Knesset speaker blasts Belgium’s Holocaust commemoration failures

(JTA) – In the first-ever speech by a speaker of the Israeli Knesset at the Belgian parliament, Yuli Edelstein chastised local authorities for actions that he said “tragically endanger” Holocaust commemoration efforts.

Edelstein, who spoke Tuesday at the Belgian federal parliament on its annual commemoration of the genocide ahead of the Jan. 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, criticized the honouring by a Belgian municipality of a caricaturist, Luc Descheemaeker, who drew cartoons deemed as anti-Semitic and who compared Israel to Nazi Germany at an Iranian event devoted to mocking and denying the Holocaust.

“A Belgian teacher received praise after he won a monetary prize in Iran for a caricature that demonstrates contempt for the memory of the Holocaust and the State of Israel,” Edelstein said. “Last year, after he won the prize, his municipality appointed him as its ‘ambassador of cultural excellence’.”

Luc Descheemaeker, who is retired from the Sint-Jozefs Institute high school in the city of Torhout, won the title last year. In May 2016 he received a $1,000 prize from Tehran and an honourable mention for a caricature featuring the words “arbeit macht frei” atop a wall representing Israel’s security barrier against Palestinian terrorists.

The German-language phrase, which means “work sets you free,” appeared on a gate of the Birkenau-Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland. His school said it was “proud” of Descheemaeker’s achievements in Iran.

He also drew a caricature featuring a stereotypical Orthodox Jew waiting to bludgeon an Arab mother and her baby with a giant Star of David, while the boy holds a balloon emblazoned with a dove holding an olive branch. Another one features an Orthodox Jew waiting around a corner for a Muslim woman who wears an explosive vest, perhaps to jolt her into triggering the explosives.

UNESCO and the U.S. Department of State said the Iranian contest offered a platform to anti-Semitism.

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned the actions of Descheemaeker. “Malice or ignorance” were the teacher’s “only possible explanations for comparing Israel to the Nazis and entering an Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest,” he said.

Edelstein also noted how “recently the City of Antwerp tried to move the Holocaust monument where it would have a less disruptive effect on traffic.” He added: “Let’s not forget the heinous attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, where four people were murdered including two Israelis. The list of tragic events continues.”

The Belgian parliament, which has 150 members, was half empty during Edelstein’s speech. Nahima Lanjri, a lawmaker from Antwerp, told the i24 news channel: “I deplore this, that there so many members absent” but she said this owed to “calendar issues” and was not intended as a snub.

Edelstein, who spoke on Wednesday also at the European Parliament at a commemoration even co-organized by the European Jewish Congress, commended during his speech at the federal Belgian one the actions of Belgian who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

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