Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Opinion

Belgium's Aalst carnival - no easy fix to anti-semitism

  • Aalst mayor Christophe D’Haese (r) and a Jewish caricature pictured during the early carnival parade in the streets of Aalst, Belgium, Sunday 23 February 2020 (Photo: Copyright Imago Images)

This weekend (Sunday, 23 February), was the day of the yearly carnival in the Belgian city of Aalst.

For the Jewish community, this day approached with a lot of anxiety. In the 2019 edition, a float depicting exaggerated images of Orthodox Jews, with enlarged hooked noses, bags of money and surrounded by rats caused international outrage, and resulted in the delisting of the Aalst festival from Unesco's intangible heritage list – a first in the international body's history.

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  • Minister-president of Flanders, Jan Jambon, claimed that while people abroad may not understand it, the Aalst festival did not include anti-semitic manifestations (Photo: Council of the EU)

The whole protracted episode left Jewish advocacy and community organisations on one side and officials in Aalst on the other in an antagonist relationship, where regrettably public authorities in Aalst failed to understand the charges brought and to take responsibility accordingly and Jewish organisations were left warning of the dangers of the 2020 edition.

And the 2020 edition came and went: Jews portrayed as insects, people wearing fake ultra-Orthodox costumes, crass comments about circumcision and the Wailing Wall, uniforms resembling Nazi attire labelled Unestapo - a play on the word 'Gestapo', the secret police of the Nazis, and the mayor of Aalst, Christophe D'Haese, of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance, essentially insisting: Nothing wrong here.

And here in lies the problem: more disturbing – I think – than the displays themselves is the clear sense that locals don't understand what the issue is.

Following the backlash over last year's edition, the festival made it a nearly explicit purpose to poke the Jewish community, to exhibit its discontent for any international reactions and to instigate even more vehement responses from the Jewish community which it deemed oversensitive and unwilling to take a joke.

This approach found support among politicians as well: much like D'Haese, minister-president of Flanders Jan Jambon claimed that while people abroad may not understand it, the Aalst festival did not include anti-semitic manifestations.

Rather, it makes fun of everything and everyone.

Grain of salt

You may want to take that with a grain of salt: Jambon has a history of association with the far-right, be it through support of former Flemish Nazi collaborators, or affinity to members of the forbidden extreme right-wing paramilitary organisation Vlaamse Militanten Orde, and the Vlaams Blok extreme-right political party.

Jewish organisations – as well as many allies, be they public authorities, anti-discrimination bodies or civil society – have started to react and will continue to do so.

From calls for the EU to sanction Belgium to bans on the festival itself, the proposed remedies come in many forms and degrees of severity.

They may be warranted, and in search for a quick fix, they may do the surface trick, but unfortunately there's no easy solution to do away with the underlying problem in Aalst.

Prejudices are deeply-rooted; the lack of knowledge about the Jewish community; the lack of empathy and understanding for the other; the inability to see one's own biases; the missing opportunities for exchange - they have no easy fix. The problem in Aalst requires that we look well beyond Aalst.

As reactions mount in the coming days, I hope that they not only address the immediate need to prevent such displays in the future, but bring solutions to tackle their root causes. In its thoughtful and reserved approach in the past days, the organised Jewish community of Belgium has been a goodwill partner, open to be part of a constructive solution and to work with authorities both local and national to ensure a public space free of hatred and bigotry, where the Jewish community, like all communities, can leave in a welcoming and inclusive society.

Hopefully it will have others at the table.

Author bio

Alina Bricman is director of EU Affairs for the Jewish advocacy organisation B’nai B’rith.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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