During events marking the lead-up to the Christian period of Lent last week, there were a series of shocking antisemitic episodes.
Belgium’s Aalst Carnival – a giant and exuberant three-day parade – included people dressed as caricatures of Jews wearing huge fur hats, long fake noses and ant costumes, making the striking link between Jews and vermin.
In Spain, another carnival featured gun-toting Nazis and their dancing Jewish victims, as well as a float designed like a gas chamber and children wearing yellow stars.
Meanwhile in Croatia, state television broadcast a show featuring locals in Nazi SS uniforms singing about “the good old times”.
While some apologies have been forthcoming – especially from organisers of the Spanish carnival – many have defended the events as “tradition”, “an internal affair” or, in the words of the Aalst mayor’s spokesperson, “our humour… just fun”.
The argument of tradition is the most insidious. Lent, the 40-day period ahead of Easter, and especially the festival itself, was traditionally a time when Jews faced attack.
Congregants in European churches in the Middle Ages would be told how “the Jews” conspired to kill Jesus and asked to pray for them to convert to Christianity.
In a recent article, priest and church historian The Rev Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski explained how: “medieval Christians received the message that the Jews who lived in their midst killed their saviour and needed to either convert to Christianity or face divine punishment”, he said. “This language was often carried over into physical violence towards local Jewish communities.”
When carnivals such as the one in Aalst, which also has its origins in the Middle Ages, talk of tradition, this is the history our community sees.
As for it being an “internal affair”, as Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said, the fact these events took place in public makes them the very opposite of that, especially in today’s ultra-connected world.
Finally comes the phrase we hear too often in regards to racist comments and actions – that it is all just a laugh. These events were neither funny nor satire. They are antisemitism, pure and simple.
These continual negative portrayal of Jews normalise antisemitism and anti-Jewish tropes, so they form part of the way our community is viewed and spoken about.
- Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships