Aalst Carnival in international spotlight today

Today is Carnival Day in Aalst with a parade of floats expected to wend its way through the city storm permitting.  This year the event is in the international spotlight after last year’s edition courted controversy at home and abroad.  The inclusion of a float with Jewish caricatures created a lot of bad feeling.

The Jewish community let it be known that it felt attacked and in recent days there has been a call from the Israeli foreign minister for Aalst Carnival to be banned.

It was the float of the carnival group De Vismooil'n that created the stir.  They were short up and to illustrate that they were taking a sabbatical in 2019 they displayed caricatures of Jews on their float: humans with hooked noses, payots and sacks of cash. The same heads had been used the previous year to portray crusaders.

Jewish organisations complain that in the Jewish community such images conjured up the spectre of anti-Semitism. The European Commission too is incensed.  Then commission spokesman (now commissioner) Margaritis Schinas notes that a parade with representations like this should be inconceivable in the streets of Europe 74 years after the Holocaust.

Belgium’s equal opportunities centre Unia swiftly brings the various parties around the table. The carnival group also visit the Dossin barracks that served as a transit centre for Jews bound for the death camps. Unia however concludes that nothing against the law had happened because there was no ill intent and that the group didn’t exceed the bounds of free speech.

In 2010 UNESCO, the UN culture organisation, recognised Aalst Carnival as intangible heritage. Nine years on UNESCO labels the controversial float racist and anti-Semitic. The mayor of Aalst tries to explain the context of carnival: a popular feast where nobody can hide from caricature or ridicule. The City of Aalst decides to have the event taken off the intangible heritage list before UNESCO can take any decision.

After the call by the Israeli foreign minister Flemish integration minister Bart Somers asks the Mayor of Aalst Christoph D'Haese to convince carnival groups not to use Jewish caricatures, but the mayor responds that he doesn’t believe in censorship and that at Aalst Carnival everybody and everything are a potential target of ridicule.

Last week the mayor launched a double appeal: appealing to carnival groups not to seek out Jewish themes needlessly but also appealing to the international media: “People must continue to carry freedom in their hearts.  We first want to examine whether the people from this carnival group at the centre of the controversy really did anything wrong.  People must dare to keep their liberty even when others have stopped doing so.  Let’s look at Aalst Carnival with that in mind”.

Top stories