Thursday, June 11, 2009

Flander's Birthright and the Right of Return

Readers of this blog are likely well aware of the prominent role that the Red Star Line, a shipping concern that dominated the transhipment of migrants from the port of Antwerp to New York City during the heyday (1892-1924) of large scale European immigration to the United States. Today there are non-profit societies centered around the Red Star Line in Europe and America as well as a museum being built in Antwerp, near the docks where these emigrants embarked for America and the promise of a new life.

Many of these emigrants were Jews from Eastern Europe. They fled pogroms as well as economic insecurity. Their last look backward at Europe - if they indeed did so at all - was from the deck of the Red Star Line ships leaving Antwerp. As they waited, patiently, for that next ship to the Land of Opportunity they were sometimes captured, anonymously and perhaps unsuspectingly, by the Flemish folk artist Eugene Van Mieghem. It is his drawings you see posted here. More of which are found in abundance both at Flanders House New York in a temporary exhibit as well as at their rightful home in the Eugene Van Mieghem Museum in Antwerp. For those of you able to travel to New York City and Antwerp I can strongly recommend a visit to both.

It is estimated that these ships carried perhaps as many as two million people from Antwerp to America during that time. The contribution that those immigrants made to the growth and success of the United States is immeasurable. Arguably, and in part, the position of the United States today on the world stage is a direct consequence of the hard work, ingenuity and self-sacrifice of those Jewish immigrants.

Later, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these same immigrants, as they rose in socio-economic status, also contributed to the establishment and prosperity of what they viewed as their ancestral homeland: the State of Israel. Since my father and grandparents left from those same docks in Antwerp I ask myself: what can we Flemish Americans learn from the example of the Jewish immigrants to the United States?

To begin with, and interestingly enough, Flanders and Israel are roughly comparable in many metrics. Flanders is comparable to Israel when it comes to infrastructure, population and GDP:

area 13,522 sq km
population 6,058,368 (2004 est)
density 439/km2
GDP 200 billion Euros
per capita GDP 26,891 Euros (2005)

area 20, 770 sq km
population 7,411,0002 (2009 est) of which approximately 5 million are Jews
density 324/km2
GDP $200.630 billion
per capita GDP $28,206

As the son of a Flemish immigrant to the United States I share the desire to make contributions I can make to the success and prosperity of my ancestral homeland. The contribution that 4 million American Jews have made to the well-being of roughly 6 million Israelis is dramatic. What can Flanders and the Flemish diaspora learn from this experience of the Jews who departed Antwerp a century ago?

Permit me to offer a plan. My suggestion is that the Flemish government consider extending rights to the Flemish diaspora that are neither unprecedented nor unusual. The Flemish government should offer those of us with a true Flemish heritage the same rights that Israel offers Jews: the Right of Return.

Wikipedia defines this concept thus:

"The term right of return refers to the principle in international law that members of an ethnic or national group have a right to immigration and naturalization into the country that they, the destination country, or both consider to be that group's homeland, independent of prior personal citizenship in that country. This belief is sometimes reflected in special consideration in a country's immigration laws (called "repatriation") which facilitate or encourage the reunion of a diaspora or dispersed ethnic population."

Of the at least 30 nations that Wikipedia cites as offering a safe haven for their ethnic diaspora perhaps the most prominent or best known is that of Israel. The specific legislation in Israel's constitution is called the Law of Return.

"The Law of Return (Hebrew: חוק השבות, ḥok ha-shvūt) is Israeli legislation, enacted in 1950, that gives Jews, those of Jewish ancestry, and their spouses the right to migrate to and settle in Israel and gain citizenship."

Israel originally promulgated this law as a reaction to the Holocaust. Jews would never again be forced to literally roam the globe in search of a refuge. Instead, they could be assured a place where their ethnicity would not entail physical and economic hazard to them and their families. However, other, modern - and to be fair, controversial - social engineering objectives have come to the fore. One prominent stated desire is to offset the exodus of some of Israel's best and brightest for the U.S. by offering a haven to those Jews from around the world searching for an economic haven. The practical outcome of this policy is a pool of immigrants who both provide a steady pool of inexpensive labor for the menial jobs native-born Israelis reject while giving them a stake in the survival of the Jewish state.

Another, equally successful target is those Jews from more affluent strata whose motivation is a romantic attachment to their heritage. This group provides a steady stream of immigrants, largely from the United States. These immigrants bring with them not only well-educated believers in Israel but also the intangible resources of contacts and connections in American society, government and business. Those ties aid the Israelis on the world stage as most everyone would agree.

Any large body of immigrants, if unassimilated, raise difficulties for the body politic. The sons of the large immigrant waves of the 1890-1910 period in America, the same we see pictured here, were assimilated through the public education system first and then the crucibles of World War 1, the Great Depression and World War 2. They were molded into Americans through our state religion (the belief in the American Dream) and shared sacrifice. But the formative experiences were accidents of history, not intentional policy.

The Israelis, while having compressed a great deal of shared sacrifice into their 60 year history, have taken a practical approach to the assimilation and acculturation of 'romantic immigrants'. This program is privately funded but officially endorsed. It is called "Birthright Israel".

Birthright Israel's stated purpose:

"Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people."

Today there are literally millions of West Europeans and Americans of Flemish descent. I do not claim that they are in the same physical danger as the Jews were who fled East European pogroms or the Holocaust. Nor, despite the global economic malaise the world is currently muddling through, are they at any specific, relative economic disadvantage. Quite the contrary. Especially if Flemish Americans are an indication, the diaspora of those of Flemish descent is well-educated and prosperous.

This is precisely my point. The diaspora of those with Flemish ethnicity is financially secure and in many cases, just like Jews around the world, well-assimilated into their current countries.These are the people that Flanders should extend a hand to. It is to these people that an offfer to resettle in their ancestral homeland of Flanders would bring the most benefit to Flanders.

Flanders needs a "Birthright Flanders". This would be an opportunity for Flanders to pull back in the sons and daughters of the Flemish diaspora. At the very least it would generate a better understanding and appreciation of Flanders in the Flemish diaspora communities overseas. At best we can make a strongly positive contribution to Flander's image overseas and prosperity at home.


  1. The possible problem of determining who qualifies as Flemish and not-Flemish is a bit more complex than with the Israeli-law of return.

    A comparable European case, Germany, provides a possibility for citizenship based on 'ethnic citizenship' (I don't completely agree with this category) of descendants of German citizens living within the borders of 1937 (thus also open to many Polish-speakers). This geographic dimension very much delineates who is 'in' and 'out'. In the Israeli case the geographic criterion is replaced by a ethno-religious one. In both of the above cases there is thus a relatively easily determined criterion of who can benifit from a law-of-return. (exceptions are Jewish immigration planning in Germany, and refusal of some 'in'-group people)

    This brings me to the Flemish case. What easily-determinable criteria can be used to allow for a 'birthright-Flanders' law? Ethnic lineage, determining who is of Flemish descent, is far broader a criterion than is belonging to a specific religious group as in the Israeli case. Refering to geography as in the German case is also problematic. Although I acknowledge that 1937 as a marker of the borders is arbitrary, the geographic determintion of a historical Flanders would be even more arbitrary. Knowledge of the Dutch language would seem to be a good equivalent to the above criteria. However, adopting this criterion may fit very well into the contemporary politics of Flanders, it would cause serious problems in its practical execution. Language as a criterion for Flemish-Belgian itizenship is also contradictory with Belgian immigration policies and French-speakers living in Flanders.

    Thus aside from the obvious conflict a Flemish-based immigration policy would stir up in a Belgian context; and aside from those against 'ethnic' conceptions of nationality and immigration (Ignatieff, Habeermas, ...) the problem is how to determine who can benifit from a Flemish-law-of-return in a reasonably practical and fair way?

  2. Fabian, excdellent points. To the best of my knowledge all of these programs (including the Israeli one) rely upon multiple criteria but primarily ethnic and cultural (with religious as a special component perhaps for Israel). That is why the "Black Jews" of the US were denied while Ethiopian Jews were included.

    My suggestion for who is and who is not Flemish might devolve on the following points:

    a) Can document that they have at least one great-grandparent of Flemish ancestry (defined as Dutch speakers born south of the current Dutch-Belgian border (thus including, theoretically, France);

    b) Can demonstrate some cultural affinity (e.g., family traditions, etc.) with the original locality;

    c) And/or married to someone who fits the above.

    It might be even tighter than the above. But I think the program might wish to be broadly inclusive. My sons, for example, who are only 25% Flemish, speak a few Flemish words, know much more about their Flemish roots than even some of my American-born cousins who are 100% of Flemish ethnicity. So perhaps some kind of tests, etc. might help to qualify and determine whoi truly is an acceptable fit.

    At any rate, I am delighted to see your very thoughtful response. If you do have any official standing it would be excellent to see something promulgated for those of us overseas.

  3. amai , schitterend !!!
    Wat een brok info...

    debende van wim ???

    Stefaan desmedt

  4. My surname is Fleming and I am of the opinion that my ancient forebears came from Flanders as we have dna matches with some others who are obviously Flemish (Bremner ie. a native of Brabant, Sutherland, Baird and more possibly Flemish tribe) I live in Australia and my Fleming (Surname) family obviously came to Australia via England,Scotland and finally Ireland. Our surname indicates that our ancient ancestry is Flemish so how do we stand as far as the "right of return" I would love to return and to check out where my ancestors came from.. and sometimes I think I would like to live there but I think the weather is too cold for me now that I am getting older. I speak English a few words in dutch and some school French. My ancestors left Flanders probably pre 1066 and I have no evidence for that except general historical information and the surname that I bear and am quite proud of !

    1. Hi Janet! That is a great question. So far, neither the Flemish Government (which does not have jurisdiction over this issue but could exercise strong influence) nor the Belgian government (which does exercise jurisdiction but has no interest) have been thoroughly disinterested. I have mentioned this issue in person to King Filip (when he was Prince Filip), Henk Mahieu (Belgian Minister), Kris Peeters (Minister-President of Flanders), Geert Bourgeois (Vice Minister President of Flanders), Gerolf Annemans (Leader of Vlaams Belang) and a flurry of others. Currently I am also Chairman of the Gazette van Detroit (the only/oldest newspaper of Flemings in North America). So your re-ignition of this worthy cause I will push forward in the Gazette in February. Thank you for your note. I am delighted to hear from you!