Roma have been coming to Canada from Eastern Europe since the 1990s

The Prime Minister spoke eloquently at a Holocaust Memorial event at the Canadian War Museum, on Monday.

He talked about the “sheer scale of the Holocaust,” about how remembering the Holocaust was a “cause of great importance to our country,” and about how “anti-Semitism is a disease” — a disease that turns into more generalized “hatred” and becomes a “threat to us all.”

He told his audience,which included Jewish survivors of the concentration camps and descendants of “righteous Gentiles” who had risked all to save Jewish lives, that some of those same threats engendered by the Holocaust “exist today” and vowed that we in Canada must learn the lessons of the Holocaust.

We must, the Prime Minister said, “defend the vulnerable and confront evil.”

For the Roma, a different mesage

It is cruelly ironic that at almost the exact moment the Prime Minister was uttering those moving and well-chosen words his Immigration Minister was giving the back of his hand to another group descended from victims and survivors of the Holocaust — the “Gypsies,” or Roma.

As the Prime Minister was vowing “Never Again,” Kenney was telling the National Post that Roma refugees currently coming to Canada from “liberal, democratic” countries such as Hungary are all bogus, and only interested in generous Canadian welfare.

Kenney has been telling that same story for a number of years now.

The Immigration Minister, and those who support his view, will sometimes acknowledge that there is, indeed, irrefutable evidence of widespread prejudice against the Roma in Central Europe. They might even acknowledge that the Roma are victims of systematic discrimination in housing, education and employment.

That prejudice and discrimination is “inconvenient” for the Roma; but it does not, it seems, mean they are refugees, that is, people who legitimately fear for their safety and security.

In addition, the Roma are “Europe’s problem,” Kenney argues. They can freely move to neighbouring countries. Why do they bother us here in Canada?

Reminders of an earlier era

Those arguments are eerily reminiscent of the general Canadian view about Jewish refugees 70 years ago, when this country showed little interest in accepting victims of the anti-Semitism and hatred the Prime Minister condemned as a disease on Monday.

The Jews can go elsewhere, was the argument then. At that time, many respectable Canadian policy-makers displayed a barely-disguised sympathy for anti-Semitic stereotypes.

People such as Vincent Massey, who would become Canada’s first Canadian-born Governor General, and who was, for a time, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, argued thay the Jews were “too culturally different” and would not make “good Canadians.”

Today, Kenney often slyly plays on stereotypes of the “Gypsies” as being “lazy” and  “criminal.”

He is not above waving newspaper articles about the recent “human trafficking” criminal case in Hamilton and implying that somehow this single case should condemn all Roma.

That is one of the oldest devices of racial bigotry, using one crime to typify a whole people.

Had Bernie Madoff committed his crimes 70 years ago the open and unabashed anti-Semites of the time would surely have seized on them as proof that the Jews were a “criminal race.” As it is, those ravings are confined to the margins, these days (although not in Hungary, where the extreme right, now growing in popularity, is proudly anti-Semitic.)

Holocaust not always a subject of public discourse

The Holocaust was a strange subject of silence for those of us who grew up during the 1950s.

My own Polish-born grandmother, Lily Yancovitch (née Silverstein), had a small black and white photo of a woman on her television set, about which she never spoke. 

When I finally asked her about it, late in her life, she said it was a photo of her sister, who had never left Poland.

“What happened to her?” I asked.

My grandmother shrugged and said, simply: “Hitler.”

Lily Yancovitch did not live to see the day when the Prime Minister of Canada would address a national ceremony in solemn memory of the Holocaust.

In the decades following the Second World War, the West was intent on getting on with business, and pursuing the new conflict, the Cold War, with new enemies and new allies (who had been the last war’s enemies, in some cases).

It was not politically expedient back then to embarrass our new Cold War allies by bringing up touchy subjects such as the crimes of the Third Reich.

Roma Holocaust victims had to wait decades for recognition

For the Jewish Holocaust victims there was, at least, some sort of official (if not overly public) recognition, and even financial compensation.

For the Roma, for decades, there was not even that paltry acknowledgement.

After World War Two, the Germans initially tried to argue that the hundreds of thousands of Roma who perished had not been victims of genocide based on their cultural identity.

Believe it or not, officials claimed that Roma victims were merely criminals who had been punished for their own malfeasances! As though the death penalty for vagrancy or petty thievery is perfectly acceptable!

When recognition finally came for the Roma it came too late. It was impossible to locate Roma survivors and compensate them.

While a large number of the Central and Eastern European Jewish Holocaust survivors went to Israel, North America, Australia, France and Great Britain, the Roma stayed where they were, and tried to pick up the pieces of their previous lives.

The post-war Communist regimes did not make that easy.

The Communists did not respect cultural diversity and insisted that the Roma abandon their “travelling” lifestyle and become part of the industrial working class.

Fall of Communism meant harder times for Roma

But at least the Communists generally eschewed overt racial prejudice and discrimination. With the end of Communism, in 1989, things actually got worse — much worse — for the Central and Eastern European Roma.

They lost their jobs; they lost their housing; and they became the victims of increasingly open racial bigotry, which only now seems to be reaching its apogee.

There is virtually no reputable international organization, be it the European Commission or Amnesty International, that does not report that the Roma in countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary are subject to systematic and frequently quite open racial discrimination in employment, housing and education.

That would be bad enough.

What makes things even worse, and what Jason Kenney does not seem to understand, is that the current economic crisis has produced a plethora of violent extremists on the right.

Roma the main target of extreme right hatred

While extreme right groups in Western Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, focus  on immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, the extreme, often openly neo-Nazi, groups of such countries as Hungary and the Czech Republic have one main target: the Roma.

In the Czech Republic and Hungary, these extremists hold marches and rallies in Roma neighbourhoods almost weekly. They shout taunts and insults and engage in behaviour that Canadian law would probably qualify as illegal hate speech.

And in Hungary the extreme right has widespread popular support, especially among the young.

In the Hungarian election two years ago, the openly anti-Roma (and equally openly anti-Semitic) JOBBIK party shot from obscurity to nearly a million votes, 17 per cent of the total. Current opinion polls show that support continuing to rise, especially among young people.

The anti-Roma activity does not stop at hateful language. Since 2008 there have been a growing number of violent incidents against the Roma.

Here is a small sample of those incidents, only for the years 2008 and 2009, based on information provided by the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre.

On August 2, 2009, a Roma woman, 45, was shot dead, and her daughter, 13, seriously injured in an overnight attack of their home in Kisleta.

On May 27, 2009, in the middle of the night, an intruder, armed with a gun, broke into a Roma home through a window in Abadszalok. The perpetrator cut into the neck and chest of the father of the house, and legs of the mother with a razor blade. The family overtook the male intruder who was later arrested by the police. The perpetrator, known for making harassing statements about Roma, was connected to the vocal anti-Roma Hungarian Guard.

On April 22, 2009, 54-year-old Jeno Koka, was shot in the chest a few steps outside his home in Tiszalök. The police declared Koka’s murder as racially motivated.

Early in the morning on March 6, 2009, a Molotov cocktail bomb was thrown into a Romani family’s house in Bocfölde, Zala-county. After the explosive broke through a window and landed on the floor, a family member quickly threw the bomb out of the house before a fire started. No one was injured.

On February 23, 2009, Robert Csorba, a 27-year-old farm worker, and his 5-year-old son were shot dead as they ran from their burning home in Tatárszentgyörgy. Csorba’s wife and two other children were also seriously injured in the arson attack and treated for severe burns. Despite remnants of the bomb, the police originally declared the fire an electrical accident. Similarly, police at first disregarded the 18 bullets found in five-year-old Csorba’s body, as they were unwilling to acknowledge the incident as murder.

Those are all cases going back a few years. But things have not gotten better for the Roma since then; they have gotten worse.

Police reluctant to deal with anti-Roma violence

A recent European Union “Survey on Minorities and Discrimination” reports that on average one in five Roma respondents were victims of racially motivated personal crime at least once in the previous 12 months.

A 2011 report by the European Roma Rights Centre shows that, in a number of countries, the state rarely achieved successful prosecutions in cases of violence against Roma.

The report examined the official, government response to 44 violent attacks against Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. It found that “a limited number of perpetrators of violent attacks against Roma are successfully identified, investigated and prosecuted. Even fewer are eventually imprisoned for the crimes they have committed against Roma.”

Canada was a safe haven, for a while

Starting about a 15 years ago, some Central European Roma discovered what they thought was a welcoming, multicultural, safe haven in Canada. They were not entirely unlike some Jews during the 1930s who sought to get out as the storm clouds gathered.

The Roma came here seeking refugee status, and for a long time the Immigration and Refugee Board viewed their claims very favourably.

Now, that has all changed.

Now, the Canadian Government seems to have bought into the prevailing anti-Roma bigotry of Europe. It has decided that the Roma are not refugees, fleeing persecution, but, rather, scam artists, up to their old “Gypsy” tricks and only interested in our generous welfare.

That’s why, Kenny says, we need the new refugee rules laid out in Bill C-31. That Bill will allow the Minister to designate “safe” countries of origin, and make it nearly impossible for people from those countries to get refugee status in Canada.

Immigration Minister Kenney has already promised that he will designate Hungary as a safe country, even before the Bill has passed.

Even out of power, the extreme right has great influence

Now, it is true that the neo-Nazi JOBBIK party is not in power.

The small-c conservative and nationalist Fidesz Party has a big majority in Hungary’s current parliament. The extremists may be numerous, indeed, but they are not the majority.

However, a society where prejudice against the Roma is very widespread in the general population provides a welcoming habitat for extremists, who seem to be able to carry out their hateful acts almost with impunity.

The extreme right knows that the majority may not be ready, yet, to march with them. But it  also knows that the “silent” majority does not entirely disagree with its antipathy to the Roma.

The average person is not likely to take risks or expend efforts defending the Roma, whom many still see as a foreign, strange presence in their midst. And, as evidenced by their reluctance to prosecute anti-Roma crimes attests, the police are none too sympathetic to Roma victims, to say the least.

Harper take note: Shared anti-Semitism binds Hungarian right to Ahmadinejad!

On Monday, the Prime Minister talked about the scandal of Iran’s Ahmadinejad, who continues to deny the Holocaust. It may surprise the Prime Minister and Jason Kenny to learn that the Iranian leader’s best friends in Europe are in Hungary.

The JOBBIK Party apparently missed the memo about Muslims being the West’s new enemy. Hungarian extreme rightists feel an affinity with the Iranian leader because of a shared hostility to the Jews.

No less than Abraham Foxman, Director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, has issued a report on the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary, fostered by the same people who spread hatred about the Roma.

Foxman cites the example of JOBBIK supporter and Hungarian Reformed Church minister Lorant Hegedus, who “referred to ‘Jewish control’ of the global media and said Jews were responsible for World War II.”

He goes on to say that “it is anti-Semitism that binds the Hungarian ultra-nationalists with the ayatollahs of Tehran in a nexus of hate.”

Foxman gives a detailed description of the strange bedfellows relationship of Hungary’s right and Iran.

“JOBBIK has gone beyond political declarations and is actively developing a relationship with Iran,” Foxman writes. “In January, the Iranian ambassador to Hungary and JOBBIK’s leader, Gabor Vona, visited the town of Tiszavasvári (population 12,000), which Vona called, ‘the capital of our movement.’  After JOBBIK’s candidate, Erik Fulop, won the mayoral election, he created a uniformed but unarmed ‘gendarmerie’ to patrol Roma neighborhoods to combat what he called ‘Gypsy crime.’

In October, Foxman reports, “JOBBIK hosted a large Iranian delegation for a five-day conference to discuss deepening the relationship. JOBBIK’s Vona declared, ‘For Iran, Hungary is the gate to the West; and for Hungary, Iran is the gate to the East.'”

Foxman expresses alarm that although the coziness with Iran is a JOBBIK not a governing Fidesz Party policy, many Fidesz politicians have nonetheless embraced it. Fidesz is, after all, a nationalist party, with strong authoritarian tendencies. Anti-Semitism and nationalism in Europe are longstanding friends.

Abraham Foxman concludes his report on Hungary by saying that “any political alliance based on anti-Semitism deserves scrutiny, but the JOBBIK-Iran relationship merits extra vigilance.”

Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney might want to take note. 

A new Canadian documentary film on the Roma, “Never Come Back,” will air on OMNI-1 TV on Sunday, May 6th, at 9:00 p.m. (10:00 p.m. in British Columbia.) There will be a public screening of both the English and French versions of the film at the Segal Centre, in Montreal, on Sunday, April 29th, at 4:00 p.m.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...