They Steal Children

Days of lurid headlines have focused on the stolen child. Given this community's vile history of abuse, we have reason to be outraged.

I'm referring of course to the European community's abuse of the Roma. The recent child theft was standard procedure: Greek police saw fit to remove a child from her loving home, and to throw her guardians in prison without due cause. While blonde Maria attracted more attention than most, this was simply the latest incident in centuries of brutal discrimination against the Roma (often called "Gypsies," although the word is increasingly considered pejorative).

The crime immediately inspired copycat abuses in Ireland: children were snatched from Romani parents by the authorities, simply because these children looked respectable and white, whereas the supposed parents were dark-skinned and suspect.

This error was corrected when DNA tests demonstrated that the stolen children rightfully belonged with their parents. In Ireland, at any rate. In Greece, the parents are still in prison, because DNA suggests that they are good Samaritans, rather than biological parents: they took in this child from a Bulgarian woman -- also Romani -- who was too poor to take care of her. By all accounts they and the community have treated her with special respect and love.

Europe's long abuse of the Roma does not command the same kind of attention as Europe's thoroughly wretched history of anti-Semitism. Most people are aware that a spasm of race-hatred in the 20th century resulted in the annihilation of close to 6 million Jews: approximately 67 percent of Europe's Jewish population.

Fewer know the details of the near-genocidal slaughter of the Roma. Precise figures for the dead are impossible to determine, but "it is believed to range from 220,000 to 1,500,000." Here we have a conservative estimate: "Half a million of them -- representing almost the entire Eastern European Gypsy population -- was wiped out during the Holocaust."

I am on record arguing (at some length) against false accounts of genocide cooked up repeatedly in efforts to diminish the suffering of the Jews. Most of these analogies are obscene. The charges against the Jews -- of deicide and a vast conspiracy to undermine civilization -- have inspired a level of hatred, worldwide, that remains unique.

Here, however, while the analogy is not perfect, it is nowhere near false, and by no means obscene. The causes were different, but -- like the mass murder of the Armenians -- the effort to erase the Roma was real. It happened. It was an explicit attempt at genocide.

How do we know that the goal was a Final Solution? We have the word of a non-commissioned officer of the SS: Perry Broad, a stenographer who worked at headquarters in Auschwitz. "It was the wish of the all-powerful Reichsführer Adolf Hitler to have the Gypsies disappear from the face of the earth."

Ian Hancock, a Romani author, is highly critical of Jews who refuse to equate the genocide of the Roma with the Shoah. I in fact do not agree entirely with his position. Still, Hancock is fair-minded, and he points out that "most of the arguments in support of the Romani case originate with Jewish scholars too; indeed, almost the entire body of research on the Romani Holocaust is the result of Jewish scholarship. Despite the naysayers, the Jews are practically the only friends we have, and we recognize that."

Moreover, this is exactly the wrong time for this historical debate. Jews, whatever our very real concerns about trivializing the Shoah, have a moral imperative to stand up for the Roma. Our histories are less divergent than you might think.

Many argue, for instance, that these recent abuses of the Roma are examples of racial profiling that is legitimate and necessary. After all, we have abundant evidence of children exploited by the Roma: you cannot spend time in Italy without encountering Romani children who have been trained to pickpocket. I've personally been targeted by them at Termini railway station in Rome, as have virtually all of my friends who live in that city. Hence, the argument goes, it makes perfect sense to treat the Roma differently when there is even the slightest evidence of the mistreatment of a child.


Well, this is not the first community to be tarred with the broad brush of child endangerment. I am not referring to the blood libel: a fiction concocted to argue that Jews are by nature infanticidal. No, I'm talking about a 19th-century attack on the reputation of the Jews that did in fact stem from verifiable incidents.

Most of us are familiar with the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist: perhaps the ugliest depiction of a Jew in the literature. We have reason to believe that Dickens was not himself a committed anti-Semite -- this statement rings true: "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them..."

On the other hand, he created Fagin.

When accused of damaging the Jewish cause, Dickens was distressed. He protested that he was simply attempting to be accurate. He pointed out that "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew."

"Invariably" is not credible, but we have examples of prominent Jewish criminals who almost certainly inspired the character of Fagin. The most notorious was Isaac "Ikey" Solomon, who operated a fence in London, and was rumored to have been a "kidsman" -- a thief who taught children to steal on his behalf.

Were all Jews in Victorian London the equivalent of Ikey Solomon? Of course not. And Dickens, made aware of his implicit libel, removed the word "Jew" from later editions of Oliver Twist; he tried to make up for the character of Fagin by creating the sympathetic Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. But the damage was irreversible.

So. Do we really want to paint the Roma as a race of child exploiters, based upon undeniable and prominent examples? Only if we're happy to have Europe's Jews considered -- universally -- Fagin types, based on the likes of Ikey Solomon.

Levels of petty crime are high among the poorest of the Roma, as they are in many impoverished communities. To put this in perspective:

A 1995 survey-based study, using international comparisons, claimed that when socio-economic conditions were taken into account, 'rates of crime in poor Romani neighbourhoods (in Eastern Europe) ... (were) no higher than in poor non-Romani neighbourhoods'. Also, contrary to popular stereotypes, 'rates for violent crime such as murder and rape ... (were) far lower among Roma than the national averages'.

The presumption of innocence should not be a luxury. Despite daily revelations of fraud, we do not assume that everyone on Wall Street is a thief, and the suggestion that petty criminals somehow define the Roma as a people should be recognized for what it is: rank bigotry.

The current witch hunt is not an exception. Hatred of these people may not be as old or as deep a strain in European history as anti-Semitism, but it goes back to the Middle Ages, and long before Auschwitz it was murderous, as well as casually vicious: "There are countless reports of Roma children being abducted from their parents, women who had their ears cut off, and Romani who were branded with hot irons."

It seems that other Europeans have been stealing children from these people for a long, long time.

This kind of hatred always has causes, not all of them blindly irrational. Stateless people -- Jews, Roma -- were always suspect: What was their allegiance to the state? In times of war, whose side would they take? Did they consider themselves subject to the laws of the land, or were they guided overwhelmingly by their own customs?

We can argue that these were perhaps justifiable concerns, except that the obvious solution would have been assimilation, and that was hardly encouraged. Both Jews and Roma were excluded from respectable trades. They were subject to arbitrary expulsion. There was a consistent and focused determination, over the course of centuries, to deny them full citizenship.

And this urge was bolstered by the conviction that these people had certain characteristics: Jews and Roma were inevitably filthy, conniving, dishonest. The Roma were not cursed with the worst of anti-Semitic myths -- the charge of killing God and conspiring to usurp world power -- but they were, like Jews, painted as a disease infecting the body politic.

The difference between the Jews and the Roma in the wake of the Holocaust is that we have a state. There is no Romani Israel. We have prominent spokespeople, in Europe and America, who have ensured that these libels are no longer respectable in polite society. Nobody calls us "kikes." It is considered utterly vulgar to suggest that you have been "jewed down" in a business deal.

And yet, it's perfectly acceptable to insist that you have been "gypped." I used to use this expression myself, until it was explained to me that it derives from the word "Gypsy." Sophisticated Europeans discuss "the Roma problem." And a recent headline in the New York Times inquired: "Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?" It beggars belief.

No wonder it's considered wise to remove blonde children from their midst, as less primitive children clearly belong with less primitive people.

Not that it's easy for the Roma to place their children with an adoptive family, should the need arise. Now that the abduction scenario isn't playing out conveniently, there are dark murmurings in the press that money may have changed hands when the Bulgarian mother left her child with the Greek couple. The words "child trafficking" are increasingly finding their way into the headlines, with the hint of slave trading.

God forbid money should have changed hands. In particular, it is being suggested that the birth mother may have been given money to buy her ticket back to Bulgaria. In less primitive societies, it works like this:

State laws vary, but in most states, adoptive parents are able to provide financial assistance to birth parents for living expenses such as rent, utilities, food, transportation and maternity clothes. In addition, additional adoptions costs for counseling, legal feels and medical bills during pregnancy and delivery are provided by the adoptive family.

My guess is that if money changed hands in Greece, it was considerably less than is being discussed here, on the America Adoptions website.

Yes, it would be nice if all of this were done legally among the Roma: that they paid lawyers to file the correct papers, and received the blessing of the state. Nevertheless, however informal, this is adoption. It is not abduction. It is not child trafficking; it is not slave dealing. And people too poor or marginalized to go through traditional adoption routes should be allowed to raise their families without fear of their children being seized arbitrarily by the police.

Romani children need to be protected from our depredations. The assumption is precisely the opposite, of course: the myth of the Gypsy who steals white children is almost as old as the blood libel. In case you're quietly wondering whether the Roma do have a history of abducting children from other communities, I highly recommend you read Louise Doughty in The Guardian. A novelist with Romani ancestors, Doughty quotes Thomas Acton, Professor Emeritus of Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich: "I know of no documented case of Roma/Gypsies/Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere."

In short: this accusation has no more basis in fact than the blood libel. And yet modern police in Greece and Ireland are expected to gut civil liberties in accordance with this medieval fiction.

There have been protests, but you certainly haven't seen thousands taking to the streets to shout: "J'accuse."

Others, however, have been more vocal in past months: "In the Czech Republic, ultra-right parties and their neo-Nazi supporters this year have organized about 30 anti-Roma marches, where some have chanted, 'Gypsies to the gas chambers.'"

Consider that chant, before embracing the notion that the Roma are in some way more criminally inclined than the rest of the Europe.

Efforts are being made to better the lot of the Romani people: in fact, 12 countries came together to declare 2005-2015 The Decade of Roma Inclusion. Hillary Clinton -- then Secretary of State -- insisted that the world must "address the plight of Roma on behalf of a freer, fairer and more inclusive Europe."

Yet here we are, eight years into that decade, and children are still being stolen.

The non-Romani in the best position to take up the cause of the Roma are probably the people who have been slaughtered beside them for centuries, as a result of hatred that may not be the same, but is close enough to warrant dread. Even if the author quoted above is overstating the case, we should still listen: "The Jews are practically the only friends we have."