Britain as refuge: the real story

In this country, we pride ourselves, Jews and non-Jews alike, on our welcoming attitude to those seeking shelter here. But this is largely based on a cosy mythology.

By Edie Friedman, October 23, 2008

I was recently researching the tabloid press archives for a new book on Britain's treatment of refugees, when I came across two eye-popping stories from 2003. The first claimed that a group of asylum seekers was capturing, killing and baking the Queen's swans; the second, that asylum seekers had abducted donkeys from Greenwich Royal Park, also for food. Neither paper was able to substantiate these claims, but they did not hurry to retract them either.

Yet, this should not surprise us. Looking back at the press accounts of Jewish refugees over 120 years, it is clear that little has changed in terms of language and tone, simplification and distortion. Here is the Manchester City News in 1888, on the arrival of Jews from eastern Europe:

"Their unclean habits, their wretched clothing and miserable food enable them to perpetuate existence upon a pittance... these immigrants have flooded the labour market with cheap labour to such an extent to reduce thousands of native workers to the verge of destitution..."

When derogatory things are said about asylum seekers and refugees today, I feel that my past and that of thousands, if not millions of fellow Jews is also being traduced. Migration, asylum and refuge are all a part of the Jewish story. My grandparents, in common with many in the Jewish world, came to the West to escape persecution and to find a better life for themselves and their children. How would we feel if someone called them "bogus"?

It is easy to forget that the arrival of large numbers of Jewish refugees was regularly met with a less than rapturous welcome by the Government, trade unions, certain newspapers and indeed sections of the Jewish community itself. Moreover, their arrival was the catalyst for the formation of several antisemitic groups, including, in 1900, the British Brothers League, in some ways a forerunner of the British Union of Fascists.

In addition, the Trades Union Congress passed a number of resolutions between 1892 and 1895 calling for strict anti-alien legislation. The Conservative party made alien restriction a central plank of its platform after the 1900 general election.

In 1905, the Aliens Act was passed to restrict "undesirable and destitute immigrants" who were considered to be a charge on public funds or posed a risk to public health. This Act included a provision to deport immigrants and, in its first four years, 1,378 Jews were deported, many of whom had lived with their families in the UK for years. Some of these deportations were carried out with the approval of the Jewish community. In 1888, the Board of Guardians, a forerunner of the Board of Deputies, prided itself on having arranged and funded the repatriation of thousands of Jewish families. Far more numerous, however, were those refugees who were given financial and housing assistance by institutions within the Jewish community created precisely to help the new arrivals. But the generosity shown by some in the Jewish community was somewhat tempered by pressure from more settled Jews for the "newcomers" to give up some of their "foreign ways". In 1881, The Jewish Chronicle wrote:

"If they intend to remain in England, if they wish to become members of our community, we have a right to demand that they will show signs of an earnest wish for a complete amalgamation with the aims and the feelings of their host."

Fast-forward to the 1930s and the next major wave of Jewish refugees into Britain, and we find the same ambivalence and antagonism towards them.

The fact that Britain took in some of these refugees has an iconic importance for our self-definition today as a generous and welcoming nation to those seeking refuge. Events in 2005 marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, emphasised not only Britain's heroic role in defeating the Nazis but also in its provision of a haven for Jewish refugees. But this was not universally welcomed, as a 1938 Sunday Express editorial shows:

"[But] just now there is a big influx of foreign Jews into Britain. They are over-running the country. They are trying to enter the medical profession in great numbers. They wish to practise as dentists. Worst of all, many of them are holding themselves out to the public as psychoanalysts. There is no intolerance in Britain today. And by keeping a close watch on the causes that feed the intolerance of the Jews in other European countries, we shall be able to continue to treat well those Jews who have made their homes among us".

Even the popular actress and comedienne Joyce Grenfell wrote: "There is something a bit uncosy about a non-Aryan refugee in one's kitchen."

And historian Tony Kushner reminds us of an infamous comment made by Lord Dawson, the then President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1933: "The number of refugee doctors who could usefully be absorbed, or teach us anything, could be counted on the fingers of one hand".

The antagonism shown by some towards Jewish refugees was tempered by the generosity shown by many non-Jews, including other religious groups such as the Quakers, and individual families. The Attenboroughs (parents of film director Richard, now Lord Attenborough, and Sir David Attenborough, the natural historian and broadcaster) adopted two Jewish children who came on the Kindertransport

Government policy towards the refugees was ambivalent. Asylum in the United Kingdom was dependent on guarantees that the Jewish community would provide for all of the refugees' needs. Unsurprisingly, such a financial undertaking could not be sustained and the Government was eventually forced into providing some assistance. And, while there was a huge amount of work done by Jewish individuals and organisations to help the refugees, the Jewish establishment was reluctant to demand that greater numbers should be allowed into Britain, since, as Anne Karpf suggests, " ... political action qua Jews was precisely what they'd relinquished in return for civil rights and might, they feared, be taken both as a criticism of the British government and ingratitude, thereby generating domestic antisemitism ."

As the situation for European Jewry deteriorated, the British government's behaviour did not alter fundamentally. As historian Louise London puts it: "The problem of what to do with the Jews took precedence over saving them." She describes Britain's response to the plight of Jews as characterised by "caution and pragmatism subordinating humanitarianism to Britain's self-interest" - challenging the myth that Britain went to war "to save the Jews".

After the war, Britain's policy towards Jewish refugees became more restrictive. Over 600,000 work permits were given out to displaced persons from Europe, of which only a few thousand went to Jews. In a post-war Britain experiencing an acute labour shortage, Jews did not fit into the "economic requirements" it demanded: they were neither considered good workers, nor were they thought likely to assimilate into the British way of life.

Children were the main beneficiaries of the Government's post-war policy towards Jewish refugees, though even there the response, compared to the need, was inadequate. The Home Office devised a policy to allow 1,000 Jewish orphans into the country on a temporary basis, though only 732 met their strict criteria. The policy towards adults was less generous. Under the Distressed Relatives Scheme, a paltry 1,200 Jews were allowed into the country.

The United States, which had a more stringent approach to accepting Jewish refugees both before and during the war, made some amends after the war by allowing in 100,000 refugees.

The UK policy conflicted with an opinion poll conducted in 1943 which showed that 78 per cent of the respondents were in favour of admitting endangered Jews.

Anti-Jewish feeling was in evidence even after the war, as illustrated in a little-known episode told by historian Graham Macklin. Around 3,000 residents signed a petition in October 1945 in Hampstead, in North-West London, where many German-Jewish refugees had settled, demanding that "aliens of Hampstead" should be repatriated in order to free up housing for returning servicemen and women.

"Despite the emerging details regarding the depths of Nazi racial barbarity... Against a backdrop of generalised sentiment in favour of repatriation, the Jewish refugee was often viewed not as a deserving recipient of sympathy, but as a parasitic interloper depriving Hampstead's indigenous citizens of scarce resources..."

The Times campaigned for the repatriation of "aliens" (not only Jews but Czechs, Poles and even the Free French) as a necessary prerequisite to the reconstruction of Europe. Arguments put forward at the time resonate with contemporary anti-asylum rhetoric: that government resources should be prioritised for British citizens and that asylum seekers should be repatriated for the sake of their home countries' development.

Graham Macklin suggests that the antipathy towards Jewish refugees was a forewarning of "even greater hostility which was to be faced by future generations of immigrants and asylum seekers."

Today, as then, the press and politicians create new "facts" and repeat the mantra that restricting the entry of refugees is a necessary prerequisite for "good race relations". In addition, a false dichotomy between so-called "genuine" and "bogus" refugees has entered the language.

As well as being labelled "undesirable" by host communities and politicians, refugees have also borne some antagonism from their own people who, although already established here, still live under a cloud of insecurity. This stems from the fear that increased immigration, particularly of the poor and "culturally different", will exacerbate racism against the established minority communities.

Throughout the last century, the Jewish establishment thought it imperative that Jewish refugees should acculturate as quickly as possible. Such attitudes were echoed in research conducted in 2005 by the Institute of Public Policy Research, which found that ethnic minority communities believed that today's asylum seekers and refugees posed a potential economic threat.

Britain's image of itself, today as well as at the end of the 19th century, has been that of a country with a proud tradition of accepting those seeking sanctuary. It forms part of our national identity. But neither in the experience of Jewish refugees in the 19th and 20th centuries nor in the experience of asylum seekers and refugees today does this national myth entirely stand up.

Rather, we are left with a picture of an ambivalent government that, on the one hand, proclaims its humanitarian commitments and, on the other, bows to populist opinion shaped to a considerable extent by the inflammatory rhetoric of certain sections of the press. But, as Tony Kushner comments: "It is thus ironic that the Jews from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century and those escaping from the Third Reich in the 1920s, have now become part of the elite club of historically designated ‘genuine refugees' - the latest members being the Ugandan Asians - whom ‘we' were right to help in the past. No politician or commentator, aside from those in neo-fascist organisations, would dare now to say that either the Huguenots or the Jews were anything but deserving of asylum."

If you believe that Britain's past record is exemplary, it is easier to believe that Britain has "done its bit" and can therefore leave it to other countries to take in refugees. This goes hand-in-hand with the perception that Britain's compassion, as well as its ability to cope with more refugees, has been exhausted. A more mature approach would be to acknowledge that Britain's past treatment of refugees was, in fact, ambivalent. This is not in order to berate ourselves but as an impetus to improve matters in the future.

In understanding the past and planning for the future, a realistic grasp of British history is vital. Unrealistic perceptions of our historic altruism can be used as an excuse to absolve us from our responsibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers today.

Asylum seekers and refugees are an integral part of our multifaceted society. Acknowledging their place in Britain's history, and working towards their proper integration into British life is a necessary condition for building a healthy, diverse and inclusive society.

Dr Edie Friedman is the founder and director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality. This article, an edited extract from Reluctant Refuge: The Story of Asylum in Britain, by Edie Friedman and Reva Klein, published by the British Library, is dedicated to the memory of Reena Bhavnani, a member of JCORE's Black-Jewish forum who died on July 31 this year.

Last updated: 12:14pm, October 23 2008