Commentary: European Roma Institute will use the power of culture
The German Sinti and Roma can look back on some good weeks: Recently, Federal Supreme Court President Bettina Limperg signaled the readiness of the court for a historical investigation into its "unreasonable jurisdiction" concerning Sinti and Roma. As a result of a discriminatory Supreme Court ruling from 1956 victims of National Socialism had been denied the compensation of their suffering for decades.
Two weeks ago the new Advisory Committee on questions of German Sinti and Roma in the Federal Ministry of the Interior held its first session, too. The establishment of this Committee, which has long been in place for other minorities, is an important political sign of recognition of the most marginalized minority in Germany.
Sinti and Roma have been waiting for these two decisions for many years. An equally long-awaited and no less symbolic decision will take place at the European in the end of March. Just before 8 April, the International Day of the Sinti and Roma, the Council of Europe will decide if it will support Roma to establish a European Roma Institute.
Sinti and Roma are citizens of their countries and they are members of national societies. At the same time Romani arts, language and traditions remain the strongest point of connection between the around 12 million European Roma. Romani culture has greatly enriched European civilizations for centuries. Now, at a time when so much is driving Europe’s people and countries apart, the European Roma Institute can use the power of culture to combat enduring prejudices and respond to them with an own positive identity of Sinti and Roma.
This idea, developed by the Romani communities themselves, has been under development for four decades. Today an alliance of Romani artists, cultural producers, public intellectuals and others stand fully committed to make this initiative happen – alongside our organizations Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma and the Open Society Foundations.
The Institute has the potential to be Europe’s response to the shrinking common ground between Roma and non-Roma. Economic crisis, unemployment, extremism and migration are all driving a wedge deeper between Romani people in Europe and others. This is happening in Germany as well. Recent surveys show that half of the German population believe that Sinti and Roma themselves are to blame for the hatred shown towards them. One third would not like someone from Romani origin to live in their neighborhood.
Sinti and Roma are not the only targets of Europe’s growing intolerance. The terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris or against Jewish Museums in Brussels and in Copenhagen have again fueled hate against anyone who is perceived as “different”. In a harrowing parallel with our past, Europe’s Jews and Muslims fear wearing signs of their religious identity when walking in the streets these days.
Hate – whether through speech or violence, whether against Roma or others, a hate rooted in prejudice and legitimized by politics – presents the leading challenge for Europe today. The European Roma Institute will seek to outlaw existing anti-Gypsyism just as anti-Semitism has been outlawed. On the occasion of the inaugural meeting of the Advisory Committee, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière described it as the job of politicians to oppose the significant decrease of inhibitions against antigypsyism and other forms of xenophobia since the beginning of the Pegida demonstrations.
The European Roma Institute will be there for all of Europe, but it will play the most important role for Sinti and Roma themselves. Millions of Sinti and Roma were killed during the Second World War but Romani culture, language and history suffered near fatal damage as well. We see the serious repercussions of this today; instead of celebrating our culture, some Sinti and Roma prefer to conceal it in the hope of avoiding stigmatization and marginalization.
The European Roma Institute will build upon the existing work of Sinti and Roma artists, cultural and media figures who are to date dispersed, disconnected and operate on a small scale. The institute will enable them to co-produce and exchange. The Institute will be a public communicator that can present the talent and richness of Romani arts, culture and history and demonstrate Romani contributions to Europe’s culture.
Germany, though still coming to terms with its relationship with Romani people, has made great strides in recent years, in particular in 2012 when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened a memorial in Berlin to the victims of the Nazi regime commemorating over 500,000 Sinti and Roma who were murdered during the Holocaust. The excellent work Germany did since the 1980s on educating its citizens, through formal education and media, on the role of Germany in the Second World War and the Holocaust is also something the Institute can learn from and apply.
The European Roma Institute is a chance for Germany to expand its support to Romani cultures beyond its borders in this historic decision in the Council of Europe. By endorsing this initiative, Germany can now take a leadership role, not only for her own country, but for all of Europe.
Zeljko Jovanovic, a representative of Serbian Roma, has long been committed to asserting the rights of Roma, both in his native country and at European level. He is director of the Roma Initiatives Office of the international Open Society Foundations. Romani Rose is chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma and of the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma. He has been working for decades towards the recognition of the Nazi genocide against Roma and Sinti as well as contemporary discrimination against them
First published in German by Frankfurter Rundschau on 27 March 2015. English version printed with permission.
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