[This is the complete text of a letter submitted to The New York Times, an abridged version of which will appear in print on Thursday, October 24. --JEHS]
We were dismayed to read Dan Bilefsky's October 19 article, "Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?" The title pretends to present two sides of a legitimate debate, when in fact the first horn of the dichotomy, as stated, has no place at all in civil discussion, in Europe or America. Failing entirely to consider the matter in a critical and historical framework, the article delivers what the title promises, making it appear acceptable to debate as a serious issue whether Roma culture will effectively be a plague on Europe until this culture is renounced by its members through assimilation.
We are not in the habit of resorting too quickly to that well-known argument-stopper, the comparison to Nazism. But such speech has truly, without exaggeration, not been acceptable in Europe since the time of the Third Reich. Though the Roma and Sinti were persecuted and murdered then, too, the Nazi resort to claims of essential cultural backwardness, and of essential foreignness on European soil, is more familiar from that regime's persecution of the Jews. Can anyone even begin to imagine, today, speaking publicly about any other persecuted and marginalized European ethnicity as 'primitive', as fundamentally unfit for side-by-side existence with the majority groups on European soil? Of course not.
While it might be objected that Bilefsky is only repeating the defense to which the Roma themselves have had recourse before the law in France, this omits to acknowledge that there is no mention at all of 'primitiveness' in their defense, but only of tradition. While some Roma may have decided to appeal to the category of cultural difference as a tactic, we do not see them self-identifying as 'primitive'. Of course they wouldn't self-identify in this way, and in any case the key question the article aims to address has nothing to do with defense strategies in this particular trial, and everything to do with the politics of identity and belonging in Europe.
Can anyone imagine speaking of economically and historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities in the United States in this way? Again, of course not. It is worth noting here that Roma people were legally enslaved in parts of Balkan Europe until 1856, thus just seven years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the US. Since that time, there has been no civil rights movement, no Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, to draw attention to the deep, systematic, engrained injustices the Roma have had to face.
Overt discrimination against Roma, while technically illegal, remains widespread and widely accepted in Southeastern Europe. Deprived of opportunity there, many hope for better prospects in Western Europe, only to find once they arrive, in many cases, that their status as citizens of the European Union counts for nothing. Roma migrants from Romania or Bulgaria are unable to take advantage of the promise and opportunity European unification was supposed to offer. Though in many cases citizens of a political union which migrants and refugees from all over the world struggle to reach, often dying in the process, the Roma remain effectively stateless, disowned by all European governing bodies as out of place, indeed as invasive.
Nonetheless, they have a vibrant and resilient culture, with literature worth reading, films worth seeing, and people worth getting to know. This much they have in common with all cultures. Bilefsky's article will certainly not help anyone to realize this, and could very well help to bring about the return of the sort of scenario in Europe that, we fear, now has too many people unreflectively mouthing the words: 'Never again'.
1. Pantelis Bassakos, Panteion University, Athens, Greece
2. Susan Bernofsky, Columbia University
3. Emanuela Bianchi, New York University
4. Gunnar Björnsson, Umeå University, Sweden
5. Ina Blom, University of Oslo, Norway
6. John Collins, Columbia University
7. Stefano Cossara, Université de Paris-Sorbonne
8. Gergely Csibra, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
9. John Drabinski, Amherst College
10. Ed Emmer, Emporia State University, Kansas
11. Meredith Evans, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
12. Marcie Frank, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
13. Su Friedrich, Princeton University
14. Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
15. Aaron Garrett, Boston University
16. Jorge-Luis Guijarro, Universidad de Cádiz, Spain
17. Christophe Z. Guilmoto, Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement, Paris
18. Edward Kazarian, Rowan University, Glasboro, New Jersey
19. Julie Klein, Villanova University, Philadelphia
20. Jonathan Kramnick, The Johns Hopkins University
21. Martin Lenz, University of Groningen, Netherlands
22. Alan M. Leslie, Rutgers University; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
23. Hilde Lindemann, Michigan State University
24. Mathieu Marion, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montreal, Canada
25. Christian Munthe, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
26. Alan Nelson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
27. John Protevi, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
28. Anne Reboul, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, France
29. Uta Reinöhl, University of Cologne, Germany
30. Adina Ruiu, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada
31. Eric Schliesser, Ghent University, Belgium
32. Justin E. H. Smith, Université Paris Diderot - Paris 7
33. Jon Solomon, Université Jean Moulin - Lyon 3, Lyon, France
34. Dan Sperber, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, France, and Central European University, Budapest
35. Jason Stanley, Yale University
36. Robert Vallier, Institut des Sciences Politiques, Paris
37. Charles Wolfe, Ghent University, Belgium
38. Ines G. Zupanov, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, France