A famous Belgian carnival has been struck off Unesco’s cultural heritage list after complaints of blatant anti-Semitism, including a float depicting Jews with hooked noses sitting atop piles of money.
In an unprecedented move, the global culture agency struck the Aalst carnival from the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, the first time a cultural tradition has ever been taken off the list for racism.
"They can continue to do the festival. We are not opposing that" said Ernesto Ottone, Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture. "What we don’t want is the brand of Unesco on a festival that for (some) may be humor, but for us is mockery of some communities.”
Mr Ottone said that town officials were warned several times about anti-Semitic symbolism in previous versions of the carnival but failed to take actions that would "draw a line" on what kind of floats and displays were acceptable.
Christoph D’Haese, the mayor of the Flemish-speaking town, dismissed what he called "grotesque complaints" over the carnival and said it was not his job to police the humour of festival goers.
"We are on a very dangerous slippery slope when people will be able to decide what can be laughed at," he said.
The final decision to remove the carnival from the cultural heritage list was made by a 24-nation committee that meets each year to review nominations, and new ways to safeguard traditions.
The Aalst Carnival was included in the Unesco list in 2010, and is described in the organisation’s website as an event with a "slightly subversive atmosphere" that celebrates the unity of the town.
Belgian delegates at the Unesco meeting declined to comment on the carnival’s removal from the heritage list. But some of their European peers described it as a necessary decision.
"We cannot allow these anti-Semitic manifestations to happen in Europe with us turning a blind eye," said Claudia Reinprecht, Austria’s ambassador to Unesco.
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"Austrians turned a blind eye some 85 years ago when our Jewish communities were under attack. We will not turn a blind eye again, never again.”