Who’s the Bigger Scapegoat in Europe, Roma or Jew?

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On October 24 of last year, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime was unveiled and dedicated in Berlin, Germany, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck in attendance. Almost 70 years after the fact and after decades of delay, the small circular pool with a triangular plinth in the middle joins the 5.5-acre Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, completed in 2005, and the single-block Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime (2008) nearby in the center of the German capital. This apparent convergence and cooperation between the Jewish and Sinti/Roma (these are the currently accepted terms for those previously—and still, colloquially—referred to as “gypsies”) is belied by the conflicts over the monument. The leadership of the Jewish community of Berlin refused to allow the Roma and Sinti tragedy to be jointly commemorated with the Holocaust in a single memorial, a factor contributing to the long delay in its realization.

Germany Sinti Roma Holocaust Memorial

(Caption: Dedication of the Berlin Roma monument)

With the rise of extreme right-wing movements across Europe, especially in response to the European Union’s economic crisis, both anti-Semitism and anti-Roma agitation—and action—have come to the fore again. Just as Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s became scapegoats for the real and perceived ills of Europeans, “the gypsies” have come to fill this role in recent decades. Those Jews who remained in or returned to Europe after the Holocaust tend to be socially and economically well-integrated; anti-Semitism is generally expressed in rhetoric, and in graffiti and desecration of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. The Roma, however, have sunken into a separate underclass, impoverished and despised by large majorities, and their communities victim of physical assaults and even murder. Individual Jewish Europeans do face risk of uncomfortable confrontations and even attacks on the streets in some contexts, both evoking sinister historical echoes. But the Roma are subject to systematic discrimination and abuse practically everywhere they live or try to move to, from governments and ‘normal citizens’ as well as extremist groups.

My own second home, Hungary, has unfortunately distinguished itself recently on both counts. Budapest, the capital, is home to the largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe, some 100,000 Holocaust survivors and their descendants, after deportations to the death camps, having completely ‘cleansed’ the provinces, were halted at the city limits in Summer, 1944. Highly assimilated already, the Communist-era emphasis on atheism and cultural conformity pushed them to become indistinguishable from their fellow citizens—except for a Hungarian ‘sixth sense’ that sniffed them out and subject them to playground insults and behind-their-back whisperings. Hungarian Roma suffered a smaller but still significant Holocaust toll—up to a quarter of an estimated 100,000 prewar population; Jewish losses were over half a million, over two-thirds of their prewar total—and their population grew in the postwar era, to around half a million (5% of Hungary’s total) today. The 1948-1989 Communist system attempted to tame the Romas’ traditional ‘traveling’ culture with both threats and enticements. The jobs and housing they did receive, though typically the dirtiest, worst-paid and worst-located, led to the perception among non-Roma that the ‘anti-Hungarian’ dictatorship gave them unfair advantage.

The formation of the extreme nationalist paramilitary Hungarian Guard in 2007 crystallized long-simmering tensions. Many Hungarians struggling with political dysfunction and the absence of the prosperity promised by the 2004 European Union accession blame the Roma, who by all statistical indicators suffer much more, for hardship, corruption and general insecurity. The Guard organized series of aggressive demonstrations against “gypsy crime” in various towns and in Roma communities. There followed a number of attacks in 2008 and 2009, involving Molotov cocktails and firearms, killing six Roma and injuring several more, and creating a climate of fear among Roma nationwide. Police investigation was half-hearted and ineffective; the most famous case, in which a young father and his four-year-old son were shot to death fleeing their home, which had been set on fire by firebombs, was initially investigated as a case of an explosion caused by Roma illegally connecting to the electrical grid.

The situation has only deteriorated since, with economic crisis and a conservative nationalist government replacing the liberal socialist one in 2010, and the Jobbik party, the political arm of the Hungarian Guard, entering Parliament as the third-strongest party, with 17% of the vote (see my article “‘Hungarian Tea Party,’ or ‘Occupy Brussels’?” in the December 2011 Public i). While anti-Roma demonstrations and attacks continue, recent months have seen a number of blatant, if not (yet) violent, anti-Semitic statements and incidents. In November, Jobbik representative Márton Gyöngyösi called in Parliament for a registry of the country’s Jews to be drawn up so that they could be checked for risks to national security. This March, stickers appeared on a number of professors’ office doors at ELTE, the public humanities University in Budapest, stating: “Jews! The University is ours, not yours.” The World Jewish Congress cited “exceptionally strong” anti-Semitism in deciding to move its annual assembly on May 5 from Jerusalem to Budapest, in solidarity with Hungary’s Jews. Of course the Jobbik protested the meeting; Gyöngyösi  stated that “Our country has become subjected to Zionism, it has become a target of colonization while we, the indigenous people, can play only the role of extras.”


(Caption: The Jobbik demo on May 4, against the World Jewish Congress)

But there have also been positive signs: several demonstrations against anti-Semitism and the far right, culminating in a march of over ten thousand (several times the usual attendance) at the March of the Living, the annual Holocaust commemoration, on April 14. The government refused a permit to the far-right Motorcyclists with National Feeling to march on the same day; they proposed to roar pass the landmark Dohány Street synagogue with the slogan “Give it gas.”


(Caption: The anti-anti-Semitism demo on April 15, the “March of the Living”)

It would be wrong to think that scapegoating of Roma and Jews is just an East European phenomenon. The French government of Nicolas Sarkozy was widely criticized in 2010, and even compared to the Nazis and their allies during World War II, for its raids on and destruction of encampments where Roma from Romania and Bulgaria had settled in pursuit of work and legal residency, and its expulsions of those citizens of fellow European Union states. Other West European countries, most notably Italy, have also seen violence against Roma migrants, with tacit or explicit support from politicians. Peter Feldmajer, a leader of the Hungarian Jewish community, has stated that Hungarian Jews today are much less at risk of assault or even murder than Jews in France, where anti-Semitic attacks and desecrations have been a regular feature for over a decade, often stemming from anger on the part the large Arab immigrant population at Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

Yet the people of the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, buffeted by decades of oppressive state and Soviet domination followed by dashed expectations of a better life in a free, united Europe, are especially challenged by the need to coexist and respect other ethnic and cultural communities. Their troubles over the past half-century are compounded by a historical sense of victimization by outside empires, as well as equally benighted neighbors, that makes generosity towards others difficult. On my first visit to Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, I looked up a friend (and presumably lover) of a gay London associate in the European peace movement. Over bottomless mugs of the exquisite Czech beer at the local pub, he told me that “I’m not a racist, but if there were a KKK against the gypsies, I would be the first to join.”

Citizens of France and other Western European countries, having been conditioned by the EU rhetoric of tolerance, are unlikely to speak so boldly. But the liberal attitude towards minorities, which sanctions monuments in Berlin and elsewhere to crimes that are safely in the past, denies their echoes in the discrimination and violence carried out against Roma today, or dismisses them as only possible in the “wild East.” What is needed is an all-European push to eradicate scapegoating of all minorities and immigrants, wherever it may occur, supported by economic policies that address the wealth gap between West and East, to mitigate East Europeans’ sense of second-class status in the New Europe. Only this holds a hope of validating the quest animating Holocaust memorial culture: Never again!

About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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