Alost Carnival has become a magnet for controversy in recent years. The Flemish municipality of 85,000 inhabitants, located just over half an hour’s drive from Brussels, celebrates one of the busiest parades in Belgium every February. And possibly the most detested by the Jewish community. This edition, their floats were more than ever in the spotlight, after last year Unesco decided to remove the party from its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for considering it racist and anti-Semitic. The UN agency deemed it unacceptable to include cartoons of Jews accompanied by chests full of money, a prejudice about their alleged greed.
Unesco’s measure was far from intimidating its participants in a locality that many point to as an ultra nursery. The second most voted party is the neo-fascist Vlaams Belang (Flamenco Interest), and the first the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), the first force in Belgium, equipped with a nationalist and anti-immigration ideology. Together they add more than 50% of the votes. His mayor, upon learning of Unesco’s intention to expel them, responded angrily that the carnival was not removed from the list. They were leaving.
With that background on the table, as the date of the new carnival approached, Jewish organizations raised the tone, and even the Israeli Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, asked the Belgian authorities for an express condemnation and forbidding the event to consider it ” a parade that incites hatred. “
The rarefied atmosphere that preceded carnival culminated on Sunday in an even greater challenge to all those discordant voices. Ant-body Jews – a pun in the local dialect, where the word ant resembles the wall of lamentations. Hooked noses. And gold bullion. The intention seemed clear: to challenge everyone who attacked the carnival celebration by giving them, in the name of satire and freedom of expression, a double dose of what they criticized.
The snub came into effect. In a region where collaboration with the Nazi invaders led to 25,000 Jews and 352 Gypsies being deported from Mechelen to Auschwitz, the issue is not just a debate about the frontiers of humor, it also has to do with memory management. This is understood by the European Conference of Rabbis, one of the toughest against the scenery of the carnival. “This type of anti-Semitism is a reminder of some of the darkest moments of Europe’s past,” he said in reference to the Nazi period. “We cannot pretend that those images are some kind of joke or that they do not cause fear,” he added.
The magnitude of the affront was gaining entity like a snowball. The Belgian Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, explained that it is up to justice to determine whether the facts violate the laws, and reproached that the representation is contrary to Belgium’s values and damages the country’s reputation. “The use of stereotypes stigmatizing communities by their origin leads to division and endangers coexistence,” he lamented.
Even the vice president of the European Commission in charge of the fight against anti-Semitism, the Greek Margaritis Schinas, demanded that measures be taken so that the offenses against the Jewish community are not repeated again. “The Alost carnival is a shame. This has to end. There is no place for this in Europe.”
With the excesses of 2019 multiplied this year, the future of a carnival with more than 600 years of history is now in question. While the debate on the limits of freedom of expression persists, its organizers insist on their right to blasphemy, and remember that the Jewish community was not the only object of mockery. There were cartoons of the Belgian royal family alluding to Delphine Boël, the illegitimate daughter of King Emeritus Alberto II, teasing climate activist Greta Thunberg, the LGTBI community, and other religious denominations. “Here we laugh at everything, the royal family, Brexit, national and local politicians and all religions: Islam, Judaism and Catholicism,” said Alost Mayor Christoph D’Haese.