Jews may have followed the Roman Legions to what is today Belgium around the years 53-57 of the Common Era, but the first tangible proof of a Jewish presence there dates back to the 13th century. A tombstone from 1255/56 found in Thienen (Tirlemont) mentions the name, Rebecca bat Moshe. Jews who refused baptism were massacred in Belgium during the 1309 crusade, and the small Jewish communities there were decimated after Jews were accused of causing the “Black Death” of 1348-1349. When Spanish Jews settled in the Netherlands in the 16th century, Jews, others – most of them likely “secret Jews” known as Marranos - also settled in Antwerp and Bruges. After Antwerp came under Austrian rule in 1713, the Jews of that city were able to practice their religion more openly, and enjoyed even greater freedom after the promulgation in 1781 by the Habsburg emperor Joseph II of the “Edict of Tolerance”. In 1808 around 800 Jews were integrated into two of the Belgian Consistoires established under Napoleon. In 1831, a year after Belgian independence, the Jewish religion was legally recognized with the ‘Consistoire Central israélite de Belgique’ as its official representative before the authorities.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jewish community of Belgium grew as the result of Jewish immigration from central and eastern Europe, with more assimilated French-speaking Jews establishing themselves in Brussels, while Yiddish-speaking, more Orthodox Jews settled in Antwerp. At the outset of World War II, the Jewish community of Belgium numbered more than 100,000.
Jews have been active in Belgian political and cultural life, among them Jean Gol, who served as vice-premier, minister of justice and institutional reform between 1981 and 1988; François Englert, Nobel Prize laureate in Physics; professor of neurosurgery Jacques Brotchi who was elected to the Belgian Senate in 2004; and Vivian Teitelbaum, a member of the Brussels regional legislature.
Today, the total Jewish population in Belgium numbers approximately 30,000, with a high concentration in Brussels and Antwerp. In 2002, as anti-Semitism flared throughout Europe and immigrants were rioting in Antwerp, some violence was directed at Jews in Belgium. In 2014, there were multiple anti-Semitic attacks carried out against the Belgian Jewish community. On June 2, 2014, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder led a solidarity mission made up of 38 international Jewish leaders to Brussels following a deadly attack on the Jewish Museum of Brussels on May 24, 2014 that was condemned by the Belgian authorities as a clear act of anti-Semitism and terrorism.