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In the UK illegally?

Rabbi Colin Eimer of Sha’arei Tsedek: North London Reform Synagogue on the recent Government campaigns against illegal immigration. Migrants and asylum seekers, he argues, ‘are inevitably soft and easy targets, who can be made scapegoats for society’s woes. Yet, be they legal or illegal, migrants must surely be pretty low down the list of those responsible for our current economic difficulties. Perpetuating that rhetoric does nothing to address real issues but it does a lot for creating communal disharmony’.

One of my teachers had a student who told him something that had happened to her great-aunt, riding a tram home from work in Munich in pre-war Nazi Germany. The Gestapo had stopped the tram and were doing a spot-check of peoples’ identity cards. Most were annoyed, a few were terrified. By that time, Jews had been forced to add a middle name on their identity cards – ‘Israel’ for men and ‘Sarah’ for women – and a letter J was stamped on the card. Any Jews were told to get off the tram, and go to a truck parked around the corner.

The student’s great aunt watched as the Gestapo worked their way methodically through the bus towards her, examining identity cards. She began to tremble and cry. The man sitting next to her noticed this and asked her, politely, why she was crying.

“I don’t have the papers you have,” she told him. “I’m a Jew. They’re going to take me.”

The man, she said, exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid bitch,” he roared. “I can’t stand being near you!”
The Gestapo men asked him what all the yelling was about.

“Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers yet again! I’m fed up with her. She always does this!”

The Gestapo men laughed and, fortunately, moved on. The great aunt never saw the man again and never even knew his name.

Earlier this week I was in conversation with Edie Friedman, Director of JCORE, the Jewish Council on Racial Equality and was reminded of that incident. The parallel with the current campaign against illegal immigrants was strong. I don’t know if you’ve seen the advertising trucks going around with the billboard on the side panel posing the question: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.”

Police have been doing spot-checks at railway station barriers, entrances to underground stations and so on. No surprises if most of the people being stopped don’t have white skins – though the UK Border Agency denies that. We can imagine what that student’s great-aunt must have felt as she saw the Gestapo coming towards her – so too can we imagine what somebody must feel as they’re heading home from work and see the checks being done at the ticket barrier. Even if you’re here legally, you still feel a certain sense of intimidation at such moments.

Now of course there’s an enormous difference if only because that woman was not in Germany illegally. Jews had been living there for a thousand years. Indeed, I know that there are people in our community who also had to leave millennia old communities, comfortable and established lives for no other reason than that they were Jewish.

Not much more than one hundred years ago, of course, many of your ancestors came here as migrants. And the enormous contribution to this country of those migrants and their descendants is a story that can fill us with pride.

But, Edie asked, can that pride lead us to a romanticised view of our migrant past, one that colours our perception of immigration today? There is a danger, she suggested, that too much of our identity can be defined by victimhood.  Victimhood has the potential to take us in one of two directions.

Knowing how difficult our past has been can lead not just to sympathy but a deeper empathy for those who are now in the situation that we were in. It hones our sense of compassion and concern for those who are now where we were then. It engenders a feeling of ‘never again should anything like that happen to anybody else.’

But suffering can also take us to a very different place. The pain and suffering we experienced evoke a different reaction. Maybe we had to become so internally resilient in order to survive that we now have little or no sympathy for those in a similar situation. The same feeling of ‘never again’ – but this time “never again should that happen to me or my people! To others?”

One of the most frequently repeated commands in the Torah is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. The meaning is obvious, surely. Now you have had your liberation, don’t forget the bitterness of that oppression and hatred. One of the requirements of every Jewish service is that there is some reminder – direct or more oblique – of the Exodus from Egypt. In other words, don’t forget where you have come from. Don’t you become an oppressor in the way you were oppressed.

But there is a deeper, more subversive meaning and possibility. Don’t focus on the liberation, but on Pharaoh. He thought he was the most powerful man in the world and could act with impunity – and yet he was brought low, humbled and destroyed. Maybe that’s why we need to sit around our seder tables each year to remember – not our liberation, but what happened to those who thought they were invincible.

“In the UK illegally?” What sort of mind thinks up such a slogan which turns one person against another, sows seeds of suspicion between people, and creates a class of people who potentially can feel hunted? Invariably, it’s those at the bottom of the economic heap who will be the most affected, because they are the most vulnerable. They know they are at most risk of being deported. As for us, it’s relatively easy to find apparently good justifications for why this isn’t unfair: “well, at the end of the day they are illegal immigrants, aren’t they?” “they don’t contribute to the State, do they?” “they’re just economic migrants, after all.” Familiar phrases, familiar arguments. All of them designed to create a distance between us and ‘them,’ enabling us not to feel we are somehow implicated in what happens to them. Paolo Freire, the great South American educator, famously said that washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless doesn’t make you neutral but means, inevitably, that you side with the powerful.

‘Economic migrants’ should be a phrase we Jews abhor. The prevailing belief is that Jews came from Eastern Europe after 1880 to escape persecution. A comforting myth, maybe, but the truth is much more complex. Of course, there were those who came in desperation, looking for a place of safety from persecution. But the majority of Jews, especially those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were seeking a better life for themselves and their children. They were the ‘economic migrants’ of their time.

Edie Friedman cautions against “simplistic analysis: that we were the good and deserving migrants and those arriving today are not.”  All current attempts to legislate about immigration have their origin in the 1905 Aliens Act which was passed, primarily, to control Jewish immigration into this country from Eastern Europe. A generation later, In the 1930s, the same things were being said about Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution: we were swamping the country, taking jobs from good British people and refusing to integrate into society.

It wasn’t true then – and isn’t true now. According to the Office for National Statistics, currently migrants make up just 1 in 10 of the UK population, lower than Australia, the US or Germany. Just over 1 in 10 new jobs are taken by migrants – which means almost 9 jobs out of 10 go to British nationals.

Migrants and asylum seekers are inevitably soft and easy targets, who can be made scapegoats for society’s woes. Yet, be they legal or illegal, migrants must surely be pretty low down the list of those responsible for our current economic difficulties. Perpetuating that rhetoric does nothing to address real issues but it does a lot for creating communal disharmony.

Given our history, I find it so disheartening, so depressing to hear anti-immigrant stuff coming from the mouths of my fellow-Jews; but also so uplifting to find so many Jews putting in their tuppence-worth to create a better, more-cohesive, fairer, more-decent, more just society, like Edie Friedman at JCORE, Tzedek,RenéCassin, my synagogue’s involvement with the Night Shelter in Barnet, the food we collect in boxes in the foyer for the local ood Bank and so on and so on.

Love isn’t something you can command from somebody. Only three times are we told in the Torah to love: God, in the opening words of the Shema: ‘you shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart’; secondly, to ‘love your neighbour’; and, thirdly, to love the stranger. That command is the most frequently-repeated command in the Torah – something like 35 times or more.

Let us struggle with all our might not to be sucked into that “in the UK illegally?” way of thinking. May we all find the strength to reject such ideas. We were ‘strangers’ then – they are ‘strangers’ now. We know the heart of the stranger.

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