Hate — one of the few emotions with a legal definition — has been all the rage lately. Commentators and columnists debate why “they” hate us, why we hate “them” and whether we should all unite in condemnation of some third entity, be it extremism or global warming. The tumult has found its way to this paper, where a levelheaded article “Yale groups combat anti-Muslim sentiment” (Sept. 7) was typhooned with an outpouring of anonymous online comments in which Islamophobia jostled with anti-Semitism, even letting Christian supremacism land the occasional blow.
I was shocked at the vituperative hatred that some members of this community apparently espouse. It strains credulity that some who willingly affiliate themselves with a liberal, multinational university could be so terrifically illiberal and insular. What compels someone to read an entirely inoffensive article about ecumenicalism and spew bigotry, with nary a thought for decorum or careful argument?
As though to shed light on the issue, there came last Friday’s “Why we hate” by Alex Klein ’12. Instead of a helpful taxonomy of bigotry, however, the column offered little more than tired declarations about Islam, democracy and patriotism, all nominally in service of an espousement of dialogue and some murky counter-terrorist action plan. I am no more capable than Klein of either explaining or repairing America’s current hate fixation. However, as a test case, I’d like to discuss another contemporary situation divorced from the familiar terms of jihad and Quran-burnings — one which Yale doesn’t even have a cultural organization to address. While Islamophobia dominates headlines in the United States, Europe is embroiled in a debate over a group most Americans still think of in terms of racist fantasy and stereotypical fiction — the Romani.
The Romani people constitute one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups — between six and 11 million. They have never had a state to call their own; they have never even been promised one. Since arriving in Europe following a trans-Asiatic odyssey beginning in Rajasthan, India, they have endured a unique blend of bondage, discrimination and continued poverty that seems to reprise the more familiar woes of Jews, African Americans and Native Americans. In Romania, they were enslaved until 1856; during the Porajmos, the Nazis murdered at least 200,000 of them (a third of their total population at the time); and, in parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, eugenic attempts to destroy them continued until at least 2001. Though they are one of the few groups routinely labeled with ethnic slurs — “gypsy” and “tsigan” (from the Greek for untouchable) — it took a 2005 Canadian Supreme Court decision to establish that antiziganism qualifies as hate speech.
While Europe has become increasingly borderless, much of it remains unwelcoming to the traditionally itinerant Romani. In 2008, after a woman was murdered by a Romani immigrant in a suburb of Rome, the Italian government declared a “nomad emergency” — a racial euphemism poorly disguised. This July, French officials dismantled some 51 “traveler” camps and repatriated their inhabitants. Under French immigration law, all such camps are illegal. However, the European Union justice commission has accused the French government of targeting Romani as an ethnic group, citing a leaked memo from the Interior Ministry which stated, “Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority.”
Hatred of the Romani runs through the whole spectrum of society, from Neo-Nazis to presidents — Nicolas Sarkozy rebuked the E.U.’s commission’s accusation by suggesting that the Justice Commissioner allow the expelled Romani to settle in her native Luxembourg, as though seeking to ferret out a common distaste. It’s indisputable that Romani communities have higher rates of crime, unemployment and nearly every other social ill than the societies that surround them; but as we know from an America in which blacks are 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, such rates are symptomatic not of inherent tendencies but rather of sustained and wide-scale inequality and discrimination. The caretakers of a Romani girl with whom I worked in Romania were frightened to leave her side in the hospital, fearing doctors might mistreat her.
Institutionalized bigotry exposes hatred at its roots. We hate not because of single, proximate causes such as the murder of the woman outside Rome, but because of a deep distrust of those who refuse to immediately abandon their separateness and leap into our melting pot. We hate because the ultimate causes, whether of Romani poverty or Islamic radicalism, are uncomfortably close to home. They are the harvest of our past sins: discrimination and inhumanity in the first case, imperialism and cultural chauvinism in the second. We hate because during economic decline, we seek scapegoats, the more visible the better.
Hate allows us a cultural relativism of shocking ignorance: an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is provocative, while offensive cartoons of a revered religious figure are harmless free speech. But we can’t have it both ways — a liberal society cannot be liberal only when liberalism suits its tastes. Hate permits hiding behind familiar but baseless generalizations. Worldwide, a slightly higher percentage of Catholics are in the Irish Republican Army than Muslims are in al-Qaeda — though both are dwarfed by the percentage of Basques affiliated with ETA, an organization responsible for some 800 deaths since 1968. Yet no one discusses a Basque predilection to terror — white and without distinctive headgear, the Basques pass snap-judgment “alien” tests without a second glance. For that matter, I’d be the first to admit that we Jews invented terrorism, both mythologically (reread the Samson story) and historically (look up the Sicarii). And though Jews have been called many things through our long history with discrimination, “inherently violent” isn’t typically one of them.
The Romani are not the only people who have endured collective hatred through centuries of migration, war, purges and liberalization. However, their continued existence and struggles present a bold challenge to those who seek to excuse, rationalize or redirect bigotry.
We will hate as long as we see through the mirror but darkly — until we can confront our own failings, and our own flawed selves, face to face.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.