Belgium in blackface


In largely Roman Catholic countries, Carnaval bears a superficial resemblance to the upcoming Jewish festival of Purim. It is a raucous time of merrymaking and frivolity, where pieties are overturned and authority has its pants pulled down. The “celebration” comes immediately before the austere 40 days of Lent, traditionally marked by fasting, abstinence and penitence in the run-up to Easter.

But there are limits to acceptable frivolity. Adults need to understand that. And there is no justification for the flamboyantly anti-Semitic float in the recent Carnaval parade in the town of Aalst, Belgium. Rather, defenders of the float’s hateful portrayal demonstrate a familiar blindness to how easily parade organizers tapped into the poisonous anti-Semitism that Europe perfected in the 2,000 years leading up to the Holocaust.

The offending float was dominated by two giant puppets of hook-nosed haredi Orthodox Jews in shtreimels, sidelocks and garish pink suits. They held out their hands, perhaps for money, while standing on gold coins and bags of money. One had a rat on its shoulder. The float has been denounced as vile and hateful, everywhere except in Aalst itself.

Pascal Soleme, a member of Vismooil’n, the group that created the float, tried to justify the obscenity: “I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present,” he said. “There was never any intention to insult anyone. It was a celebration of humor.”

For those who are struggling to understand how the governor and attorney general of Virginia could have worn blackface, not in the 1950s or 1920s, but in the 1980s, a glimmer of an answer might be found in in the contorted “logic” of how Vismooil’n came to the idea of their float. Rising costs made the group think that they might have to take a year off in 2020, a sabbatical or in Dutch “Sabbat Jaar.” Once they had “Sabbath Year” as the name of their float, virulently anti-Semitic stereotypes of hook-nosed Jews grabbing for money apparently seemed only natural.

Writing in The Atlantic, Eliot A. Cohen recalled a similar float that rolled down the streets of Marburg, Germany, in 1936. “Anti-Semitism, or, to speak more plainly, Jew hatred, is the animus that never dies,” he wrote. “Like some malignant virus, it always lies dormant, ready to wake. Like other viruses, it may be, at various times, more or less virulent, more or less lethal. There probably will not be a massacre of Jews in Belgium in the next few years. What happened a few years after the float rolled down the streets of Marburg requires no elaboration.”

And lest you think that the Aalst parade limited its offensiveness to Jews, they also included white men in blackface and other idiots wearing white-hooded KKK-like costumes. Which just goes to show that old hatreds, even in jest, die hard.

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