As millions worldwide are in lockdown due to the current health crisis, it seems hard to believe it was only a month ago that Carnival season was in full swing everywhere from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Americas. Zooming in on parts of Europe, what should have been an otherwise joyous occasion turned out to be a festering den of anti-Semitic displays. Photos out of Belgium and Spain have made their way into international media, depicting Jews as insects and trivializing Holocaust survivors. It is worth looking at these highly troubling incidents in historical context. What is a nearly 1000 year old tradition of celebration has brought forward unexpected challenges to our ethics and morals today. Carnival began as a tradition in the Middle-Ages, as a moment of indulgence before Lent. Parades, extravagant costumes and excessive consumption of food and drink were all typical elements. In parallel to the joyous spirit, an anti-Semitic streak of satirizing - and in many cases abusing - the Jewish community developed as well, much in the spirit of the widespread Jew hatred of the time. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, in Rome, rabbis in the Jewish Ghetto were marched through the city streets and mistreated by the crowds. In a letter by the Jewish community of Rome, Pope Gregory XVI was asked to stop this annual march. He is said to have replied: “It is not opportune to make any innovation.”
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:
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.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
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