Canada’s Jewish community is taking steps to do more to help Roma and other immigrants fleeing persecution.
The memory of Canada’s “none is too many” doctrine was invoked on June 5, when members of Toronto’s Jewish and Roma communities gathered at Holy Blossom Temple to discuss modern-day racism and xenophobia.
“Why the Roma?” was the topic of a panel discussion about the root causes of the increase in the number of Roma refugees coming to Canada from eastern and central Europe. About 150 participants gathered to hear a keynote speech by Toronto Roma Community Centre executive director Gina Csanyi-Robah.
Her co-panellists were former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber and Anna Porter, publisher of Key Porter Books. The panel was moderated by theologian and social activist Mary Jo-Leddy and introduced by Holy Blossom’s rabbi emeritus, Dow Marmur.
Csanyi-Robah discussed the plight of her people in central Europe, particularly in Hungary, where, she said, the ultranationalist Jobbik party, aided by the country’s sympathetic ruling Fidesz party, continues to foment anti-Roma and antisemitic sentiment countrywide.
Jobbik’s paramilitary offshoots often attack and antagonize Roma and Jews, both verbally and physically, with seeming impunity, she said.
However, a newfound friendship has since formed with the Jewish community, both here and abroad, based on a shared history of persecution, particularly at the hands of the Nazis – the Roma have their own word for the Holocaust, referring to it as the “porrjamos,” or the “devouring” – where, depending on estimates, between 500,000 and two million Roma perished along with six million Jews as part of Hitler’s “final solution.”
Csanyi-Robah thanked the Jewish community in Canada and Europe for advocating on behalf of and helping Roma in devising ways it can “develop pride” among its scattered population.
Meanwhile, Porter took a strong position on Jobbik and Hungary, calling the political party “fascist.”
Though a supporter of Canada’s ruling Conservative party, she said she believes recent immigration reform that prohibits Roma and others seeking refugee status in Canada from being accepted is wrong, and she hopes that Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney will soon rectify the issue.
“Hungary is again a dangerous place [for Jews and Roma],” Porter said. “I say this in due deference to Minister Kenney. I like him, I really do. But Hungary is now run by [Prime Minister Viktor Orban], whose portraits are all over the place, and who is cultivating a culture of adulation. Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust have seen this before and they are terrified.”
What’s more, she said, the Hungarian government is rewriting history and downplaying any role played by the country in aiding Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
For the 100,000 Hungarian Jews and 30,000 Hungarian Roma, the activities of their state represent the “canary in the coal mine,” she said.
“The Roma arriving on Canada’s shores today are refugees. And we need to let our government know.”
Last year, Kenney’s office approved legislation declaring Hungary a so-called “safe country” whose democratic laws and government provide adequate protection of the rights of all its citizens, and thus it could not produce legitimate refugees.
Farber said he was proud to be in a room full of Jews interested in helping Roma.
“We both went through a genocidal traumatic experience. We are like brothers,” he said. “What is happening in Hungary today is not that different from what happened to the Jews [of Europe] 75 years ago. We have to ask ourselves, ‘For the Roma, if not now, when?’”
With that in mind, Farber announced the formation of a new, grassroots social action organization called the Jewish Refugee Action Network [J-RAN], which will launch later this month in the hope of creating a national symposium to challenge the Canadian government to change its immigration policies towards Roma and other asylum-seekers.
“Because we’re dealing with people’s lives, we will deal with the ‘safe country’ list,” he declared.
Social activist and diplomat Stephen Lewis is expected to chair J-RAN. Others who will likely be involved include Farber, Leddy, Csanyi-Robah and Toronto immigration lawyer Maureen Silcoff. The new group was founded by Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Temple Emmanuel.
Farber exhorted audience members to spread the word about J-RAN, write letters to the editor of all news outlets, and consider providing financial aid or volunteering with the newly formed group.