The Torah says over and over that we must embrace the stranger because he is the most vulnerable among us. Within our own ranks, Ashkenazi Jews in Israel and the Diaspora treated Sephardi Jews like second-class citizens when they first arrived because they were easy to kick around and to blame, as they were unaware of their rights and not connected to the land and the culture.
We create a despicable mythology about the stranger or “the other,” as Christians did with us throughout the centuries. We were penny pinchers, kikes and liars. We murdered their saviour, planned a world takeover and had ample time to steal Christian babies and use their blood to make matzah. These lies were rolled down a hill of ignorance by the cracked and soiled hands of psychopathic religionists and politicians. Much work went into reminding “the other” about his insignificance.
But then we established Eretz Yisrael and rooted ourselves in the land. We stopped wandering and reclaimed authorship over our narrative, over our lives. While Egyptian leaders today still say that “Jews are born of pigs, underserving of Israel,” we are anchored and able to defend ourselves from the slings and arrows of bogus folklore and fibs meant to deny us our rights and perhaps our lives. Let them talk.
That is not the fortune, however, of the Roma, the Gypsies. They continue to roam the earth, unable to slough off the mendacities invented about them and the despicable actions that result from such falsehoods.
Medieval Christians accused the Roma of creating the nails used to crucify Jesus, and of stealing Christian babies and eating them. The Gypsy population of Moldavia and Wallachia (now Romania) was enslaved for 500 years, until abolition in 1864. In the 1600s, laws in Germany, Finland and England made “Gypsy hunts” legal. Hundreds of Gypsies were brought to trial in Hungary in the 18th century for cannibalism. Some 200 were executed and then the alleged victims were found alive.
Today, the Roma are the European Union’s biggest minority group. There are 12 million Roma scattered across a dozen countries. Their men are labelled “child traffickers.” The women are called prostitutes, and their young are considered pickpockets. Gypsies are harassed by neo-Nazi groups. They, just as we were, are dying for safety and security. They, as we were, are begging for the truth.
With all of this, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said most Roma travel to Canada to exploit social programs, including welfare, subsidized public housing and health care, and then return to their place of origin. He calls their claims bogus. Recently, a “safe country list” was released by Kenney. Hungary is on that list. Roma and Jews applying for refugee status from that country have 30 days to prepare for a hearing instead of the several months they once had. The mythology machine continues to grind and we clutch our wallets, convinced we’ll be pickpocketed by these desperate people.
In early January, we sadly discovered in parshat Shmot that the Jewish People were enslaved in Egypt. We were being beaten and humiliated by Egyptian taskmasters who look upon us as “the other.” The good news is that Moses will arrive soon to liberate us.
Let us work toward the same for the Roma today. Contact the Roma Community Centre 416-546-2524 to donate and help. Speak to your shul’s social action committee to become involved.
We were strangers too, and they never fail to remind us.