimony to the police, this is the first time Oceane describes what happened. "I play soccer at the sports center," she says. "It was a routine afternoon training session organized by the school."
She says the abuse was nothing new. The girls of Moroccan descent used to regularly address her with exclamations of contempt.
"In the past month and a half it became worse," she says. "That day I just had enough. I said to myself that today I would answer them, that I wouldn't take it anymore."
She mustered the courage and answered back. "The fact that I'm not Moroccan doesn't give you permission not to respect me," she told the girls. "They began cursing and insulting me."
Oceane didn't break down: "I don't want to keep quiet. I live in my country." Her comment cost her two slaps in the face. "It was an act of provocation and they wanted me to hit them back. I was gripped with fear and realized I must walk away."
But the girls wouldn't let her go. "They followed me and began assaulting me. The attack lasted five minutes, which seemed eternal. A friend of mine of Indian descent was the only one who intervened. She tried to protect me. She prevented a disaster. Their hatred would have left me bleeding on the grass without anyone there to help me."
It turns out that the girls only found out about Oceane's Jewish roots about a year ago.
"We're Arab. We don't want you to be part of our group," they used to tell her. "The Muslim girls created a balance of fear threatening everyone. I got used to not having the Belgian girls defend me, because I knew they were scared too."
Tensions mounted at the school every day. "I got used to being called a dirty Jew. It wasn't unusual, although I was burning up inside."
Her father, whose grandfather was murdered in the Holocaust, says that "last year I already went to the school and warned the principal that there is a problem of anti-Semitism here, but he said they were just children and that I mustn't make generalizations. I was concerned by the fact that my daughter and her older sister are the only Jewish girls in the school."
And he had good reason to be concerned, as the verbal violence turned into physical violence. While the Moroccan girl has appealed the decision to suspend her and may return to the educational institution, Oceane must now look for a new school.
She wasn't raised in a religious home, and her identity as a Jew never bothered her or was part of her life. "Until now I was never afraid to say that I'm Jewish, but it's different now," she says.
Going to a Jewish school which practices Halacha and where classes are in Hebrew seems too difficult. Therefore it was decided that she would go to a different public school, which has other Jewish students.
"The indifference is proving itself in Belgium again," says Dan. Indeed, the fact that the incident was not reported in Belgium and that elected representatives had nothing to say about it points to the problematic situation in the country.
The only person who spoke about Oceane's attack was Jewish Parliament Member Viviane Teitelbaum, who published the story on her website.
A visit to the school in Brussels' Laeken neighborhood supports this feeling. Rochelle, Ali, Antoine and Orly – Oceane's classmates – stand at the entrance. "Do you know why Oceane was attacked?" I ask them, and Orly responds: "Yes, she was attacked because her father is Jewish."
"We don't know what happened there, if Oceane teased them or not," says Rochelle, without rushing to point a finger at anyone although Orly explained the situation to her.
None of the teachers or educators discussed the incident with them. The principal refused to talk to me although he was informed that an Israeli journalist was waiting for him.
He sent me to Madame Fauzia Harisha, the Muslim woman in charge of the education portfolio at the Brussels City Hall. When she finally picked up the phone, she explained that she could not talk to me as long as the Muslim student's appeal process was ongoing.
The attack on Oceane was at the center of a Jewish legalists' conference held last week in Brussels, organized by the European Jewish Union (EJU), which discussed legal ways to combat anti-Semitism.
These incidents are taking place in other European countries as well. In France, a young student was beaten for being Jewish, and in Switzerland three youngsters attacked one of the local rabbi's assistants.
An unexpected attack came from US Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, who he suggested that the root cause of anti-Jewish hatred in Europe was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, the guest of honor at the conference, addressed the incident. "There is anti-Semitism in the Arab world and among Muslims which is way beyond one policy or another of any Israeli government when it comes to the conflict with the Arab world," he said. "The international community tends to quickly forget the steps Israel has taken for peace."
"The European Jewish Union is working nonstop to strengthen the European Jewry and deepen its affiliation with Israel," noted EJU CEO Tomer Orni. The organization, which recently began operating a television channel referred to as the "Jewish al-Jazeera", has no intention of giving into the wave of anti-Semitism in the continent.
"The channel we established recently was a dream come true not just for the Diaspora Jewry," he explains, "but also for many Israelis who have been waiting for years for a global TV channel which does not necessarily present Israel as being responsible for every disease in the world."
Oceane will soon be receiving legal aid too. The EJU's cooperation with an association of Jewish European lawyers fighting for Israel is already working to put the Moroccan girls on trial.
"I don't care if we're called a Jewish lobby," says Aviel Attias, one of the organization's founders. "If we must demonstrate legal aggressiveness in order to insist on our rights, it will be done. Oceane won't be left alone. That's a promise."