Indeed, this seems to still resonate. Between Feb. 21st and 23rd this year, the carnival in the Belgian town of Aalst was taking place, sparking outrage after showcasing anti- Semitic imagery akin to that seen in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The carnival’s organizers distributed many so-called “rabbi kits,” encouraging attendees to wear hooked noses, sidelocks and black hats. Flocks of attendees dressed in costumes depicting Jews as vermin, the mocking of circumcision, the depiction of Jews controlling international institutions and the ridicule of Jewish religious sites were center stage within the parade. The 2020 edition of the Aalst carnival came on the back of harsh global condemnation following the incendiary edition of 2019, where a float depicting ultra-Orthodox Jews surrounded by bags of money and rats led to the delisting of the festival from the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Only days after the Aalst festival, Carnival arrived in the Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha, in the small town of Campo de Criptana. There, a troupe of dancers dressed as Nazi officers and concentration camp prisoners were accompanied by a float featuring a menorah and two crematorium chimneys. The Spanish case sent a chill up the spine of the Jewish community – not only was the float in Spain shocking, but, following the displays in Aalst, it painted a picture that such displays were becoming commonplace.
It’s worth noting that – turns out – the circumstances of the two carnivals were significantly different. In Spain, both authorities and the carnival were quick to recognize the inappropriate nature of the performance. A statement was swiftly put out by the local municipality condemning the troupe and the association responsible for the float declared that it had failed to deliver “the message of awareness and respect that we had wanted to transmit.” Indeed, it would appear that the Criptana carnival wished to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, albeit in a vehemently misguided way. That might not be much consolation, but it stands in stark contrast with the attitude seen in Aalst, where the carnival organizers, alongside the authorities, were purposefully trying to provoke and incite the reaction of the Jewish community as a sort of badge of honor to the carnival’s unapologetic spirit.
While the underlying perspective of the two events differs, there are common learning points – and as we look towards next year’s Carnival season, it is them we should be focusing on:
- Education is key: What we saw in both parades was a lack of understanding among the general public as to why the displays were offensive. Whether it is a lack of sensitivity towards adequate memorialization of the Holocaust, or downplaying how stereotypical depictions of Jews can lead to discrimination and even violence, these educational shortcomings must be addressed – through proper teaching about the Holocaust, as well as the history of Jewish life and its diversity today.
- More oversight: as we experienced firsthand the harmful outcomes of the carnivals, we must demand accountability in future editions about the content displayed. Whether this falls under the responsibility of carnival organizers or local municipalities may vary from place to place, but regardless of the setup, organizers should not be able to shield themselves behind the decisions of individual revelers. This can take the form of guidelines and sets of values for float creators, or it can mean required submissions of descriptions from groups of the floats they intend to display or other creative solutions.
- Strong reactions from authorities are crucial: The displays we’ve witnessed may not be illegal – and in fact, constructive solutions are likely educational, not punitive. Yet authorities do play a crucial role: that of speaking out, channeling the concerns of the communities affected and reinforcing the norms and values that should not have allowed these manifestations in the first place.
As we expect next year’s Carnival season – that will hopefully find us in calmer times than we are living through today – we must work to put in place all these protections to ensure the festival is not about marginalization and stigmatization, but about celebration and inclusion.