For any Americans who wonder why so many Jews in America are grateful to live here, where anti-Semitism is condemned by people of conscience, here’s a chilling reminder of how Europe has not lost its taste for targeting Jews. On Sunday, in Belgium at the annual Carnaval street celebration in the city of Aalst, a float was displayed with two giant puppets of Orthodox Jews standing on top of money bags and a rat on one’s shoulder.
The carnival is the Aalst version of celebrations that precede Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. Last month, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the Vismooil’n group that created the puppets, calling the display “Shabbat Year,” told a Belgian blogger that the display was a response to rising prices. One member of the group said, “Everything has become so expensive [we though that] if we do 2019, there would be no more money left for next year. So we all went quiet until we smartly decided to go for the Shabbat Year and that was that. So simple.”
Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs told JTA that the float showed “typical, anti-Semitic caricatures from 1939.” The umbrella groups representing Flemish and French-speaking Jews in Belgium, FJO and CCOJB, addressed the federal UNIA watchdog on racism, writing, “In a democracy like Belgium, there is no room for such things, carnival or not.”
JTA described the puppets:
The display features two giant puppets with streimels, hats favored by some Orthodox Jews, in pink suits. They both have sidelocks. One of the puppets is grinning while smoking a cigar and extending a hand, presumably to collect money. That puppet has a white rat on his right shoulder. Both puppets are standing on gold coins and have money bags at their feet. In the background is a round window reminiscent of the architecture of many European synagogues and a small box resembling a mezuzah on its right-hand side.
In 2013, the same carnival featured a float imitating the Nazi railway wagon that took Jews to death camps. The FTP group, which designed the float, marched alongside either garbed as Nazis or Orthodox Jews. JTA reported at the time, “A poster on the wagon showed Flemish Belgian politicians dressed as Nazis and holding canisters labeled as containing Zyklon B, the poison used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews in gas chambers in the Holocaust.”
In 2010, UNESCO inscribed the Aalst carnival on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
UNESCO warmly describes the Aalst carnival this way:
When the three-day Aalst Carnaval begins each year on the Sunday before the Christian Lent, it is the culmination of a year of preparation by the inhabitants of this city in East Flanders in northern Belgium. Exuberant and satirical, the celebration features a Prince Carnaval, who symbolically becomes mayor and receives the key to the city in a ceremony marked by ridicule of the city’s actual politicians; a procession of effigies of giants and ’Bayard’, the horse from the Charlemagne legends; a broom dance in the central market to chase away the ghosts of winter; a parade of young men dressed as women with corsets, prams and broken umbrellas and a ritual burning of the carnival effigy – accompanied by shouts insisting that the feast will go on for another night. In addition to the carefully-prepared floats of official entrants, informal groups join the festivities to offer mocking interpretations of local and world events of the past year.
The 600-year-old ritual, drawing up to 100,000 spectators, is a collective effort of all social classes and a symbol of the town’s identity in the region. Constantly recreated by new generations, the ancient carnival’s collective laughter and slightly subversive atmosphere celebrate the unity of Aalst.