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Europe’s modern antisemitic carnivals are carrying on a centuries-old tradition

By Cnaan Lipshiz

A man wearing a fake hooked nose carries a sign warning not to “tell the truth about the Jew” at the annual procession of the carnival in Aalst, Belgium, Feb. 23, 2020. (Credit: Cnaan Liphshiz)

(JTA) — Over the past two years, at least five parades featuring offensive depictions of Jews have taken place in EU member countries.

The first happened in the Belgian city of Aalst, whose renowned carnival in 2019 featured effigies of grinning Jews holding bags of money. 

UNESCO called the display antisemitic and scrapped the Aalst Carnival, an event with thousands of participants and about 100,000 spectators, from its list of world heritage events.

This year’s parade on Feb. 23 went even further, resembling a scene from the satirical film “Borat” in the process: Revelers wore fake hooked noses and suits that compared haredi Orthodox Jews to insects.

On the same day, two municipalities in Spain held parades where dozens of performers juxtaposed Jews and Nazis with floats evoking death camps and trains. The one in Badajos, some 200 miles west of Madrid, had participants wearing uniforms that were part SS and part concentration camp prisoner while holding up signs reading “the same.”

Last April, Polish villagers at an Easter procession beat and burned the effigy of a haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jew.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in a Feb. 26 statement called the displays “a reflection of the growing levels of antisemitism becoming evident in all corners of Europe.”

Yet to historians familiar with the antisemitic record of Europe’s carnivals, the emergence of this theme in modern-day processions is an organic continuation of a centuries-old tradition of antisemitism at these events — particularly the religious Carnival that celebrates Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter.

Some participants of the carnival in Badajos, Spain, wore Hitler mustaches and uniforms that were part SS and part concentration camp prisoner, Feb. 23, 2020. (Credit: Extremadura Canal)

An expression of joy over spring’s arrival, it featured costumes, masks and comedy from its onset. But in Middle Ages Venice and Rome, whose carnivals were the world’s largest, comedy meant mocking Jews.

“This imagery is not an expression of something new. It is the manifestation of an element that has almost always been an element of Carnival, and never really left,” said Bart Wallet, an author and University of Amsterdam historian who studies European Jewry.

In Rome specifically, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul II revived a custom in 1466 in which Jews were forced to race naked through the streets.

Jews ran “amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily,” the witness wrote.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to march through the city streets wearing clownish outfits, jeered and pelted by the crowd. After the Inquisition was abolished in 1834, the Jewish community of Rome petitioned the Vatican to end the custom. In 1836, Pope Gregory XVI replied. “It is not opportune to make any innovation,” he said.

The custom was abolished in the 19th century, but Jews were still made to pay for Carnival through a special tax.

In the larger Venice Carnival, participants wore “Jew” masks, complete with hooked noses and grotesque expressions. This sort of imagery has survived to this day in Elche, where actors each year put on “The Elche Mystery.” Portraying rowdy Jews, the actors gather around a church where the Virgin Mary is being prepared for burial. They fight against apostles of Christianity until they are vanquished and agree to convert.

The only interruption in this tradition came in the three decades that followed the Holocaust, “where perhaps there was a measure of self-censorship.”

“But now we’re seeing carnivals returning to those origins,” Wallet said.

Men are dressed as haredi Orthodox Jews with an ant’s abdomen and legs at the annual procession of the carnival in Aalst, Belgium, Feb. 23, 2020. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

That was certainly the impression of many critics of the Aalst float featuring grinning Jews with bags of money. One of the groups that wore fake hooked noses and haredi costumes had a sign on their float labeled “regulations for the Jewish party committee,” and it included “Do not mock Jews” and “Certainly do not tell the truth about the Jew.”

Organizers denied that the depictions of Jews were antisemitic, attributing them to the no-holds-barred atmosphere of satire and ridicule characteristic of the event.

The Spanish carnivals did not include this kind of ridicule of Jews, but their treatment of the murder of Jews in the Holocaust was less than reverent, with participants danced as Nazis and Jews dancing together to the sounds of a train picking up speed.

Emile Schrijver, director of the Jewish Historical Museum and Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam, pointed out that the Spanish events occurred in the context of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, as well as the competitive nature common in the contemporary carnivals.

“The people who compete in carnivals are always looking for a timely statement,” he said. “And they’re competing against one another on who makes the most shocking float. It’s not appropriate they choose the Holocaust, but it’s not surprising.”

Main Photo: A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium features caricatures of
Orthodox Jews atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Credit: Courtesy of FJO)

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