File image: The carnival of Aalst was added to UNESCO's list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2010. Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
carnival of Aalst

'Racist and anti-Semitic' Belgian festival removed from UNESCO's heritage list

A float caricaturing Orthodox Jews with hooked noses and sitting on gold bags outraged Belgium’s 40,000-strong Jewish community.

THE UNITED NATIONS Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has withdrawn an annual carnival in the Belgian city of Aalst from its heritage list over persistent charges of anti-Semitism.

In an unprecedented move, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage said it was withdrawing the carnival “over recurring repetition of racist and anti-Semitic representations” at the event.

The carnival of Aalst, in the Belgian Dutch speaking region of Flanders, was initially added to UNESCO’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2010.

But the presence in the parade of a float caricaturing Orthodox Jews with hooked noses and sitting on gold bags outraged Belgium’s 40,000-strong Jewish community. 

Yohan Benizri, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, welcomed today’s decision but said it was “unfortunately not the end of the story. We deplore, but today we also fear, the disastrous consequences of the carnival, whether or not it is recognized by UNESCO.”

“The massive spread, directly or indirectly, of extremely charged anti-Semitic prejudices – crooked nose, control of the economy and banks – is not what we want for our children in the context of a family event. 

“This is obviously harmful for them and for an uninformed and global audience,” Benizri told AFP.

Anticipating UNESCO’s decision at its meeting in the Colombian capital Bogota, the city’s mayor Christoph D’Haese had on Sunday already renounced Aalst’s place on the list before it could be stripped of the designation.

“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.

‘Defiant and mocking’

The head of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, said Aalst officials were “jumping before they were pushed,” and said the mayor “has consistently remained defiant and mocking.” 

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 the Bogota meeting.

A statement released by the meeting in Bogota announcing the decision said: “UNESCO is faithful to its founding principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect among peoples and condemns all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, said earlier this week that the UN’s cultural body “had to be vigilant and firm about the excesses of a festival classified as a World Heritage Site and which flouts its basic values.”

“It is not the first time that these racist and anti-Semitic floats have marched in this festival,” she added. 

This was an allusion to the 2013 edition when a float depicted a Flemish nationalist party leader as a Nazi SS officer looking to deport Belgian French-speakers.

Irina Bukova, then head of UNESCO, denounced “an insult to the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust”. 

Since a 1972 convention, UNESCO has classified the world’s most historically and culturally significant sites, but now also has the authority to protect the “intangible heritage of humanity”. 

- © AFP 2019

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