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Belgian PM says Jewish caricatures at anti-Semitic parade ‘damage’ the country

Sophie Wilmes, who is Jewish, calls Aalst Carnival an affront to nation’s ‘values and reputation’; city’s mayor says event is ‘a display of unity’

An anti-Semitic caricature in Aalst, Belgium, February 23, 2020. (Nicolas MAETERLINCK/BELGA/AFP)
An anti-Semitic caricature in Aalst, Belgium, February 23, 2020. (Nicolas MAETERLINCK/BELGA/AFP)

JTA — Belgium’s prime minister said that some caricatures of Jews at the annual parade in the city of Aalst “damage” the country’s values and reputation.

In a statement Sunday, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, who is Jewish, did not say which caricatures she took issue with at the Aalst Carnival, which is held annually 10 miles west of Brussels.

Her statement was the harshest rebuke yet by Belgium’s highest elected official of the parade, which has for years drawn controversy for its ridicule of ethnic minorities, including Jews.

Wilmes wrote: “The federal government is sensitive to the reactions to some floats and costumes at the carnival.” Whereas the event is “much more than only that,” she wrote, ”these actions damage our values and the reputation of our country.”

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes at her office in Brussels on October 27, 2019. (Vincent Duterne/Getty Images/via JTA)

This year’s procession included costumes of ultra-Orthodox Jews with ant abdomens and legs. The 12 men wearing those suits set up a display called “complain ant,” a phrase that in Dutch resembles the word for the Western Wall. They wore stickers reading “obey” on their lapels.

Another group wore ultra-Orthodox-style suits and plastic hooked noses and waved a sign of “regulations,” including one that read: “Do not tell the truth about Jews.” Several dozen spectators also wore ultra-Orthodox suits with fake sidelocks.

About 80,000 people came to see the event, which had thousands of participants.

Anti-Semitic caricatures in Aalst, Belgium, February 23, 2020. (NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/Belga/AFP)

Last year, UNESCO withdrew its recognition of the Aalst Carnival as a world heritage event following the depiction of Jews at that year’s event. One float featured two effigies of ultra-Orthodox Jews holding bags of money and grinning. One of the effigies had a rat perched on its shoulder.

Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese defended the display as a mere expression of “the irreverent spirit” of Aalst.

At a press conference, D’Haese called Wilmes’ statement “bizarre” and invited her to view next year’s parade so “she can form her opinion based on facts.”

He has defended the right of participants to mock Jews and other minorities as a form of satire. He called the event Sunday a “display of unity.”

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