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Don Zeeman

Aalst Carnival: Humorous or anti-Semitic?

Once again, the Flemish carnival included insulting depictions of Jews. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel and Members of the European Parliament have expressed deep concerns.

Carnivalists in Aalst dress half as Jews, half as insects./ Photo: Twitter @johnhyphen

Each year, about 7 weeks before Easter, the Flemish city Aalst is flooded by tourists who want to watch and to participate in the famous carnival.

Especially the procession on Sunday – an exuberant parade with many caricature effigies of politicians, world leaders, public figures, etc. – draws lots of visitors.

Aalst Carnival is renowned for its subversive view on society and current events. In 2010, the event was inscribed in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nine years later, UNESCO decided to remove it from the list, when insulting representations of Jews were shown. The UN-organisation condemned what they saw as an expression of anti-Semitism.

Since new incidents were expected to happen this year, international media extensively covered the event. So the question remains, is anti-Semitism rising in Belgium or is Aalst Carnival still an innocent ‘folk festival’?



The carnival in Aalst has a tradition of almost 600 years and has caused many controversies over a long period. Official entrants and informal groups offer mocking interpretations of local and world events which happened during the past year. Especially political events are broadly exposed.

There is a competition between the different groups trying to present the most impressive float. This usually takes a whole year of preparation and lots of money. Last year, one of the groups ran out of funds and decided to show several stereotype effigies of Jews with hook noses and pipe curls – referring to Jewish bankers possessing lots of money and eventually controlling economic wealth.

This offended the Jewish community and caused severe controversies in Belgium and worldwide. A question of bad taste was the least that could be said. Also a mistake that should not be repeated. Or was it really an expression of increasing anti-Semitic feelings, as some stated?

Being proud to be provocative, several participants tried to outdo last year’s float – some even depicting Jews as insects. This caused lots of resentment on the political level.



Several Members of the European Parliament (MEP’s) wrote a letter to the mayor of Aalst, Christophe D’Haese, asking him to forbid the insulting representation of Jews. The European Commission also condemned the caricatures. Spokesman Adalbert Jahnz told journalists: “It should be self-evident that such images as what we’ve seen should not parade European streets, 75 years after the Shoah. We stand firmly against all forms of anti-Semitism and these parade’s flows are incompatible with the values and principles in which the EU is founded”.

The mayor asked the carnivalists not to hurt the feelings of the Jewish community, but did not take further measures – referring to the freedom of expression of thoughts. He also defended the event and asked to take the ‘overall context’ into account.

A call that was not appreciated by the Israeli government. Israel Katz, minister of Foreign Affairs, asked the Belgian government to condemn and forbid Aalst carnival this year. Similar requests came from the Jewish organisations in Belgium: “What happened last year, could be considered as a painful mistake, but what happened now was intentional”.

The American Jewish Committee asked the Belgian and European authorities to stop the hatred towards the Jews. Bart Somers, minister of cohabitation, declared the caricatures to be ‘offensive, totally inappropriate, tasteless and rude’. Yet he stated that during carnival people ‘make fun of the thinkable and the unthinkable, including matters that are delicate in society’.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, who has Jewish roots herself, emphasized that several floats were in contradiction with the values of Belgian society and the reputation of the country. “The use of stereotypes that stigmatize communities based on their origin, leads to division. It endangers the cohabitation in our country, especially when it is done intentionally and repeatly”, she stated. Nevertheless, she did not forbid the event.

Neither did the European Commission, referring to the fact that issues like these are the responsibility of the member states. Unia, the official ‘anti-discrimination agency’ concluded there had been no illegal acts. In spite of all the controversy, the carnavalists were not willing to change their plans.



What can be learned from the events in Aalst? There is a certain level of anti-Semitism in Belgium, like there is in most European countries, as well as there is a growing level of xenophobia in general. Hatred towards Jews is a sad story that has been going on for ages, and the many examples from history show the deplorable attitude of the so-called Christian society.

But are the organisers of carnival in Aalst therefore anti-Semites? Most likely not. During all discussions they kept on talking about their ‘Jewish friends’, inviting them to take part in the festivities.

So why did they refuse to show genuine respect and waive their plans to use offensive stereotypes? The desire to provoke was clearly stronger than the feeling for good taste and the urgency for respect.

It is really disturbing that the new generation seems to be unaware of what happened during World War II and obviously is unable to understand how severe the horror of the Holocaust was.

Critizing the events in Aalst is not a question of censorship as was suggested in the media. Justly, three professors of three different Belgian universities drew attention to the dangers of these caricatures: “In the 19th century, but especially during the Hitler-regime, these kind of caricatures were widespread and used to change people’s mindset. They were told that Jews were bad. It works the same today: people get a stereotyped image of Jews. They are portrayed as people who own and control the money, trying to exploit humanity”.

Yet there are hopeful signs in Belgium’s society: in many schools specific education programs exist to keep the memory of the holocaust alive. This is a useful antidote for the toxic ideas endangering the peaceful cohabitation. There is a desperate need for similar initiatives. Time will tell whether these are sufficient or not.

There is no need to fight all kinds of carnival-like expressions. Mocking certain tendencies in society can be funny, and there is nothing wrong with humour. But there are limits to be respected. Once the lessons of history are forgotten, the mistakes of earlier days can easily be repeated. However, if we learn from the past, our future can be hopeful.

Don Zeeman is Secretary General of the Evangelical Alliance Flanders (Belgium).




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