The specter of racism in Europe

Gypsies and Jews are facing growing institutional discrimination in the former Soviet bloc countries In the west, far-right parties are pushing an anti-immigration agenda

A group of young neo-Nazis pictured in the Czech Republic in June, shortly before they tried to enter a Gypsy ghetto.
A group of young neo-Nazis pictured in the Czech Republic in June, shortly before they tried to enter a Gypsy ghetto.Gustav Pursche (Corbis)

Within the European Union, where the depression continues unabated, having already left 25 million people without work and 80 million in poverty, racism is apparently on the rise.

Gypsy children living in the former industrial city of Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, are sent to special schools. They and their families live in what are effectively ghettos, and they are denied the same rights as other Czechs. The situation is similar in Hungary, where 90 percent of Gypsies are unemployed. In Poland, many restaurants refuse them service. It's the same story in Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.

Miroslav Turek is a teacher at the Premsysla Pittra school in Ostrava, which is exclusively for Gypsies. He is responsible for a class of 14 boys aged between 13 and 15. He works closely with his pupils' families to try to keep the boys focused on their education, based on simple rules: a green card for a first infraction, yellow for the second, and after that boys are kept back after class. These boys are relatively lucky; other Gypsy children attend institutions for the mentally disabled, among other reasons, because they have not passed - or more likely, never sat - a state education test that assesses a child's aptitude and abilities for learning at the age of six.

The problem is that the majority of Czech parents start teaching their children basic education at the age of three, although school attendance is not compulsory until six. As such, they are better prepared for their first exam. But few Gypsy children will have been given this educational head start, which is why they often end up in what are euphemistically called "practical schools." Official figures show that three percent of Czech children overall attend these institutions, but there is no data showing what proportion are Gypsies. "We cannot store data on the basis of race," explains Martin Stepanke, the deputy mayor and head of education in Ostrava, adding without a trace of irony: "That would be discriminatory."

In Poland, many restaurants refuse to serve members of the Gypsy community

Segregation is a problem throughout Eastern Europe, and is increasingly a sign of an evil that is spreading across the continent: xenophobia, hatred of minorities, whether they are Gypsies, Arabs, Jews, or Africans. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Austria, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom, politicians have been pushing an agenda that sees immigration as a growing problem. Silvio Berlusconi fired the opening salvo in 2008 when he rounded up and expelled Gypsy migrants who had entered Italy from the Balkans. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and his successor François Hollande, have continued to target migrants, while other governments - notably that of David Cameron in the United Kingdom - say that they are concerned about Bulgarians and Romanians, who under EU law will have the same rights to work in the United Kingdom as other EU citizens.

In short, economic apartheid and xenophobia seem to be on the rise throughout the European Union. French writer and thinker Christian Salmon recently wrote: "Politics is being devoured by the xenophobia inherent in the neoliberal economic model." In France and the United Kingdom, the far right is increasingly setting the political agenda. The Socialist Party administration in France has ordered the destruction of shanty towns inhabited by more than 17,000 Gypsies from Eastern Europe, without relocating them. Meanwhile, the far right is growing bolder, staging street protests, and using social media to spread its message of hate. In France, anti-Semitism is again on the rise: 85 percent of French Jews believe that it is a serious problem.

Elie Petit, spokeswoman for the Union of French Jewish Students, fears a return to the climate of the 1930s. "Anti-Semitic discourse has been legitimated, and is freely expressed on the social networks. It is a return to the past. But the most serious thing is that it is young people who are expressing these views. Around 40 percent of French people aged between 18 and 25 say that they are prepared to vote for the far right in the European elections in May."

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron said in the Financial Times that Europe must impose measures to stop what he called nomads from Romania and Bulgaria from moving freely around the EU, and that his government would deny them rights granted to other migrants. "European immigrants found begging or sleeping rough will be deported," he said.

Berlusconi fired the opening salvo when he expelled Gypsy migrants

Africans in Europe are also coming up against increasing hostility. In Belgium, the far right is attracting support among voters of traditional social democratic parties. "The politicians have shown that they are incapable of dealing with the crisis. It is easy to find scapegoats, and people are frustrated, so politicians play the foreigner card. But we need to be careful: this is the same message we heard in the 1930s," says Omar B, a Senegalese living in Antwerp, who says that he is often denied services by the state, and that they are only granted when his Belgian wife is with him.

Slovakian nationalist leader Marian Kotleba in 2012, when he tried to destroy shacks in a Gypsy neighborhood in the south of the country.
Slovakian nationalist leader Marian Kotleba in 2012, when he tried to destroy shacks in a Gypsy neighborhood in the south of the country.J. Vajda (EPA)

Perhaps governments in Western Europe are taking note of what is happening in the east, where the vast majority of the continent's eight to 10 million European Gypsies live, and where politicians are finding a receptive ear among some sections of the electorate for the anti-minority message. For example, in Slovakia, Marian Kotleba, a neo-fascist, has just won regional elections with a political program that aims to put Gypsies to work on building roads. Peter Pollak, the government representative of the country's Roma community, says that 40 percent of Gypsies live in ghettos, up from 20 percent a decade ago.

Kotleba founded his Slovakian Community party in 2003, and has been imprisoned several times for stirring up hatred against the Gypsy community.

Ostrava's Gypsies live in the worst areas of this rundown city. In 2006, several Roma families brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that they were being subjected to systematic discrimination. The court ruled in their favor, saying there was clear evidence that Gypsy children were being deliberately segregated in inferior quality schools.

Anti-Semitic discourse is freely expressed on the social networks"

But the ruling changed nothing. "Gypsies are more aware of what is going on, and now see that they are worse off than they were a decade ago," says Kumar Vishwanathan, who heads the Living Together NGO, which brought the EU court case, as well as setting up projects to integrate Gypsies and non-Gypsies. "Less than three percent of Gypsy children go to good schools," he says. "Gypsy children learn nothing in school. I know a girl aged 15 who still can't read or write," he says.

Breaking out of the cycle of poverty and discrimination is nigh impossible for Gypsies. "I would like to have given my children the possibility of being doctors, for example, but they say at their school that they can't. So I told one of my children to become a cook. At least I can teach him," jokes Iveta Kroscenova, a mother of nine children, five of whom are in segregated schools. Next to her is Jolana Smarhovycová, who campaigns for the integration of Gypsies. She says that her child was attending a supposedly integrated school, but was then put in a class made up solely of Gypsies. When she asked why, the girl was put into a class with non-Gypsies. "Then she was simply the Gypsy girl in the class. In the end we moved to another town."

In neighboring Hungary, Gypsies also face generations of discrimination. According to NGOs, unemployment within the Roma community is more than 90 percent in a country where the average unemployment rate is 11 percent. More than 40 percent of Hungary's population of 10 million now live below the poverty line, a million of them Gypsies. The community is largely excluded from public life, although Gypsies there are beginning to organize themselves.

Budapest is the capital of a country that, before World War II, was home to half-a-million Jews. Almost all of them, along with 100,000 Gypsies, were exterminated by the Germans, with the collusion of the regime led by Admiral Miklós Horthy. Now, the recently set up Hungarian Gypsy Party plans to put forward candidates in the 2014 European elections. Aladar Horvath, the party's spokesman, says that under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán "racial discrimination has been increasingly institutionalized, and backed up by the media." He says that if his party wins a seat in Strasbourg, it will represent all the country's poor, because in the eyes of those in power, anybody who is poor is a Gypsy."

If you didn't work for more than three months, you were called a parasite"

The party's founder, Sandor Szoke, is a Jew. A writer and filmmaker, Szoke is helping the Roma community fight off attacks by the paramilitaries of the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, which is now the country's third political force, with 44 deputies in the 386-seat Parliament, and which has spread alarm in the Roma and Jewish communities.

Szoke says that he began to help Gypsies stand up to attacks by skinheads six years ago "because they needed at least one white person among them." While eating in the elegant Café Astoria in the capital, he admits that founding a Gypsy party "may not have been a great idea, but there is no alternative: there is no left wing here, there is a widespread consensus of hate."

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, conditions for Europe's Gypsies have worsened dramatically. "They were the only ones who lived well under Communism," says Szoke. "As in other countries in the Soviet bloc, artificially maintained state industries collapsed, leaving them with no jobs. Many Hungarian Gypsies worked as laborers in those factories. There was no unemployment, and the state guaranteed everybody's minimum needs: a home, a job, and food on the table. What's more, if you didn't work for more than three months, you were denounced as a 'parasite and work evader.' So when the Wall came down, Gypsies were once again perceived by society as criminals, just like before World War II. It's still the same." Szoke says that another factor needs to be taken into account: a weakening democratic process.

"Orbán started out in the 1980s, then travelled back to the 1960s, and now we are headed full speed toward the sleepy, feudal, and nepotistic culture of the Hungary that existed between 1918 and 1944, when fascism spread."

Gypsies live in two ghettos in Budapest because nobody rents them apartments"

The Hungarian government has just passed legislation reducing the school dropout age to 14. "It's a brilliant idea," says Szoke. "It's taken from Communism: you create a labor pool made up of Gypsies. They are now being forced to live in towns split down the middle: with them on one side, and whites on the other. They live in two ghettos in Budapest because nobody will rent them apartments and they are not officially registered to work. They are like the Arabs in France in the 1970s, outside the system. The government is offering salaries of 120 euros a month. If they turn the jobs down, then they are denied access to social services for three years," he explains

Hungary's Jews, many of whom belong to the social and economic elite, are also concerned about their country's decline: growing numbers are leaving the country. They say that violent anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. "They don't beat us, like they do the Gypsies, but insults in the street are commonplace, and there are people who have now left Budapest, and many others are thinking about it," says Anna Szeslzer, who set up the Lauder Javne Jewish Community School in the Hungarian capital in 1990, retiring from her post as head just two years ago. "In two years we have lost 28 pupils - that's an entire class," she says with a bitter smile, adding: "Paradoxically, we now have a waiting list, perhaps because the increase in attacks has raised awareness among Jews of the dangers we face."

Earlier this year, a Jobbik member of parliament called for a list of the country's prominent Jews, "particularly those in government or parliament, because they are a security risk." The government condemned his comments, saying it would take "the strictest measures against any form of racism and anti-Semitism." But the Jewish community is less sure, says Esther Susan, a Hungarian who now lives in New York. "I have moved away temporarily, not just because of anti-Semitism, but because of everything that has happened in this country in recent years. I no longer think I have a future there, but that isn't just because I'm Jewish." David Stoleru, director of the Beit Project, which organizes events about Jewish history in schools throughout Europe, describes Hungary as "emitting a huge red light."

Daniel Bodnar, president of the Action and Protection Foundation, set up to combat anti-Semitism and raise awareness about the problem in Hungary, says that most violence directed at Jews is still verbal. "This is a problem, and Jews here are more likely to be insulted than in the rest of Europe, but there have been no physical attacks that we know of. And most of the verbal abuse actually comes from politicians, not people in the street. The main problem is that the justice system is doing nothing. I have reported 29 incidents in the last six months, and only one has ended in a trial. The blame lies with the police and the public prosecution department. There have only been two sentences handed down for anti-Semitism in Hungary since 1990," he says.

Most of the verbal abuse comes from politicians, not people in the street"

Adam Schonberger is another young Jewish activist who heads the MAROM movement, which promotes minority cultures. He blames xenophobia on poverty and misinformation. "Jobbik and Orbán are exclusively to blame, the media plays its part, as has the crisis. Jewish organizations have been slow to react. It's been like this now for six or seven years. London has the third-largest Hungarian population of any city in the world, and anti-Semitism has been around for a long time, but the message of hate is spreading because the politicians refuse to say or do anything about it. Anti-Semitism is popular, it's a vote winner."

The mood in Budapest's synagogues is one of tension and resignation. Tamas Vero, one of the new generation of rabbis, says that some in the Jewish community have emigrated to Israel, others to Vienna and Berlin. "My wife would like to leave, for the children. We don't exist in Hungarian history books, and many people feel like we are back in 1933." He says that on Fridays, neo-Nazis gather outside the capital's synagogues, giving the Nazi salute. "I have told my wife that I am like the captain of a ship, I have to be the last to leave, and that it isn't true that we are hated in Hungary. What can I do? But she is right to be fearful: the state and the government are not protecting us properly. In any event, I am still able to walk around wearing my kipa, although in some areas of the city I put it under my hat. But the main target is the Gypsies."

On the other side of the Danube, another young rabbi, Istvan Horvath, says that he is worried about what he calls the spiritual darkness that he feels affects many young Europeans. At the same time, he bemoans the "lack of awareness" of Hungary's Jewish community. "My parents are not believers, and have virtually no connection to Judaism. Like so many Holocaust survivors, they hid their Jewish identity for many years. My grandmother used to say, 'We are all the same.' Perhaps because she lost her faith in Auschwitz, where 28 members of my family died. I think we have a duty to help our grandchildren to strengthen this lost identity. but it is hard work. It isn't true that the attacks by Jobbik - who are Nazis through and through - reinforce a feeling of belonging to the Jewish community. They have the opposite effect."

Asked if Europe might be headed back down the same dark road it travelled 70 years ago, Horvath replies: "Sometimes things seem like that. But the situation is different. Today we have resources that we didn't have then. There are eight or 10 Jewish organizations here, and there is the European Union. I am ashamed at what is happening to the Gypsies. Nobody is doing anything to help them, including myself. Which is why it makes me so angry when other Jews single them out."

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