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"Gypsies Struggle for Recognition in the Holy Land"

By Daniel Haas

JERUSALEM, July 17, 2000 - Amoun Sleem's Arab neighbours dismiss her contemptuously as "Nawariyah," Arabic for "uncivilised." Sleem, 27, is a gypsy, part of a little-known community of around 1,000 in Jerusalem's walled old city. They remain a people apart, shunned by Arabs who look down on them and ignored by Jews who seem blind to their existence.

"The Jews treat us like Arabs and the Arabs treat us like gypsies, so we get bad treatment from both sides," said Sleem, seated on a green sofa in the house that her family has live in for more than 75 years.

Living amongst the predominantly Arab population, the gypsies, or Domari as some prefer to be known, have adopted many aspects of Arab culture, including its language and food. The Domari are believed to have originally dispersed from India around 1,000 years ago along with the Lomarvren gypsies of central Europe and the Romani of Western Europe. While the groups, together numbering around 12 million people, remain culturally diverse, they retain a common belief in Del (God), beng (the devil), predestiny and family loyalty.

Many gypsies have kept their identity a secret, ashamed of their heritage and fearful of discrimination. But Sleem hopes to change that. She has founded the Domari Society, dedicated to preserving gypsy culture, and hopes to ask Israel's Supreme Court to order authorities to grant her people minority group status. Such recognition, she believes, will generate pride and encourage government funding that will help her set up the education facility she dreams of creating in a derelict bath house in the "Way of the Stork" alley near her home. "Hopefully it can help Domari change their lives," she said. A single woman, with a diploma in business administration from a local Arab college, Sleem is a rarity in the Domari world, where most women are home makers and many children drop out of school by the age of 12.

A Minority People in the Middle East

Sleem does not know when her family arrived in the Middle East. But she recalled seeing photographs from the 1920s of gypsies, whom she presumes to be her ancestors, camped in tents outside Jerusalem's Old City.

In addition to the gypsies of Jerusalem, there are also Domari communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Sleem puts the total population between 2,000 and 5,000.

Relatively isolated from Israeli culture, the Gazan population has retained more traditional gypsy dance and music than their Jerusalem cousins and regularly provide entertainment at community functions.

Deemed to be "sub-people" and "foreign blood," more than 100,000 gypsies were killed by the Nazis. As early as 1936 they were sent to concentration camps and in 1937 were included in the racist Nuremberg laws originally aimed at Jews.

Israeli lawyer Omri Kibiri, who became involved with the Domari last year after Sleem approached him for advice and founding a cultural society, said he is planning a suit against the German government on behalf of gypsy survivors. "I didn't even know there were gypsies in Israel," he acknowledged.

Domari Seek Compensation

While it is unlikely that most Domari had contact with the Nazi persecution of Europe, Kibiri said he is aware of survivors living locally and intends to join forces with gypsies seeking compensation elsewhere for the suit to be launched from Israel. The German government said in 1999 gypsy survivors should be able to claim from a planned compensation fund together with Jewish and other victims.

Meanwhile, Sleem is struggling to raise money for a range of projects, including medical and social service centres, to help the gypsies of Jerusalem. Progress has been by small steps. The organization has only $10,000, contributed primarily by one sympathetic overseas donor. Sleem also cites apathy, lack of exposure and doubts amongst her own people as other obstacles. "Even people in the community are not so sure this can work. It is hard for them to believe they have a future," she said.

Looking back at a tragic past, historian Yehuda Bauer of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial estimates around 150,000 gypsies were killed by the Nazis in the period referred to by gypsies as Porrajmos, or "the devouring." Other estimates, dismissed by Bauer as "pure nonsense," put the figure as high as 600,000. "For Nazis, the Jews were the great enemy behind all other enemies and the Roma (gypsies) were a relatively minor issue," he said. "But the individual tragedy of the Roma was certainly no less than that for the Jews and they are entitled to restitution."

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of each individual author. The views and opinions do not represent those held by the Dom Research Center.

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