Immigration debate has uncomfortable echoes of Jews in pre-war Europe

Immigration debate has uncomfortable echoes of Jews in pre-war Europe

Kindertransport refugees
Kindertransport refugees

Jon SILVERMAN, Professor of Media and Criminal Justice, University of Bedfordshire.

Jon Silverman
Professor Jon Silverman

It is a truism that what we think about others is invariably a commentary on our own innermost prejudices.

Having been the ‘other’ for so many centuries and in such a variety of geo-political contexts, Jews might be thought to bear a special responsibility to have an open-minded, even welcoming, approach to immigrants. But is that a reasonable expectation?

Was it unreasonable and intolerant of Jewish communities in France and Germany to have shown hostility to their co-religionists from Poland who moved westwards in the 1920s-1930s, threatening their own comfortably assimilated existence?

Should the Ashkenazim in Israel have been more welcoming towards the Mizrahi olim from Arab lands who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, at risk to their own political and social dominance?

These and other questions, given contemporary relevance by the moral panic over the ‘invasion’ of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, provide the context for a debate at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on January 22, which I’ll be chairing.

One of the panelists is Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun. As a media academic and journalist, I believe an unhealthy collusion between parts of the media and the political class can be blamed for some of the intemperate rhetoric we have heard over the past few months.

It is rhetoric that has uncomfortable echoes of the discourse which began the delegitimisation of Jews in pre-war Europe and ended… well, we know where.

If you think that’s hyperbole, consider some of the language used to demonise Roma beggars, who, in the words of a prominent Conservative member of Westminster city council, come to the UK “to pickpocket and aggressively beg” and are responsible for “a massive amount of disruption and low-level crime”.

For the past few weeks, the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express in particular have assailed readers with tales of East Europeans being taught how to claim benefits in the UK and exploit the NHS. In Hungary, violence against Roma, including murder, has been preceded by similar inflammatory discourse in the media and local council chambers.

I’m not saying we’ll see pogroms on London streets. But the post-war history of UK race relations tells us that how you talk about others has more than a passing influence on how you treat them.

It’s been suggested that we have an historic opportunity to debate immigration, freed from the shadow cast by Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 Rivers of Blood speech. And it’s certainly true that, for much of the past 45 years, immigration has been discussed in terms of race, with the focus on arrivals from the Indian sub-continent and Africa.

Since the EU’s enlargement, the public discourse has been about Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and, from this month, Bulgarians and Romanians, while the challenge has been framed, not so much in terms of multiculturalism, but British sovereignty.

But underneath, we’re confronting the same demon – fear of the ‘other’, whose presence is thought to jeopardise our own (often mythologised) sense of identity.

If anti-Semitism has been described as “the longest hatred”, fear of the alien, the other, has an equally dishonourable pedigree.

I recently came across academic papers on The German Gypsy Question in Britain, 1860-1906;Reactions to Lithuanian and Polish Immigrants In The Lanarkshire Coalfield, 1880-1914 and, in Robert Winder’s excellent account, Bloody Foreigners, 1836 royal commission findings that Irish refugees from the potato famine brought with them “filth, neglect, confusion, discomfort and insalubrity”.

Immigration confronts us with real issues around jobs, health and welfare and the social fabric of our communities. But debate on the issue shouldn’t be exploited as a surrogate for other obsessions, be it EU disengagement, Islamophobia, or, indeed, to sell newspapers.

Whether or not you feel Jews should understand that better than others, it is a good time to join the debate.

• The Immigration Debate is on January 22 at 8pm at LJCC, Ivy House, 94-96 North End Rd, NW11 7SX. Jon Silverman is a former BBC Home Affairs Correspondent.

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