by Tal Ofer, Board of Deputies
A tragedy is unfolding on European soil in front of our eyes. Tens of thousands of refugees who escape war-torn countries such as Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, seek refuge in Europe. The leaders of the European Union consider this such an urgent matter that the first meeting about it was scheduled for 14 September, weeks after this crisis started.
Some media outlets and some politicians are mixing, on purpose, the issue of refugees with the issue of immigration and call this a migrant crisis. However, those fleeing persecution by ISIS in Syria are not doing so voluntarily, but to save their lives. It is simply wrong to call them migrants.
A refugee who comes to a country has to seek asylum, while an immigrant goes through a different route. Both have different rights under international law.
This is related to a common double standard when the issue of immigration is discussed. The very same people who use anti-immigration rhetoric will be the first to congratulate Mo Farah when he wins an Olympic medal for Team GB.
Ignorance is also evident when many of those have no idea that William the Conqueror (who built the Tower of London) came from Normandy, or that George I was from Hanover. We are all migrants at the end of the day.
The government granted asylum to 10,000 refugees last year, a very low number on a per capita basis. It is surprising, considering that Britain was involved in drafting international conventions that deal with refugees, and taking into account the history of humanitarian support that we provided throughout history.
Clearly the government can do more and share the burden with other European Countries. Issues such as the refugee crisis remind us again the interdependence of EU countries and why Britain can influence and help tackle global challenges when it is at the heart of the EU and not on the sidelines.
While I am not in a position to influence the government’s policy directly, I am in a position to try to influence our Jewish community.
As Jews who suffered persecution throughout history, we should have empathy and compassion for the refugees. When I hear some people I know asking: “Why don’t the refugees go to Saudi Arabia or the UAE?”, I’m shocked. These people need to ask themselves what they would do if their families were faced with extinction, if they were persecuted because of their religion or race? I’m convinced that they would have tried to go to a safer place.
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote beautifully that we should ‘love the stranger because we were once strangers’. Hillel interpreted this golden rule as ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow’.
As we are approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is time for self-examination to reflect on what each one of us did during the year, acknowledge mistakes, seek repentance and think what we could do better next year.
Too often, human beings let their impulses come before thinking through the consequences. If there is one thing we have to apply, it is the principle of ‘look before you leap,’ and this would be my advice to those speaking against the refugees.
The element of tikkun olam [healing the world] is very important in Judaism, we have a duty to repair and transform the world. The duty of each one of us is to make the world a better place by giving charity, doing mitzvahs and helping our fellow man.
Jewish organisations and philanthropists are helping important causes around the world and inside the UK – for example, World Jewish Relief has set up a fund to help refugees.
But I believe that we can, and should, do more. As a community, we should be the ones who lead the call to help and welcome refugees. It is our moral duty.
• The views expressed in this column are the writer’s and not necessarily those of the Board.