Our large coach weaves its way deftly through the tight streets of downtown Brussels before emerging into a sprawling industrial area. Inside are about forty 20-somethings, chatting and arguing lively and loudly about whatever 20-somethings argue about. Bright blue lanyards dangle around their necks with the words “World Jewish Congress” and “Diplomacy Forum.” We come from across the globe: South America, Australasia, Europe, Asia, and of course North America. English is the lingua franca, but conversations dip in and out of every global tongue. An American joins an intense conversation with an Italian and an Argentinian; they’re all speaking Spanish, on Belgian soil no less. An Australian and a Mexican exchange a few words in Hebrew. It’s a globalist’s dream, a xenophobe’s nightmare.
If a stranger were to land amid this milieu, they might assume the group was made up of tourists on the way to a festival or museum. Instead, their bus finally pulls into a gargantuan military complex. High black fences topped with spikes line the boundary. Flags from nations across the globe flap and glitter in the sun. It could be an international airport, or perhaps a full-sized football stadium. It is, in fact, the new $1.2 billion-dollar headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO HQ.
We exit the bus and are escorted through security, whispering wildly about the sights. The impression we have is informed by a lifetime of NATO mythos: the Cold War, the Baltics, the war on terror, and dozens of films and TV shows where NATO is a code-word for Western military unity and power. Our group remains transfixed by the grandiosity, but as we walk, cues begin to emerge that belie the NATO legend.
A man in fluorescent Lycra skids past. He dismounts, carefully places his bike alongside others, and attaches a chain lock. He picks up his backpack, and, still clad in Lycra, makes his way up into the building. We turn a corner and come upon a children’s playground, where a few children idly make their way up a climbing wall. Yes, there is a playground at NATO. A dozen or so adults in jeans and t-shirts are having a pizza party a few metres away, probably toasting to a co-worker’s departure. Our collective bubble has now been quite truly burst.
NATO was, until quite recently, something of a dinosaur faced with an existential crisis: not nuclear war, but peace in Europe. Yet, it has reawakened to face a renewed east-west divide, at the centre of discourse, around a new war in Europe. At Brussels airport this renewed sense of solidarity is evident; a billboard advertising Brussels tourism was lately replaced with ‘Brussels: Home of NATO’, afront a bright photo of the HQ’s glittering flags. This dramatic pivot takes place within the stilted and censorious language of public diplomacy.
In An Opposing Man, Ernst Fischer opined, “The degree of a society’s culture can be measured against its attitude towards the Jews. All forms of antisemitism are evidence of a reversion to barbarism. Any system which persecutes the Jews, on whatever pretext, has forfeited all right to be regarded as progressive.” By this measure, not all sides of this renewed divide are created equal. A gaggle of young Jewish upstarts was now treading the hallowed halls of NATO.
NATO officials answered our incessant questions on the suffering in Ukraine with grace and erudition.
Among our cohort were young, ambitious students who hope to join institutions such as this one. They will one day undoubtedly have a seat at the table. If I may be so bold, I think they will be uniquely qualified to do so. They now know that such lofty ambitions are not so lofty: workers at NATO bike to work, look after their kids, and bemoan COVID restrictions just like the rest of us. When they “think with the blood” as Kipling put it, they do so not just for their own village, their own colour, or their own language, but for every stripe of the diverse international alliance we saw and heard on that bus, forever unified by such an incredible experience together. Bound by common origin and common fate from across the globe, which looks to me now a little smaller than it once did.
Elliot Cina is part of the 2020-2021 Lauder Fellow cohort, representing Victoria University of Wellington. He is part of the Lauder Fellowship: an international network of top Jewish student leaders seeking to represent and advocate on behalf of the global Jewish community on campus.