Fedor Gál: Just one spark and we have a pogrom - Roma are the first to be attacked
During the recent anti-Roma demonstrations at the Máj housing estate in České Budějovice, many of those in attendance have also protested being labeled "racists" or "radicals". Sociologist Fedor Gál explains what racism is and isn't and what we should ask Romani people about. "When someone brings up the anti-Romani topic because he wants to keep his position of power, then that person is himself a criminal, a deviant," Gál said in an interview for the Czech daily Mf DNES.
Q: Sometimes I ask myself whether I'm not a bit racist. When I'm riding on the tram and a bunch of Romani people enter the car, I instinctively pay attention to where my wallet is.
A: It's good you're doing that.
Q: Then I tell myself that even if they are pickpockets, they might take, at the most, one one-thousandth of what some "whitey" in a tie can steal when he messes around with the millions in mass transit...
A: ... or what a boneheaded, wasteful state can take. I would feel much worse if eight skinhead guys got on the tram. Petty thieves from Romania might filch my wallet, but the skinheads might just beat me to death.
Q: Many people are wondering this: If I don't want Romani neighbors because they live differently and behave noisily, does that mean I am a racist?
A: Racism starts when I feel hatred and prejudice against people for the sole reason that they are different from me. It's hell to have an unpleasant neighbor, but when I speak of racism, I am speaking of a relationship toward a group of people who are all tarred with the same brush.
Q: What has bothered you the most about the atmosphere of the past few weeks?
A: This is not just about the past few weeks. A few years back I was at the Janov housing estate in Litvínov, I have followed the events in Duchcov, I have visited the ghettos of Ostrava. I am disturbed by the atmosphere in this society. It reminds me of the 1920s and 1930s, when clear-sighted people evidently could sense the atmosphere was becoming oppressive. It's unbelievable to me now, because today we live in a democracy and in relative affluence. Things have obviously never been better here compared to 1939, but people nevertheless have the feeling that it's never been worse, they are permanently resentful. So all it takes is a tiny spark - for example, a slap on a playground - and you have a mob in the streets. You show that mob, full of negative emotions, who the scapegoat is, and the mob starts to act in pogrom mode. Romani people here are traditionally the first to be attacked.
Q: Do you see any new elements in this situation?
A: What is disturbing to me is how some politicians are standing up to this situation while others seem to be thriving on it. How can it be that the politicians who so love to discuss the topics of social justice and solidarity in the media are not out there defending the children, elderly, and women who are in danger with their own bodies? Then there are those who exploit this card, and they are the worst of the worst, they are dangerous. They take advantage of hatred, not for specific culprits, but for a whole group. I am Jewish, I was born in Terezín, my loved ones left this world through the crematoriums of the concentration camps. I can't just passively watch this happen.
Q: Someone like [Czech Senator] Tomio Okamura is probably the last person who should be a racist because he experienced slights himself during his childhood here. Is it bad that he is now calling on Romani people to "improve themselves" the way he did?
A: Okamura is a populist with a capital "P". I know many Romani people who have improved themselves even though they were living in extremely hostile environments. Yes, one must improve oneself and it is up to you to get yourself out of your own problems, but in an atmosphere where 44 % of children in this country hate Romani people even though they have never even exchanged three words with them, where 90 % of people don't want Romani neighbors, then Romani people have to working on "improving themselves" 10 times harder than your average citizen.
Q: Otto Chaloupka of the Public Affairs party wrote the following: "If they are not achieving the results they want, the main fault lies with the Romani people themselves. It's very complicated to assist someone who rejects your help." Why isn't there a Romani elite to clearly, loudly articulate their demands, including to their own community?
A: You cannot possibly want me, for example, to explain to the antisemites that I am normal even though I'm a Jew. We all have too few elites, not just Romani people. The same goes for the inflated social value of the rabble. I really would not drag people's ethnic or racial characteristics into this discussion.
Q: Can Romani people "adapt"?
A: I think they have adapted too much. They have never built up a Romani guerilla movement against the extremists who threaten their lives. They have never created their own political hinterland to espouse the same aggressive, xenophobic theses that are spread by the politicians who hate them, or who exploit that hatred for their own political careers, which is the case of the gentleman from the Public Affairs party.
Q: What, in your view, is the motivation of the politicians who condescend to Romani people in this way?
A: When someone brings up the anti-Romani topic because he wants to keep his position of power, then that person is himself a criminal, a deviant. He is adding fuel to a fire that might burn his own children one day.
Q: Many people do not understand why they should be labeled racists when what they want is for Romani people to behave the same way they do.
A: The same as who? As the DSSS sympathizers? As the cottagers and the gardeners? As the significant part of the urban middle class obsessed with the consumer lifestyle? Like me? Like you? No! The enemies of Romani people want them to not exist, or at least to not be seen. Why should a person who knows how to enjoy the present get rid of that rare quality? The majority population considers it more useful to spend their entire lives in resentment, concerned for what will be 20 years from now. That joy in everyday life, in the present moment, in relationships with children and the elderly, in the integrity of Romani families, is something we should learn from them. For the last three years I have been working with a bunch of people on a documentary film about the family of Natálka in Vítkov. During those past three years, of the people who were involved in the film, half of them have divorced and their relationships with their friends have fallen apart. That's the typically Czech way to be. Natálka's family, despite the stigma and trauma they have experienced - and what they have lived through is horrible - is solid as a rock.
Q: Is there a need here for Okamura's completely illegitimate opinion saying "Let's support the voluntary deportation of Romani people to their own state in India, as happened with the Jews and Israel?"
A: He knows that what he is saying is absolute nonsense. He knows that when he says "the Roma should establish their own state" it's not enough to brush a leaf from a tree, because the Roma are interspersed around the whole of Europe at a minimum, mainly in places where even a dog wouldn't respond to Okamura. That statement is made not on behalf of the rise of an independent Romani state, but on behalf of the Mr Okamura's career. The main thing is that the people he is talking about are Czechs, citizens of the Czech Republic, this is their home! By the way, no Romani state exists in India.
Q: During the demonstrations in České Budějovice something new turned up: The middle class has joined the extremists who are marching. How disturbing is that?
A: The question is how many people in society must display this type of negative emotion for the fire to be sparked. How many? It doesn't have to be even 12 % of the electorate, sometimes all it takes is for the critical line to be crossed by a much smaller percentage of people, and in the end you have Wenceslas Square full of people giving the Nazi salute and welcoming Hitler. I just recently saw photographs of that time.
Q: Do you think the money coming from the EU funds and our taxes for the "Romani issue" is being used for that purpose?
A: I am opposed to distributing money for personal consumption. If you give an impoverished person a thousand crowns, he remains impoverished. One Slovak journalist tracked down the fact that of all the money allocated for resolving the so-called "Romani problem", only one-tenth makes it to the Romani people themselves - by which I do not mean into their own wallets.
Q: How do you see the way forward then?
A: First and foremost in the education of Romani children, from an early age - by the time they are 15, it's too late. I am fascinated by how the church is handling this problem. Romani people are believers, the vast majority of them are Catholics, but only here and there do we see priests going into the field. You probably could count all of them in the Czech Republic on the fingers of one hand, even that would be a lot. They should be all but ordered to do this - go into the field, establish a mission in those ghettos, those neighborhoods, offer the children education and recreation, but don't brainwash them. The second aspect is job creation. We should also ask how well people from the Romani elites have managed to get onto the candidate lists for the political parties.
Q: What else?
A: We should take an interest in who the Roma really are. In the general consciousness, Romani men figure as criminals and Romani girls are seen as prostitutes. That is a crazily deformed image of these people. If I happen to end up sitting next to a Romani man, I shouldn't be afraid of getting lice or having my wallet lifted. I should ask him: What do you do, how's life, how many children do you have, what are their names?
Q: You mentioned similarities to the interwar period. Back then economic problems were more serious. What is the same in comparison with today and what is different?
A: I wasn't alive then, but I've read books about that era by Fallada, Márai, Roth ... Those people sensed the catastrophe in the air. There signals were everywhere, and the deterioration in the standard of living was just one of them. The spirit of the media changed and facilitated the spreading of negative emotions, the rhetoric of the political elites changed, the mood of the mob changed, the rabble mobilized. Suddenly leaders turned up who saddled up that mob and drove everyone else into a corner. Only a person without eyes and ears could have believed that would lead anywhere else straight than to hell.
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