Keeping antisemitism afloat at the Aalst carnival

Sadly, Aalst is not alone. Other European cities believe it is their right and cultural heritage to demonize Jews.

A FLOAT with an effigy of a Jew is seen during the carnival at Aalst, Belgium, on February 23. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
A FLOAT with an effigy of a Jew is seen during the carnival at Aalst, Belgium, on February 23.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
Antisemitism was proudly on display this week. It wasn’t violent, but it certainly wasn’t subtle. It was literally the ugly face of ancient Jew-hatred. The carnival in the Belgium city of Aalst, some 30 kilometers northwest of Brussels, defiantly went ahead on Sunday – an annual, three-day tradition of which the city is proud. The “good people of Aalst” who participated or attended as spectators lent their support to bigotry and xenophobia. And they did so knowingly.
Last year, the Aalst carnival, which has been celebrated for more than 600 years, lost its UNESCO cultural heritage status over the “recurrence of racist and antisemitic representation.” Rather than drop the parade’s antisemitic elements, the city decided to shed its status on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Dismissing the criticism, the mayor reportedly said: “Let Aalst be Aalst.”
Accordingly, this year’s parade included more and worse antisemitic tropes and themes than in the past. And that’s saying a lot.
“How low can the #aalstcarnival organizers go? Extremely low, it appears,” tweeted Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem. The country’s ambassador to Belgium, Emmanuel Nahshon, went to the scene of the crime to serve as a first-hand witness.
The photos coming out of Aalst did not make a pretty picture. There were “rabbis” with humongous fake noses, some standing next to fake bars of gold. Jews and money: Get it?
There were also men dressed in the typical suits of ultra-Orthodox Jews but with the body of ants. It was apparently a Flemish play on words for the “Wailing Wall,” the holy site known to Jews as the Western Wall or Kotel. One float with an image of “the Wailing Wall,” appeared with the slogan: “Well, you would also complain if they’d cut your penis.” Some revelers were dressed in Nazi uniforms, a protest against the UNESCO ruling.
In other words, these tropes and themes were intentional. If last year’s caricature Jewish mannequins with bags of money and rats on their shoulders could somehow be ascribed to ignorance or a misunderstanding, this year even that excuse disappeared. Mayor Christoph D’Haese, a member of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance Party, tried to maintain the pretense that this was legitimate freedom of expression and that the carnival spirit was to mock and satirize current events. Britain’s Boris Johnson, who led Brexit, was also bashed, for example.
So much fun, but not so innocent. If someone dies, it won’t be of laughter.
Sadly, Aalst is not alone. Other European cities believe it is their right and cultural heritage to demonize Jews. Last year, Polish authorities reportedly opened a criminal investigation into an Easter holiday ritual in the small town of Pruchnik, in which local residents – including children – beat and burned an effigy of Judas, represented by a stereotypical Jew complete with hooked nose, black hat and sidelocks.
This week, at the Campo de Criptana Carnival, in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region, revelers dressed as Nazis and a group of women wearing Israeli flags accompanied a float sporting a menorah and two crematoria chimneys. The El Chaparral Cultural Association, which put on the Shoah-themed display, reportedly meant it to be a tribute to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. What was going up in smoke in those chimneys?
The demonization of Jews is dangerous; the trivialization of the Holocaust is its prop.
While the Aalst carnival floats were blatant in their anti-Jewish sentiments, there was something covert and even more corrupting to be found where you might least expect it – in British high school textbooks. As The Jerusalem Post’s Jeremy Sharon reported last Friday, Understanding History: Key Stage 3, published by Hodder Education, has a section on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the War of Independence in which students were asked to “reflect” on the question: “How could it be argued that the creation of Israel was a long-term cause of the 9/11 attacks?”
A better question to ponder is: “How could it be argued that anti-Israel conspiracy theories are the long-term cause of antisemitic attacks?” The short answer? Very easily.
Following the complaints after the Impact-SE education watchdog group among others broke the story, the publishers tweeted an apology: “We appreciate the phrasing of the question is not as precise as it might have been, and we are very sorry for any offense this has caused.” Hodder Education said it had removed the book from sale, will review the content and “will then reissue a revised edition.” I can’t wait to see that. Almost nothing surprises me anymore. The question remains: Is antisemitic sentiment – in the form of anti-Israel attacks – spreading from Palestinian textbooks to British and European books or vice versa?
BELGIAN PRIME Minister Sophie Wilmès was among those who strongly condemned the floats and costumes in the Aalst parade. But Belgium’s relationship with Israel is troubled. The tiny, divided country is home to the European Union. It is also currently a member of the United Nations Security Council, which it has been chairing throughout the month of February. Tension between Israel and the EU increased late last year when the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered a binding interpretation of the EU’s rules on labeling the origin of products. This singled out Jewish-owned companies over the Green Line, providing a blacklist for potential boycotters and a deterrent to international companies doing business there. The Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights followed in the EU’s discriminatory footsteps two weeks ago.
European support and funding for organizations that delegitimize Israel, including some linked to terrorist organizations, continue to cause Israel concern. In a diplomatic spat with Belgium earlier this month, Jerusalem reprimanded the deputy ambassador after the Belgians invited an adviser for an NGO with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a designated terrorist organization) to brief the UN Security Council. Belgium then called in Ambassador Nahshon to protest the protest. Methinks they doth protest too much. At least Belgium later revoked the invitation to Brad Parker, a senior adviser for policy and advocacy at Defense for Children International – Palestine. For once, the antisemitic/anti-Israel show did not go on.
Belgium professes to worry about the welfare of the world’s children, but this apparently does not extend to Israelis – even those within the Green Line. While Aalst was maintaining its traditions, members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza were keeping up with theirs: The PIJ launched more than 100 rockets and mortars on southern Israel on Sunday and Monday. Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon released footage of the tiny babies in the neonatal intensive care unit being rushed to the hospital’s rocket-proof area, fighting for their lives on every front. A video went viral of a mother crouching over her kids outdoors, protecting their bodies with her own, as red alert sirens wailed.
There is a direct line between the Aalst pageantry and the attacks on Israel. For centuries, all over Europe, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and killing Christian children to use their blood. Today the blood libels continue: The poisoning of minds – particularly of young children – against Jews.
Am I worried? Of course. I don’t rely on Hodder Education-style textbooks: I learned lessons about Jewish history that 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz too many are dismissing, trivializing or distorting beyond recognition.
On the other hand, in less than two weeks Jews will celebrate the Purim festival – marking the survival of the Jewish people as recorded in the Book of Esther, when the adviser of the Persian king plotted to kill every single Jew in the empire. That was in the 4th century BCE. Today, it is still marked by, among other things, giving gifts to the poor and holding special parades in fancy costumes.
Aalst might be proud of its 600-year-old traditions, but the Jews have been around for much, much longer. Our celebrations don’t have to put Aalst’s parades to shame: They do that all by themselves.
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