Britain as refuge: the real story
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