The Blood Libel That Reawakened Racism in Europe

The wave of kidnapping accusations brought against the Roma is in line with hundreds of years of racism, discrimination, neglect and poverty.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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The affair of Maria, described by the Greek media as "the blonde angel", has unfolded in a manner that is a far cry from the story weaved by the newspaper headlines decrying a Roma ring that kidnapped children for the purpose of sex trafficking.

The little girl's biological mother, also a Roma, was located in Bulgaria and told how she had given her daughter to the adoptive parents of her own free will because of financial distress. The Greek authorities have not yet decided what to do with the girl, whose adoptive parents are still under arrest, but the entire affair points at a serious problem of racism in Greek society.

Such severe accusations against a Roma couple and an entire ostracized minority group would not have arisen without the fierce hatred of foreigners in Greece. The same xenophobia also characterized the behavior of the police and other authorities involved in the affair, who hastened to assume the worst possible about the parents, and also leaked details to the press.

We should remember that Golden Dawn, the country's neo-Nazi party, received some seven percent of the vote in the last election, just over a year ago. This achievement was received with shock and even embarrassment among the senior leadership in Greece, both on the left and the right. The authorities seized the first opportunity — the stabbing of a left-wing activist and rapper by a member of the party — to repress the movement with the harshest means available. But the nearly half a million who voted for Golden Dawn did not do so in a vacuum.

Racist, violent and xenophobic feelings have existed in Greek society forever. An investigative report conducted by a Greek newspaper between the two rounds of voting for parliament last year determined that half the officers in the police supported Golden Dawn. Another problem, which characterizes countries across southern Europe and has been shown to intensify racism and nationalism in Greece, is the increasing immigration, mostly from Africa. The problem has become so significant in the eyes of the Greek public that the authorities have began building a fence and dig a channel along the country's eastern border two years ago. But the main reason for Golden Dawn's growing power is of course the severe economic crisis that has been plaguing Greece for the past four years.

The same circumstances that resulted in the rise of Golden Dawn have also led to the Maria affair, which attests to the fact that despite the government suppression of the party, its deep dark ideologies still exist in Greek society, even if the Greeks themselves prefer not to recognize them.

The head of the Greek Union of Roma, Yiannis Halilopoulos, told the New York Times last week that the coverage of the affair in the news media had set the Roma in Greece back 100 years. “For the first time in years, I hear people shouting ‘Gypsies, thieves!’ when I walk down the street,” he said. Halilopoulos further noted that he has noticed increasingly aggressive reactions to Roma beggars. “Sometimes they shove them out of the way. I haven’t seen that in a long time,” he told the New York Times.

Blood libel

In practice, the main motifs of the affair are well known from the hundreds of years of discrimination, persecution and blood libel against "gypsies." One of the main accusations leveled against the Roma is that they are child thieves – a blood libel comparable in its intensity and duration to the tales accusing Jews of preparing matza for Passover from the blood of Christian children. The irony is that throughout history, hundreds, and even thousands of Roma children have been taken away from their families and placed in institutions, something that happened in Western Europe as late as the latter half of the 20th century.

The skin color of the Roma population has also taken a central place in the European consciousness. Just as Prof. Shulamith Shahar shows in her book (out in Hebrew and soon to be released in English) about the Roma, it has been repeatedly asserted over the years that the dark skin typical of the nomadic sector isn't innate to the group. Nevertheless, the international media, and in particular the European press, rejoiced over the photo of the blonde girl with the "delicate facial features," sitting between a dark-skinned and derelict-looking couple. The excitement over the pictures was so great that no one bothered to think that taking pictures of the girl alongside the man and woman who allegedly abducted, neglected and abused her might not be a good idea.

The photo op was not the only failure in the handling of the affair, which should have set off alarm bells vis-à-vis the authorities' tainted motives. According to figures promptly released by the Greek police, Maria's adoptive mother registered six different children who were born to her over the course of 10 months. But the rest of the children, whose hair color is not blond, were not taken away and placed in an institution. No one bothered to collect DNA samples from them or to start a global campaign to search for their real parents. Also, no one bothered to broadcast video clips in which the rest of the children are seen "forced to sing and dance," as was done with footage of the blonde girl − all this without mentioning that singing and dancing do not necessarily amount to abuse, or that filming children while singing and dancing is one of the favorite hobbies of parents all over the entire world.

But the European media − even the most respectable and elitist − and in its wake the rest of the global media, mostly chose to ignore these warning lights and never moderated the way they covered the story. As is the custom of blood libels, the minute they gather publicity they sprout imitations. This time it happened in Ireland, another country that is slowly climbing out of an economic crisis, in which live various populations of "gypsies" who suffer from prejudice and deep-rooted discrimination. "Travelers" are a group of semi-nomads of Irish extraction, Roma who have been on the island since the 19th century, and the descendents of Roma who came as a result of the fall of the Soviet bloc and Romania's entry into the European Union.

In Serbia a neo-Nazi gang tried to kidnap a child from a Roma couple based on claims that his facial features were light; and in Italy politicians from the extreme right-wing Northern League party rushed to demand an examination of all Roma camps to search for missing children.

Lacking the important facts

The way in which the Greek authorities presented the affair of Maria, and the media copied it joyfully, was lacking a few basic facts. The Roma have lived for hundreds of years under severe discrimination and exclusion. The society that has developed around them as a result is different than accepted society in Europe. The Roma do not live in general in a style based on the Western nuclear family, including a father, mother and a number of children. The extended family and the other people living in the "camp" are all responsible for caring for the children.

The Romas' trust in the authorities tends to be extremely minimal, and in the same way they treat such matters as proper registration. It can certainly be claimed that there is a need to change this lifestyle, but this does not justify the use of such data as a way to "prove" the guilt of Maria's adoptive parents.

True, among Roma society − as opposed to the accepted standards today in Europe, child labor and the use of children to beg for donations are a common occurrence. The European Union's human rights commissioner even stated in a report from 2005 that in a number of countries the Roma, men women and children, were the victims of trafficking in humans. The commissioner at the time, Alvaro Gil-Robles, noted that in recent years such occurrences have grown and great attention has been paid to children who have fallen victim to human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, begging, forced labor, illegal adoption and the amputation of limbs, said Gil-Robles. In his report, Gil- Robles even noted that there is evidence that some of the children who were victims of human trafficking were sent to other countries with their parents' consent.

Eradicating these phenomena requires a pan-European effort, both on the criminal level as part of the fight against organized crime − among the Roma and others − who exploit the vulnerability of the weak and poor population; and also in actions to integrate the Roma into the various societies in which they live. The publication of the unfounded accusations on "Gypsies who steal little blonde girls," which, as opposed to the repeated harm done to the children of the Roma, are an expression of the racist stereotype and do not contribute to improving the situation.

Discrimination, neglect and poverty

The Greek authorities have not yet announced how the handling of Maria's adoptive parents will be completed − they still have indictments pending against them for kidnapping a minor. The couple's lawyer announced that he intends to demand official recognition of their adoption of the girl, who they have cared for since she was seven months old.

The dark European history of removing Roma children from their parents' custody by the authorities casts a heavy shadow on the possibility that this will also be the solution in this case too. But in any case, in light of the failure of the coverage in the affair until now, there is a bad taste to the stubbornness in focusing on the criminal suspicions − this time against the biological mother who is suspected of selling her daughter − instead of discussing the fundamental factors that created such a horrible story: racism, discrimination, neglect and poverty.

Demonstration against deportation of Gypsies in Marseilles, September 4, 2010Credit: AP