Sense and Sensibility

Belgium punches far above its weight on the world stage when it comes of history, culture and food. This includes its folkloric culture. UNESCO has designated several annual Belgian rites as world cultural heritage events. One so honored is the annual bawdy Carnival parade before Lent in the Flemish town of Aalst (Alost in French) outside Brussels. The carnival parade in Aalst is meant to be humorous and the floats are known for being outrageous and breaking taboos. But Aalst went too far last Sunday and Monday.

One float called "Sabbath 2019" had giant figures of ultra-orthodox Jews with large streimel hats, crooked noses, standing on bags of money. One figure had a rat on his shoulder and a cigar in his mouth (see photo below). Members of the group that built the float wore similar costumes and walked along side the float.

The float certainly had shock value. But to us, the shock was to see the reappearance of the Nazi caricature of the venal, subhuman Jew in a country where during World War II, the Nazis exterminated over 41% of its Jewish population. During the Nazi era, this image appeared in Der Stürmer as floats in Carnival parades in Germany. The group which built the float says the theme was really "saving money", that is, saving money on this year's float so that they would have more money to build a much larger and more complex float next year. We suppose that, to this group, the image of the Jew represents "money" and a penny-pinching scrooge - and thus in a way "saving money".

When confronted by complaints from Belgium's main Jewish umbrella organizations, the group seemed flabbergasted, claiming they had no anti-semitic intent. It was just a joke. When the town's Mayor was asked about the impropriety of the float, he said that Carnival season is all about breaking rules and there really should not be a constraint on free expression during this period. He emphasized that the float had to be seen in context and that there was no ill intent.

Yes, context is everything. In the context of the Aalst carnival, this float was just a rowdy play on images. However, one must look at the larger context. These images hark back to a time during the war when these caricatures were omnipresent in Belgium, awful things were happening and the Belgians were not blameless. Portions of Belgian officialdom did not oppose the Nazi efforts to round up all Jews in the country.

Just a month ago, the Flemish historian Herman Van Goethem published the book "1942" showing that the Antwerp wartime Mayor had actively collaborated with the Nazi SS to roundup Jews, penalizing local police who refused to participate in the exercise. A Flemish SS brigade was formed which went to the Eastern Front and participated in the murder of Jews. It has been recently reported that some of these SS veterans are still alive and receiving "Hitler" pensions from Germany. It took decades for the Belgian State to acknowledge its dark role in the Holocaust and to offer apologies to the Belgian Jewish community. Such caricatures trigger trauma in the Belgian Jewish community and cannot be used gratuitously. Moreover, the shocking use of wartime Nazi images is not new to the Aalst carnival. In 2013, a group created a mock cattle truck used for Nazi deportation, accompanied by their members dressed in SS uniform drinking champagne in front of a poster depicting smiling German soldiers carrying canisters of Zyklon B.

Times are changing. Fifty years ago Mel Brooks made a comedy film "The Producers" with a plot based on an attempt to portray Hitler's rise in a Broadway musical. There were dance numbers involving goose-stepping SS soldiers. It was not made to support a new rise of Nazism,. It was made to show how preposterous the idea would be. Today the ghost of anti-semitism has been disinterred in Belgium, Europe and the world at large. Light-hearted attempts to play with anti-Semitic symbols show a fundamental disregard of history, current events and common decency.

Steven Brummel
The President of the IJC