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Carnival that showed Jews as vermin ‘not anti-Semitic,’ Jewish Belgian MP says

Michael Freilich, Belgium’s only Orthodox lawmaker, says fewer than 50 of 6,000 participants presented anti-Jewish displays, compares Aalst procession to Israeli Purim parades

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

People dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jews/ants are seen before the start of the Aalst Carnival's on February 23, 2020, in Aalst, Belgium. (James Arthur Gekiere/AFP)
People dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jews/ants are seen before the start of the Aalst Carnival's on February 23, 2020, in Aalst, Belgium. (James Arthur Gekiere/AFP)

This week’s carnival procession in the Belgian town of Aalst, which featured Nazi uniforms, costumes of Jews as vermin and several other anti-Semitic tropes, was widely condemned by Jewish groups, Israeli officials and even the government in Brussels.

But Michael Freilich, the only Orthodox Jew currently serving in Belgium’s national parliament, on Monday dismissed most of the criticism, saying the event was not entirely anti-Semitic. Rather, he told The Times of Israel during an interview in Jerusalem, a few dozen people wanted to give critics “the middle finger” but do not harbor any ill-will toward Jews.

Freilich, an Antwerp-based freshman lawmaker for the center-right NVA party, even compared the Aalst carnival to Israeli Purim parades, positing that it was always possible to find a few bad apples who make fun of minorities.

“We have to see the bigger picture,” he said, stressing that 6,000 people actively participated in the Aalst carnival procession, cheered on by some 80,000 spectators.

“The large floats were all okay, there was no problem with them. When you have 6,000 people getting dressed up, you will have a number of people go beyond what’s allowed,” he went on. “I think we’re talking about 20 or 30 people. So that means that more than 5,950 people were okay. Do we allow these 50 people to hijack everything and focus just on them? Or do we say, most people were okay?”

Belgian MP Michael Freilich visiting Jerusalem, February 2020 (courtesy)

In a statement released Tuesday, Freich said he had a “nuanced position on the Aalst carnival, which on one hand does not portray all of the 80,000 participants as hard-core anti-Semites, but on the other hand strongly condemns those that portrayed Jews as vermin and associated them with money.”

The vast majority of carnival-goers should be praised for having refrained from promoting anti-Semitism, he said. “The others were despicable and disgusting, and we should condemn it. The Belgian prime minister condemned it, and I condemn it now.”

The “people that count” all denounced Sunday’s procession, Freilich, 39, said.

Indeed, Sunday’s displays were denounced across the board: Foreign Minister Israel Katz had urged Belgian authorities to ban the procession even before it had taken place; Israel’s ambassador to Belgium, Emmanuel Nahshon, who attended the event, slammed “the mockery and scornful use of Jewish symbols” and the “anti-Semitic filth” he witnessed on the streets of Aalst.

“It should be self-evident that such images should not parade European streets 75 years after the Shoah,” said European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas.

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, who has a Jewish mother but was raised a Catholic, said the carnival “was causing damage to our values and the reputation of our country.”

The town’s mayor, Christoph D’Haese, on the other hand, insisted the event was not anti-Semitic. “Here, we laugh at everything — the royal family, Brexit, local and national politics, and every religion — Islam, Judaism and Catholicism,” he said.

A Brexit themed float fronted with a caricature of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is paraded in the annual carnival parade in Aalst, Belgium, Feb. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Freilich, who said he believes he is the only Orthodox Jewish lawmaker in Europe, has criticized D’Haese for not speaking out against the anti-Semitic elements in the parade. But he appeared to agree with the mayor’s position that, overall, the event cannot be branded as anti-Jewish.

“In Germany, every year neo-Nazis come together on Hitler’s birthday to celebrate. Those are proper neo-Nazis with tattoos, who don’t like Jews. The Aalst carnival is not that,” he said. “These are normal people that go there. To call it a hatefest, as some Israelis do, or an anti-Semitic gathering — this is not the case.”

During Sunday’s procession, some carnival attendees dressed up as a mix of Jews wearing traditional Hasidic garb and ants, and paraded a paper version of the Western Wall, in an apparent play on words — the Flemish word mier can mean both “wall” and “ant.”

A sticker attached on the would-be Wailing Wall read, “Well, you would also complain if they had cut in your penis.”

Several marchers wore Gestapo uniforms, poking fun at UNESCO, which, after international outcry, had dropped the Aalst carnival of its list of intangible cultural heritage assets over the overtly anti-Semitic display during last year’s procession.

One person was carrying a cart, adorned with Israeli flags, which read “Bad Carnevalists? Call us! Mossad Clean & Protect, destroys them right away!”

The group responsible for the 2019 scandal was one of the major players in the Aalst carnival, which has since apologized for hurting the feelings of the Jewish community, Freilich said. Members of said group even went to visit the Holocaust museum, he added.

Those who this year insisted on, once again, playing with anti-Semitic stereotypes do not harbor anti-Jewish sentiments but are doing it to show “that they can,” he went on.

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)

“Which doesn’t excuse it. But next week, these people will go back to work — he will be a bank clerk and the other one will work at a train station — and they’re not going to be posting hate speech against Jews online. They don’t have SS tattoos. These are normal people, that are saying, ‘You know, we’ll show you the middle finger.’ And that’s their character. So do we give them all of the attention?”

A former newspaper publisher who gave up his career in journalism to join parliament, Freilich said Jewish critics of the Aalst carnival repeat the same mistake the international press is making with regard to Israel’s military operations against Gaza terrorists. The Israeli army says it is going above and beyond to prevent civilian casualties, but the media spotlights the few cases in which non-combatants are harmed, he said, by way of comparison.

Israelis attend the country’s largest Purim parade in the city of Holon on Purim, March 12, 2017. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Freilich, who was in Israel this week to try to recruit Israeli officials to his fight against a possible ban of circumcision in Belgium, also drew a direct comparison between the Aalst carnival and the Purim parades that take place in many Israeli cities.

“I’m sure that if you send the Guardian newspaper to look at everything [going on at these parades], they’re going to say, Israelis are making fun of the poor Palestinians who died in a rocket attack,” he posited. “You can always find such things. You can’t stop it. I am just asking people to look at the entire picture.”

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