A Belgian carnival has been removed from the UNESCO world heritage list because of its continued use of antisemitic caricatures, making it the first cultural tradition to be taken off the list.
UNESCO’s intergovernmental committee for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage said it was withdrawing the carnival “over recurring repetition of racist and antisemitic representations” at the event.
The controversy arose in March when the mayor of Aalst, Christoph D’Haese, defended a carnival float representing Orthodox Jews with hooked noses, surrounded by rats and perched on bags of money, saying it formed part of a “ritual of transgression” in which everything gets mocked.
The carnival attracts tens of thousands of people to Aalst during the three days leading up to the Catholic celebration of Ash Wednesday.
“UNESCO had to be vigilant and firm with regard to the excesses of a festival classified as World Heritage and which flouts its basic values,” said UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay, at a meeting of the committee in Bogota, Colombia.
“It is also not the first time that these racist and antisemitic floats have paraded in this festival,” she said.
In 2013, the carnival featured a float that caricatured the leader of the Flemish independence party N-VA as a Nazi officer.
Irina Bukova, who headed UNESCO at the time, condemned it as “an insult to the memory of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust”.
Anticipating the committee’s decision to remove the carnival from the heritage list, Christoph D’Haese announced on December 1 that the city council would voluntarily withdraw it from the list.
“The citizens of Aalst have suffered grotesque accusations,” he said in a press release.
“We are neither antisemitic nor racist. All those who support this do so in bad faith. Aalst will always remain the capital of mockery and satire.”
According the president of the association of the Association of European Jews Rabbi Menachem Margolin, Aalst city council had had decided “to jump before being pushed,” from the list.
“Despite general criticism, clearly grotesque and antisemitic representations (…), the mayor of Aalst persisted in an attitude of defiance and mockery,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin said.