They have done it again, now for the third time. The carnival of the Belgian town of Aalst included a float with caricatures that evoke foul anti-Semitic stereotypes. Last year, the carnival group Vismooil’n featured two gigantic figures with hooked noses, dressed in pink bekeshes and shtreimels, with a heap of coins at their feet. The members of the group all dressed likewise. While Vismooil’n stayed away from any overt anti-Semitism in this year’s edition, not to be underdone, at least two other groups picked up the gauntlet and have sported far worse displays. Unlike Vismooil’n in 2019, which – so it claims – painted the coats pink so as to distinguish their huge puppets from actual real Chassidim, this year the Kalisjekloesjers dressed their members in a much closer approximation to actual Chassidim (in black, with peyos and enormous shtreimels), and decorated their float with a Kotel made out of gold bars. Particularly egregious was a little detail of the costumes: the members wore on their back an insect’s body and extra legs, implying rather clearly that they considered Jews to be vermin. Another carnival group, De Zwiejtollekes, bought the two old figures from Vismooil’n, painted their pink coats gold, and put them, along with a few other figures from different ethnic groups, into a series of open carts evoking shooting stands at market fairs.
Jewish organizations understandably find the displays scandalous. The participants, on the other hand, deny any anti-Semitic motive. A Zwiejtollekes spokesman claimed that the theme of their float was not to take oneself too seriously. Belgian news syndicate Belga claims the context in which this float placed the Jewishly-themed figures, namely among figures of other ethnicities and religions, somehow diminishes the anti-Semitic character of the float.
Kalisjekloesjers likewise claimed that the ant abdomens were merely a play on words, as the word for wall and for ant sound identical in the local Aalst dialect. Echoing revelers, the mayor of Aalst, who has consistently defended the carnival groups against accusations of anti-Semitism, said that “the Aalst carnival is exactly 200% not anti-Semitic;” the inclusion this year of numerous Jewishly themed caricatures is because “the revelers are reacting against last year’s controversy [surrounding the Vismooil’n float – AF] and the delisting by UNESCO.”
The revelers’ desire to be understood in context is only fair, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Let’s thus analyze three levels of context here. First of all, what’s this carnival business all about? Well, in towns and cities famous for their carnival, it’s very serious business. Carnival is typically a time of revelry before the onset of the Christian period of forty days of introspection called lent. It’s a period during which penitents may seek to abstain from certain pleasures, but right before, communities celebrate, majorly. These carnivals often date back hundreds of years, and whole cultures developed around them. The carnivals are typically coordinated by a central committee, which oversees the dozens or more different organizations that build floats and march in these carnivals. The discipline required to participate differs from city to city, and in places that take their carnival very seriously, preparations could take a whole year. Aalst is such a place. Traditionally, such revelries have also been times when the population could act with greater impunity towards the ruling classes, who had to take any insults in good sport. In modern times, many carnivals developed a strong culture of political commentary, whole others just want revelry, fun for the sake of fun.
When the mayor of Aalst repeatedly defended the floats as free speech, well, that fit into the freewheeling traditions of such carnivals. This is the larger context of carnival.
But free speech isn’t always laudable speech, and certain types of free speech can undermine societal harmony. And professing can be disingenuous. Vismooil’n claimed that they were short of cash and thus decided to do a kind of sabbatical, but creating a cheaper float. Sabbatical rhymed with Sabbath and so they thought of Jews, and since they had been short of money, money was part of the display. They claimed to have painted the figures pink to make them less like real Jews. Could be. But were they really oblivious to the centuries of anti-Jewish stereotypes involving Jews hoarding money?
De Zwiejtollekes claimed that since they didn’t only display Jews, but also other ethnicities, they were somehow equal opportunity bashers and should be absolved from a charge of targeting Jews. Well, is that why they played Hava Nagila while dancing before their float?
Kalisjekloesjers claim that their ant costumes for their Jewish dress up was merely a play on words for wailing wall and complaining ant. Well, is that why the Wailing Wall was made out of stacked gold bars?
After last year’s float, UNESCO, not exactly a friend of the Jews, reviewed and rescinded the Aalst carnival’s status as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Given that Aalst revelers reacted to this rebuke by doubling down, it may be more astute to de-escalate the situation and assume that these are well meaning people. If so, however, they display a shocking level of historical ignorance, human cluelessness or both. Jews do not complain over such displays because we have thin skins. On the contrary, we encounter anti-Semitism a lot, and yet we only react against the most egregious cases. We don’t react because we are insulted, but because we know that words can lead to worse. At a different carnival this week, in the German city of Cologne, a float bravely addressed this fact. Displaying a gun coming out of an angry mouth, it proclaimed “Words become deeds.”
Insensitive caricatures can lead to dehumanizing Jews in the eyes of some, some of whom then turn those words into terrible deeds. To deny this betrays a sadly dangerous level of cluelessness. Furthermore, those caricatures didn’t appear out of thin air. They are part of a sorry cultural heritage of Jew hatred. Perhaps the Aalst revelers are indeed ignorant of these historical facts, but they are reusing well worn tropes that have aroused Jew hatred throughout history. The grubby, money hoarding Jew, the Jewish cabal controlling the world, the bankers controlling the world economy, all of these are iterations of the same images that have been used time and again to spark pogroms. The play on words ant and wall might have been funny, except that one can hardly miss the other association, of Jews as vermin. A mere 80 years ago Nazis were labeling Jews as Untermenschen.
Increasingly, Europeans want to forget the Shoah, or at least make it irrelevant to contemporary political dialog. But there is also a resurgence of anti-Semitism from the far right, the far left and from Islamists. A few days ago, a right wing extremist shot a bunch of people in a shisha bar in the German city of Hanau, hoping he’d also kill some Israelis. To make light of the blight of Nazism is always wrong, but not at all a laughing matter nowadays, it remains very much relevant. And yet, already in 2013, the Aalst carnival sparked controversy because it included a float with Nazis and Jewish prisoners being led to the gas chambers. This year, Nazis were again the inspiration for a float’s costumes. A similar float appeared this year in the carnival procession in Campo de Criptana in Spain.
Unlike in Aalst, however, the Spanish carnival troupe apologized. In Aalst, in contrast, the carnival organizers and their mayor all refuse to see how they are strengthening hateful stereotypes. Truly, once is an error, twice is a pattern, three times is a habit.