Funny or anti-Semitic?
Picture images of ultra-Orthodox Jews with huge, red, hooked noses, grossly protruding teeth, Torah scrolls under their arms, grasping their hands or shrugging or wailing, dressed in a hyper-colorful take on pseudo-Hassidic clothes.
You would be forgiven for thinking they're a psychedelic take on Der Sturmer. But they're the promotional souvenir ribbons for Spring 2020 carnival time in the small Belgian town of Aalst.
If the name rings a bell, that's because the 2019 edition of Aalst’s carnival was rocked by controversy too, thanks to a parade float with two giant grotesque puppets of Hassidic-style Jews sitting on money bags and surrounded by rats, euro signs and coins; the lyrics of the accompanying song referred to "bulging coffers" and "Jews getting extra fat."
The 2019 carnival float provoked an angry reaction from the Belgian Jewish community, which expressed bitter amazement that such crudely anti-Semitic imagery was a cause for celebration.
That reaction reverberated internationally, across Europe and all the way to U.S. Jewish anti-racism groups. The International Movement for Peace and Coexistence started a petition to UNESCO to withdraw its special recognition of the Aalst carnival as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."
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For its part, a deputy director at UNESCO in Paris, stated: "The satirical spirit of the Aalst carnival and freedom of expression cannot serve as a screen for such manifestations of hatred." UNESCO’s decision about Aalst's special status is supposed to be taken this December.
But in Belgium, the mayor of Aalst, national politicians, intellectuals, journalists, and online commenters overwhelmingly supported the carnival float makers and fiercely condemned the "over-sensitivity" of the Jews. They argued that carnival was a time of irreverence during which everyone and everything could and should be mocked. There were no sinister intentions.
The "Vismooil’n" group that made the float asked in a public post: "Are we still allowed to venture outside with our local Aalst culture? Is our every move being judged under a magnifying glass around the world? Our ridicule and satire must remain how it is!"
One of the float's creators stated: "I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present." Jews, one commentator remarked, "need to stop whining about their Holocaust."
The recurrent Aalst carnival saga forces us, once more, to reflect on the boundaries between humor and anti-Semitism. But it also forces us to consider whether this is really just a question of the limits of satire – or whether it points to a deeper problem about the place of minorities in today's Europe.
The Vismooil’n group denied that their float was anti-Semitic. They explained that they’d chosen the theme of a "Sabbatical Year" because they'd run out of money and from there, it was only natural to use Jewish caricatures to illustrate that. What they staged, though, was a scene where ultra-Orthodox Jews stood on money bags while the group's own deposit boxes were empty. That implicitly (and falsely) blamed Jews for the group’s financial difficulties.
The head of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism summarized their reasoning somewhat differently: "Prices are rising, so who do they blame? The fat, greedy Jew."
What was most remarkable about this explanation was how completely natural the association of Jews and money appeared to the float makers -as if money were intrinsic to Judaism. They seemed to have no idea that the association of Jews with money, from usury to money-grubbing capitalists, is one of the oldest and most pervasive anti-Semitic tropes.
Ignorance may be preferable to malicious intent, but it does not lessen the anti-Semitic character of the imagery that they promoted on their float. Nor is it any more comforting to know that old anti-Semitic stereotypes have become so deeply ingrained in the heart of Europe that they can be thrown around by fun-loving carnival-goers who may not even realize what they are doing.
If the 2019 float-makers' repeated contentions that they intended no insult stretched credulity, then this year’s promotional ribbons, which put caricatures of Jews center-stage in defiance of the ongoing scandal, reveal that the "innocent humor" explanation doesn't hold water. In fact, Kris Vonck, the souvenir ribbon’s creator, acknowledged their vengeful intent: "Don’t rap us on the knuckles, because if you do, we’ll get back at you twice as hard."
Belgium’s Jewish population is small, numbering about 40,000 people, or 0.35 percent of the country’s total population. These are not sufficient numbers to command or invite political support, especially not in times of rising anti-Semitism. Even if every Belgian Jew voted for the same party (which they don’t), the votes this party could potentially gain for standing up for Jews would not compensate for the votes that it would risk losing.
This was explicit in the case of Aalst's mayor, a member of the Flemish centrist-nationalist NVA party for whom most Jews in Flanders vote. Yet, not only did the mayor defend the carnival floats tooth and nail, his own party refused to rebuke him, despite repeated entreaties from the Jewish community.
History has shown over and over again that when those holding offices of political power do not intervene to protect minorities and the rest of the population is silent or hostile, the situation worsens.
That's why when promoters of Aalst’s carnival released their ribbons ridiculing Jews for the 2020 carnival, they did so with pride, and no fear of local repercussions. The idea that nothing can be anti-Semitic when it's carnival-time has gone from preposterous to an article of faith. On one of the ribbons, the caption reads: "We laugh at everybody."
On another ribbon, probably the worst of all, a repellent, caricatured ultra-Orthodox Jew, holding a cross in one hand, a book on Aalst in the other, is screaming: "Aalst is ours!!"
That image sums up most of the vilest anti-Semitic stereotypes of the carnival: The Jew has so much money, but he's so miserly and usurious he won't fix his own teeth to disguise his ugliness; the Jew is so foreign that he cannot belong in our culture, all he can do is take hostage our religion and our town and scream that it is his.
The Jewish community was forthright. The Forum of Jewish Organizations spokesman Hans Knoop declared: "These cartoons are unadulterated anti-Semitism."
At the bottom of each ribbon image is an icon of a Greek temple with the words "Aalst’s Heritage" (Oilsjters is Aalst in dialect). That's a jibe at UNESCO, and the possibility that Aalst's carnival would lose its special status because of last year’s anti-Semitic float.
Vonck, the ribbon designer, told a journalist that the images couldn't be offensive because "It's not about gassing or concentration camps. We don’t directly laugh about Jews. What we’re really targeting is UNESCO, it is not against Jews…It is directed at UNESCO, but try to find a funny image of UNESCO. That’s why we chose Jews."
Consider the duplicity of that statement. The people of Aalst are so proud of the fact that they make fun of everyone. Every year, their creative minds come up with costumes, images, and slogans mocking politicians and events from all over the world. But they couldn't find any way to make fun of UNESCO? What's next - will they tell us that every satirical image of Donald Trump has been used up, so instead they made a few more caricatures of Jews?
The real message of the anti-Semitic ribbon images is anger – anger at Jews for threatening Aalst’s status on UNESCO’s heritage list. That is precisely why they mock Jews, and not UNESCO.
Instead of taking responsibility for last year’s float, they are, in typical anti-Semitic fashion, scapegoating the Jews for their troubles. The Nazis believed that Jews were going to take over Germany and destroy it. Is the Hassid who yells "Aalst is ours!!" and invites UNESCO to help threaten the city’s carnival not conveying a similar message?
The production of these images the year after the 2019 carnival scandal forces us to ask other questions: Were Aalst’s carnival-enthusiasts ever really just innocently poking fun at Jews? Or were they using the carnivalesque tradition to publicize and normalize anti-Semitic feelings, overturning hard-won post-Holocaust societal norms that barred public displays of anti-Semitism?
For a moment, it appeared as if the gross imagery of the ribbons might finally lead to a genuine moral reckoning. Even the mayor of Aalst dared to offer a note of caution: "The timing is not so well chosen, when UNESCO still needs to decide about the Aalst carnival. As the mayor of Aalst, it's not easy to explain this to UNESCO, at a time when anti-Semitism is rising in Europe."
Any hopes, however, that the anti-Semitic caricatures would constitute a turning point were quickly quashed. Barely three days after their appearance, the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Struggle against Racism (UNIA), a Belgian government agency, released its report about last year’s float.
In it, UNIA concluded that the float "did not refer to Nazism or the Holocaust…There was, within the specific context of carnival, no conscious incitement to hate, discrimination, or violence against Jews. Intentionally racist imagery was not spread around and there was no willful individual offense." Instead of reprimanding and censuring Aalst’s carnival, UNIA recommended "education and dialogue" for both sides.
Let's go through the stages of how anti-Semitism has become normalized for this one small Belgian town.
First, the Vismooijln group hid behind the age-old carnivalesque tradition. Then, the 2020 ribbons supposedly targeted UNESCO. And now, something is anti-Semitic only if the alleged anti-Semite is conscious and intentional?
Let us hope that UNESCO sees through the hypocrisy of these positions. After all, as a society, we acknowledge that movies, music, paintings, plays, any expression of popular culture, can contain racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, or other discriminatory elements - even if it was not the conscious intention of the artists or producers.
In fact, UNIA itself recognizes and condemns unconscious racist bias in the work place. But it won’t extend to Jews the courtesy of acknowledging that unconscious anti-Semitic stereotypes are a real and dangerous problem. Instead, it would like us to accept that the most familiar and venomous anti-Semitic images need to be dealt with only if their creators made them with conscious intention to incite hate against Jews.
UNIA is correct that education and dialogue are key to combat unconscious biases. However, education and dialogue can only be effective and sincere if the offending party is required to recognize its errors and apologize for them first. But UNIA has given Aalst carte blanche to peddle in anti-Semitic imagery, while ordering the Jewish community to get educated about carnival culture.
Except, carnival isn’t the only relevant context. The other relevant context is rising anti-Semitism in Belgium and throughout Europe. A report this year showed that, apart from France, "Jews do not experience anywhere [else] in the EU as much hostility on the streets as they do in Belgium." UNIA itself reported that anti-Semitic incidents had doubled between 2017 and 2018. The president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism warns that "officials, opinion shapers and artists are defending anti-Semitism."
The Belgian state’s anti-racist authority's callous attitude towards a minority community under threat is incomprehensible.
If UNESCO were to remove Aalst’s carnival from its World Heritage list, Belgian Jews should unfortunately expect a vicious anti-Semitic backlash. They would be accused of not understanding, disrespecting, and seeking to destroy "Belgian culture" (never mind that Belgian Jews are Belgian too).
Nonetheless, I personally hope that UNESCO will decide to remove Aalst from its list. For when the forces of hatred are on the rise, and local governments are unable or unwilling to contain them, international organizations may be the last ramparts protecting minorities' safety.
Flora Cassen is the Associate Professor of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies and Associate Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of "Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy: Politics, Religion, and the Power of Symbols" (Cambridge University Press, 2017)