Posts Tagged 'holocaust'

Uprooting anti-Semitism in Greece, starting in the classroom

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By Harry van Versendaal

Experts are urging authorities to take active measures to combat anti-Semitism in Greece after a recent study confirmed the high levels of hatred toward Jews in the country – believed to be the highest in Europe.

Αnti-Semitism, which is shown to thrive at both ends of the ideological spectrum, is believed to be particularly strong in Greece as a result of a deep-rooted sense of collective victimhood nurtured by an overly ethnocentric education system.

“Unfortunately, the findings confirm older surveys showing that Greece has rates of anti-Semitism matching those recorded in countries that neighbor Israel rather than ones in the European Union,” Elias Dinas, political scientist at the University of Oxford, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Conducted by a team of researchers based in Greece and the UK, the 50-page report brings together the findings of two opinion polls conducted in 2014 and 2015. It was published earlier this month by the Thessaloniki branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

Of the 1,000 Greeks polled, 65 percent said “Jews exploit the Holocaust to receive better treatment at global decision-making centers.” A similar percentage agreed with the statement that “Israel treats Palestinians exactly the same way that the Nazis treated the Jews” – a view seen as relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of other acts of wholesale violence.

Just over 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have a major influence in the business world.” About 21 percent said Jews should be prohibited from buying land.

More than 37 percent said they have zero level of trust in Jews. Overall, those polled said they trust Jews less than they trust the Orthodox Church, homosexuals, migrants or the European Union. Jewish people were said to be more reliable only when compared to the Greek Parliament, Turks and Americans.

The results echo the findings of an infamous 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which indicated that 68 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” – on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

Valid criticism

Experts found anti-Jewish sentiment to be as strong on the far left of the political scale as on the right. But whereas anti-Semitism among the hard-right is mostly associated with denial or minimization of the Holocaust, hostility from the left is less straightforward and often animated by solidarity with the Palestinians.

“It is true that harder facets of anti-Semitism are more evident on the right, but the left is no stranger to conspiracy theory-driven anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Dinas.

Critics, mostly on the left, complain that the term “anti-Semitism” is often misused to stigmatize legitimate criticism of Israeli settlement policies. However, the report suggests that condemnations of Israel often cross the boundary from valid criticism into territory of denigration that can be considered anti-Semitic. Instances of anti-Semitism can include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example claims that the Jews killed Christ or the classic anti-Semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious rituals) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

“It is sometimes helpful to keep in mind that Israel is the only democracy in the region and even if it’s fair to criticize it over for example its settlements policy, any comparisons to Nazi Germany or other autocratic regimes are clearly misplaced,” Dinas said.

Jewish monuments and graves are frequently desecrated across Greece. In the latest such incident, a memorial commemorating nearly 1,500 Jews from Kavala, northern Greece, who perished in Nazi death camps was vandalized late March. It was the second attack since it was erected last year.

Anti-Semitic comments are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which is the third political force in Greece despite its leadership being on trial on charges of running a criminal organization – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream. Panos Kammenos, defense minister and head of the junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.” Conservative MPs Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris – both of whom defected to New Democracy from the ultranationalist LAOS – have in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, even though they have recently tried to distance themselves from their past sins. Anti-Semitic remarks, mostly in connection to Greece’s economic crisis, have also come from figures on the left-wing populist fringe such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Rachel Makri.

Politicians aside, the Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Senior clergymen of the Orthodox Church, which has not officially absolved the Jews for the death of Christ, often make anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

Underdog culture

Typically, most of the problems seem to begin in the classroom.

“It is school that hits people in their impressionable years, particularly as the secularization process is gradually eclipsing the role of the Church,” Dinas said.

More than other institutions, experts say, Greek schools foster a feeling of victimhood, and serve for the socialization and reproduction of an underdog culture which is identified as the fundamental source of Greek anti-Semitism.

“There is this shared conviction that Greeks have been treated more unfairly and suffered more pain than any other people,” Dinas said.

“This creates a feeling of inferiority, envy and competition,” he said.

According to the poll, about 70 percent believe that Greek people have suffered a genocide that is worse or similar to that suffered by the Jews.

It is estimated that 6 million Jews died in Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Greece’s Jewish population, which stood at 73,000 before the war, is currently estimated at 5,000.

“As long as Greek society develops a competitive stance to the Jewish experience and seeks the role of the absolute victim of history and of the great powers that be, the harder it will be to deal with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism,” the report said.

Back to school

The Holocaust and human rights education are all but absent from the Greek school curriculum. In self-fulfilling fashion, 34 percent said they do not want the Holocaust to be taught in schools, the survey showed. Experts found a positive correlation between hatred of Jews and education.

“The results show that while general knowledge does not in the least influence anti-Semitic trends, specific [knowledge] about the Jews appears to drastically reduce levels of anti-Semitism,” the report said. Simply put, the more one knows about the subject, the less likely one is to harbor anti-Semitic prejudices.

So while experts propose a number of measures to fight anti-Semitism, including stricter policing of Jewish monuments, a more stringent code of ethics for politicians and the media, and tougher law enforcement, the findings suggest that the safest bet is to kill anti-Semitism at birth: Update textbooks, retrain teachers, organize school trips to former Nazi concentration camps.

“It is important for the government to recognize the existence of the problem and face it head on,” Leon Saltiel, a historian at the University of Macedonia and one of the authors of the report, told the newspaper.

“Measures to promote education, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are the only way to build the strong foundations of a democratic and prosperous nation,” he said.


The report “Anti-Semitism in Greece Today: Manifestations, Causes and Tackling of the Phenomenon” was written by researchers Giorgos Antoniou, Spyros Kosmidis, Elias Dinas and Leon Saltiel.

Study finds Greeks with soft spot for conspiracy theories are more likely to hold anti-Semitic views

By Harry van Versendaal

Anti-Semitism in Greece is more common among people who are susceptible to the lure of conspiracy theories, a new survey has shown.

The study, which was carried out by a group of Greek experts from local as well as international institutions and unveiled during a recent seminar in Berlin, was conducted before Israel’s latest Gaza offensive.

“The more a person feels weak and victimized, the more they participate in the political culture of the underdog, the more they are to believe in conspiracy theories and hold anti-Semitic views,” Giorgos Antoniou, a professor of European history at the International Hellenic University (IHU) in Thessaloniki, told Kathimerini English Edition.

“The less adequately equipped someone is to live in today’s quite complex and globalized world, the more likely they are to look elsewhere for interpretations of the world they live in,” Antoniou said. “This may even be within the sphere of racism, conspiracy or anti-Semitism specifically,” he said.

The research team, which also included Spyros Kosmidis and Elias Dinas from the University of Oxford and Leon Saltiel from the University of Macedonia, examined the correlation between people’s leaning toward some of the most popular conspiracy theories – such as the moon landing hoax, the 9/11 truth movement, and the hidden cancer cure theory – and their degree of prejudice, hatred or discrimination against Jews. At the same time, the experts also looked at a wide range of factors such as age, education, ideological and political alignment, trust in other people or groups of people, and trust in institutions.

The survey found that almost half (47.3 percent) of those who tend not to believe in conspiracy theories also disagreed with the assertion that Jews exploit the Holocaust to gain influence. Specifically, 34 percent of them strongly disagreed with this statement.

In contrast, 76.3 percent of those with a strong belief in conspiracy theories agreed that Jews exploit the Holocaust to gain influence. Of that group, 51 percent strongly agreed with the claim.

Meanwhile, nearly 65 percent of survey respondents said they strongly agree or agree with the statement that Jews treat Palestinians the exact same way as Germans treated them during the Second World War. A similar percentage said they strongly agree or agree with the claim that Jews have exploited the Holocaust. Also 70 percent said they strongly agree or agree with the statement that Greeks have suffered worse genocides than the Jews.

Black mark

Following its own recent study, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) defined 69 percent of Greeks as anti-Semitic, on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

According to the Greek study, anti-Semitic views are more intense among supporters of the neofascist Golden Dawn and right-wing populist Independent Greeks parties.

“Quite surprisingly however we found hardly any discrepancy between all other parties, measuring almost equal levels of anti-Semitism among supporters of conservative New Democracy, leftist SYRIZA and the Greek Communist Party (KKE),” said Dinas, a political scientist at Oxford University. Levels of anti-Semitism were found to be slightly lower among voters of socialist coalition partner PASOK and centrist newcomer To Potami (The River).

The researchers said they have not at this stage tried to interpret the causes of anti-Semitism in Greece, but merely to gauge sentiment.

However, Antoniou said, early data suggest that people with a higher level of education were less likely to hold anti-Semitic views.

“The lower one’s level of education, the earlier they have left school, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracy and anti-Semitic theories,” Antoniou said. “Meanwhile, the quality of education here leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.

Despite the fact that anti-Semitic views are held by a large percentage of the population, Antoniou said, “instances of anti-Semitism have been rather isolated or minor.”

Game changer

The study, published under the title “Exploring Anti-Semitic Attitudes among the Greek Public: Evidence from a Representative Survey,” was carried out between June 23 and 27 on a random sample of 1,045 people.

About half of the telephone interviews were conducted shortly after Greece’s FIFA World Cup last-gasp win over Ivory Coast on June 24 in Brazil, a result which put the country’s national team through to the knockout stage of the tournament. Interestingly, researchers noted that respondents’ ethnocentric and nationalist sentiments were on average higher after the match, while indications of anti-Semitism had declined.

“It seems likely that this occurred because people’s sense of victimhood also decreased after the game. Typical ‘underdog’ feelings declined while Greeks’ self-confidence as a nation increased,” Dinas said.

“As a result, they felt less inclined to either endorse conspiratorial theories or consider the Greeks as having suffered more than the Jews,” he said.

Blurred lines

The survey was carried out before Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to stop Hamas rocket fire out of Gaza. More than 750 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 32 Israelis, 29 of them soldiers, have died so far in the conflict.

Experts said that the longstanding unpopularity of Israeli policies in Greece has forged an unexpected consensus across the political spectrum.

“It often becomes hard to maintain sensitivity on the Palestinian issue without at the same time taking on the world’s entire Jewish population,” Antoniou said.

“In this environment, it is difficult to distinguish between legitimate political opposition to Israeli actions and anti-Semitism,” he said.

Hate speech: The lesser of two evils


By Harry van Versendaal

Expecting a state that has failed to enforce a smoking ban in public places to penalize hate speech is wishful thinking. It should also be undesirable.

Keen to burnish their democratic credentials and to differentiate themselves from conservative New Democracy, the leader of Greece’s power-sharing administration, junior socialist partners PASOK and Democratic Left have pushed an anti-racism bill aimed at curbing a burgeoning wave of xenophobia in the debt-wracked country. The rise in hate speech and racially motivated crimes is widely associated with the rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party controlling 18 seats in the 300-member House that wants to kick all immigrants out of the country.

The proposed legislation, drafted by Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis, who is supported by Democratic Left, aims to criminalize communication which might incite violence against groups and individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The bill reportedly foresees up to two years in jail for offenders and fines of up to about 30,000 euros for individuals and 200,000 euros for organizations.

There is no doubt that, unlike the more cynical policymakers out there, many advocates of the contentious bill are motivated by the best of intentions. However, as other European states have painfully found out, laws against hate speech come with hidden costs and unintended consequences.

A piece of legislation that caters to the needs and sensitivities of a particular section of society is by its nature exclusive and potentially open to criticism from others who are, or who may feel, vulnerable. Introducing a ban on Holocaust denial may, for example, prompt calls for prohibition of gulag-denying speech; or Muslim demands for measures against the defamation of Muhammad which – as Western governments were painfully reminded of in the 2006 Danish cartoon row – also includes depictions of the Prophet.

Put simply, what constitutes an offense is very much in the eye of the beholder. A victim of communism, to bring up a recent example, might sue Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek for suggesting in public that he would send anyone who does not support leftist SYRIZA to a gulag. Depending on the interpretation, even religious texts like the Quran or the Bible can be deemed unlawful. A ban on hate speech can be a stepping stone to curtailing the freedom of expression.

New Democracy has expressed objection to the bill, citing the fact that Greece has already had anti-incitement rules in place since 1979. This is true. Specifically, the law makes it illegal to incite discrimination, hate or violence against persons or groups on the basis of race, origin or religion – although it says nothing of sexual orientation. Also, the 1979 law stipulates it is a crime to set up or join organizations that promote racist propaganda and activity.

Nevertheless, New Democracy’s real concern seems to lie with the reaction from the more reactionary folk among its electoral base: the influential Orthodox Church and the armed forces. The party has proposed a bill, basically a revision of the 1979 law, that reportedly grants immunity to civil servants, as well as clerics and military officials. Meanwhile, the bill does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. New Democracy’s misguided motives are confirmed by its proposal to introduce penalties for Holocaust and genocide denial.

The main concern here is that taking action on “opinion crimes,” as it were – like sanctions against those who deny the genocide of Black Sea Greeks by the Ottoman Turks toward the end of the First World War, officially recognized as such only by Greece and Cyprus – inevitably leads to restrictions on free speech. In a sign of the inevitable deadlock, Turkey has passed the law in reverse, making it illegal to refer to mass killings of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians as a “genocide.”

Laws against Holocaust denial were introduced in Germany and Austria after the Second World War and they made sense given these countries’ historical background. Interpretation of the past should be left with historians rather than lawmakers and prosecutors or you risk what Greek historian Antonis Liakos has called “political control over history.” Freedom of speech in an open society should include the right to question historical facts. Instead of banning uninformed and foolish ideas, it is better to expose them to scrutiny and ridicule.

And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. It is extremely unlikely that laws against genocide or Holocaust denial will deflate anti-Semitism or discourage people from joining the ranks of Golden Dawn. Such initiatives would most likely play into the hands of the party’s supposed anti-systemic profile and allow wrongheaded thugs to pose as martyrs. An all-out ban on the party would probably fail for the same reason.

After all, Golden Dawn’s discourse and deeds are well beyond a bill such as this and are well into the criminal law code. If the political system really wants to stop the neo-Nazis in our midst, it must start by doing what it failed to do in the case of the anti-smoking legislation: stop the political gesturing and enforce the law.

A dose of the right medicine for New Democracy

By Harry van Versendaal

Some three months since ousting a veteran MP for suggesting that “extremist right-wing droplets” had infiltrated the party, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras last week welcomed two far-right politicians into the fold.

Makis Voridis and Adonis Georgiadis were both expelled from the ultranationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), the junior partner in Greece’s coalition government, for supporting the terms of Greece’s loan deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The perennially ambivalent LAOS rejected the deal and withdrew its support from the government. Meanwhile, Samaras, who had vehemently opposed the first loan deal in 2010, ousted 22 deputies for turning down the second aid package.

Analysts have interpreted the recruitment of the two politicians as an attempt to offset the damage of losing the 22 MPs and, on a more strategic level, as a bid to rally a party base disaffected by ND’s involvement in the coalition government.

“Damaged from his involvement in the coalition, Samaras wants to siphon votes from crumbling LAOS,” historian and political blogger Vasilis Liritsis told Kathimerini English Edition.

Going mainstream came with a hefty price for the party of Giorgos Karatzaferis, who saw its popularity tumble to 5 percent, from 8 percent during its heyday in 2010. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) party has surged to 3 percent, hitting the threshold for entering Parliament.

“For ND, having the two far-right politicians on board is part of a bigger strategy to eat into rightist territory,” Liritsis said.

However, some observers point out, this is not an indiscriminate overture to the far right. The conservatives are only trying to woo politicians who backed the bailout deal.

“ND needs to show its electorate that the memorandum was not only supported by PASOK and other reformists but also by a section of the nationalist far right,” said Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens.

“This is what brought Voridis and Georgiadis to ND,” she said.

Gray zone

Voridis and Georgiadis, who were both given portfolios in the coalition government led by former central banker Lucas Papademos, have repeatedly drifted into democracy’s gray zone by expressing nationalist and anti-immigration views.

Georgiadis, who resigned as deputy minister for development, competitiveness and merchant marine, has made a name for himself as a flamboyant telemarketer and publisher of pseudo-scientific patriotic literature. He has in the past called for the en-masse deportation of Albanian immigrants and, as a lawyer, he has defended historian and Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Voridis, who has kept his position as minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, was leader of the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group founded in the early 1980s by Greece’s jailed dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. A few years later, he was banned from the student union at the Athens Law School for engaging in extremist acts. A picture of Voridis taken around that time shows him walking down a central Athens street with a homemade ax. In the mid-1990s, he founded the nationalist Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), modeled after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. Hellenic Front was absorbed by LAOS in 2005.

“Can you imagine any of them in charge of a ministry dealing with immigrants?” Liritsis said. “These are dangerous people.”

Voridis has gradually gone mainstream, adopting a crafted, airbrushed image. His public language habitually taps into popular concerns about crime, illegal immigration and law-breaking acts of leftist activists. His tough positions tread the limits of political correctness but usually not enough to alienate a mainstream audience.

“I was a political activist of the right,” said Voridis last week while labeling the conservatives as a “big patriotic liberal party.”

“ND’s ideology is tied to two central concepts that belong to the value system of the right: the nation and freedom,” he said.

Endgames

ND has historically had an ambivalent relationship with the far right. Faced with the prospect of election defeat in 1981, the party absorbed the royalist National Alignment (Ethniki Parataxi), although that was not enough to stop Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK from sweeping to power. In 2000, conservative leader Costas Karamanlis ejected Karatzaferis, who went on to form his splinter LAOS party. He still scored a comfortable victory four years later.

“When things are going well for ND, it likes to keep a distance from the far right. However, when they’re not and the party needs to galvanize support, it tries to embody the far right into its core,” said Georgiadou.

This is certainly one of those times. The tectonic plates of Greek politics are shifting as failure to grapple with the deepening financial crisis has sparked an unprecedented rejection of the two-party system that dominated Greece’s post-dictatorship politics, commonly referred to here as the “metapolitefsi.”

Brutal belt-tightening measures, soaring unemployment and a pervasive sense of precariousness and lost bearings are making Greeks responsive to bunker-ish rhetoric from the edges of the political spectrum.

Despite PASOK’s abysmal ratings in recent polls, ND is struggling to keep its head above 30 percent — not enough to form a government on its own. Meanwhile, combined support for the three leftist parties is at 42.5 percent, according to the most recent poll by Public Issue.

Centrifugal politics

Can people like Voridis and Georgiadis boost ND’s unconvincing ratings? Analysts are not so sure. Georgiadou says the strategy would work if it helped convince voters that ND was not drawn by PASOK or European leaders into backing the memorandum but rather did so out of conviction that doing so was in the national interest.

“But if the recruitment of Voridis and Georgiadis was to mobilize the anti-right reflexes of centrist and center-right voters, then any gains on the right could be offset by defecting centrist voters,” Georgiadou added.

That said, most of the damage to the center has already been inflicted by the very presence of Samaras at the helm of the party.

“Look at ND. It’s not just Voridis or Georgiadis,” Liritsis said, pointing at close Samaras associates such as Failos Kranidiotis and Chrysanthos Lazaridis — both members of the nationalist Diktyo 21 think thank. Kranidiotis, a ND hardliner, this week said that with Samaras in charge of ND, LAOS no longer served any political purpose.

“ND has completely lost the middle ground. It is gradually verging into far-right territory, turning more and more into a party reminiscent of the 1950s populist right,” Liritsis said.

The transformation certainly marks a big change from yesteryear, when Greece’s big parties battled for control of the center. PASOK climbed to power in the mid-1990s after Costas Simitis swayed the center, riding the hype of Third Way politics engineered by fellow social democrats like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. Again, hijacking the middle ground was key to conservative Costas Karamanlis’s success eight years later.

“The voices of people like Kyriakos Mitsotakis or Costis Hatzidakis are no longer heard,” said Liritsis in referrence to ND’s so-called liberal faction while lamenting the country’s drifting from consensual centrism.

“The sad truth is there’s no party left to express the middle ground anymore.”

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”

Seven years in Tibet

By Harry van Versendaal

Seven years in the making, Dirk Simon’s controversial film “When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” made its international premiere this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Based on 800 hours of footage shot in India, Beijing and Chinese-occupied Lhasa, the German-born director deftly unfolds the story-within-the-story of Tibet’s liberation movement: a damaging split between followers of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent, middle-way policy and Tibetan radicals who have come to see violence as the only way to shake off Chinese domination. Beijing claims Tibet is part of China.

With the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Olympic Torch route fiasco as a backdrop, Simon presents exclusive interviews, rare archival material and breathtaking imagery – all wrapped up in a super soundtrack crafted by Philip Glass, Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. The morning after his movie earned the thunderous applause of the Thessaloniki audience, the Colorado-based filmmaker spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of and his expectations for this groundbreaking project.

Why did it take seven years to complete this movie?

I never intended to spend seven years making this film. First, it was a question of budget: From the beginning, I knew I wanted a movie that would be intriguing from a cinematographic and a musical point of view, and I knew this was not going to come cheap. Then it was the story and the research. For every answer, we would find ourselves with three more questions. For three or four years, the story just became bigger and more complicated.

How did things work out for you in terms of funding?

We didn’t get any support really. We applied for funding in the USA but we didn’t get any. Nor did we get any in Germany, part of the reason being that you have to spend some of that money in the country. We talked to a few German production companies but for them it was too expensive and too political. So we borrowed the money we didn’t have.

What other problems did you have to overcome?

There were many logistical problems. We had a lot of overseas shooting, remote locations, and getting the equipment on top of a mountain was a challenge.

Of course, shooting in China and Tibet was a big question mark. We couldn’t apply for any permits; just mentioning the name of Tibet would raise enough flags in China. Once you put yourself out there with a project like this, you risk jeopardizing the entire project. They might not give you visas or could even try to stop you from doing anything at all.

So you opted to lay low.

Yes, we tried to keep a low profile but also to gain the trust of individuals and support groups. I believe we were the only media group, if you like, who knew that the protest on San Francisco’s Golden Gate would take place and that’s how we were able to put a helicopter on standby [to film the protest]. Gaining their trust was a process of several years. Obviously, they had to be very secretive and gaining their trust was not easy.

The movie features no statements by Chinese officials. Does that not affect the neutrality of the movie?

No, I don’t think so. It’s almost like a general rule: “You have to have all sides in there.” In the beginning, I wanted to [include them] but then I realized that it wasn’t going to help the project and wasn’t going to help the Chinese either. They weren’t going to look better. They were only going to look worse.

But there must be Chinese intellectuals or activists who object to the official line.

This is true. After the uprising of March 2008 [the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising against Beijing in 1959] there was a group of about 20 intellectuals and dissidents who wrote an open letter to their government and some got arrested over that. But it was risky. I was trying to contact one well-known person but we kept missing each other. We had to be very secretive, it was like an undercover operation. It all happened in Beijing during the Olympics; she was watched constantly and we had to assume that we were too. Rather than have some Chinese showing that they are compassionate to the Tibetans, I tried a different approach, which was showing these contemporary artists, basically showing Chinese who also care about humanity and freedom. I did not want to make it a one-dimensional movie, so to speak. I wanted it to have many facets.

You take a clear stand on the China-Tibet standoff but you don’t take an equally clear stance on the division within the Tibet liberation movement. Was that done on purpose, was it because you had not made up your mind, or did you want the audience to draw their own conclusions?

All of the above, in a way. I knew I was not going to find the final answer, so it was more important to raise the right questions. For me personally, it’s very hard to make a decision as to which is the right way. I have a personal history of growing up under communism and escaping. I can see myself picking up a stone at some point and throwing it.

Even so, I intellectually understand the concept of nonviolence and that this should be the right way. I feel torn too. I think the only way to come to a solution is to discuss, but not in the way that it has been done over the past 20 years, where people just keep going back and forth. [Tibetans need] leadership and inspiration and to become united again. The real Achilles heel for the Tibetan movement right now is that lack of unity and that lack of leadership. They haven’t gone anywhere for 20 years.

Did growing up in a divided Germany influence you in making this movie?

Absolutely. I was a teenager when this started to affect me, this growing desire for freedom. And I started to realize that something was wrong in my own country, which eventually led me to leave everything behind, family, friends, all belongings. Freedom has ever since been a very important topic to me.

Has making this movie made you more or less upbeat about a solution?

It’s a roller-coaster ride, really. [After the San Francisco Torch fiasco], everyone was celebrating that the party didn’t happen and they were so happy. What I felt was actually sadness. After all this shouting and yelling, I felt there will never be a dialogue; it’s impossible. They are so entrenched and there is so much hatred, it seemed like they will never overcome it. All we saw was a huge triumph for the Chinese government. At the end, we all joined in and we clapped our hands and said that this was such an amazing opening ceremony. But there is not much hope left.

I am actually happy but also surprised that audiences have said they found the movie “inspiring.” People truly understand that what I really meant to say is: “This is about to fail. We are on the verge of failure. The most famous nonviolent movement is on the verge of failure and not just because China is so dominant but also because we are not supporting it; we are allowing the Chinese to do what they want.”

Near the end of the movie, an interviewee draws a comparison between Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews and China’s crackdown on the Tibetans. Don’t you think that statement was over the top?

That is probably the point we discussed the most in the 15-month editing process. I knew it was provocative in many ways. We discussed it with many people. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Americans found it bold but accepted it, it was easy to get the image. Germans were very, very nervous. They thought we were crossing a line here. But my concern was also the Jewish community, how they would feel if we allowed the Tibetans to say this on film. And, of course, I was concerned about the Chinese, because the film also reaches out to them. In the end, we left the statement because I felt “What if he is right?” I mean, imagine if someone at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had made a film predicting the Holocaust.

Even if we might not experience a Holocaust like that of the last century, what we are seeing is a society that is not even hiding its aspiration for dominance and one that is going not just for Asia but global domination. It is not even hiding it. We all believe that Tibet is something far, far away while the Chinese are, politically speaking, already knocking very heavily on our door.

Click here to watch the official video.


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