France has joined the anti-Muslim reaction in Europe to fatwas against writers and cartoonists and subway bombings by enacting legislation to ban the wearing of the Burqa in public. Swiss voters in November 2009 banned the construction of Muslim minarets
And now President Sarkozy of France has announced a campaign against gypsies. Gypsies, also known as Roma, Romani or Gitanos, are second only to the Jews in terms of historic discrimination in Europe.
While gypsies are associated with Romania, the words Roma and Romani are not in fact related to Romania – the spelling overlap is purely coincidental. The Roma are believed to be the descendants of an ethnicity that left northern India about 1,000 years ago for reasons unknown. They then dispersed throughout Europe and into the New World. The word “Rom” comes from Sanskrit. Romani is an Indo-Aryan language with the root language being ancient Punjab.
Major ethnicities within the Roma include Kale, Romanichal (especially in the United Kingdom), and Sinti.
Unlike the Diaspora of the Jews, who could dream of returning to a homeland in Jerusalem, the Roma have nowhere to return to. Thus, they are perpetual wanderers through the world.
The Roma, like the Jews, have never fully assimilated into the larger culture of their countries, although they tend to adopt the prevailing religion of the country. Few today are actually the wanderers of past generations.
The worldwide population is estimated at 8-10 million with the majority residing in the Balkans. 2.2 million are in Romania, comprising 10% of the population, and also giving belief to the myth that gypsies are Romanian. Even Romania discriminates against them. 75% of the Romanian Roma reside in poverty, compared to 24% of the general population. .
Alas for the Roma, they have acquired a negative reputation, summed up in the title of Cher’s 1971 hit “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” We use the phrase ‘gypsy cab” to denote an unlicensed cab. We talk about roaming bands of gypsy or Roma crooked home contractors. We have images of gypsy fortune tellers, who can read the future. Their image in Europe is also one of idleness and living off welfare.
England centuries ago sent Romanichals to the New World and to Australia on the penal boats. Even two years ago 68% of Italians surveyed wanted the gypsies expelled from Italy.
Roma too have been victims of genocide. A generally accepted figure of the Holocaust is that roughly 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis and their confederates. Second on the list were Gypsies. The figures are inexact, but the genocide of Roma is believed to be between 220,000 and 1 ½ million in the “Porajmos,” or up to 80% of the Roma population in Europe.
Contra to the popular image of Roma, they have become major cultural figures throughout the Mideast, Europe and the Americas.
Roma celebrities we recognize include Yul Brenner (1/4 Roma, 1/4 Jewish), who was Honorary President of the Roma until his death and started out in gypsy camps, Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Rickie Lee Jones, Tracey Ullman, and if the internet is right, Elvis Presley. Charlie Chaplin may, or may not, have been Jewish, but his mother was Roma, and his father may also have been. Other Roma include Augustine Bearce at Plymouth Colony and John Bunyan of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
April 8 is International Roma Day, but July 28, 2010 became the “Day of Let’s Kick the Gypsies Out of France.”
France police in the small town of Saint-Aignan fatally shot a 22 year old gypsy on July 16. Two days of riots and clashed between gypsies and police followed (clashes between police and minorities after a fatal shooting are not uncommon in the United States).
President Sarkozy on July 28 ordered the expulsion of illegal gypsy immigrants and the dismantling of their camps. He claimed that they posed a security problem to France. He also asserted they smuggle children, exploit children for begging, and engage in prostitution and delinquency.
The French Interior Minister said about 300 illegal camps would be closed within 3 months. Foreign gypsies residing illegally in France would be deported immediately. I n addition, in one of the cruelest threats a state can make to its citizens, he vowed to sic tax inspectors on them. About 400,000 gypsies and traveler minorities reside in France. About 95% are French citizens.
The threats of the French president and Interior Ministry rekindled memories of World War II when the French authorities sent the French gypsies to concentration camps.
We are witnessing in France a political leader with fading popularity resorting to demagoguery against a despised minority. It often works to the advantage of the politician.
(By way of disclosure, my father was Romanian, which makes me half Romanian. Whether or not I have Roma in me would have to be determined by DNA since I do not know)