OPINION: As Jews, We should stand up for Roma rights

OPINION: As Jews, We should stand up for Roma rights

Daniel Macmillen
Daniel Macmillen

By Daniel Macmillen, who is an activist and writer. 

Daniel Macmillen
Daniel Macmillen

October 5th is Roma Pride Day, when events will take place across European cities to celebrate Roma culture and denounce racism and discrimination.

Given this occasion, it is perhaps worth reflecting a bit about Jewish-Roma relations in the past and their state today.    

At first blush, there is an instinctive sense of kinship between these two groups, emanating from a number of cultural resemblances and historical coincidences.

Both Jews and Roma share Eastern origins, have maintained ancient customs and traditions, and place essential emphasis on family and community life.

Both developed their diasporic cultures in contexts of unease and hostility, and accordingly, Gypsies have a term for non-Gypsies (Gaje), just as Jews have one for Gentiles (Goyim).

Laws of ritual purity play fundamental roles in both societies, from kashrut in Judiasm to marimé in Romani culture. 

There is also a rich history of co-habitation and interaction. In the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Jews, Gypsies and Turks  lived together in an inter-ethnic quarter at the turn of the 20th century. Shtetls such as Ştefăneşti in Romania were constantly visited by Roma traders and blacksmiths.  

In Hungary, Jewish musicians played so frequently in Roma orchestras that composer Franz Lizst called these bands Jüdische Zigeunerkapellen (Jewish-Gypsy orchestras).

In pre-WWII Bessarabia, Gypsy musicians played at local Jewish festivals and balls. 

Perhaps most saliently, there is also a painful shared past of persecution and suffering, characterised by wild prejudices, ostracization, xenophobia, scapegoating, pogroms, ghettoization, and genocidal horror. 

In 15th century Spain, the deportation of Moors and Jews coincided with the attempted expulsion of Gypsies.

Across the rest of Renaissance Europe, Jews and Roma were repeatedly banished, accused of banditry, disproportionately taxed, and portrayed as inferior and unhygienic.  

Whilst the narrative of “two peoples bound by mutual suffering” appears clichéd and simplifies the marked differences of policies effected towards Jews and Gypsies, the parallels remain poignant, nowhere more so than during Nazi rule.   

The infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1935 targeted Jews and Gypsies. In 1941, Reichskommissar Hinrich Lohse ordered that Gypsies “be given the same treatment as Jews” in the Baltic region.

Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einzatsgruppe D along the Russian front, testified during his trial that he saw no difference between Jews and Roma.

Both were perceived as equivalent threats, and were jointly decimated throughout the Ukranian Babi Yar valley and Crimea. 

Across Poland, Gypsies were relocated to Jewish quarters, including the Łódź and Warsaw ghettos.

In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Treblinka, and other concentration camps in occupied Poland*, Gypsies shared the unspeakable fate of Jews. 

In Yugoslavia, Jews and Gypsies were both targeted by the Ustaše, and hundreds were executed together outside Belgrade.

This tragic tangling of fates prompted Holocaust activist Simon Wiesenthal to write that “we Jews, including Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, have by no means shown the Gypsies the understanding or sympathy to which, as brothers in misfortune, they are entitled.” 

Wiesenthal gestured at a distinct responsibility held by Jewish people in relation to the Roma, one rooted in a sense of empathy and historical affinity. 

Yet despite this bond, questions affecting the Roma arouse sparse attention in Jewish communities.

How often do we think about the marginalized reality of Europe’s largest minority?

How much do we really know or learn about the Porajmos (the Romani Holocaust; literally “the devouring” in Romani)?

How often do we speak up about the Anti-Ziganism (prejudice and discrimination against the Romani people) pervasively peddled in the media? How aware of are we of the systematic poverty, exclusion, educational disadvantage, and discrimination faced by Roma across the continent? 

There have a number of principled initiatives by Jewish organisations over the years, but these have been limited and are restricted to a few countries.

As support rises for far-right political parties in Europe, and Anti-Ziganist attitudes surge, it is ever more vital that Jews express their outrage against all expressions of racism, and work to combat the social exclusion of Roma. 

Let us use this celebration to recognize the vibrant and extensive  contributions imparted by the Roma to the world, but also recall our necessary solidarity with the plight of Romani people today. 

Note: An inevitable problem that arises when discussing ethnic groups is appropriate nomenclature. The “Romani people”, and designations like “Gypsy” or “Tsigani”, are umbrella terms which encompass a heterogeneous array of smaller groups, such as the Horahane, Kalderash, and Ursari. There is no agreed-upon categorisation which is fully precise or unobjectionable, which is why I have interspersedly used “Gypsies”, “Romani”, “Roma”, and “Rom” to collectively refer to the cohesive population of Romani groups. For clarification on this topic, see this instructive piece by Filip Borev,““What is in a word? ‘Gypsy’: pride or prejudice” 

 *Correction from Polish camps 05/10/2014

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