by Dr Edie Friedman, Founder and Director Jewish Council for Racial Equality
So what has changed in the weeks since we all saw the picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach?
That image, along with others – officials throwing bread to desperate people in Hungary as if it were feeding time at the zoo, and people inhumanly crammed onto overcrowded trains, eerily reminiscent of scenes from our own tragic past – will continue to haunt us and will, for now, galvanise us into action.
Our community has responded in a number of ways, with letters to the prime minister, including one from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) about the government’s failure to deal humanely with the situation of the people in Calais, one signed by more than 100 rabbis from Tzelem, and one from the Charedi community.
A number of synagogues have also put up banners proclaiming: ‘Refugees Are Welcome Here’. That message was reinforced last Saturday, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London.
In the march was a ‘Jewish bloc’, with those who were shomer Shabbat first walking all the way from north-west London to Marble Arch to join the start of the march.
A number of Jewish organisations are coming together to set up a website. This will provide background to the complex issues, and practical ideas on how to help refugees – volunteer, donate (goods and money, including WJR’s appeal to help those in refugee camps in Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece) and provide information on how to connect to other campaigns.
There is now discussion about organising a public meeting for the community to coordinate activities, learn about the issues and inspire further action. We must not underestimate the importance of having a strong Jewish voice speaking out on what is being called the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. But with action come some dilemmas which need considering:
• Should a figure be put on the number of refugees Britain should be receiving?
The announcement by David Cameron that Britain would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over a five-year period had mixed reactions. Many were pleased to see this change of policy.
Others felt that we should take in more than the 20,000 and that they must be allowed to come here much sooner.
• Is it right to limit the numbers to Syrians from refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, or should we be taking some of those thousands of Syrian refugees now sleeping in train stations, on streets or in open fields after surviving their perilous journey across the Mediterranean? • Should we be prioritising children at a risk of splitting up families?
• What about the other groups (Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans) who also braved everything to reach Europe? And closer to home:
• How do we channel the enormous goodwill into practical support when there are conflicting views about what kind of support is most needed?
• How do we avoid compassion fatigue and keep alive the extraordinary interest shown in supporting refugees after those terrible scenes fade from from the front pages?
• How do we prevent public opinion turning hostile, in the face of increasing pressure on housing, education and health services?
• How do we extend the momentum created by this huge crisis to support for the asylum seekers in Britain today who do not have refugee status?
Thousands of them live in destitution, surviving on £36.95 a week, and are not allowed to work.
They endure years of isolation, uncertainty and poverty.
Their needs are ongoing but, unlike the desperate plight of refugees, their stories do not reach our television screens and, consequently, our consciousness.
Nearly 20 years ago I attended a refugee conference in London, where the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn was the keynote speaker. His words still resonate with me today – “How you are with the one to whom you owe nothing is the test of our civilisation”.
Add to this the words of Hillel from Ethics Of TheFathers, “If not now, when?” and the direction of travel we must all take becomes clear.