Brussels – 7 March 2019 – The AJC Transatlantic Institute condemned the anti-Semitic puppets on display on Sunday at a carnival parade in Aalst, Belgium, and called for political consequences for the city’s mayor, Christoph D’Haese, who defended the carnival’s organizers for showing the offensive floats. AJC also urged the government of Belgium to condemn the anti-Jewish displays.
The incident on 3 March comes at the heels of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)’s December 2018 survey of some 15.000 Jews that highlighted the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and particularly in Belgium. It showed that 86% of Belgian Jews – second only to French Jews with 95% – are worried about anti-Semitism.
Already in 2013, Aalst’s pre-lent festivities – which UNESCO added in 2010 to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage – featured a float resembling a Nazi railway wagon used to transport Jews to death camps. The group that created the design marched near the float dressed as Nazi SS officers and haredi Orthodox Jews.
“It’s shocking beyond belief that within living memory of the Holocaust a carnival parade in Europe would peddle such vile anti-Semitism,” said Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute. “The puppets parading through the streets of Aalst checked all the boxes of Nazi-era anti-Semitism, complete with hook-nosed and scheming Jews, rats, and bags of money at their feet. Apparently making no secret of their own bigotry, the puppets’ creators explained the floats’ meaning by saying ‘everything has become so expensive,’ adding yet another layer of anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish financial power.”
The mayor of Aalst, Christoph D’Haese, a member of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party, defended the puppets, saying “it’s not up to the mayor to forbid” such displays. He added that “the carnival participants had no sinister intentions.” The group that created the floats – including a fireman, a technician, an Education Ministry official, and a police department employee – said that mayor D’Haese “totally has our backs, he told us we’ve done nothing wrong.” Pascal Soleme, who works for the local police department, adamantly justified the puppets his group had created: “I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present […] It was a celebration of humor.”
“Adding insult to injury, mayor D’Haese’s indifference to the anti-Semitic incident in his city is a slap in the face to Jews in Belgium and the world over. At a time when many Jews are considering leaving Europe over rising anti-Semitism, responsible political leaders must unequivocally condemn it in all its forms. Mayor D’Haese has disgracefully failed this test of leadership – and has given a pass to hatred and bigotry in the heart of Europe,” Schwammenthal said. “We sincerely hope the mayor’s callousness will prompt his party’s leadership to publicly reprimand and discipline him.”
“The European Commission, to its credit, already on Monday condemned the anti-Semitic puppets. We urge the Belgian government to break its silence on this outrageous display of anti-Jewish bigotry,” Schwammenthal said.
“UNESCO itself was also right to condemn the puppets in Aalst. However, the severity of the incident and the absence of remorse raise questions about the carnival’s continued listing in the prestigious UN records. Anti-Semitism is no world heritage, but a vicious scourge that we have to defeat,” Schwammenthal added.