BRUSSELS: About the only missing claim was to blame Jews for Covid-19.
When revelers at this year’s Winter Carnival in the Belgian city of Aalst wore fake hooked noses and suits that compared Haredi Orthodox Jews to insects, the extent of the pandemic was not apparent. Today, Belgium is shuttered to prevent the spread of the disease and the carnival would be banned on health safety grounds.
But the February Carnival went ahead and thousands gathered in a town only 10 miles east of the European capital to watch what organizers called a joke. The Carnival makes fun of everyone, organizers insisted, not only Jews. The floats included images of blackface caricatures of Negros and Asians with screwed eyes.
Humor is in the eyes of the beholder and can be anti-Semitic, of course. Yet I wondered if the Aalst parade-goers understood that their displays draw on the deep terrible history of anti-Semitic themes, from the canard that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies to the myth that they control the financial system and media. The long-enduring charge of Jews carrying disease was absent.
Start with the carnivals themselves. Historians point to the anti-Semitic record Europe’s wintertime festivities. According to the JTA’s Cnaan Lipshiz, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul II revived a custom in 1466 in which Jews were forced to race naked through the streets. In the larger Venice Carnival, participants wore “Jew” masks, complete with hooked noses and grotesque expressions, according to James Johnson, author of the 2011 book “Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic.”
The Aalst imagery fit into this sad medieval tradition. According to Sara Lipton, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the figures in Aalst resembled a 14th-century image of a hooked nose Jew. Other images on display in Aalst focused on more recent anti-Semitic canards, including the myth that Jews control the world’s financial system. One float depicted exaggerated images of Orthodox Jews, with enlarged hooked noses, bags of money and surrounded by rats. Another depicted Jews with false gold teeth.
This imagery money-grubbing Jews comes straight from the 19th century, according to Professor Lipton. An 1845 print called “Long faces in the Money Market” depicts a financial crisis, with the evil Jew on the side rejoicing “Py Cot, our peoples have got all de monish.” Another print shows Fagin, an evil Jewish character from Charles’s Dicken’s Oliver Twist who runs a school for child thieves.
Aalst revelers took up additional anti-Semitic themes: the Jew as an animal, the Jew as controlling the media and the blood libel that Jews drank Christian babies’ blood. When Belgian diamond dealer Arthur Langerman first saw the images of Jews as vermin and surrounded by bags of money, he knew where it came from – 19th-century France and its anti-Dreyfus Musée des Horreurs.
Langerman, the son of Auschwitz deportees, has put together what many consider the world’s largest collection of anti-Semitic imagery, which I profiled in the Guardian. It includes the complete collection of the volumes of Musée des Horreurs and the Nazi anti-Semitic weekly Der Stürmer. “I was shocked to see images in Aalst straight out of my collection,” he says.
Before this year’s Carnival, Langerman wrote a letter in protest to Aalst Mayor Christophe d’Haese. The mayor never bothered to answer. During the entire year, d’Haese refused all entreaties from Jewish groups, including from my European Union of Progressive Judaism, for a meeting. At this year’s event, he posed for pictures against the float that read “don’t ever tell the truth about the Jew.” D’Haese called it “satire.”
Some Belgian politicians, after a year of silence, finally did condemn the anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, said the caricatures of Jews at the annual parade in the city of Aalst “damage” the country’s values and reputation. The leader of D’Haese’s nationalist Flemish NVA political party Bart de Wever denounced the Aalst revelers as “lacking in empathy” and “impolite.”
But this criticism remains too timid. After learning a little history of the images on display on the main street of a town in the center of Europe, the imagery on display at Aalst should be called out for what it is: not just “impolite” but dangerous and deadly.
Otherwise, next year’s revelers will be encouraged to blame Jews for Belgium’s present health scare.