Belgian anti-Semitism is a one-trick pony (af)fair

Last year, the Belgian town of Aalst shocked the world with their open display of anti-Semitism at the local Carnival parade. The parade featured larger-than-life statues that clearly mock Jews by going for both stereotypical Jewish/Hasidic garb, i.e. the shtreimel or round fur hat, side curls, and hooked noses. The 2019 parade made many international headlines and dumbfounded UNESCO, the United Nations’ heritage agency, which threatened to revoke the parade’s place on the World Heritage List as a consequence of the anti-Semitic effigies. Christoph D’Haese, the mayor of Aalst, “tried to beat UNESCO to the punch”, as Claire Moses put it: “In a classic “you can’t fire me — I quit” moment, he sent the agency a letter on Tuesday, renouncing Aalst’s place on the list before it could be kicked off.” In the same article, Moses’ schadenfreude is almost palpable when she notes that that is not how the UNESCO heritage lists works: the mayor’s office has no authority to either add to or remove any cultural heritage from the World Heritage List. In other words, D’Haese, who is still the mayor, made a complete and utter fool of himself on an international scale.

As a mayor, and hopefully as a town’s population, such international admonishments from the press and the United Nations would ideally lead to some soul-searching, if not a change in policy over what sorts of displays can be presented in the parade. Not so in the city of Aalst! Mind-boggingly, the opposite is true: not only did they not cease making grotesque anti-Semitic characters for carnival, they arguably outdid themselves by making the parade even more anti-Semitic than last year. The parade featured a group of men in fake shtreimels dressed up as ants pushing the Western Wall(!!!). Jews depicted as vermin: how much more anti-Semitic can it get? This depiction fits in with those of the Nazi era. In fact, actual Nazis would likely have been impressed with this ingeniously vile display of anti-Jewish creativity. Aalst can pride itself on being the most openly anti-Semitic city in Europe today.

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, who is Jewish herself, released a “flaming” statement that the anti-Semitic caricatures “endanger” Belgian social cohesion last Sunday and gives Belgium a bad rap worldwide. (You don’t say!) D’Haese has since let Wilmès know that he found her statement “bizarre” and defended the right of participants to mock Jews and other minorities as a form of satire, calling the event Sunday a “display of unity.”

So far, so bad on the mayor’s part. After hearing of his preposterous reaction, I was wondering about Aalst’s inhabitants. What do they think of this? Are the 2020 caricatures motivated by a small minority, and is the majority upset by this platform of hatred in their city? Thankfully, or perhaps not, I have been able to read some locals’ responses to the international commotion by virtue of sharing a mother tongue. A member of one of the organizing parties notably commented the following for a Dutch newspaper interview: “This is Aalst. We laugh [i.e. make fun] of everyone. Except for the Brabant Killers [a violent Belgian gang in the 1980s], Marc Dutroux [a Belgian child molester and murderer, who was finally convicted for life in 1996] and the Rwandan genocide. [All of those] were too bad.” The interview becomes clear that, even when asked by the interviewer, the Holocaust does not belong on the “too bad” list for this commenter: “That was such a long time ago. I’m old already and even I hadn’t been born at the time. That [episode in history] is now very far removed from us, eh?”

My reason for translating this response is to illustrate the position of Jews in Western European culture today. The commenter’s list makes it very clear that the locals could not care less about modern Jewish sensibilities. Worse, Jewish sensibilities did not enter the organizers’ scope of consideration even after last year’s outrage. The organizer’s comparison to the Rwandan genocide is especially striking in its ignorance given that this genocide has many similarities with the Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide was, to a great extent, made possible by hateful speech towards a minority—the Tutsis. Rwandan Hutu officials called the Tutsi minority “cockroaches“. The Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Both cases teach us that consistent widespread verbal/visual cruelty (i.e. hateful cartoons etc.) can potentially lead to murder.

It is logical that many contemporary Belgians have a connection to the Rwandan genocide. The two countries share strong historical ties to begin with. Moreover, the encounter with Rwandan survivor immigrants to Belgium surely had a great impact on Belgium’s cultural conscience. However, 25,000 Belgian Jews, nearly 40 percent of its Jewish population, and fellow citizens perished in the Holocaust. Aalst may feel free to make fun of  “everyone”, but I wonder whether any of the parade’s participants or organizers could confidently look a Belgian Holocaust survivor in the eye. For the sake of all Belgian Jews, I truly hope they wouldn’t.

About the Author
Rivka Hellendall is a graduate student of English Literature and Jewish Studies at the University of Amsterdam and a freelance journalist for the Dutch Jewish Weekly news magazine. She enjoys great cappuccinos, reading, traveling to Israel, and creating community. Her Dutch Ashkenazi heritage allows her to relish the custom of having a dairy dessert only one hour after a meat meal.
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