Puppets of Jews on display at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium
Puppets of Jews on display at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium Courtesy of FJO

The Belgian city of Aalst near the capital Brussels has pulled its annual carnival from the UNESCO world heritage list, after an uproar from Jewish groups and the European Union, the mayor said on Sunday.

The row erupted in March after Mayor Christoph D'Haese defended a deliberately anti-Semitic carnival float depicting puppets of hook-nosed Orthodox Jews with rats sitting on money bags.

The carnival attracts tens of thousands of people over the three days leading to the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. It takes pride in its no-holds barred sense of humor and provocation.

D'Haese on Sunday said he made the decision as he expected UNESCO to strip his city of the designation later this month after both sides failed to find a compromise.

"The citizens of Aalst have suffered grotesque accusations," the mayor said in a press release sent to TV Oost Nieuws, according to Belga news agency.

"We are neither anti-Semitic nor racist. All those who support this are acting in bad faith. Aalst will always remain the capital of mockery and satire," he said.

Since 2010, the carnival has been inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list, but the Paris-based UN agency said organizers had gone too far.

The head of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association said Aalst officials were "jumping before they were pushed", according to a statement.

"Despite the widespread criticism, despite the clear grotesque anti-Semitic imagery, despite the opportunity to at least acknowledge the wrong and hurt caused, the Mayor of Aalst has consistently remained defiant and mocking," said EJA president Rabbi Menachem Margolin.

UNESCO said in March it would be "vigilant and uncompromising regarding such occurrences" and expectations were high that the carnival was to be pulled from the list at a meeting on December 12.

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