Last Sunday, during the famous carnival parade in the Belgian town of Aalst, a float featured giant puppets depicting Orthodox Jews with crooked noses and pink coats, sitting on money, Euro signs and money bags.
Behind the float, a group of dancers and singers, wearing the same demeaning costumes were opening and closing empty safe deposit boxes hanging in front of their genitals, which had no money but mice in them. The song lyrics played on the rhyming words kloos (deposit box), roos moos (pink mouse) and Jewish mouse (Joodse moos) and referred to "Jews getting extra fat."
The float’s overtly anti-Semitic caricatures and imagery - mice as a stand-in for rats (or any type of rodent pest), a common Nazi trope - shocked the Jewish community, who filed a federal complaint for incitement against the float’s organizers, saying it looked like Third Reich propaganda. The European Commission was strongly critical: "It is unthinkable that such imagery is being paraded on European streets 70 years after the Holocaust."
But the organizers and attendees were not bothered. One of the float’s creators remarked: "I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present." Aalst’s mayor defended the display, opining there were "no sinister intentions."
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Bart de Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, was the one of only two politicians who openly expressed their criticsm; he said that the "float went too far...these images are caricatures that remind us of the darkest period in our collective memory." As a result, commenters on social media pointed out that "the diamonds [of Antwerp’s Jews] shine bright in his eyes," and accused him of being under the thumb of the Jewish lobby.
And in hundreds of online comments on Belgian news and social media, the overwhelming sentiment was anger at the Jewish community for filing a complaint against the Aalst float.
The Jews, commenters said, "utterly lack a sense of humor," "they don’t understand carnival." "If we can’t mock religions anymore,” other commenters asked, "then what are we left with?" "It’s past time the Jews stopped whining about their Holocaust already," and "if they [the Jews] want to stay in this country, they need to accept and respect our traditions."
That the Jews so deeply affronted by the float in question are Belgian citizens is irrelevant. They were immediately framed as the other, as foreigners whose stay in the country is conditional upon respect of a local cultural and national tradition to which they do not belong – and that demeans their identity. In effect, the choice given to Jewish Belgians is to accept anti-Semitic mockery at their expense - or leave.
We’ve grown accustomed to discussing anti-Semitism almost exclusively in political terms. We compare anti-Semitism coming from the left versus from the right. We have endless discussions about anti-Zionism and whether it is anti-Semitism or not. But the carnival of Aalst has nothing to do with left or right, and it has even less to do with Palestine and Israel. It is (supposed to be) a grand annual celebration, full of shared civil pride, joy and partying.
Aalst’s carnival is not the only instance in which popular entertainment in Belgium is saturated with anti-Semitism.
Last August a video surfaced on YouTube. It showed a large room full of fans of Belgian soccer team F.C. Brugge celebrating their victory over rival team, Anderlecht. There were a few hundred supporters in that room, young and old, mostly male. And they broke out all together, joyously, in a chant in Flemish, the words of which are almost too terrifying to print: "My father was in the commandos, my mother was in the SS, together they burned Jews, because Jews burn best."
The lyrics were first reported as a football chant in 2015, and has proliferated. Its latest "outing" came thanks to Dutch fans on International Holocaust memorial Day this year and the chant is now considered a "recurring problem."
Soccer and anti-Semitism mingle well beyond Belgium, too.
In October 2017, on the eve of a matchup between Rome’s biggest teams, Lazio and Roma, fans of Lazio plastered the stadium with stickers of Anne Frank dressed in a red Roma jersey. This was meant to insult the Roma players, whose team is sometimes said to be "Jewish."
In response to outrage in the press, the Lazio’s owner decided that during the team’s next game against Bologna, his players would wear a t-shirt with Anne Frank’s picture and the caption "No to anti-Semitism." A short passage from Anne Frank’s diary would be read just before the start of the game.
But when they saw their players descend on the field with Anne Frank shirts, the fans yelled "We don’t care!" and nobody could hear the passage from the diary because it was drowned out by the fans’ loud fascist chants.
The club chairman was overheard describing the acts of contrition as just a necessary "charade" and referreing to Jewish community leaders, he said: "These people don't count a damn, they are worth nothing - do you realize how pathetic the whole thing is?"
In a bizarre phenomenon, major soccer teams in large European cities such as Budapest, Rome, Munich, Amsterdam, Warsaw, or London are called "Jewish." There is always an urban myth linking their "Jewishness" to Jews who lived in the neighborhood or a Jewish owner.
But given how deeply enmeshed soccer and anti-Semitism are, it is more likely a manifestation of an old European practice of calling opponents or "others" of any sort "Jewish." So the team of Ajax in Amsterdam and Tottenham Hotspur in London, are called "Jewish." As a result, their thousands of fans, of whom only a tiny number are actually Jewish, suffer anti-Semitic abuse and insults.
For example, in an interview in 2017, a young fan explained why he hates Jews: "They have the money, they run the business from management positions, and they think they’re better than blue-collar people like us.” But lest anyone thought he might be anti-Semitic, he hastened to clarify to the interviewer: "I have nothing against your people. When I say I hate Jews, I just mean supporters of Ajax."
Before big games, the supporters of opposing teams often come up with creative ways of combining their sports rivalry against the "Jewish" team with crass anti-Semitic taunts. On Twitter in the days leading up to a matchup between Ajax and Rotterdam, fans were circulating slogans such as "Smoking kills you, so a free pack [of cigs] for every Ajax-Jew!"
Ajax supporters have embraced their "Jewish" identity calling themselves super-Jews; so have Tottenham Hotspurs’ fans who call themselves the "Yid Army." While this allows supporters and players to claim that this has nothing to do with "real Jews," in practice, their chants and insults have everything to do with real anti-Semitism.
In a slippage that will surprise no one who has studied antisemitism or other sorts of stereotyping, anti-Semitic chants and slogans are now frequently heard at games where neither of the teams is known as "Jewish."
For example, in December last year fans of Chelsea were heard singing anti-Semitic songs at a game in Budapest. A couple of years ago they were filmed in Paris then hissing to mimic the gas chambers in the Holocaust. A favorite anti-Ajax slogan, "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas," has become common at anti-Israel demonstrations with no connection to soccer. And two weeks ago, Kyllian Mbappé, France’s star player, was called a "Judaized negro asshole" on large graffiti in the Paris Metro. It seems his success, and hard-earned prosperity, categorized him as a Jew.
Soccer is often about much more than sport. It is, as all mass-sporting events are, about money and advertising, but in Europe it is also very much about national politics and broad societal issues.
Growing up in Belgium in the 1990s when it seemed as if the EU was the future and Europe would never again know destructive nationalism, I often heard that nationalism had moved from the battlefield to the soccer field.
Today, with nationalism rising in all European countries and the future of the EU in doubt, what does it mean that anti-Semitism is ever more frequently and loudly displayed on the soccer fields? It’s no longer a question of a transposed nationalism, but a reinvigorated one that doubles up in excluding Jews - both on and off the pitch.
Like carnival celebrations, soccer matches are not concerned with left or right politics or war in the Middle East. They’re what people from all walks of life choose to do in their free time, for fun. The presence of anti-Semitism at mass entertainment events suggests that anti-Jewish feelings run deep in Europe, and at the grassroots.
We all need to talk about this more. A safer Europe for Jews will not come solely from governmental protection, or be a result of peace in the Middle East, but from profound changes in European society that - despite the horrors of the twentieth century - are still to gain popular traction.
Flora Cassen is the Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of "Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy: Politics, Religion, and the Power of Symbols" (Cambridge University Press, 2017)