Belgian carnival organizers reject Israel’s call to cancel anti-Semitic parade

Last year’s event in Aalst featured a float depicting Jewish stereotypes standing over bags of money, leading UNESCO to drop festival as heritage event

A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium featuring caricatures of Orthodox Jews atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Courtesy of FJO, via JTA)
A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium featuring caricatures of Orthodox Jews atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Courtesy of FJO, via JTA)

Organizers of a Belgian carnival on Friday rejected calls by Israel to scrap this weekend’s annual parade after last year’s featured a float with anti-Semitic caricatures.

The carnival in the industrial city of Aalst has its roots in the Middle Ages and often features satirical floats that take shots at local politicians and the wealthy.

Last year’s festivities featured one float depicting Jews with exaggerated features and side locks standing over bags of money. The caricatures recalled anti-Semitic tropes of the Middle Ages and Nazi Germany.

Christoph D’Haese, the mayor of Aalst, said that “raising awareness is one thing; forbidding and censorship is something else.”

Christoph D’Haese, the mayor of Aalst, gives an interview to Radio 2, January 30, 2019 (Screen grab/YouTube)

“A magnifying glass is now looking at a very beautiful folk festival that has been able to take place 91 times without any significant problems,” he told a Flemish radio station, according to the Guardian. “If we can avoid sensitive issues, or visualize a theme without causing hurt, I call for that. We need to be aware of the fact that a large community may feel hurt and have respect for it. But Aalst will always remain the odd one out.”

Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmes, described the parade as an “internal affair” after Israel on Thursday called for the parade to be cancelled.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz tweeted that “Belgium as a Western democracy should be ashamed to allow such a vitriolic anti-Semitic display. I call upon the authorities there to condemn and ban this hateful parade in Aalst.”

However, Israel’s Ambassador to Belgium, Emmanuel Nahshon, later said that Jerusalem was not calling for the parade to be cancelled but for anti-Semitic caricatures to be banned.

“What we are asking for is absolutely not the prohibition of the carnival as such,” Nahshon told the Guardian. “What we are asking for is the prohibition of all these anti-Semitic cartoons, which go beyond good taste, which have nothing to do with a sense of humor and which do not honor an exemplary democracy such as Belgium.”

The carnival had been listed as a UNESCO heritage event until last year, but Aalst renounced the distinction days before the UN cultural agency scrapped it over the anti-Semitic incident.

A caricature of an Orthodox Jew distributed by organizers ahead of the Aalst 2020 carnival. (Courtesy of FJO via JTA)

In October, parade organizers published 150 caricatures mocking Jews ahead of this weekend’s event.

One caricature showed a red-headed Orthodox Jew with golden teeth and is captioned: “UNESCO, what a joke.”

Aalst is one of Europe’s most famous carnivals where politicians, religious leaders and the rich and famous are relentlessly ridiculed during the three-day festival ahead of Roman Catholic Lent.

UNESCO, Jewish groups and the European Union condemned last year’s float as anti-Semitic, with the EU saying it conjured up visions of the 1930s.

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