The Belgian state’s watchdog on racism has come out with its verdict on a parade float from earlier this year that was slammed as anti-Semitic: It was anti-Semitic, but its creators were not intentionally racist.
The report released Thursday by the Inter-Federal Equal Opportunities Center, or UNIA, recommends clearing the Aalst float creators of criminal responsibility while calling for the creators and their critics to show “more empathy.”
It comes amid concern among local Jews about what they see as the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in Belgian society.
Much of the report was devoted to the 2019 edition of Carnival in Aalst, but numerous complaints have been filed to UNIA in recent years about the imagery on display during Carnival. In Belgium and throughout parts of Europe and Latin America, Carnival celebrations are held annually in anticipation of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter.
The Carnival in March featured a float with giant figures of Orthodox Jews, including one with a rat on his shoulder, clutching bags of money. Revelers dressed as Orthodox Jews danced on the float to a song about money. Organizers said the display was to protest rising living costs.
The display provoked a torrent of condemnations, including from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, which called it racist. The Aalst Carnival is Belgium’s most colorful event and in 2010 was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Aalst’s mayor and parade organizers have dismissed all criticism of the parade, saying it was harmless satire and not anti-Semitic. Earlier this month, the organizers printed caricatures of Jews with golden teeth and red hooked noses on ribbons meant to be worn at the next edition of the parade. They read “UNESCO, what a joke.”
UNIA said in its report that the display had “clear anti-Semitic character.”
Stereotypes, UNIA wrote, “may have unconsciously led to the association between Jews and money and mice/rats and maybe even a reference to the Nazi iconography from the era of Der Sturmer,” UNIA said, naming a Nazi propaganda paper.
“In that sense, the float in its entirety reproduces unmistakable anti-Semitic stereotypes. However, the contextual elements and the explanation of the responsible parties from the Vismooil’n group led to a decision that this cannot be considered a malicious intent in the legal meaning of the term.”
Belgian law states that hate speech is criminal only if it is intended to cause offense.
The Forum of Jewish Organizations of the Flemish Region, or FJO, rejected UNIA’s findings and took issue particularly with a statement in the report that suggests that Jews and other critics of the Aalst float must show “empathy and more understanding” toward the float’s creators, and visa versa.
“It’s a cheap cliché,” the Jewish group wrote. “Jews have more than 2,000 years of experience with anti-Semitism, and need no instruction about humor. Jews know better than anyone where caricatures can lead.”
In 2017, FJO declared that it had “lost all faith” in UNIA over a different issue, when a UNIA lawyer condemned the hate speech conviction of a Palestinian man that UNIA had helped prosecute for calling to slaughter Jews at a demonstration.