AALST, Belgium — The Flemish city of Aalst has renounced its famed carnival’s place on the United Nations’ cultural heritage list after months of backlash over charges of anti-Semitism.
“Citizens of Aalst are done with the preposterous insults. We will not be [demonized] as anti-Semites or racists. Whoever makes these accusations is acting in bad faith,” Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese wrote in a statement announcing the town’s decision to give up its UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage designation, a move he called “an official divorce from an unwanted mother-in-law.”
“Aalst is and will always will be the capital of humour and satire,” D’Haese wrote, saying it is important the event remains “free from intentional hurt, but also from censorship.”
The Flemish city, which lies some 30 kilometers northwest of Brussels, came under fire in March, when its annual three-day carnival featured a float depicting Jewish figures with massive heads and hooked noses sitting atop a pile of coins. One figure had a rat perched on his shoulder.
While D’Haese defended the float as just another harmless provocation typical of the procession, Belgian and international Jewish organizations condemned it as hateful and anti-Semitic.
“Aalst is and will always will be the capital of humour and satire.” — mayor Christoph D’Haese
“It gives another signal to Jews that they are not welcome in Europe,” said Rabbi Menachem Margolin, leader of the European Jewish Association based in Brussels.
The mayor’s decision comes 10 days before a UNESCO meeting in Bogotá later this month, ahead of which the committee charged with overseeing its Intangible Cultural Heritage list appeared poised to revoke the Aalst carnival’s status. In a draft proposal, committee members wrote that they had “received sufficient information to envisage the removal of the Aalst carnival [from the list].”
“[It] has been established that representations observed in several editions of the Aalst carnival, whether or not deemed of a racist and xenophobic nature, can be considered, at the very least, as seriously challenging the requirements of mutual respect amongst communities,” the committee members wrote.
UNESCO has not yet recognized Aalst’s intention to withdraw from the cultural heritage list, according to spokesperson Roni Amelan. “We expect this point to be debated on Thursday, 12 December,” Amelan wrote in an email.
The Aalst carnival, infamous for its provocations and mockery, dates back to 1432 and remains essential to the town’s identity, locals say. Awarded UNESCO cultural heritage status in 2010 — which doesn’t come with “automatic material support,” according to the organization, “just recognition of the intangible cultural heritage nature of the element and visibility” — the procession of floats annually attracts thousands of local and international spectators.
But critics argue that in recent years, the festival has gone too far in its irreverence.
In 2013, a group of participants dressed up as members of the Nazi SS, or Schutzstaffel — the notorious military unit led by Heinrich Himmler that ran the Nazi concentration camps — and called themselves the SS-VA, in a reference to one of the town’s governing parties, the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), to which D’Haese belongs.
Earlier this fall, ahead of the December UNESCO meeting, a local artist released a series of ribbons portraying Jewish figures with large noses. One ribbon says, “UNESCO, what a joke.”
The controversy comes amid warnings from Jewish organizations that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Belgium. In 2014, a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing three people. This year, the University of Ghent faced criticism for hosting a Flemish sign language dictionary on its website that used a hooked nose sign to indicate “Jewish.” A recent survey from the New York-based Anti-Defamation League found that 24 percent of Belgians hold “anti-Semitic attitudes.”
In 2013, a group of participants dressed up as members of the Nazi SS and called themselves the SS-VA, in a reference to one of Aalst’s governing parties.
But in Aalst, where there is no active Jewish community, many townspeople may have failed to grasp the potential harm caused by the float, according to Hans Knoop, the spokesperson for the Flanders-based Forum of Jewish Organizations.
Many are upset, instead, by the dispute’s impact on the town’s reputation.
“Thirty minutes after the first pictures of the Aalst carnival went out, the whole of it was an anti-Semitic procession,” said Bert Kruismans, a comedian and historian from Aalst. “And three seconds later, Belgium was an anti-Semitic country.”
Most Aalst residents are eager to be out of the spotlight, according to Kruismans.
“A lot of people in Aalst wanted it to stay a local thing,” he said. “They don’t need the tourists. They say, this is our party.”