It is time for the European Union to officially recognize anti-Gypsyism as a long-standing and deeply rooted form of European prejudice.
Back in 1996, reflecting on the rise of Jorg Haider and the Freedom Party in Austria, the late Tony Judt cautioned against indulging the thought that this represented some kind of renascent fascism, “an echo of the ghosts of Europe past”. He warned that the successes of Haider and his ilk stood for something more far more serious: “they are the ghosts of Europes yet to come.”
However, last year walking home through Budapest’s 7th district, the city’s Jewish quarter, it was difficult not to be chilled by spectres of the past. An English-language graffiti scrawl “Hate is where the heart is” caught my attention. Bizarrely, as if on cue, a group of black-clad Magyar Gárda types stumbled around the corner, shouting about “mocskok zsidok es büdös ciganok (filthy Jews and stinking Gypsies),” giving raised armed salutes to thugs on the other side of the road who responded with “Adjon az Isten szebb jövõt!” (God grant us a better future!)
These very streets bore witness to some of the worst excesses of 20th century barbarism. On these very streets, on the night October 15th, 1944, Zsuzsa Gábor was one of a group of Jews, forced at gunpoint from their house in a raid by Hungarian and German Nazis that left 18 people dead. The rest – mothers with toddlers and helpless old people among them – were herded down Aradi Utca, then Teréz Korut, as far as the school in Kertész Utca with their arms in the air.
“Then we were shoved into a large white-washed cellar and beaten and thrashed regardless of age or anything … a piece of biscuit wrapped in paper was found in my 18-year-old cousin’s pocket. They wanted to cram it into his mouth ... but he resisted and was beaten to death in front of his own mother … they picked the men out of the mess, and crammed them into another part of the cellar. Their screams and cries could be heard all night long. No one ever saw them again, dead or alive.”
During a ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial Centre for Romani victims of the Nazi genocide in Budapest last August, those in attendance were reminded that it was three years ago to the day since Maria Balogh was murdered in her bed, and her 13-year-old daughter seriously wounded, in a gun attack by neo-Nazis in the village of Kisléta. This was the final assault in a terror campaign targeting Romani settlements that claimed the lives of six and wounded many others. At the commemoration, György Hölvényi, Minister of State for Church, Minority and Non-governmental Relations in Hungary declared that the government was determined that “there will be no place for hatred among Hungarian citizens.”
To his credit Zoltán Balog, Minister for Human Resources has promptly and publicly condemned incidents of hate crime, and has repeatedly called for solidarity between Roma and non-Roma citizens.
But mixed messages come from Fidesz. In January 2013, following a New Year stabbing incident, the journalist Zsolt Bayer wrote in a national daily that “a significant part of the Roma is unfit for coexistence… They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals… These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved - immediately and regardless of the method.”
Bayer, a long-time purveyor of hate, is one of the main organizers of the pro-government Peace Marches, a founding member of Fidesz, and a long-time confidante of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Viviane Reding promptly condemned the remarks as unacceptable: “The European Union has no room for racism, hate speech or any other forms of intolerance.”
It seems, however, that in this corner of the European Union, there is room for hate speech. The response from Fidesz spokeswoman Gabriella Selmeczi was that Bayer wrote this article “not as a politician, but as a journalist,” adding that “we don’t qualify the opinions of journalists.” Despite the fact that nobody was killed in the incident, Selmeczi went on to accuse left-wing and liberal opposition parties of “encouraging criminals by blaming not the killers but those who are outraged [by their crimes].” Paying tribute to Bayer at his 50th birthday celebration, Speaker of Parliament László Kövér was even more forthright: “Good and bad, hard times and joy, we experienced it together. We never once denied each other and we never will.”
It’s hard to reconcile the fine sentiments contained in the government’s National Roma Integration Strategy, with its equivocation in the face of statements that disparage, dehumanize, and degrade Roma. If this is what counts as elite opinion in circles close to the government, it’s little wonder that anti-Roma prejudice is so widespread and so strident among the citizenry in Hungary.
It’s little wonder that the far-right feels emboldened in a political climate where there seems to be ample room for hate. Confounding its critics, the extremist Jobbik party has managed to sustain its level of public support following its initial electoral successes. According to Political Capital, this was attributable to the leadership’s public reaffirmation of a more radical and belligerent style of politics: reverting to street politics, stepping up anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric and backing up Gárda-style organizations: “Clearly, stoking ethnic tension is in the political interest of Jobbik and other far-right organizations with ties to the party”.
Such extremism contaminates all areas of public life in too many European Union member states. The politically orchestrated anti-Gypsyism we witness today is of a different order, and needs to be recognized as a specific form of racism. Formal recognition is a necessary first step in political cultures where ‘blaming the victim’ is so deeply embedded in what passes for common sense. Facing up to contemporary anti-Gypsyism, one cannot help but be minded of Hannah Arendt’s observation in 1938 “that the Jews are the source of antisemitism is the malicious and stupid insight of antisemites”. As though nothing was learned from the dark times of the twentieth century, such malicious and stupid insights can be heard today in the strident racist and populist chorus blaming the Roma for the discrimination they endure and the hatred and prejudice heaped upon them.
Thomas Hammarberg described the emergence of a climate of intolerance against Roma as a shift from ‘traditional’ prejudice to “outright racist attitudes, preached by marginal yet increasingly visible political groups and left largely unchecked by mainstream society”. For Hammarberg what’s especially disquieting that “today not even mainstream parties are immune from using anti-Roma rhetoric for short-term political gain – something that would not have been tolerated a decade ago.”
It is clear that a laissez-faire approach to the politics of hate just will not do. If the politics of hate seems to be in the ascendant and Roma most often in the firing line, a ‘business as usual’ approach is not just ethically bankrupt but politically reckless. It is delusionary to imagine that the politics of hate will simply run its course; that the attraction of friend-enemy relations, rendered more piquant by anti-Roma prejudice, will just run its course and fade away. The time has come to counter anti-Gypsyism with the kind of broad-based civic and political solidarity that’s needed to make a difference.
A first step would be for the European Union to officially recognize anti-Gypsyism as a long-standing and deeply rooted form of European prejudice. The lived reality in villages, towns and cities where Roma face intimidation and other forms of very direct and indirect discrimination every day, may seem a universe away from resolutions passed in Brussels and Strasbourg. But this would be just the first step, for when it comes to combating the words, deeds and institutional practices that denigrate and dehumanize our Roma fellow citizens, it is the practical impact that will count.
Official recognition of anti-Gypsyism would involve a series of positive and practical steps for the European Commission, European Parliament, and Member States. Within the context of the EU Framework for Roma Integration there is a need for a concerted drive to work with local authorities, law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, and civil society partners to launch public awareness-raising campaigns, and support community-based initiatives to dispel anti-Roma prejudice and foster inter-cultural dialogue.
Members of the European Parliament would need to work more assiduously with their political parties back in their home countries to fight prejudice, cultivate majority support for Roma inclusion policies, to combat hate crime and provide effective redress against institutional racism.
There is also a need for a coordinated and public Europe-wide 'reckoning with history' to shed light and spread knowledge about the mass atrocities against the Roma people in the past. As Thomas Hammarberg put it, what we witness today is “a continuation of a brutal and largely unknown history of repression of Roma, going back several hundred years. The methods of repression have varied over time and have included enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings … A full account and recognition of the crimes committed against the Roma might go some way to restoring the trust of Roma communities in society.” For if we are to displace the politics of hate with a politics of hope, solidarity and mutual respect, then we need trust. And this must be a sustained effort, fully integrated into the EU Framework for Roma Integration up to 2020.