This spring sees three iconic anniversaries. April 20 marked the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, April 22 the 25 th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence on the streets of Eltham, south London and June 22 the 70 th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush bringing 948 Caribbean migrants to Britain to help rebuild the country after the horrors of the Second World War. All three events mark defining moments in our “national story”. They provide not only an apt time to remember the past, but should also encourage us to take stock of the current state and direction of race and community relations in Britain.
There is a Jewish connection to two of these events. In the case of the Windrush, there is a little known but tragic irony that this originally German ship (then called the Monte Rosa) was used in 1942 to deport 46 Norwegian Jews to Poland, all but two of them subsequently killed in Auschwitz. Dr Richard Stone, former chair of JCORE and member of West London Synagogue, was, along with Bishop Sentamu and retired judge William Macpherson, on the panel set up to examine the circumstances of Stephen Lawrence’s death and the systematic failure of the police to investigate it. The current experiences of the Windrush generation in being denied basic citizenship rights demonstrate, as with Powell’s speech and Stephen’s murder, the continuing consequences of a “hostile environment” directed towards people perceived to be different.
Jews are, of course, no strangers to the repercussions of a hostile environment, much in evidence in the British press of the late 19th century. This was incorporated into government policy in the 1905 Aliens Act, directed against Jewish refugees and migrants seeking safety and a more secure future. Jews also felt the brunt of a hostile environment from the press and certain politicians when Jewish refugees in the 1930’s sought refuge in Britain.
Hostility is not just a reflection of our past. The Brexit vote brought to the fore an increase of hate crime against many communities, Jews included. And the economic uncertainties as Brexit unfolds do not bode well for those seen as outsiders, the “other”. Ominous manifestations of the scapegoating of minority communities are also all too apparent in various European countries.
But challenges can also bring opportunities. We must resist the temptation to pull up our respective drawbridges and instead seek alliances to oppose those who seek to divide and demonise communities. Three suggestions:
- Ask your MP to attend the debate in Parliament next Monday April 30 to support the Windrush Campaign to establish an independent commission into immigration policy and practice;
- Work to bring together different organisations and communities to combat the online hate speech which has become so prolific and demeans us all;
- Join with others to ensure today’s refugees are welcomed to Britain with justice and dignity.
Implementing such measures means that we will indeed have ensured that the lessons of these anniversaries are not forgotten.
Dr Edie Friedman is the Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE).