Three prominent Belgian academics have called on the annual carnival in the city of Aalst to withdraw the antisemitic caricatures which — as in previous years — are scheduled to appear at the 2o2o event beginning this weekend.
In an oped that was widely quoted in the Belgian media on Tuesday, the three professors, who lecture on the history of antisemitism at their respective universities, reminded carnival organizers that the crudely antisemitic images that will be on display in Aalst have licensed mass violence against Jews in the past.
“Of course we realize that a float on a carnival procession in itself will not cause genocide, but we also know from history that when extreme violence has come at us, it started with these small steps, and with people who felt powerless and therefore looked away,” the academics — Vivian Liska, Didier Pollefeyt and Klaas Smelik — stated.
An ostensibly lighthearted jamboree with its origins in the Middle Ages, the Aalst Carnival was recognized in 2010 by UNESCO — the UN’s cultural and educational agency — as belonging to the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
But that status was withdrawn by UNESCO last December over what the agency condemned as a “recurring repetition of racist and antisemitic representations.”
The carnival’s last outing, in March 2019, included a float with two giant figures of observant Jews depicted as caricatures with side curls and large noses, sitting on bags of money.
Yet carnival organizers –led by Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese, who represents the right-wing Flemist nationalist N-VA Party– have insisted that the demonizing images of Jews were merely harmless fun and could be expected to appear on future occasions, including this year.
“We are neither antisemitic nor racist,” D’Haese said in December. “Anyone who says that is acting in bad faith.”
According to the academics in their oped, however, the carnival’s enthusiasm for poking fun at mass suffering does not apply when the victims are non-Jews closer to home.
“We understand that the controversy has broadened to the right to laugh at everything — except the Nijvel Gang, because this would affect the people of Aalst themselves,” they wrote, in a pointed reference to a notorious gang of serial killers who murdered at least 28 people in Belgium’s Brabant province during the mid-1980s. “We regret that the same sensitivity is not shown towards caricatures that have caused so much suffering, especially to the Jewish people.”
The academics continued: “And this is precisely in the year in which we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the atrocity created by these kinds of caricatures.”
In an interview with Belgian radio on Tuesday morning, one of the oped’s authors said that the purpose of the appeal was not to promote censorship of the Feb. 23 carnival, but to highlight “the danger of spreading these kinds of anti-Jewish caricatures.”
Said Klaas Smelik: “Especially in the time of the Third Reich of Hitler Germany, this kind of caricature became widespread in order to change people’s mentality, and to teach that the Jews are something bad. Spreading these images now works in the same way as before.”
In a separate development, a Holocaust survivor is scheduled to address school students in Aalst in advance of this weekend’s carnival.
Regina Sluszny, who as child spent the Nazi occupation of Belgium in hiding, will speak to the students of St. Joseph’s College about the experience of Belgian Jews during the Holocaust.
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