Anti-Semitic Float Makers in Belgium Have No Regrets: 'We've Done Nothing Wrong'

Accusations of anti-Semitism have marred a major street parade in Belgium, after participants were accused of perpetuating offensive caricatures of Jewish people in a carnival float.

Those behind the controversial display refused to apologize, arguing they did nothing wrong, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA).

The offending float was part of a carnival celebration in the Belgian city of Aalst, held to mark the beginning of Lent—the 40-day period that leads up to Good Friday.

The parade traditionally features a variety of controversial and topical floats, mocking world leaders and current events. But the offering from the Vismooil'n group—which the JTA noted specializes in hyper-realistic puppets—prompted outrage after it featured caricatured Orthodox Jews sitting on bags of money with rats crawling on them.

Titled "Sabbath Year," Vismooil'n told a Belgian blog last month its creation was intended as a commentary on the rising costs of participating in the event.

Now deleted, the article quoted the group's unnamed spokesperson as saying: "Everything has become so expensive, [we thought that] if we do 2019, there would be no more money left for next year. So we all went quiet until we smartly decided to go for the Sabbath Year and that was that. So simple."

After their float drew fierce criticism, the JTA spoke with Pascal Soleme, who wrote the lyrics for the song accompanying the float. But far from expressing regret or apologizing, Soleme said the group had done nothing wrong.

"Mayor Christoph D'Haese totally has our backs, he told us we've done nothing wrong," Soleme said. Selome even said D'Haese had offered to cover any fines imposed on the group.

The mayor has already said the float was not intended to be offensive, and maintained that "such things should be allowed at the Aalst Carnaval," which was added to UNESCO's list of events that contribute to the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" in 2010.

Soleme added that he had "absolutely no regrets" about the float. "I think the people who are offended are living in the past, of the Holocaust, but this was about the present," he explained. "There was never any intention to insult anyone. It was a celebration of humor."

He also suggested the theme stemmed from financial concerns. "We weren't sure we'd be doing a 2020 tour [because of rising costs]. So that would mean we'd be taking a sabbatical, and it went on from there," he noted.

Regardless of the group's reasons, the float still offended many. The Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs said the "shocking" display used "typical, anti-Semitic caricatures from 1939."

And the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organisations of Belgium and the Forum of Jewish Organisations filed a joint complaint with the national racism watchdog, arguing "there is no room for such things, carnival or not" in a democracy, the BBC reported.

"The Jewish community naturally accepts humor, this is very important in a society, but there are boundaries that cannot be crossed," the groups said in a joint statement.

"At best, it is a disgraceful lack of discernment, especially given the rising context of anti-Semitism in our country and the world, at worst the reproduction of anti-Semitic caricatures worthy of the Nazi era."

Even the European Commission weighed in on the debate, suggesting it was "unthinkable that these images parade in European streets 74 years after the [Holocaust]."

Aalst carnival anti-semitic float Jews
The 91st edition of the carnival parade in the streets of Aalst, Belgium, on March 3. JONAS ROOSSENS/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-Semitic Float Makers in Belgium Have No Regrets: 'We've Done Nothing Wrong' | World