Canadian Roma plead for Jewish support

Canadian Roma hold a vigil in Toronto earlier this year for victims of racism in Hungary.

Canadian Roma are seeking help from the Jewish community in shedding light on the difficulties being faced by their brethren overseas.

The creeping resurgence of neo-Nazism in various Eueopean Union countries is alarmingly similar to Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, particularly in Hungary, where Jews and Roma, pejoratively called “gypsies,” are increasingly being harassed by far-right paramilitary groups with the tacit consent of the government, according to Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the Roma Community Centre of Toronto.

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Speaking to a mixed Jewish and Roma audience at Congregation Darchei Noam on Nov. 18, Csanyi-Robah, a Canadian-born Roma whose family immigrated to Toronto in 1956, invoked the twin spectres of Adolf Hitler and his World War II-era Hungarian ally, Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the country’s ultra-nationalist Arrow Cross Party, in order to convey the gravity of recent events in Hungary.

“There is a saying among my people: ‘Our ashes were mingled in the ovens,’” Csanyi-Robah told The CJN, referring to the death of both Roma and Jews at the hand of the Nazis in World War II.

“I was shocked when I learned what was happening to my people in Europe,” she said. “Even here in Canada, there are stereotypes [being applied] associating Roma with criminality. My people are in apartheid-like conditions in Hungary, and we hear nothing about it in Canadian media.”

There are an estimated 15 million Roma scattered across Europe, all of varying faiths, including some Jewish Roma.

Depending on estimates, anywhere from 500,000 to two million Roma were murdered along with six million Jews as part of Hitler’s “final solution.”

Which is why Csanyi-Robah believes that turning to the Jewish community and invoking the sentiment of “never again” may help Roma in Canada and Hungary head off an imminent humanitarian disaster, if not a new genocide.

Citing Hungary’s ultranationalist Jobbik party – which holds 47 seats in the Hungarian parliament – and its numerous paramilitary offshoots, she said the situation for the Roma is becoming increasingly desperate, with unemployment rates in the community at close to 85 per cent, increasing societal marginalization and near-daily intimidation, both psychological and physical, by emboldened far-right ethnic Hungarians.

In 2010, the Jobbik party ran on a xenophobic platform and received 17 per cent of the popular vote, up from two per cent in 2006.

A 2011 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Canada report detailed cases of forced sterilization of Roma women in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia between 2000 and 2011 and called for increased state accountability in honouring the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism Against Women.

There are pending court cases across eastern Europe regarding alleged forced sterilization of Roma women as individuals begin speaking out on the sensitive subject.

It’s for these reasons and others that a spike in Roma immigration applications to Canada has occurred over the last few years, according to Csanyi-Robah.

And Hungarian Jews are also being actively targeted, she said.

Jewish activists and organizations are increasingly calling on Hungary to curb the drift towards tolerated antisemitism in the country’s political discourse.

Last June, in a letter to the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel returned the Order of Merit, Grand Cross – the country’s highest honour, which he received in 2004 – over Hungary’s recent honouring of World War II-era Hungarian parliamentarian Jozsef Nyiro, a Nazi sympathizer and Hitler supporter.

In August, after much protesting by Jewish activists in Budapest, the city’s mayor grudgingly announced the cancellation of an antisemitic play at one of the city’s municipally funded theatres.

The play, The Sixth Coffin, is set in 1920s France and featured a cabal of powerful Jews plotting to destroy Hungary and plunge humanity into another world war shortly after the end of the first one.

On Nov. 27, Marton Gyongyosi, Jobbik’s deputy party leader, stated in parliament that the recent Israel-Hamas conflict provided a timely opportunity to “tally up people of Jewish ancestry” in light of the Gaza conflict.

He later clarified his remarks, saying he only meant to list the number of Israelis living in Hungary.

It’s this increasingly open nature of antisemitic public discourse in the country that has Rabbi Slomo Koves, chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, concerned for his community.

The Hungarian Jewish community totals around 100,000. Nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Rabbi Koves told Reuters on Nov. 28 that “Jobbik has moved from representing medieval superstition to openly Nazi ideologies.”

Last week, he said his organization would initiate a “criminal procedure” against Gyongyosi’s “open Nazism inside Parliament.”

Speaking to The CJN from Budapest last week, Rabbi Koves said while it’s still safe for Jews to move around publicly in Hungary, he fears that Jews could start to see persecution and repression similar to what the Roma are experiencing.

While antisemitism in Hungary “isn’t a new development” he said, since 2006 it has been more worrisome, coinciding with the rise of the Jobbik party.

“It’s not only on the rise, but it’s becoming louder. When there are [economic] problems in society, antisemitism becomes stronger,” Rabbi Koves said. The antisemitic and anti-Roma public discourse in Hungary “is terrible,” he said, noting that numerous blood libel references have been made by Jobbik party members.

“Obviously, when people start speaking these things [in public]” it’s a concern, he said. But for now, he believes the Jewish community is still secure.

The Roma are a different matter, however.

The rabbi said the Jewish community is trying to help Hungarian Roma, but the task is difficult because the latter lacks organized community leadership.

“Their community is in such a bad situation that they’re having a very hard time trying to build up their civil organizations that will stand up for them,” he said. “If you ask me, the Roma community is the one in critical danger. In 2009, there were, I think, 10 cases of murder organized by [paramilitary] groups intent on killing Roma families. That’s [public discourse] which has already translated into physical acts of violence. That’s very scary.”

Other EU countries have seen a dramatic rise in overt displays of antisemitism and anti-Roma sentiment as well, most notably Greece, where the nationalist Golden Dawn party currently holds 18 seats in parliament.

In France, the resurgent Front National party won two seats in the legislature in the 2012 national elections.

With files from and JTA

Next week: Are Canada’s new immigration laws shutting out Roma and Jewish asylum seekers from Hungary?