Bri­tain as refuge: the real story

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis -

Iwas re­cently re­search­ing the tabloid press archives for a new book on Bri­tain’s treat­ment of refugees, when I came across two eye-pop­ping sto­ries from 2003. The first claimed that a group of asy­lum seek­ers was cap­tur­ing, killing and bak­ing the Queen’s swans; the sec­ond, that asy­lum seek­ers had ab­ducted don­keys from Green­wich Royal Park, also for food. Nei­ther pa­per was able to sub­stan­ti­ate th­ese claims, but they did not hurry to re­tract them ei­ther. Yet, this should not sur­prise us. Looking back at the press ac­counts of Jewish refugees over 120 years, it is clear that lit­tle has changed in terms of lan­guage and tone, sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and dis­tor­tion. Here is the Manch­ester City News in 1888, on the ar­rival of Jews from east­ern Europe:

“Their un­clean habits, their wretched cloth­ing and mis­er­able food en­able them to per­pet­u­ate ex­is­tence upon a pit­tance… th­ese im­mi­grants have flooded the labour mar­ket with cheap labour to such an ex­tent to re­duce thou­sands of na­tive work­ers to the verge of des­ti­tu­tion…”

When deroga­tory things are said about asy­lum seek­ers and refugees to­day, I feel that my past and that of thou­sands, if not mil­lions of fel­low Jews is also be­ing tra­duced. Mi­gra­tion, asy­lum and refuge are all a part of the Jewish story. My grand­par­ents, in com­mon with many in the Jewish world, came to the West to es­cape per­se­cu­tion and to find a bet­ter life for them­selves and their chil­dren. How would we feel if some­one called them “bo­gus”?

It is easy to for­get that the ar­rival of large num­bers of Jewish refugees was reg­u­larly met with a less than rap­tur­ous wel­come by the Gov­ern­ment, trade unions, cer­tain news­pa­pers and in­deed sec­tions of the Jewish com­mu­nity it­self. More­over, their ar­rival was the cat­a­lyst for the for­ma­tion of sev­eral an­ti­semitic groups, in­clud­ing, in 1900, the Bri­tish Broth­ers League, in some ways a fore­run­ner of the Bri­tish Union of Fas­cists.

In ad­di­tion, the Trades Union Congress passed a num­ber of reso­lu­tions be­tween 1892 and 1895 call­ing for strict anti-alien leg­is­la­tion. The Con­ser­va­tive party made alien re­stric­tion a cen­tral plank of its plat­form af­ter the 1900 gen­eral elec­tion.

In 1905, the Aliens Act was passed to re­strict “un­de­sir­able and des­ti­tute im­mi­grants” who were con­sid­ered to be a charge on pub­lic funds or posed a risk to pub­lic health. This Act in­cluded a pro­vi­sion to de­port im­mi­grants and, in its first four years, 1,378 Jews were de­ported, many of whom had lived with their fam­i­lies in the UK for years. Some of th­ese de­por­ta­tions were car­ried out with the ap­proval of the Jewish com­mu­nity. In 1888, the Board of Guardians, a fore­run­ner of the Board of Deputies, prided it­self on hav­ing ar­ranged and funded the repa­tri­a­tion of thou­sands of Jewish fam­i­lies. Far more nu­mer­ous, how­ever, were those refugees who were given fi­nan­cial and hous­ing as­sis­tance by in­sti­tu­tions within the Jewish com­mu­nity cre­ated pre­cisely to help the new ar­rivals. But the gen­eros­ity shown by some in the Jewish com­mu­nity was some­what tem­pered by pres­sure from more set­tled Jews for the “new­com­ers” to give up some of their “for­eign ways”. In 1881, The Jewish Chron­i­cle wrote:

“If they in­tend to re­main in Eng­land, if they wish to be­come mem­bers of our com­mu­nity, we have a right to de­mand that they will show signs of an earnest wish for a com­plete amal­ga­ma­tion with the aims and the feel­ings of their host.”

Fast-for­ward to the 1930s and the next ma­jor wave of Jewish refugees into Bri­tain, and we find the same am­biva­lence and an­tag­o­nism to­wards them.

The fact that Bri­tain took in some of th­ese refugees has an iconic im­por­tance for our self-def­i­ni­tion to­day as a gen­er­ous and wel­com­ing na­tion to those seek­ing refuge. Events in 2005 mark­ing the 60th an­niver­sary of the end of the Sec­ond World War, em­pha­sised not only Bri­tain’s heroic role in de­feat­ing the Nazis but also in its pro­vi­sion of a haven for Jewish refugees. But this was not uni­ver­sally wel­comed, as a 1938 Sun­day Ex­press ed­i­to­rial shows:

“[But] just now there is a big in­flux of for­eign Jews into Bri­tain. They are over-run­ning the coun­try. They are try­ing to en­ter the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion in great num­bers. They wish to prac­tise as den­tists. Worst of all, many of them are hold­ing them­selves out to the pub­lic as psy­cho­an­a­lysts. There is no in­tol­er­ance in Bri­tain to­day. And by keep­ing a close watch on the causes that feed the in­tol­er­ance of the Jews in other Euro­pean coun­tries, we shall be able to con­tinue to treat well those Jews who have made their homes among us”.

Even the pop­u­lar ac­tress and come­di­enne Joyce Gren­fell wrote: “There is some­thing a bit un­cosy about a non-Aryan refugee in one’s kitchen.”

And his­to­rian Tony Kush­ner re­minds us of an in­fa­mous com­ment made by Lord Daw­son, the then Pres­i­dent of the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians in 1933: “The num­ber of refugee doc­tors who could use­fully be ab­sorbed, or teach us any­thing, could be counted on the fin­gers of one hand”.

The an­tag­o­nism shown by some to­wards Jewish refugees was tem­pered by the gen­eros­ity shown by many non-Jews, in­clud­ing other re­li­gious groups such as the Quak­ers, and in­di­vid­ual fam­i­lies. The At­ten­bor­oughs (par­ents of film di­rec­tor Richard, now Lord At­ten­bor­ough, and Sir David At­ten­bor­ough, the nat­u­ral his­to­rian and broad­caster) adopted two Jewish chil­dren who came on the Kin­der­trans­port .

Gov­ern­ment pol­icy to­wards the refugees was am­biva­lent. Asy­lum in the United King­dom was de­pen­dent on guar­an­tees that the Jewish com­mu­nity would pro­vide for all of the refugees’ needs. Un­sur­pris­ingly, such a fi­nan­cial un­der­tak­ing could not be sus­tained and the Gov­ern­ment was even­tu­ally forced into pro­vid­ing some as­sis­tance. And, while there was a huge amount of work done by Jewish in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions to help the refugees, the Jewish es­tab­lish­ment was re­luc­tant to de­mand that greater num­bers should be al­lowed into Bri­tain, since, as Anne Karpf sug­gests,

“ … po­lit­i­cal action qua Jews was pre­cisely what they’d re­lin­quished in re­turn for civil rights and might, they feared, be taken both as a crit­i­cism of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and in­grat­i­tude, thereby gen­er­at­ing do­mes­tic an­tisemitism .”

As the sit­u­a­tion for Euro­pean Jewry de­te­ri­o­rated, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s be­hav­iour did not al­ter fun­da­men­tally. As his­to­rian Louise Lon­don puts it: “The prob­lem of what to do with the Jews took prece­dence over sav­ing them.” She de­scribes Bri­tain’s re­sponse to the plight of Jews as char­ac­terised by “cau­tion and prag­ma­tism sub­or­di­nat­ing hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism to Bri­tain’s self-in­ter­est” — chal­leng­ing the myth that Bri­tain went to war “to save the Jews”.

Af­ter the war, Bri­tain’s pol­icy to­wards Jewish refugees be­came more re­stric­tive. Over 600,000 work per­mits were given out to dis­placed per­sons from Europe, of which only a few thou­sand went to Jews. In a post-war Bri­tain ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an acute labour short­age, Jews did not fit into the “eco­nomic

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