Ambassador Gutman and the relationship between the inhabitants of Belgium

Long before Barack Obama had tapped Howard Gutman,  on July 24, 200, for the job of ambassador to Belgium, sworn in on August 14, 2009, Gutman had been concerned about the sliding public image of America in Europe.

Howard W. Gutman, the US Ambassador to Belgium

Howard W. Gutman, the US Ambassador to Belgium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Jew Gutman is the son of Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor Gitman Mogilnicki becoming Mosher Gutman first of Danzig and then Max Gutman of the Bronx, working in the  garment district in the lower East Side of Manhattan. When he was 16, after the death of his father he went to work after school cleaning tables in a restaurant and through the student loan program, he attended public elementary schools and then the Bronx High School of Science in New York, Columbia University wher e he became a summa cum laude graduate (1977)  and then Harvard Law School where he received a magna cum laude graduate (1980).

He was on the Board of the Washington Hebrew Home for seniors and a member of two different shuls in Washington DC — a reform shul and an Orthodox shul.

Before being named Ambassador, Mr. Gutman was a partner with the Washington D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly LLP. In his over twenty-six years with the firm, Mr. Gutman handled the full gamut of litigation, investigation, and counseling matters.

Mr. Gutman served as a Special Assistant to F.B.I Director William H. Webster, focusing on counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence; as a law clerk to Justice Potter Stewart (retd.) on the United States Supreme Court; and as a law clerk to Judge Irving L. Goldberg on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Though there was much support in the Jewish community during the campaign of Barack Obama, he combated significant suspicion and concern among the Jewish community as to whether a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could really be a good friend for Israel and the Jewish community. But Gutman  helped raise a half a million dollars for President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and assisted on constituency work, media and fundraising and was a Trustee on the Obama Presidential Inauguration Committee.

He has engaged at great lengths with the Jewish communities in Belgium, giving speeches in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia and even before the World Jewish Congress on Barack Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community and the Middle East.

As a tourist, he would often find himself on the receiving end of complaints about Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to climate change policies. But as a lawyer he has been very handy in the use of his well sought words.


Anti-Semitism (Photo credit: quinn.anya)

But his words were not always understood the same. When I heard him speaking at a legal conference on antisemitism organized by the European Jewish Union on November 30, 2011, I did not have the impression he was anti-Semitic. Gutman talked about historic antisemitism, as well as a trend he described as “a tension and perhaps hatred largely born of and reflecting the tension…in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem”. He added that “an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism.”
According to some, his remarks reflect views of the State Department, which has been conducting a behind-the-scenes campaign for more than 30 years to eliminate a Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria.

At that time, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich did not miss a beat and sent a Twitter message, “Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-Semitism.”

The White House hurriedly distanced itself from an ambassador’s blaming Israel for fueling anti-Semitism because of the standoff with the Palestinian Authority.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, himself condemned the remarks as an excuse for inaction on anti-Semitism, and the headlines blared “American Ambassador Blamed Israel for Anti-Semitism.”

The American Jew living in Belgium, where many Jews became more under threat had really said: “There is and has long been some amount of anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating. … What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomenon.”

“It is a tension, and perhaps hatred, largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem. … An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism.”

Foxman wrote in response: “This assessment of Muslim anti-Semitism, and your attempt to distinguish it from traditional or classical anti-Semitism, is not only wrongheaded but could undermine the important effort to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“When one tries to attribute this anti-Semitism to outside forces — in this case, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict — one not only misunderstands the role of anti-Semitism in that conflict, but provides an unacceptable rationale for inaction.”

The world should be aware that Israel can quench the thirst of anti-Semitism but can also fuel the flames. Though some may think Jews were a non-European element within Europe, they always have been part of it and in Belgium they were a thriving population. In Belgium some tried to get rid of them in the 20 th century and the last few years they were again bullied, now by an other group of people. Desperate for normalization some look forward, like many Russians to the growing Promised Land, and are leaving this country, while Russians and Albanians are taking over their places. Increased anti-Semitism came in waves, according actions the State of Israel often brought forward itself.

Israel-Palestinian negotiations would deprive Muslim extremists of one of the sources of oxygen to fuel the fires of their militant agenda. also taking down the wall and discrimination to other people would help a lot to get a better acceptance in the world.

There are not only the Jews Belgians have to face next to Muslims and the many many immigrants which are often causing many problems by creating inner wars in this country which gives them asylum. It would be better if the country would send those groups, which receive housing and food from the Belgian government, when they cannot behave back to their home land.

Gutman can find here in one school: 260 high school students, representing 30 different nationalities, from multicultural schools throughout Brussels. He  has been drawn to the promise of that diversity ever since he first arrived in Belgium almost 3 years ago.  His very first speech was in Charleroi –  in Charleroi, you can visit the past but also meet the diversity that holds the promise for our future.

The American Ambassador hosted three fabulous Iftars in his home to celebrate Ramadan with many of his Muslim friends; but he has also hosted seders with Jewish friends; and Christmas dinners with Christian friends.

To me he looks very open and also seems to understand peculiar things which happened in this small country or even in our small village. Being aware of the many religions which play a big part in the culture of many inhabitants of this country he has visited mosques where he could find the most active religious people of Belgium and synagogues of an intense active believing group. But he did not look over the diminishing church activity of this ‘so called catholic’ country where the Catholics are really the smallest real believers, while they still consider their country Catholic or even say Christian while they mean Roman Catholic.

As soon as Gutman arrived here in this divided country, he pledged to visit each and every one of Belgium’s 589 communes. The fast-talking, 55-year-old New York attorney – could as such be called an extraordinary tourist. He spends a key chunk of his time on the road as he notches up the visits, all the while experiencing traditions, learning history and meeting the locals.

© Arthur Eranosian / Photo News

In Eeklo, between Ghent and the Dutch border, where the locals are nicknamed herbakkers, or “those who bake again”, after a mediaeval legend. It was there that Gutman, the US Ambassador to Belgium, was charmingly decapitated.

Although he initially suggested the tour on impulse, Gutman insists that it has a very practical purpose. “It wasn’t a stunt.” Long before Barack Obama had tapped him for the job of ambassador to Belgium, Gutman had been concerned about the sliding public image of America in Europe. Even as a tourist, he would often find himself on the receiving end of complaints about Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to climate change policies.

“I disagreed with many of those policy choices,” says Gutman. “But I knew that the values that I now represent are values I believed in and are values I felt Belgians and Europeans believed in.”

He realised that he needed to restore confidence between the two countries and raise America’s image. “The best way to do that was to visit the country. So I said I would get the message to everybody, literally. That was number one goal. Number two was that it was a fabulous thing to do.”

Since there was no single map of Belgium broken down by administrative districts, he needed separate maps of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, each with small parcels marked out for the individual municipalities.

About two-thirds of the municipalities have been hand-coloured in blue marker. “I’m getting there,” Gutman says. “I’d done 437 out of 589, thus far and have seen amazing things – beautiful towns, historic sites, carnivals and festivals that celebrate folkloric traditions.

Gutman says he would visit many cities like Bruges and Ghent and Hasselt as a tourist anyway, with his wife, Michelle Loewinger, a former dentist. But he would miss so much of the colour, history and humanity of the place if he only went to the big names.

And he would miss some special treats too, like the monument in Buggenhout, East Flanders, raised in his honour. “I knew there was a nearby park that had a monument marking the centre of Flanders. I thought I was going to see that, but when I got there, there was another one, wrapped in sheets. I took off the sheets and saw a monument to US Ambassador Howard Gutman,” he says. When he tells that story to other mayors, he usually adds: “I love your city; it’s a beautiful city. But Buggenhout gave me a monument.” On one occasion, a mayor, not realising he was joking, replied: “Well, budgets are a little tight. I don’t think we can do a monument, but we might be able to name a street after you.”

He says there are two types of visits. “We’ve done perhaps 100 that are: meet the mayor, meet the city council, meet the governor of the province, go see the leading cultural thing – whether a museum or a coal mine – and sometimes go see an American business,” Gutman explains. Those are full-day visits.

Then there are the towns that are much smaller, where, if he is lucky, there is someone at the pub or maybe the chemist. “But to be an official visit, I want to have actually seen it,” he says. “I walk a block or two, take a picture in front of the church or something recognisable and have someone from the city who can meet me and say that the US Ambassador visited. For these, the most I have done is 11 in a day, and 44 in a week.”

“I have met royalty, ministers, members of government, captains of industry, and famous sports stars.  Yet I have never received a more heartwarming and emotional welcome than the one I got from the boys and girls at Serge Creuz, when they greeted me with smiles, and hands on hearts, sang the American and Belgian national anthems.  That is a memory I will cherish forever.  I would urge you to go on youtube and see it for yourself, and then send it to a friend.  Together that day, and together this day, we are building the future for us all.  ”

For him it is clear: “When a black kid from Hawaii who grew up in Indonesia can lead the free world, certainly a student from Molenbeek or Anderlecht or Ixelles or Woluwe or Saint Gilles or Forest – can do so as well.”

“Is the next Barack Obama in this room?” he asked at the “Summit of Cultures” event in Molenbeek on May 9, 2012.

As in his previous speeches I get the impression he wants people to understand that they have so much in their own hands, and that they can let rivers flow a certain way. But it is not something which has to be by one individual but it are the many people from many origins who should find themselves in a group of people who want to live and go whit each other together. They have a future to build together.


Belgium-3 (Photo credit: didkovskaya)

“And we have so many past mistakes of my generation to overcome together. This time, in building the future together now, we have to get it right.  And we have to get it right together, as one, as neighbours, as citizens and as friends.

 ” he warns us.

“For far too long, my generation has built a world with far too much distrust between people of different nationalities, between East and West. Distrust and misunderstanding has sometimes bred violence and violence has led to greater violence and war. In some countries today all over the globe, some people make judgements about foreigners whom they have never met and in other countries some people make judgements about neighbours whom they see daily based primarily on name, skin colour, ethnic background or religion.


“To lead in building a more peaceful and prosperous society based on our shared brotherhood, rather than focusing on our individual differences. To unite, when others try to divide. To foster hope when other urge hate. To work among yourselves, to work with your neighbours through Belgium, with your neighbours in Europe, with your fellow world citizens in Morocco, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tunisia, Israel, Canada, China, the United States, and the rest of the globe to build that more peaceful and prosperous planet.


Many schools in Belgium are so mixed this should be a blessing though often it causes also a lot of problems, and certain political parties make handy use out of it.

All those many nationalities in this small country should make better use of their peculiar situation and this unique opportunity because they have roots in regions around the globe, and many in the East, and they live together in the West. By spanning many cultures and by bridging from an old generation to a new one, they are all ambassadors among people of the World, between East and West and between the past and the future. By their actions, by their words, they have the ability to build a better future and a better world.

Gutman continued: “Everyone in this room is a citizen of the world.  As such, you have limitless opportunities, but also obligations.  You have the obligation to do your best to understand your neighbour, your country, and your world.  You must understand your history and our collective history to understand your future and our collective future.  ”

In a certain way it was a pity he also did not mention that they should feel also that they receive a new or second country which they also should honour or love as their own country. But I was very pleased that he mentioned that, they should do their best to learn the languages of their region, of their country and as much as possible of the world.  He could perhaps have given more attention to the need to learn the language of the part were they are living now. Because we still encounter too many immigrants which do not know any Belgian language properly, after many years of residence.

It was good that he mentioned that we have choices in life – every one of us – that we can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution.

“Some can perhaps do far more. Become an advocate for mutual understanding, for social progress, for a world of shared justice and mutual respect. You can not only be part of the solution, you can shape that solution, indeed you can lead it.”

“Surely that is easy for me to say. What does an American ambassador know about mothers who want to work two jobs to support their families but cannot find one? What does a fancy lawyer from Washington D.C. know about discrimination and prejudice? About knocking on doors that no one wants to answer? 


“Well, I know a story of a boy whose father was an illegal immigrant. When his father came west, the father did not speak a word of the local language. The boy lived in a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment that he shared with his sister, his parents and his grandmother. His father died when the boy was 16, causing the boy to take public transportation home from high school for an hour and a half and then go to work after school cleaning tables in a restaurant and washing dishes.

I know that the boy studied hard, excelled in public school and made the best college. He waited tables every weekend to pay for it. And again, he studied hard and graduated at the top of his class in college. To become the first one in the neighborhood ever to go to Harvard Law School, the top of the pyramid. And I know that that boy became a leading lawyer and an advisor to Governors, Senators and even Presidents. He became an Ambassador.


“That boy is me. But it could well be you. Every one of you.

“Belgium and Europe offer some amazing opportunities and present some difficult challenges. I have met minority leaders of every stripe in governments across Belgium. And every one of you can attend Leuven or Louvain-la-Neuve or any of the many wonderful universities for free. So wash some dishes, wash some cars, sell waffles, while you walk into the future. ”

“Each of you is blessed to live in a bilingual country and with a great deal of English all around as well.  And many of you also speak yet another language at home.”

All wanting to live in this tiny country should try to make something of it and teach others to celebrate our diversity while adding to the greater good of the society in which we are able to live in not such a bad conditions.

For this it is important that the youngsters in particular, try to make friends with people from other backgrounds.  They should share their cultural traditions and learn about theirs. Study language: English, French, and Dutch. Volunteer to teach others. “And wash some dishes along the way.



Find also:

Menachem Gantz (December 3, 2011). “‘Jew-hate stems from conflict'”. YnetNews. Retrieved December 3, 2011.

Video: US Song and Dance on Ambassador’s Anti-Israel Remarks

Was Howard Gutman Right?: Israel and Antisemitism, What Do We Know

Howard Gutman has pledged to visit every single village in Flanders


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About Marcus Ampe

Retired dancer, choreographer, choreologist Founder of the Dance impresario office and archive: Danscontact-Dansarchief plus the Association for Bible scholars, the Lifestyle magazines "Stepping Toes" and "From Guestwriters" and creator of the site "Messiah for all". - Gepensioneerd danser, choreograaf, choreoloog. Stichter van Danscontact-Dansarchief plus van de Vereniging voor Bijbelvorsers, de Lifestyle magazines "Stepping Toes" en "From Guestwriters" en maker van de site "Messiah for all".
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