A Belgian parade may lose its place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List after it allowed an anti-Semitic float


Jewish groups and other critics blasted the float.

“This was without any doubt anti-Semitic,” Hans Knoop, spokesman for the Belgian Forum of Jewish Organizations, told CNN, noting Nazi propaganda used similar imagery and the carnival has previously allowed other offensive caricatures.

Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese called the criticism a “preposterous insult,” insisting the caricatures wasn’t intended to be anti-Semitic but rather satire, adding his city has “the best sense of humor.”

But this month Belgium formally asked UNESCO to strip the Aalst carnival of World Heritage status when its General Assembly gathers this week in Colombia for its annual meeting.

Knoop told CNN that he worried the removal may just embolden the carnival’s offensive imagery, and he urged the government to take action.

UNESCO’s coveted, at times complicated World Heritage listings

UNESCO has a coveted list conferring “Intangible Cultural Heritage” status to practices, customs, traditions, dances and crafts. This list is related to the World Heritage site designation for physical places.

“While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization,” explains the UNESCO website, “an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life. ”

This year, Italy is gunning to have its espresso coffee added to the list, while Thailand is pushing for Thai massage to attain the status. Other recent additions include puppet-making in Egypt, Belgian beer-brewing and an Iranian horse-riding tradition.

Having a tradition, practice or place added to the list UNESCO list is both a source of pride for a country and people, and can lead to a big tourism boost. This is particularly true for World Heritage sites, as the designation brings with it funds for preservation.

Not everyone loves it. Some criticize the list as reflecting a rarefied idea of a nation’s cultures and traditions that in practice are often in flux and contested, and transcend borders. Laying claim to a food or craft, for example, is a popular “soft power” way for one country or community to assert dominance over another, some critics say.

For UNESCO World Heritage sites, there’s also the fear of what Italian writer Marco d’Eramo called “UNESCO-cide,” in which a place’s people and economies are overtaken by the historical site. As the Guardian reported in 2017, “Many of the [then] 1,052 destinations across the world that have been stamped with United Nations world heritage status struggle to strike the balance between the economic benefits of catering to visitors and preserving the culture that drew the recognition.”

Many UNESCO bids are granted without contest. Sometimes, as these four cases exemplify, it’s more complicated.

Can I have a Turkish coffee? Depends on where you ask.

No one appears to be contesting Italy’s claim to espresso coffee. But that wasn’t the case for Turkey when it successfully got Turkish coffee culture and tradition added to the list in 2013.

The Turkish style of brewing ground coffee in a distinctively shaped pot over a fire is without a doubt delicious. But the process isn’t a solely Turkish tradition. The general recipe, reportedly originating from Yemen, is often known by another name: Arabic coffee. Other countries that were once part of the greater Ottoman Empire also lay claim to it.

As NPR’s Joanna Kakissis reported in 2013: “In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it’s Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a “Turkish coffee” only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: “You mean a Bosanska kafa” — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it’s a kypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee (except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974).

In Greece, where I live and which has a tortured history with Turkey, you order an elliniko, a Greek coffee.”

When the United States and Israel left UNESCO over a designation

The United States stopped paying dues to UNESCO in 2011 after the body included as a member the Palestinian territories, which has an observer, nonmember status at the United Nations. This year the United States and Israel pulled out of the international body in protest of UNESCO recognizing an ancient and disputed shrine in the biblical city of Hebron as a “Palestinian World Heritage Site in Danger.”

Hebron, which is in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, is home to the adjacent Jewish Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. The site, where the patriarch Abraham is said to be buried, has been a flash point for Israeli and Palestinian violence as both Jews and Muslims lay claim to it.

These days Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank and home to about 200,000 Palestinians. They live amid an enclave of about 1,000 Jewish Israeli settlers in the center of the city protected by the Israeli military.

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned UNESCO’s designation as biased against Israel and discounting Jewish historical ties.

Balancing between tourists and the needs of residents in Luang Prabang

The picturesque city of Luang Prabang, between the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers in Laos, is a site to behold. The former royal capital is home to over 30 Buddhist temples, or wats, that are each ornately decorated in the style of their one-of-a-kind origin story and history. The city’s architecture also has nods to its period as a French colony; less visible are the scars from U.S. bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War.

The city received it’s UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1995 and has been attracting hordes of tourists since then. Some, however, worry that rather than simply preserving the ancient sites, the listing has changed Luang Prabang into a sort of suspended-in-time tourist haven divorced from the lives of local residents.

“By attempting to preserve spaces, practices, and objects, UNESCO experts and national civil servants effectively transform them,” concluded anthropologist David Berliner, whose work has focused on Luang Prabang and the impact of UNESCO’s listing on the city’s sites and people.

Berliner has called this phenomenon “UNESCO-ization,” in which the U.N. body sees “the possibility of keeping the spirit of the town through the creation of a kind of eco-museum” while many residents, though “concerned with not obliterating the memory of the past, do not want to live in a bygone world.”

When Japan angered China and Korea over its kamikaze bid

In 2014, the southern Japanese city of Minami Kyushu petitioned UNESCO to add to its documentary heritage category letters written by World War II kamikaze suicide pilots. Other items that have received this “Memory of the World” status include the Magna Carta and Anne Frank’s diary.

China and North Korea, who were both occupied by Japan during the war, roundly rejected the effort.

The bid’s aim was “to try and beautify the Japanese militarist history of invasion,” Chinese Foreign Finistry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told journalists at the time.

Minami Kyushu had housed an airfield that was the launching point for hundreds of suicide missions. The pilots’ wills and farewell letters included in the bid were intended to underscore the significance of world peace, the city’s mayor said.

UNESCO ultimately rejected Japan’s request regarding the kamikaze letters. Other Japanese wartime documents, however, were accepted for inclusion.


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