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Anti-Semitic hate speech at the Aalst Carnival

Helena Gellert, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

In Belgium, the Aalst Carnival was on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List from 2010 to 2019 – until anti-Semitic images and disguises were repeatedly displayed there. Following that conflict, the carnival participants in Aalst decided that they want it to be removed from the World Heritage List. The members of the carnival group De Kalisjeklossjers dressed up according to a stereotype of the Jewish parasite in 2020. James Arthur Gekiere photographed the members of that carnival group. That photo forms the basis for understanding disguise as an anti-Semitic hate speech practice.

Schatzki (2016, p.33) formulates his understanding of practices as follows: “By ‘practices’ I mean an open, spatio-temporally distributed set of doing and speaking, organised by shared understandings, teleoaffectivity (purposes, goals, emotions) and rules.” According to Schatzki (Ibid., pp.33-34), these must be studied as bundles together with arrangements. Arrangements represent relations of people, organisms and artefacts. Social phenomena consist of these bundles of practices and arrangements. These bundles are a constitutive component of social order. How these bundles can be changed or, more specifically, what forms of resistance to hate speech violence exists arises.

Image interpretation

According to Astheimer (2016, p.61), images anchor and constitute social behaviour differently than language. The interpretation clarifies this particular level of an image effect. As shown in the disguises, the practice of anti-Semitic hate speech is documented and perpetuated through photography. Therefore, a detailed analysis of such creations is needed.

The aim is to describe how this practice occurs, how it is used and how it is ritualised. The question of how the images shape structures of meaning through the practice inherent in them arises. Bohnsack divides image analysis into formulating and reflective interpretation (2006, p.52). The former asks about the things visible, while the latter asks about the way of acting. This question is central to the praxeological approach.

Source citation: © picture alliance/dpa/James Arthur Gekier

Formulating interpretation: pre-iconographic level

The picture shows a gathering of people along a road. In the left foreground, a person is standing in the middle of the road, which can be identified due to the street markings. It is a man who is probably between 30 and 40 years old. He is looking to the left, facing away from the photographer, while raising (or putting down) a glass bottle of Jupiler beer to drink. Furthermore, it seems as if the man is lingering on the street. His body is not in motion, like when, e.g., crossing the street. His clothing is very conspicuous and identical to that of other people (probably eight, perhaps ten; two people are largely obscured, and only very indistinct sections of the costumes are visible). Therefore, it can be assumed that it is a common costume. The persons’ shoes are different; the person in the picture’s foreground is wearing blue and yellow trainers of the Nike brand. The unified costume is documented in the description of the photos middle ground.

The middle ground shows the majority of the people photographed. At first glance, there is an undefined number of people; only after counting the pairs of legs, 14 people can be identified; together with the man of the foreground, a total of 15 people are depicted. Persons understood as men are shown exclusively, although some are only visible from the side or behind; thus, it cannot be judged ultimately. Moreover, the shoe size and body shape suggest that they are male. The observer estimates the age range of those present to be between 25-40 years.

Common costume: The costume of the majority of the people pictured (8-10) consists of black leggings whose texture resembles velvet. Moreover, they wear black jumpers and black waistcoats. Both the waistcoats’ structure and the objects worked into the lower back of the waistcoats indicate to back parts of insects, such as ants. This association is reinforced by the bars (possibly made of plastic) attached to the lower back, which resembles insect legs.

Additionally, they wear huge, black, fur-like hats. The attention of the observer gets attracted by those heads and the imitations of the insect body. Braids are attached to the sides of the hats and the costumed people all wear white scarves with fringes at the ends. The disguise is completed by strikingly similar beards, which appear to be glued on some men. The hat and beard largely cover the face of some. Besides, all men wear similar glasses. The lenses are circular, and the frame is fine and gold-coloured. A white circular emblem is visible on each costumed person’s back, whereas the inscription is not legible.

Costuming UNESCO: A person in the middle of the picture, also understood as men, stands out due to his bright costuming and thus forms a central point. He is near the centre of the picture, surrounded by some people in insect disguise and is looking towards the photographer. The man is wearing a light grey suit and a white shirt with a purple tie. He wears a roof-shaped object, with the inscription UNESCO, on his head. He is also wearing white gloves and holding a green glass bottle. Over the suit, the person wears a blue waistcoat. The trousers and shirt bulge unnaturally as if they were stuffed. This person wears glasses too, but they differ from the others. The footwear consists of black trainers.

Passers-by: Two other easily recognisable persons (they cover another person about whom nothing more can be said), who can be seen at the left edge of the picture, stand due to different clothing out from the group. The person on the far left is wearing a black hoodie and black shorts with white leggings underneath and different gauntlets. The face is covered with make-up. The person to the right is wearing everyday clothes, jeans with a black jacket, but he has a yellow headgear, which’s intention is not clear. Both persons are in motion as the picture is taken. The people bear no resemblance to the rest of the group and interaction is barely visible. The man with the yellow headgear smiles vaguely in the group’s direction.

Drinks: Most of the people in the picture have a drink in their hands. The majority of those disguised as insects are carrying brown Jupiler glass bottles. The person in the UNESCO disguise is drinking from a dark green glass bottle with no visible label, but it seems like beer due to the shape and color. One person is holding a paper cup, while a spectator on the picture’s left edge is holding a silver can. In both cases, the contents are not recognisable. A dark green balloon is lying on the pavement.

In the picture’s background, adjacent to the pavement, a broad brick house can be observed. Behind the circle of people, a beige object is indistinctly visible, standing in front of the house and largely hidden by people standing in front of it. The letter G in white colour is discoverable, which may be part of an inscription.

Formulating interpretation: Iconographic level – communicative-generalising (stereotyping) bodies of knowledge

The picture is featured in a newspaper article in the Stuttgarter Nachrichten ( The accompanying text indicates that the photograph was taken as part of the Aalst Carnival 2020 in Belgium. It is a photograph depicting the carnival group De Kalisjekloesjers (Licorice root) after the end or before the beginning of a street parade. The costuming of the persons essentially consists of a combination of two depictions: On the one hand, the depiction of an insect body mainly on the lower half of the body, and on the other hand, the depiction of anti-Semitic stereotypes on the upper part of the body. The anti-Semitic stereotypes refer to the shtreimel, a traditional Jewish head covering and the temple curls attached to it. The beards and the golden glasses also refer to anti-Semitic stereotypes. The white fringed scarf allows the association with a tallit, a Jewish ritual object worn for morning prayers. Anti-Semitic stereotypes of the group of Orthodox Jews are taken up and combined with the insect’s lower body to the costume.

Reflective Interpretation: Formal Composition
Planimetric composition

The planimetric composition is the geometry in the level and the positional connections of the objects lying on the plane. In the photograph, the planimetric composition is dominated by the black, fur-like hats that draw a horizontal line from left to right through the entire image. The planimetric centre is located on the lower lateral back or hip of one of the black costumed persons standing in people’s central circle. Thus, the image producer ensures that the disguise builds the main focus. The horizontal centre line of the picture connects all the people present – the horizontal line, which is formed by the fur-like hats, is parallel to the centre line.

Perspective projection

The house lines and street markings’ continuations end in the vanishing points and are located outside the image. The perspective centre has been positioned by the image producer on the UNESCO costume near the planimetric centre. His light-coloured costume forms a strong contrast to the many black costumes. Furthermore, he is in the centre of a small circle of people. This overlapping of planimetric and perspective centre gives this area a special focus. With the camera’s gaze, the image producer follows the person’s direction in the planimetric centre. Another perspective centre lies in the foreground, to the left of the planimetric centre. The depicted image producers’ perspective suggests that the depicting image producer takes a picture from a slightly lower position. The person depicted in the left half occupies much of the space, which the road markings show.

Scenic choreography

Scenic choreography views the formal composition of the image, focusing on the involved bodies’ arrangement and relation (Bohnsack, 2006, p.60). The circle of people forms the centre of the photograph examined. Within this circle of five people, the person with the UNESCO disguise attracts the main attention. Three more people in black costumes stand facing each other to the right and slightly shifted back to the circle. Moreover, it seems that they are engrossed in conversation. In the left half of the picture, a costumed person stands alone in the central foreground, whose gaze suggests that something was happening outside the area depicted. In the background, passers-by can be detected whose posture suggests that they do not belong to the group. They pass the scene casually. However, since they are also dressed up, they are most likely visitors to the carnival.

Reflective interpretation: Iconological-iconic interpretation

The image detail chosen by the photographer sets the scene for the carnival group in a public space: the photographer moves in the middle of the street while taking the picture. Thus, he chooses a frontal view of the group, instead of, e.g. taking the picture from one side that makes other events visible. Consequently, only the homogeneous carnival group can be seen (apart from the two passers-by at the picture’s left edge). What is decisive here is that the photographer’s gaze hardly takes the participants’ faces into account. According to Bohnsack (Ibid., p.61), the face can be seen as a central carrier of personal identity. Identity and individuality play a marginal role here for the image producer taking the picture: the focus is on the disguises and the homogeneity of the group. The photographer blanks out individuality and focuses on the social role as a group member. The focus on the anti-Semitic disguise also becomes clear by setting the planimetric centre on the insect body. The persons are characterised through their costumes. The depiction of the person in the foreground of the picture highlights another aspect: the person puts on the beer bottle to drink at the moment of the photograph. The consumption of alcohol in public spaces is also visible in other members of the group. In addition to the costumes, alcohol’s common consumption connects the group to a social network and indicates a boisterous situation.

The alcohol consumption documented here in connection with the lingering, relaxed postures, and the costumes reveal a habitus of the persons depicted and the person depicting them: the persons depicted distance themselves from the representations of anti-Semitic stereotypes and insect depictions staged on their own bodies through the body performance and the accompanying matter-of-factness with which they move in public space. The appropriate Jewish symbols (headgear and prayer shawl) ridicule them simultaneously through the context (carnival). Physical features such as glasses, beards, and curls reinscribe them into the existing anti-Semitic stereotype with repetition. In this way, an alleged physical difference is marked that solidifies the production of an alleged biological collective of so-called Jews. The insect disguise is also part of the anti-Semitic representation, which draws on existing stereotypes. It resonates with an attitude that insects often evoke: Insects are seen as pests to be fought. The disguise and the attitude inherent in it try to create inferiority and activate opposing positions by homogenising one’s own group and drawing a border to the outside.

The appropriation of Jewish tradition by the young men and their inhuman reinterpretation points to a power relationship that the image producer has not questioned but reinforced by choice of the image detail. According to Bohnsack (Ibid., p.52), the perspectivity of the image provides central indications of the perspective in the sense of the image producer’s worldview. By cropping the picture, the photographer does not place a contrary position in the centre. He leaves the highly anti-Semitic representation of the group in public space uncommented. The two passers-by in the left edge of the picture do not make a contrary position visible. By avoiding focusing on the identity of the people depicted, the photographer presents the group as a homogeneous unit.

The violent potential of hate speech

The aim is now to approach the practice of hate speech theoretically and link it to the above image interpretation. Sponholz (2018, p.48) gives the following definition: “Hate speech is understood here as public communication of conscious and/or intentional messages with discriminatory content. Thus, it is neither a question of speech nor of hate”. Accordingly, the anti-Semitic disguise of the carnival group can be described as precisely anti-Semitic hate speech. Here, anti-Semitic content is publicly communicated during the carnival procession. Sponholz says that hate speech is a practice that is intended to convey the inferiority of selected groups of people and solidify inequalities by formulating opposites. Hate speech has the effect of humiliating people by attributing them to a group or category. In extreme cases, this can lead to the trivialisation and justification of collective violence. Sponholz (Ibid., p.51) points out that the term ‘hate speech’ can be misleading, as it does not have to be driven by hate, nor does it function exclusively through the medium of language. She sees the effectiveness of hate speech in the fact that it would activate antinomies: Thus, “[…] not only opposing but also exclusive antinomies (‘Either us or them’) emerge from these othering processes” (Ibid., p.56).

Judith Butler clarifies how hate speech works and hurts by examining statements as social rituals. Butler (2006, p.249) examines their effectiveness using the example of metaphorical statements about the effect of insults. Here, the description of bodily injuries would be used repeatedly, implying that hate speech wounds the body, as illustrated, for example, by the phrase “an insult that hits you like a blow”. According to Butler (Ibid., p.249), this performative effect of hate speech has this effect precisely: “Just as bodily injury affects the psyche, so psychological injury affects the bodily doxa, that lived belief stored in the materiality of the body that constitutes social reality.” What is hurtful about hate speech, then, is indeed an effect on the body, insofar as the perception of the body is co-constituted through this practice. The power of the practice lies in the fact that it creates both a practical perception of the body as to what it is and what space it occupies in the prevailing cultural context.

A performative utterance is a form of practice that is already socially implemented and authorised, which is why it is central to subject formation and the argument about the subject: “The performative utterance is not only a ritual practice; it is one of the influential rituals with which subjects are formed and reformulated” (Ibid., p.249). She thus attributes to the practice of hate speech a violent effect on subject formation in the social context. According to Butler, it is not the words themselves that are hurtful. It is not the disguises of traditional Jewish artefacts per se that hurt. According to Butler (ibid., p.258), the violation occurs through the Other’s repeated address, which attempts to hurt or exclude from a community. Hate speech attempts to devalue the addressed subject within a cultural context and this happens through the repeated, ritualised, effective use of linguistic means; through the address itself. The ritualised renewal of inhuman stereotypes and the associated appropriation of orthodox traditions by men in a small Western European town inflicts the injury.

Speech act theory approach to hate speech

Sponholz (2018, p.62) takes up Austin’s focus on speech acts and formulates that language does not merely represent, but at the same moment creates facts, i.e. has a performative character. I agree with Astheimer (2016), who also recognises this performative character in images and visualisations. Austin distinguishes between locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. The locutionary act refers to what is written or said. The illocutionary act refers to what happens by performing the act at the same moment. Butler (2006, p. 11) also draws on Austin and analyses hate speech with recourse to speech act theory. According to Austin’s theory, the perlocutionary speech act describes the effect of the illocutionary act. It is, therefore, the consequences and effects of the speech act on the communication partner. This is an interactively induced effect. An illocutionary act can succeed and result in the intended perlocutionary effect, but it can also produce another unintended perlocutionary effect. Butler (Ibid., p.39) agrees with Austin’s distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts. Hate speech uses both types of expression; thus, it is speech and act simultaneously. It is both a message that conveys inferiority and an act of discrimination. It is a performative expression that – regarding anti-Semitism – acts in a hurtful way against Jews (perlocutionary) and constitutes Jews as an inferior group (illocutionary). Through the practice of hate speech, a power relationship can be maintained but also renewed and transformed. According to Butler (Ibid., p.84), both the subject and the addressee are constituted in the practice of hate speech: “The speech act is not simply embedded in a practice but is itself a ritualised practice. That is, a performative expression functions only insofar as it both draws from and conceals enabling conventions through which it is mobilised.” Illocutionary acts function ritually, they must therefore be repeatable in time and thus refer to a field of action that is to be maintained through this reference. This illocutionary act performs an act at the same moment. In the case of hate speech, this means the maintenance of the field of action through the other’s humiliation and disorientation. According to Butler (ibid., pp.12-13), the illocutionary act in itself already describes historicity. It refers to the historically existing field of effect and thus refers to the future: “It transcends itself into the past and the future insofar as it is an effect of preceding and future invocations of a convention that constitute the individual case of enunciation and at the same time elude it.”

The individual ritual context could not be fully grasped: In it lie the past and the future, and thus temporality transcends each individual utterance. Thus, according to Butler, the speech act’s violent effects cannot be assessed by the speech act’s context. According to Butler, speaking violently through hate speech means losing this social context through the speech act. As already indicated above, the subject is denied a place in cultural space. Hate speech causes disorientation in the injured party. According to Butler (Ibid., p.13), neither the time nor the place of the violation is clear to the counterpart: “In the devastating moment, it is precisely the impermanence of one’s own “place” within the community of speakers that becomes visible. In other words, one can be “referred to one’s place” through this speech, which may not be one at all.” If the actions of the Aalst Carnival group can be defined as anti-Semitic hate speech, then the danger lies in the above. The cruel effect of hate speech deprives subjects of the existing social orders of cultural space. This means that the anti-Semitic carnival group and its space in Aalst threaten the Jewish population’s social and cultural space in Aalst.

Anti-Semitic hate speech as a social practice

Practice-theoretical approaches are characterised by the fact that they turn away from the mentalistic concept of action. Göbel and Klein (2017, p.16) explain that the practice-theoretical concept of action does not assume intentional action with inherent subjective meaning. Practices are not to be regarded as the result of rational deliberations. Through the actualisations of practices, including their collective, incorporated bodies of knowledge, the social world is ordered. Schatzki (2016, p.34) sees the difference between practice theory and, for example, phenomenological ontologies in the fact that what he calls bundles of practices and arrangements do not refer to local situations. These bundles of practices and arrangements extend across space and time and thus affect local situations. The traditional anti-Semitic hate speech studied here thus affects the immediate social environment in Aalst in the context of the Aalst carnival. It unfolds further effects through the medial processing and digital reproduction of the first local situation via photographs. However, the bundles of practices of anti-Semitic hate speech and arrangements themselves – according to Schatzki – exist across space and time. They have a context whose realisation is not possible in its entirety since a corresponding formulation of history, present and future is not possible. Nevertheless, some traditional anti-Semitic representations and stereotypes can be found in the photograph, which is performatively updated.

Knothe (2009, p.29) writes about three structural principles that structure the ideology of anti-Semitism: Manichaeism, personification and the homogenisation of one’s own group. Manichaeism dichotomises the world into good and evil, in which one’s own group stands for the good. Other typical dichotomies, according to Knothe, are physical labour vs. intellect, creating vs. heaping, naturalness vs. artificiality, concrete vs. abstract. Some of these dichotomies can also be found in the anti-Semitic stereotypes in Aalst. The combination of the anti-Semitic disguise with the body parts of ants suggests an artificiality opposed to the ‘natural’ formation of a national entity, including territorial claims: Ants are fought as vermin when they invade houses and tamper with the food there. The gold glasses refer to the dichotomy of physical labour vs. intellect. According to Knothe (Ibid., p.29), the struggle of the anti-Semites consists in the non-negotiable eradication of evil. Here, the violent potential of anti-Semitic hate speech becomes clear once again.

Personification enables anti-Semites to simplify complex structures in the world and their consequences for society. Jews become the personified culprit for the modernisation of the world and the insecurity in society. In this way, a homogenisation of one’s own group occurs, and it is constructed as a naturally given entity. According to Knothe (Ibid., p.30), this results in the creation of identity for the acting subjects: “The irony of this process consists in the reversal of cause and effect: only the supposed threat to the community through the construction of the enemy image of “the Jews creates community at all”.

Other content-related components of the anti-Semitic form of thought are, on the one hand, that it represents a sense-making reaction to modernisation – especially in economic and legal modernisation processes. Thus, faster exchange processes and the establishment of new legal norms can be attributed to a secret so-called Jewish intention. The social and cultural upheavals that arise with modernisation can also be explained in this way as the agenda of a conspiracy by Jewish actors (Ibid., p.30). This conspiratorial image can also be found in the photograph. The anti-Semitic disguises surround the person in the disguise of the UNESCO authority. Here, the existing conflict of the Aalster carnivalists with the UNESCO authority is thematised in the photograph. There was already criticism from UNESCO in 2019, as anti-Semitic disguises were noticed, and the Aalst Carnival was removed from the World Heritage List as a result. The carnivalists themselves did not want to continue to be part of the World Heritage List, as they did not want to tolerate any interference with their freedom of expression. The photograph picks up on this conflict. Simultaneously, through the composition, the photograph refers to the stereotype of the conspiracy of a Jewish intention to influence the establishment of legal norms.

Straub (2014, p.76) deals with what he calls a person’s reasons for the experience. According to his assumption, consciousness is likewise not central to people’s social action. He sees the linking of stories and the associated spaces of experience and horizons of people’s expectations, shared and partly form a collective habitus, as central to social practice. According to Straub (Ibid., p.78), this happens: “[…] consensually or, usually, in struggles for recognition, which are fought out as arguments about power, specifically about the sovereignty of interpretation and the assertion of group-specific interpretations of what has happened.” In the example of the Aalst carnival, this struggle for interpretive sovereignty becomes very clear through the subsequent assessment of various political actors who speak out. How this struggle for interpretive sovereignty and its processes looks in detail will be examined more closely in the following. The processes of creating difference will be analysed.

Production of foreignness or otherness

A central element of the hate speech in Aalst is the production of foreignness of Jews. The stereotypical characteristics such as the golden glasses, the thick beard and the temple curls produce a supposed physical difference attributed to the so-called Jews. Malkki (2002, p.107) describes that this definition of physical difference can be the basis for legitimising physical violence. The foreignness of the other group is attested through a stigmatising, racist view of bodies. In this process, the carnivalists in Aalst create group affiliations through the supposed biological-physical differences. Stender (2010, p.27) predicts the creation of a hostile climate by the production of the in-group and the Jewish Community group. The glasses refer to the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish intellectuality. Here, a distinction is made between physical labour and intellectual labour, with the latter being derogatorily negotiated as the more dishonest, devious labour. Thus, via the disguise, reference is also made to the “creating vs. heaping” dichotomy mentioned by Knothe (2009, p.29).


Another part of the anti-Semitic hate speech in Aalst is the metaphorical act of dehumanisation as part of the disguise. Dehumanisation and borrowing from animals’ realm are typical metaphors with a degrading effect (Scharloth, 2018, p.11). Certain characteristics are thus transferred from the object of comparison to the counterpart. Kałasznik (2018, p.71) also deals with the function and effect of metaphors: “The targeted use of metaphors can thus not only influence the perception of things, facts and persons, but also trigger actions”. She notes that figurative speech is one of the most common defamation strategies. Hurtful metaphors would have the function of delimiting one’s own group and reifying or dehumanising the foreign group. Half of the disguise of the Aalster carnivalists consists of the visualisation of the hind body of an ant. The spectator inevitably associates this part of the disguise with the other half of the disguise – the anti-Semitic representation of Orthodox Jews. This results in the metaphorical transfer of insects’ characteristics, in this case, ants, to Jewish faith people. The carnivalists (2020, HLN) give a different explanation for the choice of disguise. It is merely a play on words in the Flemish dialect between the wailing wall (Klaagmuur) and the ant (Klaugmier). A political statement is not intended. Nevertheless, even in this semantics, a connection is made between a Jewish-religious symbol and an animal metaphor, which has a mocking effect. However, the carnivals could not have assumed that the spectators would only relate the play’s disguise to words. As there have been disputes over the depiction of anti-Semitic images at the carnival in previous years, there has been an increased international media focus on this year’s disguises. Even if no political statement was intended, this illocutionary act has, in any case, a perlocutionary effect that works on a political level. Thus, the dialect’s local explanation cannot hide the fact that the disguise takes up historical extermination ideologies. Schmitz-Berning (2007, p.463) writes in the lexicon Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus on the keyword parasitic: “parasitic obtains its meaning as a defamatory catchword, predominantly referring to the Jews, during the Nazi period. The term parasitic, presented as a biological, technical term, is supposed to define the alleged form of existence of the Jews in an apparently scientifically exact manner and to conclusively legitimise the demand for the elimination of the Jews that is derived from the diagnosis.” In National Socialist hate speech, people referred to as Jews are presented as harmful organisms for the so-called host. Weyand (2010, p.84) sees this idea of nation and people as a central element of modern anti-Semitism. In it, the Jews are portrayed as the antithesis of all other ‘peoples’. According to this anti-Semitic worldview, Jews do not live as a people in a national state but within other states. In this conspiracy-ideological worldview, they do not represent a people but would subvert this world’s national order. This worldview is taken up and reconstituted in the photograph.

In the performative act in Aalst, several things happen simultaneously. Through the allusion of the metaphor parasite/ vermin, the extermination ideology of the Nazi era and its deadly danger is recalled. At the same time, this metaphor is transferred to the here and now and thus threatens people of the Jewish faith once again. Through the public display of the combined disguise of anti-Semitic stereotypes and insects, the addressed group’s inferiority is established. The subsequent explanation that this is merely a play on words is an attempt by the carnivalists to reject responsibility for the inhuman representation.

The photographer’s perspective, and with it the staging of the two different disguises of UNESCO authority and anti-Semitic representations, reinforces the constitution of the anti-Semitic worldview as a nation-state-subverting and world-spanning power.

On the importance of public space

Another aspect that makes the practice violent is the appropriation of religious symbols. The public wearing of Jewish symbols during the Aalst carnival (shtreimel and tallit) highlights a contested power relationship. The carnivalists appropriate the religious symbols and present them in conjunction with derogatory symbols in public space. As is clear from the study report by Zick et al. (2017, p.56) for the Expert Council on Anti-Semitism, wearing religious symbols is a practice that people of Jewish faith in Germany cannot easily engage in for fear of suffering hostility and violent attacks in public spaces. The expert interviews’ evaluation shows that people of Jewish faith sometimes consciously refrain from wearing religious symbols and live out their faith in private within their own religious community to avoid confrontations and hostility. Since 2012, a large-scale follow-up study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has dealt with discrimination and hate crime experiences of Jewish people from EU member states. Among those surveyed, 73% of the young Jewish Europeans who wear, carry or display things that might help people recognise that they are Jewish do not do so, at least on occasion, because they are concerned about their safety. Of those who never wear, carry or display such items, 45 % do not do so for the same reason” (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2019, p.31).

There are relevant differences as to which group of people can express themselves freely in public space. In the photograph, this aspect of the practice of anti-Semitic hate speech becomes visible through the “culturally coded competence of the corporeal” formulated by Reckwitz (2003, p.285). The self-evidence of this appropriation of these religious symbols and their fearless wearing in public space is an implicit, incorporated knowledge of the actors about their culturally coded competence of the corporeal, as Reckwitz calls it. In the photograph, this incorporated, implicit knowledge becomes clear: in contrast to the Jewish members of the faith community in the EU member states interviewed in the studies, the men pictured here can move freely in public and do not have to worry about their own physical integrity. This power relationship and accompanying differences are revealed in the photograph, which the carnivalists implicitly further solidify through this social practice. By appropriating traditional dress, such as the shtreimel, the carnivalists reinterpret it. Actually, this is worn on Jewish holidays, mainly by Hasidic Jews. The carnivalists present the shtreimel as a Jewish stereotype that is supposed to stand for all Jews in a simplified way.

According to Sponholz (2018, p.58), publicity is a central aspect of hate speech. The public visibility and the fact that hate speech always degrades based on a certain character make it a form of collective violence. Various aspects of dressing up in Aalst, such as the appropriation of religious symbols and their public performance, carry with it a categorisation of people of the Jewish faith that can have violent consequences.

Contested balance of power

Eickelmann (2017, p.140) writes about the dualistic relationship between free speech and hate speech. The analysis shows that the debate is about a struggle over prevailing communication taboos and norms. According to Eickelmann (Ibid., p.142), this also concerns the question of the distinction between satire and attempts at humour as well as violent practices such as threats and hate speech: “With recourse to an original common (education and civilisation), the defence of the right to free speech in the context of mediatised disregard is thus oriented towards consensus, just like the discourse on hate speech.” In the negotiation processes of consensus, power relations are established, consolidated or changed.

Emmanuel Nahshon (2019, 00.6 – 0.12 sec), the Israeli ambassador in Berlin, was critical in a video message via Twitter in 2019 about the conflict between the Aalst carnivalists and the UNESCO authority that eventually led to the carnival’s removal from the list: “Unfortunately they prefer anti-semitism over the universal values of culture.” Among other things, the carnivalists in Aalst refer again in 2020 to the statement that the anti-Semitic disguises are to be understood as satirical within the framework of freedom of expression. Addressing the anti-Semitic content of the carnival, the mayor of Aalst, D’Haese, is quoted in the Berliner Morgenpost (2020, Berliner Morgenpost) as follows: “It is part of the ritual of crossing borders at the Aalst carnival that it is allowed to laugh at everything and everyone, said D’Haese. The aim is not to hurt anyone.” The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Goldschmidt, has also commented on the procession in Aalst as hostile to Jews and offensive, according to Zeit Online (2020, Time Online): “The satirical procession with anti-Semitic depictions in Aalst, Belgium, is extremely offensive and abuses the power of free speech, which is such an essential part of any liberal democracy.”

These divergent statements reveal the struggle for dominant communication taboos and thus an essential component of hate speech’s violent practice. The far-reaching effects of anti-Semitic hate speech beyond the moment of the carnival procession become clear here. The practice shifts power relations by attacking communication taboos. With the help of photography, which pretends to document the events objectively, the anti-Semitic content of the carnival is disseminated and remains relevant as a basis for discussion.

Butler (2006, p.48) also sees the violence of hate speech because it can result in a renewed subjugation of the addressee if hate speech were uttered from a position of power towards an already existing minority. Straub (2014, p.88) writes about the effects of dyspresentations of people in his concept of collective relations of violation: “Symbolic acts of dyspresentation can perpetuate, ingeniously transform or even justify the objectified (in texts, images and other media) traditions of collective disregard and contempt, belittlement and degradation.”

Carnival – the others in the joke

“Ethnic jokes equally export unwelcome characteristics to other groups, while the senders of these funny messages state relief at not being affected by the joke themselves” (Kloë, 2016, p.239).

The question arises to what extent carnival practice influences the practice of anti-Semitic hate speech analysed here. Kapitza (2017, p.128) explains carnival as an annual ritual that creates a counter-world to the serious everyday world. Here, carnival serves as an escape from everyday life to let the serious world fade into the background. The connection between the practice of carnival, in which mocking and laughing are ritually deeply anchored, and the practice of hate speech seems explosive: Kloë (2016, p.268) explains that the non-laughers within a group that tells jokes question common group norms and thus run the risk of exclusion. According to Kloë (Ibid., p.267), carnival comedy is a good indicator of possible identity conflicts between ethnic/religious groups. “Ethnic jokes and carnivals are forms of comedy that carry their own degree of publicity and responsibility. By examining them as manifestations of the zeitgeist and their respective identity conflicts, it is possible to conclude the comedians themselves and, equally, to explore the status and perceptions of those involved.” Kapitza (2017, p.129) explores the question of how comedy arises and concludes that comedy can provide clues to rule violations and thus to implicit knowledge: “It makes the implicitly assumed frameworks and rules perceptible – and thus makes their effectiveness recognisable in the first place. Laughter thus becomes an (explicit) expression of the experience of breaking implicitly assumed rules. Comedy negotiates moral sovereignties; mockery and laughter attempt to sanction deviant behaviour violently. Comic representations in carnival attempt to question social taboos and negotiate political power and freedom of expression (allowed/not allowed).

However, the context of the carnival also changes the speech act itself. Szczęk (2018, p.36) writes about aggression under the guise of (im)politeness and analyses such utterances with Austin’s speech act theory. Thus, the indirect verbal attack is characterised by the fact that the intention only becomes visible through the listener’s reaction, i.e., through the perlocutionary effect. Thus, the listener’s defensive reaction is made more difficult because the aggressive utterance is indirect and subtle. Locating anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the practice of carnival creates a similar effect. Since carnival ritually represents a break with norms, the violating transgression of boundaries is located under this taboo-breaking cloak, which is supposed to be understood satirically and humorously. Therefore, the defense against the violation is more difficult, as the political discussion afterward has also shown. The offending statement is immediately placed by those responsible in the carnival context and the aggressive intention towards Jewish people is denied. There would be laughter in Aalst about everything and everyone, according to the Aalst mayor D’Haese. Kapitza (2017, p.138) says that when it comes to when jokes are funny or unleash their potential for violence, it is crucial to tell a joke and to whom they tell it. This difference can be clearly seen in the reactions mentioned above. The international reactions of Jewish people show that the depictions have a violent, hurtful effect. In contrast, local political forces and the perpetrators show that they do not want to bear the responsibility for the anti-Semitic hate speech and refer to the carnival rules. The carnival context obscures the practice of hate speech, as it already traditionally pushes the boundaries of what can be said and thus overshadows the discussion afterward.

The consequences of digital dissemination

Eickelmann (2019, p.180) writes about the consequences of digitality for hate speech practice, which she calls mediatised defiance. I want to address this level of digitality in the following, as media dissemination and digital negotiation are often central to the practice of hate speech. By publication of the photograph on the internet, the social practice of anti-Semitic hate speech has a spatial and temporal impact beyond its original locality.

Krüger (2019, p.774) looks at how the digital nature favours the formation of radicalised groups. The decentralised network structure, which functions without geographical proximity, is predestined to form groups based on topic affinities and interests. The digital nature allows for rapid repetition, variation and modification of topics, which then firmly anchor certain content in the discourse. Krüger (Ibid., p.777) lists the openness and storability of content and the reproducibility and ease of finding and disseminating it as central features of the digital. The commercial use of internet platforms leads via algorithms to quickly disseminate extreme content, as this meets with broad interest and maximises time spent by users.

Eickelmann (2019, p.185) writes concerning digitality as a space of possibility: “Making mediatised defiance visible can – depending on the partial public – be a promising set of instruments for the resignification or reconfiguration of mediatised defiance.” The public’s attention to the anti-Semitic hate speech in Aalst can also lead to a reinterpretation or a continuation of the struggle for interpretations. While in Aalst itself, the anti-Semitic hate speech took place under cover of the practice of carnival and accountability was dismissed, national and international political statements go in a different, condemnatory direction. In this case, by making hate speech visible, the digital also creates a further discourse that allows voices to be heard that reject the violent content.


According to Tuider (2017, p.121), hate speech serves primarily to regulate normality in the social order. Social order is produced and maintained in the power struggle to arrange, stabilise and configure different fields, such as sexuality, gender, and, I would add, religion and ethnicity. Hate speech serves as an ordering power. Subjects are violently relegated to a place in the order or even denied their place. Tuider (Ibid., p.121) also refers to Butler’s position when she writes: “Pushed to the non-place, silenced utilizing threats of violence, the question of resisting action or acting at all, and (re)entering the struggle for meanings, now stands.” Butler (2006, p.250) also sees violent address through hate speech as opening up spaces of possibility for the other: “If hate speech is the kind of action that is meant to silence the one it is directed at, but which can be resurrected as an unexpected replica in the words of the one who is silenced, then the response to hate speech has the effect of deofficiating the performative utterance and expropriating it for new purposes. In politics, it is precisely in this form that performativity can work against domination.” The social practice of anti-Semitic hate speech thus contains the possibility of becoming an act of resistance. Butler (Ibid., p.261) does not argue against banning words. Nevertheless, she believes that a ban would not take away the hurtful potential of hate speech. The violation through language would remain, as the violent meaning would remain fixed and frozen. Rather, Butler argues for the potential of hate speech to be discussed in a resistant way to access the hurtful effect and renegotiate the interpretive sovereignty of language.

In this respect, the question remains, how the political reaction to the anti-Semitic hate speech in Aalst should be. The danger of anti-Semitic hate speech obviously lies in the fact that people are silenced in their spaces of experience and violations, to the point that attempts are made to take over the sovereignty of interpretation over violations violently. The great danger of hate speech also lies in its potential to justify excessive violence. However, it is precisely in the performative character of speech that the space of possibility lies to counteract certain interpretations and constitutions of social reality with resistant action. The social practice of anti-Semitic hate speech allows for ruptures in its constant repetition and ritual anchoring. The uncontrollability of this performative character should be focused on. 

Helena Gellert studies in the master program Social Science (Culture & Person) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (September 2020)


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