Antwerp is not ready for a Hasidic city councilman

Aron Berger, an ultra orthodox Jew, withdrew his name from the Flemish Christian Democratic ticket for Antwerp city council after being criticized for refusing to shake hands with women. 

Marjan Justaert
Marjan Justaert De Standaard, Belgium
Source: De Standaard
Antwerp is not ready for a Hasidic city councilman - NewsMavens
Antwerp City Hall. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

It would have been a victory for Hasidic Jews in Antwerp, as there has never been a candidate from their isolated community.

Kris Peeters, deputy prime minister for the Flemish Christian democrats, offered Berger a place on the party's ballot to try to bring "all Antwerp communities together." But other Christian democrats opposed Peeters' 'self-righteous' decision and said refusing to shake a woman's a hand was a deal breaker.

"I would like to stress that I understand society in Antwerp and in Belgium, and that I understand the sensitivities," Berger said during a news conference. "The teachings of my faith don’t state that you can't shake a women’s hand. However, in my community, we are taught that not touching someone of the opposite sex is a form of respect." 

Peeters realized he couldn't convince people that refusing a handshake was "not a sign of hate or contempt" but pledged to keep fighting for all communities to participate to politics.

The whole ordeal has wounded the party, and perhaps created deeper divisions in terms of religious tolerance. The Christian democrats must take thoughtful steps to help bridge cultural divides and welcome more people into the political process.

Details from the story:

  • Aron Berger, a member of Antwerp's Hasidic Jewish community, wanted to run for Antwerp city council on the Christian Democrat ticket.
  • Conservative and liberal politicians criticized Berger, particularly because he refuses to shake hands with women.
  • Minister Kris Peeters, who will head the Christian democrats' list during Antwerp's municipal elections, told journalists that Berger withdrew his candidacy "after consultations" with party leaders.
  • Peeters said Berger was ready to distance himself from a number of controversial statements in the past, but it never came to that.
  • Following Berger's withdrawal, the newspaper 'Gazet van Antwerpen' discovered that he was convicted for stealing 28,500 euros.

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