TORONTO — The main representative body of Canada’s Roma community doesn’t want its members to be labelled anti-Israel.
Toronto’s Roma Community Centre (RCC) board distanced itself last week from anti-Israel groups planning to protest a reception for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who will be honoured by the Canadian Friends of Haifa University (CFHU) on Nov. 4 at the Fairmount Royal York hotel.
The university will confer an honorary doctorate on Kenney for his “steadfast position against antisemitism, racism and intolerance and, in particular, for his solidarity with the State of Israel and his condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week” at its annual Mount Carmel Dinner, the university said.
Proceeds from the dinner will go to establish a “Jason Kenney Holocaust Education Fund” at Haifa U.
Earlier this year Kenney ran afoul of the Roma community after the government first considered, then passed, Bill C-31, the immigration law that, among other things, allows for easier extradition of failed refugee applicants to Canada.
In April, Kenney said he believed many claimants from Hungary – specifically Roma, also known pejoratively as Gypsies – were making false refugee claims and abusing Canada’s refugee system.
An April 22 report in the National Post cited statistics from the Immigration Review Board showing a spike in Roma claims from 2010 to 2012. The story quoted Kenney as saying that Canada had been trying to educate the Roma about how to properly apply to immigrate here.
Calls to Kenney’s office for comment were not returned by The CJN’s deadline.
The Roma Community Centre had initially been listed as one of the parties slated to protest Kenney, along with other virulently anti-Israel groups such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Independent Jewish Voices, Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Jews Opposing Zionism.
But last Thursday, RCC executive director Gina Csanyi-Robah withdrew her organization from that mass protest to stand alone at its own demonstration to symbolically show that it’s not anti-Israel, yet still opposes Kenney’s views on immigration.
In an Oct. 11 statement, her group declared that it has “specific reasons” for its opposition to Haifa U giving an award to Kenney. It said while there are many other organizations protesting the minister, some are too controversial to be associated with.
Instead, the RCC “decided to protest the award independently, so that its purpose is not confused with those of other groups,” Csanyi-Robah said.
Asked whether her organization was anti-Israel, she said that while she couldn’t speak for everyone, Roma have “historically felt a very close connection to the Jewish community” and that she personally wanted to see a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a two-state solution.
“Our ashes were mingled in the ovens,” Csanyi-Robah said, quoting a Roma saying about how close both peoples became as a result of their shared horrors at the hands of the Nazis.
“We are anti-Nazi, anti-Jobbik, anti-racist, we absolutely oppose antisemitism, and support the safety and well-being of all people,” she said. “Mr. Kenney has called Roma refugees bogus, but has remained silent about the resurgence of neo-Nazi political agendas in Hungary – the Jobbik political party and its paramilitary allies have vowed to continue the work that the Nazis began. Mr. Kenney should recognize the danger posed to both Roma and Jews by the extreme-right Jobbik Party and has not done so.”
Csanyi-Robah said Roma who are being returned from Canada to Hungary face intimidation, violence and even death.
“Jobbik wants to put Roma into ‘public order’ camps. Forced-labour work camps became a reality for Roma in Hungary this past January 2012,” she said.
Reports of heightened xenophobia in Hungary, particularly against Jews and Roma, have increased since 2008.
Bernie Farber, ex-CEO of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, has had a long working relationship with Csanyi-Robah and her centre, and had recently been painted in local news reports as an anti-Israel activist because of his affiliation with the group and its previous listing on the anti-Kenney protest’s web page.
He said attempts to portray either himself or the Canadian Roma community at large as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist were “absurd.”
He said he’d assisted the RCC in finding lawyers to help look at and challenge the government’s new immigration laws, but that was the extent of his role with the organization.
Farber, who will attend the university’s gala event as a guest, said he has a “deep and abiding respect” for Kenney’s stances on Israel and antisemitism.
“On those issues, we stand shoulder to shoulder, and I consider him a friend. But like all friends, we can have differences of opinion on some issues,” Bill C-31 being one such item, he said.
Farber added that he felt Kenney was being “very hard on the Roma” and that many respected representatives of the Jewish community are in agreement. Earlier this year the Toronto Board of Rabbis and Elie Wiesel, among others, had urged the minister to reconsider the legislation.
While Csanyi-Robah calls Farber a “true friend” to her community, the former head of Congress said he doesn’t support her call for Haifa U to retract its honouring of Kenney.
“I believe that the Roma Community Centre has the right to engage in whatever advocacy they feel best helps their cause within the bounds of civility and the law,” he said. “I respect and fully support [Kenney’s] strong advocacy on behalf of Israel and his fight against antisemitism. That is why he is being honoured. I strongly support Haifa University as the most diverse and pluralistic university in the Middle East. I am attending the dinner for all those reasons.”
But the centre doesn’t feel Kenney deserves this award and is chastising any Jewish community members who support the dinner, Csanyi-Robah said.
“This is an even more sensitive issue for the RCC than any other Canadian group, particularly in light of the establishment of a Holocaust education fund in Kenney’s name.
“[He] continues to blatantly turn a blind eye to the ‘other’ victims of the Holocaust who are witnessing history repeating itself,” she said.
It’s estimated that anywhere from 500,000 to two million Roma were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“How would Jews [supporting] the Canadian Friends of Haifa University feel with a member of the Nazi party in… positions of power in their neighbourhoods?” Csanyi-Robah asked, referring to the situation in Hungary now, where members of the Jobbik Party now hold 47 seats in parliament and numerous mayoralties in towns with high concentrations of Hungarian Roma.
“Kenney and the Hungarian government remain notably silent about the growing neo-Nazi threat in Hungary,” she said.
“The world’s historical collective memory did not include us Roma as Holocaust victims – it is now time to include and acknowledge our community.”