(JTA) — The U.N.’s leading cultural body was scheduled to vote this month on whether to remove a Belgian carnival that had hosted a float seen as mocking Jews from its list of important human cultural expressions.
But the carnival’s organizers decided they wouldn’t wait for a possible censure and instead gave up the designation on its own.
On Sunday, the city of Aalst said it wanted to withdraw the Aalst Carnival from the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It would be the first time an item had been removed from the list as an act of protest.
Inclusion on the list of more than 500 cultural expressions from 122 countries maintained by UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — can mean millions of dollars in increased tourism revenues.
“The people of Aalst have had it with the grotesque allegations,” the city said in a statement. “We are not anti-Semites or racists. Whoever says we are does so in bad faith. Aalst will always remain the capital of ridicule and satire. Come what may, we will stand by our humorists. The people of Aalst are the bravest. That is why we are taking the initiative and walking away from UNESCO recognition.”
The situation came to a head following the March carnival, which featured a float with effigies of grinning Jews holding money, one of them with a rat on its shoulder. The display, whose creators claimed was merely a commentary on the rising cost of living in Belgium, prompted multiple complaints to police for incitement to hatred and received considerable media coverage internationally.
UNESCO, which first recognized the carnival in 2010, condemned the display as “racist and anti-Semitic.” But the float’s defenders argued in response that it was part of the carnival’s tradition of edgy humor, with themes mocking all religions and creeds.
Christoph D’Haese, the mayor of Aalst, even traveled to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to make the case.
“In Aalst, this should be allowed,” D’Haese told Belgian media.
Many Belgians are sympathetic to the mayor’s defiant message, which casts the Aalst Carnival as a battleground for free speech and satire. Last month, the news site PNWS published an editorial defending the carnival, comparing it to Charlie Hebdo, the satirical Paris newspaper that for years had ridiculed Muslims (and Jews and Christians). In 2015, jihadists stormed its offices, killing 12 people.
“I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present,” Pascal Soleme, one of the float’s creators, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in March. “There was never any intention to insult anyone. It was a celebration of humor.”
Such caricatures have a dark history in Europe, where imagery of Jews as vermin were used by the Nazis to dehumanize Jews in the eyes of whole populations. Propaganda of that nature is widely seen as having been instrumental in facilitating the Holocaust.
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The grinning Jews of the 2019 carnival were neither the first time that the Aalst Carnival mocked Jews — — nor apparently will it be the last. In October, in protest of the scrutiny being attracted by the parade, organizers printed caricatures of Jews on ribbons meant to be worn at next year’s event.
In 2009, the carnival featured men dressed like Orthodox Jews wearing fake hooked noses and Palestinian symbols. The 2013 edition had revelers dressed like Nazis holding canisters labeled “Zyklon B” walking along concentration camp prisoners in cages. Zyklon B was a poison the Nazis used to kills Jews in gas chambers.
The criticism of the carnival comes amid an increase in both anti-Semitic incidents, which nearly doubled in Belgium from 2017 to 2018, and anti-Semitic sentiment. In a poll earlier this year by the Anti-Defamation League, 24 percent of the Belgians surveyed harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, the second highest rate of any Western European country and a jump from 21 percent in a 2015 survey. Along with Denmark, Belgium was the only other Western European nation to show an increase in anti-Semitic sentiment from the previous survey.
Such data would seem to strengthen the argument made by Jewish community activists who say Belgium is a trouble spot where a lax attitude by authorities is helping to mainstream anti-Semitism.
Some saw confirmation of this attitude in the recent decision by Belgian prosecutors to drop hate speech charges against four soccer fans who admitted to singing about burning Jews during a soccer match. Others found it in a position paper on the Aalst Carnival issued last month by UNIA, the Belgian government anti-racism watchdog, which found that while the float was anti-Semitic, its creators were not being intentionally racist and therefore had not violated the law.
As UNESCO’s affiliation with Aalst seems to be nearing an end, one of the parade’s harshest critics, the Belgian-Jewish activist Rudi Roth, extended an olive branch and an offer for a compromise.
In a 27-page document sent to UNESCO last month, Roth pleaded with the agency not to remove Aalst from the list, but to attempt a negotiated reform to remove “racist ridicule” from the parade. Roth, 75, suggested putting the carnival on probation for several years while the city tried to sensitize locals to racial stereotypes.
“I’m Jewish, I’m from Aalst and I’m a fan of the carnival,” Roth told the HLN news site.