Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation, has condemned the organisers of the Aalst carnival at the weekend for apparent anti-Semitism in the depiction of two giant figures on one of the carnival floats. Meanwhile, organisers have denied the accusation, claiming the massive polystyrene figures are simply carnival grotesques which are recycled each year in other roles, including once as a Christian crusader.
© Bram De Baere
The float in question was named “Shabbat Year” and was prepared by the Vismooil’n carnival group. Due to rising costs, there had been concerns as to whether the carnival group would be able to participate this year. However, a “sabbatical year” was not approved, which meant that the group had to run an edition this year on a lower budget.
"Continuing on that sabbatical year, we came up with the idea to put Jews on our float. Not to make fun of the faith, carnival is simply the feast of caricature. We thought it would be comical, to have pink Jews, with a bag where we stored our saved money. With other religions, people laugh too," said the group, according to Het Laatste Nieuws.
The two puppets representing orthodox Jews stood on top of gold coins, with money bags next to their feet and a rat on the shoulder. They are followed by dozens of dancers dressed up like orthodox Jews with money bags, dancing to a tune about full coffers that are Jewishly beautiful and about getting extra fat.
Unesco's condemnation comes after criticism from Jewish organisations and others but is all the more stinging as it comes from the UN organisation that granted the carnival the status of World Heritage event.
The Aalst carnival is one of the two largest in Belgium, the other being in Binche. In Aalst, participation in the carnival is almost a religion, with preparations for 2020 having begun first thing on Ash Wednesday morning. Traditionally, the theme is scathing and satirical, with famous figures including politicians being ridiculed in the form of giant figures in the most uncomplimentary of poses. This year, examples included former environment minister Joke Schauvliege, who resigned in disgrace, as well as Anuna De Wever, one of the two original organisers of the movement to skip school for the climate.
The carnival club which put out the float in question admitted the figures were intended to depict Jews, but not to insult them. “The fact that the Jews were shown with the detested hook-nose comes simply from the recycling of the dummies,” explained Bram De Baere, who designed the float. And he provided the press with a photograph showing how the head had been used in a previous carnival, this time as a crusader.
“I understand that the Jewish community, who may not be familiar with our carnival, might be shocked,” he told Het Nieuwsblad. But at the same time, I think that Carnival is a time when everyone and everything can be laughed at. If you were to forbid that, you would be attacking the DNA of Aalst at its core.”
The controversy has caused a range of reactions. Representatives of the Jewish community have filed a complaint with the government's equal opportunities agency Unia, and with the local prosecutor. A petition has been started to ask Unesco to withdraw Aalst carnival's recognition. And, at the far end of the spectrum, the mayor of the city, Christoph D’Haese, has received death threats, as has the carnival club concerned.
The Brussels Times