(JTA) — When Italy’s interior minister recommended creating a “registry” of Roma, his remark was merely the latest addition to a long list of anti-Roma statements by senior European leaders.
In March, Janos Lazar, the right-hand man for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said: “Once we let them in, they will take over.”
In 2010, Traian Basescu, the president of Romania at the time, said at a news conference about the nomadic ethnic group also known as Gypsies that “very few of them want to work” and “traditionally many of them live off stealing.”
Yet the remark this week by the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, about a Roma database generated a far greater international outcry, especially from several Jewish groups across Europe. Both the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned it as reminiscent of the Nazi policies inspired by Italy’s fascist movement.
And whereas some Jewish leaders and groups in Italy and beyond rejected the comparison as exaggerated, the reaction nonetheless underlined once more the unofficial partnership that many European Jews feel toward Roma — perhaps the only ethnic minority that was persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust with a murderous tenacity that rivals the one they showed the Jews.
Salvini’s call for a “registry” resembles “the anti-Semitic legislation adopted by Italy’s fascist government on the eve of the Shoah,“ the British Board said in a statement Thursday. In its statement, the Italian Jewish group wrote that the proposal “reawakens memories of the racist measures taken just 80 years ago and, sadly, increasingly forgotten.”
The uproar in European Jewish circles over Salvini’s suggestion was the most intense since Marton Gyongyosi, a leading lawmaker for the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary, called during a speech in parliament for a list to be drawn up of Jewish politicians and government members who pose a “threat to national security.” (Gyongyosi later said he meant owners of a dual Israeli and Hungarian citizenship.)
To Adam Schoenberger, the director of the Marom Hungarian Jewish group that does outreach programs with the country’s large Roma minority, these expressions of solidarity by Jews are a testament to the “shared history and the shared fate” that connects Jews and Roma.
The Nazis murdered at least 200,000 Roma, often along with the Jews, according to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
“When a Roma person is targeted, I feel less safe because I know they will come for me next,” Schoenberger said.
In Italy, the reference by the country’s Jewish umbrella group to “forgetfulness” about the Holocaust may have been tied to the success in the general elections this year by Salvini’s right-wing populist Northern League party and the anti-migration Five Star Movement.
Fiamma Nirenstein, a conservative former lawmaker who is Jewish, said the connection is unwarranted.
The elections and Italy’s fascist past form a “context” that resulted in the international outcry over Salvini’s remark, said Nirenstein, who served in parliament for the center-right party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “If this were a left-wing government, there wouldn’t be so much attention to the issue.”
In 1992, Margherita Boniver, a Socialist and then the Italian minister in charge of immigration, proposed having a census of all “migratory people” in Italy – a euphemism for Roma residents.
To Nirenstein, this shows that the desire for a better oversight of Roma in Italy is not rooted in any fascist tendencies, but real social problems connected to Roma populations in Europe today.
“Like the fear of getting robbed,” she said in reference to the wide-held belief in Europe that some Roma encampments feature illegal activities. And there’s the issue of school enrollment. “Sadly, many Roma send children to beg or steal instead of sending them to school. That is the reality.”
Europe has about 12 million Gypsies, a colloquial term for members of the Roma and Sinti ethnicity that many reject as derogatory. Many of them are nomadic, although many have jobs and permanent homes. In Spain, where 750,000 Roma live, only 12 percent reside in substandard housing today, compared to 75 percent 40 years ago, according to the Fundació Secretariado Gitano Roma rights advocacy group.
And yet across the continent, children and women from Roma camps — often a collection of ramshackle huts or a trailer park in the urban outskirts – enter city centers each morning to beg for money. Some beggars pose as deaf. Some also pickpocket or pull street scams.
In January, one Roma man, Milo Pavlovic, delivered a rare first-person testimony on the NOS public broadcasting channel about how he was forced into begging and petty crime by his parents in the Netherlands. Born in France on the shoulders of a highway, he arrived in the Netherlands at 7 years old and was denied access to education. His mother told him to learn how to steal, he said. Pavlovic also said he experienced discrimination from Dutch society.
“My mother would kick me out of the house and was only happy if I came back with jewels or gold,” said Pavlovic, 41.
While the causes for non-enrollment by Roma children in schools are disputed – many Roma attribute it to bureaucratic inflexibility or discrimination – it is widely accepted that in central and southeastern Europe, only about 20 percent of Roma children complete primary school, and fewer still finish high school.
“There are real issues,” Nirenstein said, “and there’s nothing fascist about wanting to deal with it.”
Nirenstein, a former journalist who now lives in Israel and makes frequent trips to Italy, said the statements by the Jewish community in Italy were “a mistake.” But Nirenstein also said she found Salvini’s words “not careful enough because they singled out an ethnic minority at a time where there is already growing concern in a country with an immigration problem” from Africa and the Middle East.
Many of the Roma living in Italy are believed to be foreign and staying without a visa, Nirenstein said. And those who are legal “don’t pay taxes,” she said.
“I criticize Salvini’s remarks on the grounds of equality. Of course I feel solidarity with the Gypsies, a kinship even, between fellow victims of the Holocaust,” Nirenstein said. “But equality also means equal compliance to legal duties.”
Michel Thooris, a Jewish senior police officer in France and founder of a Jewish group that supports that country’s far-right National Front party, blasted allusions to the Holocaust as “a serious moral error.”
The Italian government, Thooris said, “simply wants to apply the Italian law” also “on immigration.”
Peter Feldmajer, a former leader of the Mazsihisz federation of Hungarian Jewish communities, said he saw “no connection between the Holocaust” and what Salvini said.
“I oppose what the Italian minister said not because of the Holocaust, or because I’m a Jew and they’re Gypsies, but simply because it goes against the values of human dignity to make lists according to race, color, origin and so on,” Feldmajer said. “In a democracy, that’s impossible.”