Carnival Float In Belgium Highlights Resurgence Of Anti-Semitism

From their use of money to rats on the caricatures’ shoulders, the float echoed anti-Semitic tropes used by Nazis to justify the Holocaust.

A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium features anti-Semitic caricatures of Orthodox Jews atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Photograph from FJO)

A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium features anti-Semitic caricatures of Orthodox Jews atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Photograph from FJO)

Shortly after the collapse of communism in Poland, one could buy in Cracow’s Sukiennice (cloth hall) little wooden caricatures of orthodox Jews. Made in a naïve style, they were sold to naïve tourists who probably knew nothing of Poland’s Jewish heritage and in many cases perhaps did not even know what the figures represented. Imagine such figures magnified to larger than life size, garlanded with garish clothing and surrounded by the symbols of wealth and disease. Imagine this tableau accompanied by a dozen or more people dressed in similarly outlandish outfits, with exaggeratedly large round fur hats and eighteenth-century dress, dancing and singing about money and Israel. Imagine this taking place not in a location where old prejudices had been unaddressed because of a forty-year political freeze on such discussions but in a rich liberal democracy, in the context of a celebrated carnival that has continued as a key cultural marker since the Middle Ages. This is the scene that greeted visitors to the Belgian town of Aalst, just west of Brussels, on Sunday 3 March.

The Aalst carnival is listed by UNESCO on its register of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is a three-day event in which floats parade through the Grote Markt, the town’s central square with its UNESCO-listed belfry and aldermen’s house, and travel from café to café. The carnival welcomes the start of spring and, traditionally being held on the days preceding Ash Wednesday, the arrival of Lent. It lasts three days and there are hundreds of events associated with it. This year, unfortunately, one stands out.

By itself, one cannot say that even violent caricatures of orthodox Jews represent the radical right or are supportive of any particular political group. But it is a dream come true for the radical right simply to know that such a thing can happen in 2019 and be considered unremarkable by onlookers. What is shocking in the video of the float passing through Aalst (see the link below) is not the float itself, though it is certainly repulsive, but the apparent indifference of the crowd. It is hard to know what to make of the mix of youngsters and adults on the float itself performing their little song and dance, rubbing their fat stomachs and adding to their money bags. Do they know what they are doing?

Many will no doubt say that this sort of thing is not worth getting worked up about, that it is harmless, and that objecting to it is po-faced in the way that objecting to carnival-goers blacking up is too. There has been a lot of talk about the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism, especially in the UK of late, with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party the cause of much controversy. Yet the fact remains that the Jewish population of Europe is, on the whole, safe and prosperous. However, in Belgium, which, especially in Antwerp, is home to a sizeable Orthodox Jewish population, caricatures of orthodox Jews are dangerous.

The physical characteristics – sidelocks and hooked noses – are hardly surprising, and neither are the money bags, which speak to an old association of Jews and money. But the rat on the shoulder of one of the figures is a reference to medieval superstitions that Jews carried disease, a belief that flowed through into Nazism. Despite trumpeting its ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ approach to race, the leading Nazis also regarded Jews in a mystical light, seeing them as carriers of diseases which aimed at destroying the ‘Aryan race’. This is most famously clear in Goebbels’ film, Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), in which Jews are likened to a plague of rats, in a blood-curdling scene of exemplary vulgarity. When Jews were locked in ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland, it was with the explanation that they carried disease and needed to be separated from the rest of the population; by pushing the Jews into overcrowded streets with a shortage of food, medicine, and clothing, the Nazis then created the disease-ridden communities they claimed were the Jews’ ‘natural habitat’.

All of this is implied in the simple positioning of the rat on the shoulder of the figure of the orthodox Jew. And it is made worse by throwing Israel into the mix, with the old tropes of conspiracies, secret cabals, and shady plots all evident. This is not simply an unfortunate slip back into a medieval trope, a crude celebration of the carnival’s ancient heritage. Rather, it is a thoroughly contemporary image, in which magical thinking can be seen still to pervade the ways in which Europe’s archetypal ‘other’ are still regarded in some quarters. If the lack of response by the carnival goers is anything to go by, then Belgium’s radical right can be satisfied that many ‘ordinary’ people either have no view on the matter or share their opinions. This hardly summarises the Aalst carnival, which contained far more than this one objectionable display. But it makes one wonder whether the intangible heritage of humanity includes Jew-hatred.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Learn more about the event CARR and Rantt Media is co-sponsoring at American University on March 28, 2019.

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Global Outlook // Anti-Semitism / Belgium / CARR