In Depth

Belgian mayor defends ‘Nazi’ Jewish caricatures on carnival float

Anti-Semitic row over display in Aalst parade that showed smiling Jews, sacks of money and a rat

A Belgian mayor has defended a float in his city’s annual carnival that Jewish groups say “looked like Nazi propaganda”.

The controversial display featured “two huge figures of men with large sideburns, crooked noses and wearing shtreimels, a fur hat worn by some Orthodox Jews”, reports The Independent. One of the figures had a rat on his shoulder, and they were surrounded by sacks of money.

A platform following the float in the parade, in the northwestern city of Aalst last weekend, carried revellers dressed in similar costumes who danced to a song about “bulging coffers” and “Jews getting extra fat”.

Two umbrella groups of Belgian Jews have filed a federal complaint for incitement against the group behind the display, called Vismooil’n, saying the float looked like Nazi propaganda, reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

“The caricatures, like those of [Nazi German newspaper] Der Sturmer, of Jews with a crooked nose and suitcases, are typical of the Nazism of 1939,” a spokesperson for Belgium’s Forum of Jewish Organisations said. “This has no place in 2019, carnival or not. The Jewish community naturally accepts humour is very important in a society, but there are limits that cannot be exceeded.”

But Aalst’s Mayor Christoph D’Haese defended the spectacle, telling Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws that “it’s not up to the mayor to forbid” such displays, and that “the carnival participants had no sinister intentions”.

Pascal Soleme, who composed the float’s song, told the JTA he had no qualms about being involved in the project.

“I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present,” he said. “There was never any intention to insult anyone. It was a celebration of humour.”

Soleme claimed the Vismooil’n group chose the Jewish theme “because we weren’t sure we’d be doing a 2020 tour [because of rising costs], so that would mean we’d be taking a sabbatical”.

Accordingly, the float was named “Sabbat Jaar”, or “sabbath year”, which in Dutch primarily refers the the biblical sabbatical year in which Jews are commanded not to work the land, but can also mean a general sabbatical.

In a further statement to Het Laatste Nieuws, Vismooil’n said: “We came up with the idea to put Jews on our float. Not to make the faith ridiculous - carnival is simply a festival of caricature.

“We found it comical to have pink Jews in the procession with a safe to keep the money we saved. You can have a laugh with other religions too.” 

However, the European Commission - headquartered just 20 miles from Aalst, in Brussels - called on the Belgian authorities to take action.

Spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said: “It should be obvious to all that portraying such representations in the streets of Europe is absolutely unthinkable, 74 years after the Holocaust.

“It is the responsibility of the national authorities to take the appropriate measures on the basis of the applicable law.”

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