James A. Goldston - Identity does matter: an old problem in a new Europe

12 April 2000

It is fitting that I should be asked to write a “Meet the ERRC” column after having stopped working full-time for the organisation. My three years in the “Roma rights” field have been so arresting, so infecting, so downright insinuating, that I will never be able fully to leave them behind.

The “wandering Gypsy” is the overused racist paradigm. But what am I? A “wandering Jew” who works for “Gypsies”?

Well, first of all, “I don’t work for Roma or non-Roma,” I would explain, perhaps too vehemently. “This is about the racism in all of us.”

Wandering? It is true, I have strayed a bit from the neat streets of Forest Hills, New York — to Budapest by way of San Salvador, Srinagar, and Sarajevo.

But the third part just doesn’t fit. I mean, after all, me a Jew? Me, who always preferred a baseball game to a Bar Mitzvah? Me, who spent most of my New York youth on the American assimilation train, with my haunting image of religion those black hats, white beards and long grey coats in synagogue one day thirty years ago with my grandfather (himself more “Brooklyn” then “Jewish” at heart)?

No, I’ve never been the Jewish kind. At least not before all this Roma rights stuff made me think again.

Of course, we have racism in the good old USA. Some say we just about perfected it, with slavery and “Jim Crow” and maudlin cries of “reverse discrimination”. But there’s something about experiencing the anti-Roma pogroms, the skinheads, the anti-Semitic epithets in the same Europe where Nazis once reigned which takes its toll.

Sometimes they’re overdrawn, but the reminders are all too real. And they keep resurfacing. The graffiti on the wall as I walk to the office (“Jew, get out!”). The associate who tells me I have a “Jewish nose” (and all my life I thought I looked Irish). The esteemed law professor who cautions that, “in Hungary the very word ‘Jew’ is so loaded with history” and therefore to speak it in public is taboo. The Romani student who relates the shock of a university employee upon learning her true identity (“But you’re so beautiful, so intelligent, so … well-dressed”). The prominent human rights activist who can’t understand “why Gypsies don’t value education.” The law reform specialist who wonders why “you, Jim, don’t do something more than just Roma work.”

An Italian government official explains that most Roma in his country are kept in filthy camps because, unlike others, they don’t want housing — they are nomads. Meanwhile, his countrymen raise banners in football stadiums honouring the ethnic cleanser Arkan and proclaiming to Jews, “Auschwitz is your country, the gas chambers are your home.” In southern Spain, mobs march through immigrant neighbourhoods setting fires and calling for their expulsion. Three out of five Slovaks publicly favour separating the Romani minority from the majority population and support separate schools for Roma. A Czech expert tells a United Nations committee that Romas’ “diminished capacity” for hard work leads to higher unemployment. And Czech and Slovak Roma who seek asylum in England are greeted with newspaper headlines warning of “Gypsy mobs” coming to cheat British taxpayers.

And then there’s Haider. The smiling xenophobe who this winter vaulted his party into government while spitefully condemning “Überfremdung,” or over-foreignisation. Who praised the Third Reich for carrying out an “orderly employment policy.” Who characterised former SS soldiers as “decent people who stuck to their belief through the strongest headwinds.” (Was he unaware of Himmler’s eerily similar words, lauding SS and police commanders: “To have stuck it out and … to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard….”?). Who inspires neo-Nazis, strikes fear in the hearts of “mainstream” conservatives, and threatens Europe’s post-War consensus. (Haider’s “resignation” from a leadership post in late February, even as he maintained his position as governor, has not assuaged widespread fears of his rabidly anti-immigrant party).

In Vienna on election day, it was hard to look at Freedom Party campaign signs appealing to “real Austrians” and not sense that, however I may define myself, for Haider and those who support him, I too am the “other”. And maybe that is what scares most. On a certain level, I cannot escape where I come from. With the rise of Haider and forces like him, I am torn in two directions. On the one hand, I want to publicly embrace my “Jewishness”. On the other, I resist the obligation to define myself at all. Haider places at risk the freedom of each — Rom, Jew, European — to choose.

As someone whose Jewish forbears crossed the Atlantic a century ago, I can’t help but wonder at the difficulty we humans have in learning from the past. Many of Haider’s defenders miss the point. Of course, the Austrian people have a right to elect whomever they wish. But in the 21st century, publicly to foment ethnic hatred should — as a matter of principle, if not law — disqualify one from government service, and countries that choose to be governed by racists who echo Nazi rhetoric ought not be surprised if their fellow world citizens decline to do business with them.


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