In Aalst, a small city northwest of Brussels, Belgium, the Carnival parade, which takes place on the Sunday before Lent, is one of the main events of the year, where people are made fun of and drunkenness is the order of the day. But this year, the floats presented were especially distasteful. One float carried two giant figures of Orthodox Jews with pei’os and large hooked noses sitting on bags of money. Another group of people paraded with white hoods and robes depicting the Ku Klux Klan. This is supposed to be funny, but I don’t see any humor in the depicting of Jews in that manner.
This is also particularly disturbing since there has been a sharp rise in many countries in Europe of anti-Semitism and racism. To their credit, there was an outcry in some circles with accusations of bigotry and insensitivity on the parade’s coordinators’ part that deemed it appropriate.
“It’s shocking beyond belief that, within living memory of the Holocaust, a Carnival in Europe would peddle such vile anti-Semitism,” said Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the Brussels-based office of the American Jewish Committee. The condemnation has stung the mayor and residents of Aalst who defended the displays as all in fun and typical vulgar fare for their Carnival. The powers that be want to use the old excuse that “some Jews are my dearest friends so I mean them no harm” with the insults and making fun of their pain. I remember my mother saying that the Nazis used to say, when they persecuted the Jews, “This is love, you mangy dog.”
Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese said, “There are absolutely no bad intentions that lie at the basis, and I say this with the greatest respect for the Jewish community. The images are limited in time and space, and that’s important” The Mayor added that he would never allow such displays on any other occasion. He reiterated, “This is not an anti-Semitic deed before or after the parade; it was within the parade.” (Whatever that means.)
Yet, by Friday, more than 8,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org calling on UNESCO to cut ties with the Aalst Carnival. Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, a deputy director at UNESCO in Paris, said in an interview, “UNESCO will ask that there should be a discussion on this particular case.” He condemned the floats by saying, “The satirical spirit of the Aalst carnival and freedom of expression cannot serve as a screen for such manifestations of hatred.” Historians explain that the carnival in Aalst has its roots in the Middle Ages and grew into one of the biggest events in Europe over the past two centuries in part because of its popularity among the city’s working-class citizens, who reveled in voicing their frustrations with local factory owners and the church.
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, stated, “The sight of anti-Semitic caricatures surrounded by money is indistinguishable for imagery used by the Nazis and is grossly offensive where 25,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.”
A European Commission spokesman, Adalbert Jahnz, told journalists, “It should be indeed self-evident that such images as what we’ve seen should not parade European streets 75 years after the Shoah.”
Unfortunately, Brussels isn’t the only place where this alarming trend is appearing. A carnival in Spain depicted the Holocaust with participants dressed in Nazi and concentration camp prisoner uniform costumes. This appeared on Sunday, February 23, in Badajoz, which is 200 miles southwest of Madrid, despite the fact that a debate occurred on the appropriateness of festive parades that apparently make fun of the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis. Part of the float featured a banner with a swastika locked inside a Star of David. There were also flags bearing the swastika and others with the German word for Jew appearing in a Magen David. What was particularly sickening was the fact that dozens of participants danced enthusiastically as they waved those symbols to the rhythm of the sound of a train gaining momentum as onlookers responded to it with cheers and applause. To add insult to injury, behind them were men dressed in prisoner uniforms pushing a float shaped like a giant train that had musicians on it. Some of the Badajoz citizens wore costumes with blue and white vertical stripes looking like concentration camp prisoners with a Magen David emblazoned on the back. To add to the outrage, there were others dressed in costumes with only the left side as camp victims and the right side resembling a Nazi uniform including a swastika armband.
This also happened in Brazil. Controversial carnival floats involving Jews and the Holocaust are not rare in the Brazilian carnival, but in most cases Jewish officials have been successful in removing the anti-Semitic figures or floats before the parades are seen on a live TV broadcast, which is watched by some million Brazilians and reaches some two billion viewers worldwide.
There is nothing funny about Jewish pain, and to let this trend continue uncontested only legitimizes this idea that one can make fun of Jews without any consequences. That would be the ultimate insult to our k’doshim.
Cynthia Zalisky is a community activist. She is a resident of Kew Gardens Hills.