The Eternal Virus

Anti-Semitism is mounting in political strength all across Europe as evidenced in the growing representation of far-right anti-Semitic parties in national governments.

But equally alarming is the level of acceptance Jew-hatred enjoys at the grass roots level, where for decades after the Holocaust, overt displays of anti-Semitism were taboo.

No longer is this the case. Over the past two years, at least five massive parades featuring grotesque stereotypes of Jews, and mocking the Holocaust, performed in EU countries to cheering crowds from all parts of the social and political spectrum.

Spring carnivals celebrated in almost fifty Catholic countries today are part of a centuries-old tradition dating back to medieval times. The roots of these festivities can be traced to 14th century Rome where wild carnivals, held prior to a period of religious austerity on the Catholic calendar, were the norm. They were often overseen by the pope.

Races and competitions were a hallmark of the Roman carnivals. The Jews of Rome were forced to participate in “foot races” and suffered various forms of sadistic treatment at the hands of the spectators.

During much of the carnival week, social and moral boundaries were flung aside as masked and costumed people indulged in excesses of all kinds, protected by their temporary anonymity.

In our enlightened age, the wild parties connected with the annual Christian carnivals have been abolished. In many countries including Belgium, Italy and Spain, however, the practice of donning masks and costumes to express contempt and mockery continues to flourish—all under the guise of satire and humor.

Couched behind the partying and gaiety are often chilling echoes of hatred.

Belgium’s Jewish Problem

One of the most blatant of recent anti-Semitic carnival exhibitions took place last year in the Belgian city of Aalst, an event boasting thousands of participants and about 100,000 spectators, according to JTA.

Some of the floats featured giant puppets of hooked-nosed religious Jews clutching money bags. One of the figures sported a rat on its shoulder, reminiscent of anti-Semitic tropes of the Middle Ages and Nazi Germany.

An earlier carnival in 2013 had participants dressed like Nazis marching around with cans labeled “Zyklon B” — the poison that the Nazis used to kill Jews in gas chambers. Despite the protests, the carnival established a precedent for mocking Jews.

Unesco [UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] called last year’s display anti-Semitic and after issuing warnings, eliminated the Aalst Carnival from its list of world heritage events. The Belgian EU Commissioner supported the move, noting the offensive exhibitions “went too far.”

Rather than bow to requests to drop the parade’s anti-Semitic elements, however, this year’s carnival-goers in Aalst took things to an even more repugnant level.

Giant floats regaled the city with “Chasidic Jews” costumed as giant insects wearing round fur hats, along with hook-nosed rabbis sitting on chests of gold, as revelers danced to a song about Jewish greed. Other displays featured people in Nazi SS uniform.

The carnival’s offensive content made headlines around the world, prompting criticism from Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, the EU and Israel.

Wilmes said the anti-Semitism in the three-day festival “detracts from our values and hurts the reputation of our country. Stereotypes that stigmatize lead to division and endanger society.”

Belgium’s former foreign minister told a French news station that this year’s carnival and similar events “open the door to a real orientation towards racism and anti-Semitism.”

Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said that “the satirical procession with anti-Semitic tropes in Aalst, Belgium, are extremely offensive and abuse the power of free speech.”

‘Just Having Fun’

But Aalst’s mayor Peter van de Bossche scoffed at all the criticism, saying he saw nothing offensive about the exhibitions. “It’s our parade, our humor; people can do whatever they want for fun. It’s a weekend of freedom of speech.”

“What is unusual is that recently, we’ve had a string of incidents where officials are defending anti-Semitism,” noted Joel Rubinfeld, president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism. “That is a worrisome development on a level I think is only happening in Belgium.”

Nearly five years after a terrorist atrocity in Belgium, when a jihadi gunman shot dead four people in the Jewish Museum, organizations monitoring anti-Semitism in Europe report a steady increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Belgium, including vandalism, Holocaust denial and verbal abuse. They also cite a rise in Nazi rhetoric.

A study found that apart from France, Jews do not experience anywhere in the EU as much hostility on the streets as they do in Belgium.

“People cannot walk in the streets of Brussels with a kippa on the head,” said Ariella Woitchik, the director of legal and public affairs at the European Jewish Congress, based in Brussels. “In the public schools in Belgium, the biggest, most widespread insult is ‘Jew.’”

In the face of growing hostility, more parents are moving their children into Jewish schools, she said in an interview with the Guardian.

Jewish buildings, including now the museum, are tightly secured, with cameras and double doors that can only be opened from the inside. Soldiers patrol outside Jewish schools.

The rise in anti-Semitism is cloaked in hatred of Israel—including denial of Israel’s right to exist, a complete disregard of the deadly threats it faces, and brazen lies about its actions.

Observers see a direct line between the anti-Semitic Aalst pageantry and the attacks on Israel.

Brussles, the capital of Belgium, considered the de facto capital of the European Union, has taken recent steps to hurt Israel. Caving into pro-Palestinian pressure and BDS advocates, the EU in November 2019 issued binding rules calling for Israeli “settlement” products to be labeled.

This law took aim at Jewish-owned companies over the Green Line, boosting BDS boycotters and deterring international companies doing business there. The Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Human Rights followed in the EU’s discriminatory footsteps soon after.

Spanish Carnivals Exploit Holocaust

On the same day as the Belgian carnival, two municipalities in Spain, Campo de Criptana and Bandajos, held parades where dozens of performers appeared as imprisoned Jews side by side with Nazis. They walked along floats evoking crematoria and Jewish symbols including a large menorah.

The carnival in Badajos had participants wearing uniforms that were part SS and part concentration camp prisoner, while holding up signs reading “The Same.”

Each of these events provoked sharp rebuke, including by critics who viewed them as evidence of an emerging trend. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the displays “a reflection of the growing levels of anti-Semitism becoming mainstream in all corners of Europe.”

Unlike officials in Aalst, Belgium, who defended the blatant anti-Semitism as “humor” and refused to alter the presentations, the town council of Campo de Criptana in Sapin apologized to the Spanish Jewish community, admitted the exhibitions were ill-advised and cancelled them.

Officials said permission for the act had been granted based on the understanding that it would honor those murdered in the Holocaust, not trivialize their suffering.

Belgium is not alone in insisting on the right to engage in public anti-Semitic displays in the name of free speech and having fun. Other European cities believe it is their right and cultural/religious heritage to demonize Jews.

Last year, Polish authorities opened a criminal investigation into a Catholic holiday ritual in the small town of Pruchnik, in which local residents – including children – beat and burned an effigy of an evil character in Christian scriptures, represented by a stereotypical Jew attired in black hat and payos.

A Trail of Demonization

Some historians draw a direct line from the demonization of Jews in early church writings to the Vatican’s creation of an anti-Semitic culture that stretched from the French Revolution to the Hitler era, continuing to the present day.

Historian David Kertzer argues in The Popes Against the Jews [Brown University 2001] that popes presiding over the Vatican in the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries led a campaign of demonization against the Jews that helped make the Holocaust possible.

Using research based on privileged access to sealed Vatican archives, Kertzer’s book shows why the many questions surrounding the “mystery” of Pope Pius XII’s failure to protest the slaughter of Europe’s Jews in the war misses a crucial point.

What made the Holocaust possible, he contends, was extensive groundwork laid over a period of decades that relentlessly demonized the Jews, to the point where Christian society as a whole had no problem, during Hitler’s reign, with the Jews’ extermination.

In this long-running process of dehumanizing the Jews, which involved identifying them as inherently greedy and traitorous, destructive to Christian society, and obsessed with amassing wealth and achieving world domination, the Vatican played a pivotal role, Kertzer asserts.

Every single one of these allegations about Jews was not only embraced by the church, he writes, but actively promulgated by its officials. Anti-Semitism was present at every level of the European Catholic church, in its teachings, among ordinary believer, priests, bishops and popes.

“The physical elimination of the Jews of Europe came at the end of a long road… one the Catholic Church did a great deal to help build.”

Demanding Governments Revoke Jewish Equality

The author shows how throughout the 19th century, the church continually called for Jewish equality to be revoked, and for the passage of harsh anti-Jewish laws to “protect” society from evil Jewish schemes, by isolating the Jews and restricting their rights.

Church ideology held that any contact with Jews was polluting to the larger society.

Filling the pages of many respected Catholic publications for almost a century preceding the Holocaust are libelous writings about Jews that helped incite hatred in Catholic society. The following statements by prominent clergymen in the 1890s period, cited by Kertzer, are illustrative.

“Wherever the Jews live,” in the words of these well-respected clergymen, “they form a foreign nation and a sworn enemy of the people’s well-being. What should good Catholics do about this terrible threat to their livelihoods and happiness?”

The answer, offered in the pages of the preeminent Civilta Cattolica, was clear: “The Jews’ civil equality must be immediately revoked, for they have no right to it, remaining forever foreigners in every country, enemies of the people of every country that puts up with them.”

“Forcing Jews to wear yellow badges and keeping them locked in ghettos were not inventions of the Nazis in the 20th century,” the author attests, “but a policy the popes had championed for six hundred years. Jews in the Papal States were still being prosecuted in the 19th century when caught without the required yellow badge.”

Forcing Jews Back Into Subjugation

Thanks to the relentless demands of 19th century popes, the Jews of Italy who had been granted equality by Napoleon in 1797 and allowed to move from the ghetto, were re-ghettoized in 1814. The situation was unbearable in Rome, with the ghetto’s severe overcrowding and squalid conditions.

“The Vatican also reinstated mandatory Jewish attendance at conversionary sermons and acts of degradation associated with the annual Christian Carnival,” Kertzer writes.

Schools teaching religious subjects were not permitted in the ghetto, and Jewish children were forbidden to attend schools outside its walls, or to engage in professions or skilled occupations.

Unlike their medieval predecessors who had sometimes defended the Jewish community from blood libels, the nineteenth-century popes rebuffed all Jewish pleas for help.

In the notorious Damascus affair of 1840, a blood libel targeting thirteen prominent members of the Jewish community who were accused of murdering a Christian monk, the false allegations raised worldwide protests.

As the Jews awaited execution, Jewish delegates petitioned Pope Gregory XVI for his intervention. He coldly refused. Four of the Jews died at the hands of brutal interrogators. After outcries from government leaders around the world, the remaining nine were eventually released.

The next pope, Pius IX, the most influential pope of the century, “helped to give the Jewish ritual murder charge a new respectability,” historian Kerzer notes, by confirming “martyrdom” on a dead Christian child who was the subject of a blood libel. Pius IX also endorsed a French book that defended this sham.

When all is said and done, writes Kertzer, it is true the Vatican never approved or called for the extermination of the Jews. “But the centuries-long conditioning of the Christian population to view the Jews as demonic” had dehumanized them and made their destruction desirable, or at least of no great consequence.

The old anti-Semitism had created a climate so that Hitler’s “new” anti-Semitism was, at the very least, acceptable to millions of Germans.

That leaves one watching warily as the world’s oldest hatred experiences a resurgence across Europe, infecting both the far right and the far left. It is like an eternal virus that never dies but lies dormant, always capable of a flare-up, forever mutating into different deadly strains.

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Carnival Excesses in the Middle Ages

During medieval times, the Jews of Rome were forced to finance and participate in degrading carnival spectacles, which often descended into wild drinking parties.

Fourteenth century records describe stone-throwing attacks during the carnival week on Jewish urban communities. According to some historians, a popular form of carnival entertainment in some Italian cities consisted of plays ridiculing Jewish life and customs, enacted on ox-drawn carriages.

The forms of “recreation” at the week-long carnivals included bullfights, pig-hunting (Jews were required to supply the pigs), and foot races in which participants had to perform unclothed. Jews were compelled to join the races with young children, old men, cripples and hunchbacks.

The “palio degli Ebrei” or “race of the Jews” in Rome had a long and nauseating history. At one point, Christian “jockeys” in the race rode Jews instead of horses. Another festive game of the season was to roll a Jew in a nailed barrel down the Testaccio Hill. [Jaffe-Berg, 2013]

By the mid-sixteenth century, there are accounts of the Pope personally watching “races of barbarians, buffaloes, donkeys and Jews,” from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia (where four centuries later Mussolini made his most famous public appearances.)

Historians say the “Jews Race” kicked off the carnival. Four trumpeters would arrive at the main synagogue the day before the races were to begin, to summon the Jews to the contest.

The eight contestants (some say twelve) would be required to run through the streets covered only by a loincloth. On their forehead would be painted the letters SPQR, the abbreviation for the Latin Senatus Populusque Romanus, the official name of the city government.

Since the carnival period fell out in February, it was cold, often wet and muddy. To make the race more arduous for the runners – and more entertaining for the public – the contestants would often be required to gorge themselves before taking off, causing them to vomit, experience cramps or even collapse during the race.

In a crowning touch, the spectators were permitted to throw rotten oranges and mud at the runners.

Rabbis were often forced to march down the runners’ path, dressed in clownish costumes that drew raucous shrieks of laughter from the spectators.

In 1668, Pope Clement IX abolished the “race of the Jews,” substituting an annual tax of 300 scudi for the festive decoration of the street and a ceremony of tribute to the Pope on the Capitoline Hill. (Medici Archives, NPR 2001)

According to historian Asa Boholm, in rural Southern Italy and in Sicily, religious carnival processions still take place today at the traditional time, with local peasants masquerading as ‘Jews’ who behave in a disruptive, disgraceful manner, mocking the ritual significance of the event.

Centuries of enlightenment and social progress appear to have made no impact on the anti-Semitic character of these carnivals.

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The Courage of Anna del Monte

Some of the most shameful moments in Catholic history in Italy centered on the activities of church officials in the Casei dei Catehumen, buildings where conversions were carried out. It was also the site where kidnapped youngsters were brought and held in seclusion, while priests and nuns used various methods to force them to accept baptism.

A century before the infamous “Mortara case,” 17-year old Anna del Monte, the daughter of a prominent family in Rome’s Jewish ghetto, was kidnapped from her family home on May 6, 1749 and imprisoned in the Casa dei Catecumen.

The abduction was in keeping with the Vatican’s centuries-long effort to forcibly convert the Jews of Rome.

As recounted in the The Kidnapping of Anna Del Monte by Kenneth Stow, Anna was a well-educated and articulate woman who left a diary in which she described the two-week struggle she endured as men and women of the Church sought to convince her to embrace the church. The diary forms the heart of the book.

Anna was forced to listen to endless hours of conversionary sermons, and to counter all kinds of psychological tactics aimed at eroding her sense of identity and her Jewish beliefs.

“On the tenth day, they brought me before two priests, who asked again whether I wanted to become a Catholic,” Anna wrote. “I felt my blood freeze and I was unable to respond. Seeing that I was defeated, they began to pressure me…But G-d helped me to revive and I answered forcefully, ‘All of this is useless. I was born and will die a Jew.’”

Anna’s courage ultimately won her release and she was able to return to her family and community. The rare testimony she left opens a window on the church’s hateful persecutions against the Jewish community.

Anna never married and died in 1779 at the age of 47. Fourteen years later, her brother, Tranquillo, added to his sister’s diary account a demand for the full emancipation of Roman Jews and an end to the dominance of Catholic law. The book was published in Italian during Tranquillo’s lifetime.

It would take another 77 years before papal rule finally ended, with the establishment of the secular Italian Republic in 1870.