Benjamin Fischer, current President of the EUJS and JEU columnist talks about an often overlooked, yet extremely important frontier for diversity and minority activism, for Roma and Jews alike.
For the past year I have been the President of the European Union of Jewish Students. This year has been an insane journey; I have heard stories and met people that I thought could not exist in real life.
The last time I travelled to New York, it was because I was invited to speak about European antisemitism at the UN Headquarters. When I specified the purpose of my stay at border control this time, however, the officer laughed out loud and called his colleagues over to listen: “You're here for business and you attend Comic Con? Are you kidding me? Will you work in a costume? Jack, listen to this one!”
Frankly, I cannot believe the whole story myself.
It starts with the story of Vicente Rodriguez Fernandez, who is a Human Rights activist for the Roma community.
His story is worth many articles itself, but for now I would urge you to check his profile on Forbes' 30 under 30.
Having taught himself English through pop-culture and having learned about the history of his own people through Magneto (X-Men), Vicente, or Magneto as he calls himself, is a massive comic nerd. He introduced me to the whole political culture of this scene, with human rights activists lobbying Marvel and Co. for fair representation.
This year he personally fundraised to bring a delegation of activists to New York Comic Con, and he invited me to participate. Activists for Women's rights, Afro-American rights, Roma rights and Jewish rights together in one Airbnb - what a story.
Now, why I joined:
I am proud to say, that EUJS is an organisation that advocates for Jewish Rights from a Human Rights perspective. If we want to actually change the fact that it is only Jews speaking up for Jews, we have to speak with and speak up for others. Above all, our Jewish values oblige us to better the world – for everyone: Tikkun Olam.
But there is more to it. Intersectionality is dominating our campuses and our generation, but Jewish rights are being constantly left out of the public discourse. We are being perceived as well enough established to be left alone. Facing discrimination, being shocked about the lack of empathy from society and then still finding ourselves isolated amongst people that ultimately share the vision of a strong pluralist and accepting civil society, is truly frustrating.
Lastly, Marvel and co. are spreading their narratives all over the world; forming the perception of minorities, among the millions of readers all over the world. Marvel started an initiative which they called “All New – All Different”, which is all about creating an inclusive comic empire. They just created a new female Muslim character; there is an Asian Hulk and a black Spiderman. Just imagine how this might change the introduction to minority narratives globally? Think about how people learn about Jewish narratives: they sit in history classes and learn about the Holocaust, or they watch the news and hear about the conflict in the Middle East. Being introduced to Jewish narratives through pop-culture could open up new possibilities. And this goes for many other minority narratives, including Roma people.
Now back to Vicente.
The reason why he fiercely tries to speak to Marvel is because Romani are not included in these efforts. There are dozens of Roma characters, but most of them display the stereotypes towards towards Roma culture. They are villains, witches and even dictators. Vicente raised this issue during a panel on LGBTQIA representation at New York Comic Con. Why bring it up there? Because his numerous efforts to put the topic on the agenda were simply ignored. The Roma narrative is of no importance to Marvel.
He made a short statement summarizing the situation of Roma, and asked the panellists, amongst them some of the most established Marvel writers or leaders of the campaign for inclusion, what could be done. Vicente was shouted at; he was silenced. Peter David (Hulk) told him a story of how Roma people break the ankles of their children in order to get more money when they put them on the streets to beg. It was shameful. But most importantly, it publicly showed that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
You might still believe that it is all Cosplay and cartoons, but this scene is nothing more than a mirror of our society.
The millions of consumers worldwide reproduce the stigmata they pick up, and being a political activist, this is as much a part of my job as speaking at the UN or in the European Parliament.
I cannot thank Vicente enough for what he did. I admire his passion. He used up the last of his savings in order to invite us to New York and did not sleep nor eat, in order to make his case.
Why did I come to Comic Con? Because the struggle against discrimination is universal, because Vicente's struggle is my struggle – even here at Comic Con.
Benjamine Fischer is the president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), a pluralistic, inclusive and non-partisan umbrella organisation supporting Jewish student unions throughout Europe and representing its members in international institutions and organisations.
Lead image - New York Comic Con 2013 - credit: Jere Keys
Profile photo credit: Przemek Dudek