Belgian PM condemns anti-Semitic floats in historic parade

Brussels, Belgium, Feb 24, 2020 / 11:30 am (CNA).- The Belgian Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmes, has condemned a traditional parade in the country which featured apparently anti-Semitic floats.

For the second consecutive year, organizers of the Aalst Carnival included numerous apparently anti-Semitic caricatures and floats in the annual parade. This year the event also included marchers who appeared to be dressed as Nazi soldiers.

“The federal government is sensitive to the reactions to some floats and costumes at the carnival,” said Wilmes in a statement released on Sunday, Feb. 23. “Even though the Aalst Carnival is much more than [anti-Semitic displays], these actions damage our values and the reputation of our country.”

Wilmes, whose mother is Jewish, became Belgium’s first female prime minister in 2019.

“Belgium is a state of law. It is for the Justice Department and concerned authorities to see if the events during Carnival are in contravention of the law,” she said.

The parade, held on Sunday, included 12 men dressed in traditional Haredi Jewish clothing augmented with insect legs and body parts attached as costumes. The costume was called “De Klaugmier,” which means “an ant who complains” and is a play off the term for “Wailing Wall” in German.

The parade also featured men dressed as Orthodox Jews with plastic fake noses, wearing red armbands. The armbands were printed with the word UNESCO, in apparent defiance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which previously listed the Aalst Carnival as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

That designation was stripped in 2019 after the parade at that year’s carnival included multiple anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish people, including a float featuring two large Haredi men with exaggerated noses. Men attending that float wore fake pink “sidelocks” along with pink hats.

The 2020 parade also mocked priests, Muslims, Jesus, and Brexit. According to the New York Times, the vast majority of the floats in the parade were mocking some sort of group or person.

Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese defended the parade, and said that he thought Wilmes’ statement was “bizarre.” He extended an invitation for Wilmes to come to the 2021 parade in order to “form her opinion based on facts.”

“I did not see an anti-Semitic or racist parade,” said D’Haese. “To the contrary, I saw a high mass of free speech and creativity.”

The parade was “display of unity,” said D’Haese, not one of anti-Semitism.

D’Haese’s spokesperson, Peter Van den Bossche, told the BBC that the parade was “just fun” and not meant to bring harm to anyone.

“It’s our parade, our humor, people can do whatever they want,” said Van den Bossche. “It’s a weekend of freedom of speech.”

Van den Bossche said that criticism to the 2019 parade was “over the top,” and insisted that the floats “did not encourage anti-Semitism.”

“Two hundred percent it’s not anti-Semitic,” he said.

Van den Bossche did, however, condemn the presence of people in the parade who were dressed as Nazis, saying that “normally we don’t accept that, we condemn that.”

The Aalst Carnival was first held in the middle ages. The event as it currently exists was first officially celebrated in 1923. It is organized by the Aalst City Council.

Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism during his pontificate.

“It is troubling to see, in many parts of the world, an increase in selfishness and indifference, lack of concern for others and the attitude that says life is good as long as it is good for me, and when things go wrong, anger and malice are unleashed,” Pope Francis said Jan. 20.

“This creates a fertile ground for the forms of factionalism and populism we see around us, where hatred quickly springs up,” he added. “Even recently, we have witnessed a barbaric resurgence of cases of anti-Semitism. Once more I firmly condemn every form of anti-Semitism.”

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