Saturday, July 31, 2010

Worse than Jewish

Thursday night, the Israeli opera performed its rendition of Bizet's "Carmen" at Hayarkon Park. 70,000 culture enthusiasts came to watch poor Corporal Don Jose choose to defect for the love of a cigarette factory girl, only to get dumped for Escamillo the bull-fighter.

The performance was splendid. Rinat Shaham was both intense and precise in the title role. It was as though the open air inspired her to be a more powerful, charismatic Carmen that the one she was at the Tel-Aviv Opera House. Mayor Ron Huldai acted as the evening's MC. While sets were replaced between acts, he filled the audience up on the plot, some which became a little blurry due to cuts and omissions.

Huldai also gave some background on the opera but did not go into analysis and criticism. Thus a very crucial aspect of Carmen did not come up that evening in the park: the fact that it's a work full of ethnic prejudice.

Carmen is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. In the prose text, Don Jose is recounting his misadventures to a prison cell-mate. "I should never have gone with such a woman," he tells him. "After all, we all know her kind."

"Is she Jewish?" asks the cell mate.

"Worse," says Don Jose, "She's a Gypsy."


For me as a Jew, it's almost calming to hear that the Roma were considered "worse" than us in Mérimée's 19th century Europe. They certainly are considered "worse" these days. In contemporary Scandinavia, for example, I found that disdain toward the Roma is largely acceptable and may be voiced freely, while antisemitism certainly isn't. Why is that so? Both ethnicities burned shoulder to shoulder in Auschwitz, did they not?

They did, but the Romani historical foundations and political lobbies were never very effective or efficient. This is partially how come French President Nicolas Sarkozy could this week announce his plan to deport all Romas without proper French documents.

Sarkozy, his Minister of the interior, Brice Hortefeux, and the Secretary of State of European Affairs, Pierre Lellouche, claim that French is swamped by Roma who moved in from the most recent EU members in the Balkans, that this had caused a culmination in theft and drug trade.

I don't doubt that Roma culture tolerates petty crime far more than mainstream European culture does, but Sarkozy has far greater thieves to worry about: corporate thieves who steal in a day more that what a Roma settlement would steal in a decade. Besides, even if the Roma are involved in crime, there is no greater crime than to reinforce a damaging stigma placed on a community and deem this community unwanted.


It's sad to see this taking place in France. French Roma are known for being progressive and open. Traveling in rural France I often received lifts from Gypsies, pitched my tent among their trailers in Sts. Maries de la Mer, spoke to them and learned of their world.

Of all Roma societies, this is the one most welcoming to the non-ethnic Roma traveler, providing an alternative for those who couldn't take the burdon of mainstream French life. It's also open to the world - French Manouche Gypsies were the first to integrate western pop music into their musical repertoire. Modern Jazz would be unthinkable without the blessed influence of Django Reinhardt, pictured above.

French Roma had a modernizing influence on their Spanish neighbors and would doubtlessly have a similar effect on Balkan newcomers. By singling those newcomers out, Sarkouzy is causing great damage to their French brethren. He is identifying Gypsies in general as thieves, drug dealers and a burden on society. Worse than Jews? Much worse.

Is it any surprise that this is happening in the one European country where the Roma have become most integrated? The Jewish community of Weimar Germany was more modern and culturally assimilated than any other in Europe. Rather than embrace this, the Germans perceived the Jews as a threat and acted accordingly.

Europeans have portrayed the Roma as a treacherous woman who would pick your wallet or your heart, whichever she gets her hands on first. Gypsies have always been taken for a threat, so legislation against them is almost inevitable, but it is tragic and disgusting nonetheless.


I can't really conclude this without a word about the semi-nomadic people of this land. This passing week. 1,300 Israeli policemen arrived at dawn to the Bedouine village of Al-Arakib, evacuated its hundreds of residents and demolished it entirely. Al -Arakib, a shanty town north of Beer-Sheva, had existed since before the founding of the state of Israel, but it's located within a ring of land around the city which the state wishes to preserve as "Bedouine free".

45 houses were demolished in the village, which means hundreds of homeless souls. The Israeli press paid minimal attention to the event. In the two largest newspapers it recieved no mention at all. In place of Al-Arakib, the Jewish national fund intends to plant a grove of pine.


Theodore said...

Sometimes I fell like I'm away from France at a time where I couldn't be politically content there; though I am not in NY either, there's something about exile that's soothing. I vow not to return under that dirty cop's regime. As you know may there is a law that compels any town of more then 5000 inhabitants to provide camping space for the travelling people - nomads : Gypsies, Romas, Manouches... - but it is rather clear that the current goverment has a habit of stearing beyond - or is it below ? - the laws. Just like yours, truly.

Theodore said...

What am I saying ? Good post Yuval Ben Ami ; poor governments France and Israel. Excuse the typos but too much coffee is too much for me.

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Cheers Theo. It seems that your "dirty cop" president is particularly aversed to encampments. One of the first things he did in office was to close Sangatte without offering a substitute and look where that led.

I was in the "Jungle" at Calais with Itka a year and a half ago. There were hundreds of people living in shabby tents there, most of them refugees from Afghanistan. They used to shower at a leaking water hose in a nearby chemical plant, but the police stopped that. I've never been anywhere dirtier and poorer in my entire life. I wrote the article about it for Haaretz, but sneaked a photo into the blog:

These people had a solution before Sarkozy came to power. They got some nourishment and support and the public health situation was so much better. Sure, it cost a penny to the French tax payer, but it was the humanist option.

Sarkozy and Bresson first closed down the aid-camp, then started to arrest the aid workers who still gave food and blankets out, then sent policemen to demolish the tents and kick the creeps further into the forest.