Jews, Armenians, Roma and Assyrians make common cause for the long haul

Society Politics Project seminar

On September 23 to 25, the Europe of Diasporas project held its last seminar in Warsaw, and formally started work as the Europe of Diasporas network. The “Europe of Diasporas” story began at a meeting in Paris, in June 2015 and continued in 2015 2016 at meetings in Budapest, Hungary and Sofia, Bulgaria, then with a major conference in the European Parliament. The project has in fact been supported by the European Commission.

Diasporas are nothing new in Europe, they have been around for 1500 years and more. Nor are they an anomaly: they are an integral part of the continent’s history, yet they are invisible on the map and in history books. These four diasporas - the Jews, Romas, Armenians and Assyrians - have all suffered furthermore the worst treatment imaginable in the 20th century, genocide. They have a lot in common as they seek to promote a heritage that remains relevant and empowering in a turbulent 21st Century.

Warsaw was a particularly significant place to hold such a seminar. Under the leadership of two local historians the group of 30 participants discovered some of the Jewish and Armenian heritage. Jews were more than 3 million in Poland before World war I, in fact, Poland was the true homeland of Jewish Ashkhenazi civilization. Not only were they virtually annihilated as a people during the holocaust, but many of their important sites, including the Warsaw ghetto itself were razed to the ground. The splendid Polin Museum of the history of Polish Jews now stands on the spot where the ghetto once was, and retraces 1500 years of Jewish history.

Armenians have a very different history in Poland. They first arrived in the East of the country in the 13th Century, likely descendants of populations that first migrated to Crimea from Anatolia after the fall of Ani. Armenians soon gained commercial privileges from the King, and gained an enviable and respected place in Polish society. Most of them lived in the East of Poland, now largely incorporated in Ukraine, but some lived in Warsaw. According to historian Pawel Grzesik, “by the 18th Century, there were just 100 Armenians in Warsaw, all famous”. Much of Armenian heritage, including priceless manuscripts, parchments and works of art, is hosted by the small museum of the Foundation of Cultural Heritage of Polish Armenians.

The seminar led to the development and launch of individual projects that will form the backbone of the Europe of Diasporas network in the year to come. Part of this work will have to do with deepening our understanding of diasporas as a social phenomenon. What, in fact, makes them tick? What do they have to offer society around them?

With this in mind, an Academic Network will aim to promote comparative academic research on the diasporas in Europe, focusing in particular on the four diasporas which make up the original network. This will take the form of annual conferences and a series of publications.

In this spirit of academic enquiry, a first academic conference has actually already been held at the University of Bucharest on November 25 on “National and ethnic identity of diasporas in the public space”. A major get together will be held next year in 2017 in Spain, with the theme “Belonging – Diasporas in the European Nation States since the Nineteenth Century”.

Another working group will be dealing with gender and discriminations. This will work on developing an initiative in connection with exclusion or prejudice within communities, including gender discrimination and will promote an exchange of best practice with a view to addressing such issues.

Other projects will be taken forward, including plans for pan-diaspora ”Limmuds”, a Jewish practice referring to an open learning forum, as well as joint advocacy and a video project on diasporas.

Shortly after the Warsaw seminar, Nicolas Tavitian, of AGBU Europe, was also asked by the OSCE OIDHR to bring the message of the project to their yearly conference on “tolerance and diversity”, with a focus on alliance building. There he emphasized some of the key lessons from the project.

One of the messages he took with him to Berlin was about what diasporas are, and what they are not. Diaspora identities are not the same as national identities: by definition, they overlap with citizenship and nationality – e.g. a Jewish-American, z French-Armenian or a Bulgarian Roma. This is important for our European governments to bear in mind. As reformulated in the final document of the civil society conference, OSCE participating states should “lead by example by: relating to diaspora communities as full constituents, not as representing a foreign nationality…“.

Another concern was also eventually included in the final recommendations to OSCE Member States: that “the narratives of underrepresented minorities and diasporas [be] mainstreamed and integrated into school subjects across disciplines whether history, geography, media literacy education, civics.” If implemented, this idea could lead not only to the Armenian genocide finding its way back into the history books at school, but also to the rediscovery of 1500 years of Armenian presence on the continent, and of their significant contribution to the religious, economic, intellectual and cultural development of European civilization.

Finally, the project promoted the idea that, in order to effect change, individuals belonging to diasporas should be more involved in politics and be represented in political institutions. Here too, it appears that a relative, often dramatic underrepresentation in politics is a feature that is common to the four diasporas involved.

Together, these ideas, and the initiatives brought forward by participants in the network should held carve out a place for diasporas in Europe – not for survival, but for recognition and for the flowering of truly European diasporic cultures. And if current trends in Europe and America towards national entrenchment and recrimination against minorities takes hold in some countries, solidarity may be more needed than ever in the face of adversity.