“Abject squalor, beyond poverty,” is how 17-year-old Josh Rossiter describes his first impression of the refugee camps in Calais. “People were living in tents submerged in water; Afghans, Syrians, Sudanese.”
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The high-school student said that he had seen so much inflammatory media coverage about the “swarm” – as Prime Minister David Cameron notoriously described them this summer – of migrants attempting to reach Britain that last week, he and two friends decided to fill some bags with warm winter clothes and head to the French port.
“As a Jew, I felt this was my duty, as my mother’s parents found refuge from the Nazis here 70 years ago,” he says. “I wanted to see for myself that these migrants were just ordinary boys like me.”
As the refugee crisis grows in Europe, British Jews are getting involved in the myriad schemes springing up to help those trying to find sanctuary.
Unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers and migrants are seeking refuge across the continent, and British sympathy was slow in coming. The UK’s tabloid media made up for the lack of real news during the summer silly season to focus on the plight of holidaymakers forced to share Greek beaches with dishevelled refugees sleeping rough and migrants disrupting Eurotunnel services.
Political rhetoric grew ever more populist and unpleasant. In addition to Cameron’s comments on “swarms” of migrants, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described the migrants trying to cross the English Channel as “marauding.”
The tone abruptly changed last week with the publication of the pictures of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, drowned with his brother and mother as the family attempted to reach Greece on a boat from Turkey.
Within 24 hours, public figures were lending their support to initiatives launched in other European countries where ordinary people opened their homes to refugees seeking sanctuary. Charity drives sprang up for those stuck in terrible conditions in Calais; Amazon even started its own collection wish-list of warm clothes, waterproofs and cooking equipment. The government’s line rapidly evolved to keep pace, and 10 Downing Street eventually pledged that 20,000 Syrian refugees would now be allowed into the country.
Some Jewish groups have been long campaigning on this subject, such as JCore, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, which on August 12 sent an open letter to Cameron urging him to do more to address the crisis.
Laura Janner-Klausner, a senior Reform rabbi, was one of the 200 signatories to the letter. “The language that is being used raises a flag for Jews, who may tend to be risk-averse, not grand-standing, but disagree with this,” she explained. “Any potentially delegitimizing language is dangerous. Very respectable politicians have these ‘slips of the tongue’ and Jews in particular know the ramifications of that kind of language.”
Some larger communal bodies are now responding to the crisis – World Jewish Relief, the Anglo-Jewish charity responding to international disasters, has launched an appeal – but much of the reaction has been from grass-roots bodies. Synagogues and youth movements are collecting aid, and radical Diaspora group Jewdas has been organizing a series of visits to transport assistance to the people camped out in Calais, with plans to bring volunteers to help teach at makeshift language schools there.
“Persecution, exile, the fascism of national borders – these are things Jews have suffered throughout our history and we stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants in Calais and elsewhere as they try to reach a better life,” Jewdas members wrote on their Facebook page for their pre-Rosh Hashanah aid drive.
Others are simply driving down to Calais with carloads of supplies.
“It’s very sad that it falls to inexperienced individuals to bring vital aid to the refugees in Calais,” said Alex Mankowitz, a copywriter from north London. “I went there with two friends and we did what we could, but it was chaotic. The response from the Jewish community has been very disappointing – what a short memory we must have.”
Indeed, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s first public statement on the subject came only late last week, when he urged people to identify with “the small boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach.”
“We have an immediate responsibility and moral imperative to rehumanize this debate and only then will we be in a position to begin to address it. As Jews, many of us have family members who were refugees and our heritage must inform the way that we respond to this crisis.”
Anglo-Jewry’s umbrella body, the Board of Deputies, also refrained from comment until September 3. Then it too issued a statement expressing its “horror and pain” at the death of Aylan, his brother and their mother, and for good measure quoting the Exodus verse “You must not oppress foreigners.”
One official at a major communal body agreed that the official reaction had been noticeably lackluster.
“[There was] reticence to criticise a government that’s very good on our issues and maybe, more deeply, a nimbyism [Not In My Back Yard] that’s emerged after three or four generations of being here, for most of us,” he said.
Some in Anglo-Jewry – as well as in the wider community – are nervous of the implications of an influx of refugees from the Middle East. The Islamic State has capitalized on such fears by boasting that it had sent 1,000 fighters to Europe posing as refugees. There has also been much debate over the issue of so-called economic migrants posing as refugees.
Daniel Trilling, a journalist who specializes in refugee issues, says it is unhelpful to try and divide those seeking refuge into “good” and “bad” categories. He notes that his own grandmother came to the UK from Berlin in 1939, and was forced to enter the country on a fake work permit.
“By today’s standards, she would have been dismissed as an illegal immigrant trying to exploit the system,” he said.
Trilling disagrees with the argument of some in Britain that the current situation is not comparable to that in the run-up to World War II.
“We tend to see everything in the 1930s as simply foreshadowing what came next, that is that the Holocaust is the only reason that it was wrong for Britain to close its doors to German Jews,” he said.
“[This is] missing the fact that a general failure and unwillingness to accommodate refugees not only leads to nasty border policies, it’s a threat to democratic societies too, because it gives governments the excuse to pursue authoritarian policies.
“Efforts to help refugees should make human needs their priority. Europe’s crisis is unfolding precisely because this principle has been ignored, and if we start making distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ refugees we are compounding the problem. Imagine if in 1938 Nicholas Winton [a British humanitarian who saved 669 children from the Nazis] had said ‘I’ll only take assimilated German Jews on the Kindertransport, and not these Ostjuden [poorer, less well-educated Jews from Eastern Europe] who have failed to integrate into Western European society.”
Meanwhile, ordinary people and synagogue groups, particularly in the Reform movement, have been quietly helping run services for years.
Juliet Simmons, a marketing consultant, volunteers at a monthly asylum seekers’ drop-in run by a north London synagogue for nearly a decade. She is part of a team handing out supermarket vouchers, cups of tea and sandwiches made by the cheder kids to destitute refugees from Congo, Syria, Darfur and Eritrea.
Each visitor also gets a hard-boiled egg. “We prepare hundreds,” she explains. “They’re full of protein and easy to transport. For people who haven’t eaten in a while and maybe aren’t too healthy, this is a great food to take away.
“All of those who come are destitute asylum seekers – they can’t work, they have no national insurance number. You’re like a nothing kind of person. People come over and over again, stuck in the system. Last month, when it was boiling hot, I spoke to one man who had taken five buses to get there. That’s two or three hours of travel just to get some supermarket vouchers.
“There’s something about the Jewish story that resonates with me,” says Simmons. “My grandfather left Austria just before World War II and if he had been turned away I wouldn’t have been here. The more I see it on the news the more I want people not to see swarms of migrants but people from terrible circumstances. If we tell their stories we can change perceptions.”