- Jews arrived in Belgium as early as the Roman conquest. They have been mentioned in sources dating from 1200 as living in Brabant. In a will of 1261, Henry III, duke of Brabant, ordered Jews and usurers expelled from the duchy. The community rebuilt under the protection of John III and, despite attacks against Jews in Brussels in 1308, by 1311 Jewish residents boasted their own rabbi. Jews expelled from France arrived in the mid-1300s. Many Jews who survived the Black Death (1348-1349) were killed in December 1349 by residents and authorities, who accused them of poisoning wells. Only a handful survived, the majority burned at the stake in 1370 and the rest banished, charged with desecrating the sacred Host in stealing the wafers from the church of Sainte-Catherine. A small number of Jews returned in the early 16th century as marranos—false converts to Christianity—following expulsions from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s. Larger numbers arrived during the Austrian regime, when growing toleration led to increasing religious and political rights. Emancipation came during the French regime in 1795.Jews rapidly assimilated in Brussels following Belgian independence and the granting of full civil liberties. Still, there were only some 1,500 in all of Belgium in 1848. The number of residents grew beginning in the 1880s when east Europeans fleeing pogroms arrived. Many Russian Jews came to Brussels following the Revolution of 1905. By 1939, there were 35,000 Jews in Brussels. World War II saw German occupiers enact anti-Jewish measures beginning in fall 1940, which grew progressively more stringent from drawing up of lists of names to prohibition of religious rights to exclusion from the professions, curfews, and property confiscations. Yellow star badges were mandated (27 April 1942) and roundups began in September 1942. Despite efforts by a Committee for Jewish Defense, which hid Jews, forged identity papers, and set up escape routes, more than 25,000 perished.There are approximately 20,000 Jews in Brussels today. They worship at 10 synagogues and represent all streams of the faith. Judaism is recognized as an official state religion and the Belgian government pays the salary of the chief rabbi as well as providing funds for the main synagogue. The latter, the Great Synagogue, on the rue de la Régence, was built in Romanesque style to a design by Desiré De Keyser between 1875 and 1878. The building also houses the Consistoire, the Communauté Israélite de Bruxelles, and the Belgian Jewish Museum. A new museum opened in 2004 at rue des Minimes 21. There are four Jewish schools in Brussels and the European Union of Jewish Students is headquartered here. Regards is the leading Jewish newspaper. The National Monument of Jewish Martyrs of Belgium on the square des Martyrs Juifs (rues Émile Carpentier and des Goujons) includes a wall bearing 23,838 names of those killed in the Holocaust.
Historical Dictionary of Brussels. Paul F. State.