The Belgian city of Aalst is only a short drive from the gleaming modern towers that house the European Union in central Brussels. But on Sunday, the picturesque town seemed to belong to a previous era, as a grotesque anti-Semitic parade float promenaded through the center of town, looking like something out of the Middle Ages or Nazi times.
The float depicted two huge, snarling Orthodox Jews with huge hook noses and beards, wearing shtreimels (the fur hats worn by some Hassidic Jews), standing amid gold coins and bags of money, One of the Jews has a rat on his shoulder. In the back is a synagogue with a mezuzah on the doorway. The title of the float was “Sabbath Year.”
A small group of locals was behind the float. The group calls themselves Vismooil’n and is made up of seemingly ordinary Belgians, including one former worker in the Department of Education. Each year, they create an elaborate carnival float. This year, they explained to journalists, they were worried about money, so they decided to express their economic anxiety by turning to age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes of Jews and money.
This isn’t the first time that Aalst’s annual carnival has featured extreme anti-Jewish floats. In 2013, a different community group designed an elaborate float featuring people dressed as Nazis and Hassidic Jews, standing on a train car like the type that brought Jews to their deaths during World War II. A poster on the float showed local politicians dressed up as Nazis holding canisters of Zyklon B, the poison used to murder Jews in gas chambers.
The day after the parade, condemnations poured in. Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, the Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands, criticized the float for containing “anti-Semitic caricatures from 1939.” The main Jewish communal groups in Belgium complained to the federal anti-racism office: “In a democracy like Belgium, there is no room for such things, carnival or not.” The organizers of the parade apologized for the float.
Yet the fact remains that scores of people could look at these floats–workers could spend hours creating them, they could go home and describe them to their families, parade committees could review and approve the floats–and no one ever seemed to recognize that their expressions of venal hatred towards Jews was a problem.
In 2014, Belgian authorities ruled that a Turkish-run cafe in the city of Liege had to remove a sign saying that dogs were allowed in the restaurant but Jews were not. That same year a Belgian doctor in Antwerp refused to treat an elderly Jewish woman for a fractured rib; he advised her to “go to Gaza” instead. A 2018 poll found that well over half of Belgian Jews report having been harassed for being Jewish.
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