Aalst Mayor and Alderman visit UNESCO HQ to defend city’s carnival

The Mayor of Aalst Christophe D’Haese (Flemish nationalist) and City Alderman Jean-Jacques De Gucht (Liberal) are in Paris for a meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO. They are there to give an explanation to UNESCO officials about a float at this year’s Aalst Carnival that featured Jews portrayed in a way not dissimilar to the way the Jewish community was portrayed in propaganda in 1930’s Europe. 

The float caused controversy and was brought to the attention of UNESCO that recognises Aalst Carnival as Intangible World Heritage. Such is the controversy that what is Flanders’ largest and best-known carnival threatens to lose its UNESCO recognition.            

Mr D'Haese and Mr De Gucht hope to prevent that happening by talking to UNESCO officials at their Paris headquarters. They will be given the opportunity to explain the context in which the float was designed and that those that designed it had no racist or anti-Semitic intent. A final decision on whether Aalst Carnival will be scrapped from the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list will be taken in December.     

Stereotypical portrayal

During the last Aalst Carnival in March the carnival group ‘De Vismooil’n’ had a float that featured a number of stereotypical portrayals of members of the Jewish community. The dolls on the float had large hooked noises, ringlets and they had a trunk full of money with them. The group’s intent was to show they were short of money and were taking a Sabbath year. Next year their float would be much better.    

However, the float was criticised by The Forum of Jewish Organisations and the Coordination Centre of Jewish Organisations in Belgium. They lodged a complaint with the equal opportunities centre Unia. They also asked the UN to scrap Aalst Carnival from the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. UNESCO responded by saying that freedom of expression cannot be used to cover up hate. The organisation describe the caricatures as lacking in respect and contrary to the spirit of intangible heritage.