The leadership of the Board of Deputies has been criticised by members for its failure to condemn Israel’s plan to deport tens of thousands of African migrants to Rwanda, with references to the plan as “ethnic cleansing” and a form of slavery.
At the Board meeting today, a number of deputies aired their thoughts on the issue, and implored Jonathan Arkush, their organisation’s president, to speak out on the matter.
Laurence Brass, deputy for Bushey United synagogue, told the room that he spoke “as a former asylum judge and a trustee for the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE).
“It is, therefore, with deep shame that I see Israel has adopted an inhumane policy of seeking to deport its 38,000 African asylum seekers to Rwanda.”
Mr Brass went on to say that he knew “of pitiful refugees who are being hidden under the floorboards of Jewish homes to avoid being part of this mass deportation. Such stories have an all too familiar ring to European Jews.
“But whereas mainstream Jewish organisations in the US have voiced their opposition to the Knesset ruling, there has been a deafening silence from their UK counterparts. The President claims there isn’t a “strong case” for making public representations on this matter. He’s wrong.
How can we call ourselves Jews and do nothing whilst this appalling ethnic cleansing operation gathers pace?”
Mr Brass was referring to Mr Arkush’s response to a written question on the issue of the forthcoming Israeli deportations, in which the president of the Board said “every country has the right to determine its policy on accepting migrants and Israel is no different. I have not seen any strong case for making representations on this subject, but I would be happy to consider deputies’ views.”
Joe Millis, deputy for Bromley Reform, pointed out that “the 1905 Aliens Act was also legally instituted in this country, and it was against Jews. Let’s not forget that in the 1930’s the Americans and the Canadians and various other countries also blocked Jewish refugees and asylum seekers under their own immigration law.
“It’s not only the $3,500 that each refugee gets, it’s the $9,000 that Israel is going to pay to a third country for these people to go to. There’s a name for that, selling people. There is a name for that. Please, I think it’s time to take a stand.”
Amos Schonfeld, deputy for Yachad, described the strong support from within the Jewish community for a public statement on the issue.
“There have been 45 Rabbis who have penned a letter to the [Israeli] Ambassador, and you should be standing with them,” he told Mr Arkush.
“Every youth movement has reached out either to myself or the New Israel Fund and you should be standing with them. The Union of Jewish Students have been thinking about what they should be doing too, and you should be standing with them.”
Josh Holt, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) backed up that point, saying that the planned deportations “were against Jewish values, irrefutably.
“The silence from the leadership of this community is saddening,” he continued.
“And it is saddening to me, as president of the democratic student body of the UK Jewish community, to not be able to get behind the leadership of my community in facing this.”
A number of other deputies also spoke out strongly urging Mr Arkush to consider a public statement on the issue. He responded by saying that the Board would write to the Israeli embassy on the matter and that the answer would then be considered by the organisation’s International division.
“What I’m not going to do is shoot off the Board’s mouth as it were, on something without feeling that we have some evidence and full information,” he said.
He agreed that “we have to have compassion on people who are searching for a better life”, but went on to say that “with the best will in the world, I don’t think anyone in this Board would consider that Israel should have an open door to everyone who wanted to enter from sub-Saharan Africa.
“Because it’s not practical. Any more practical than it would be for these people to come to the United Kingdom or France or Germany. There’s a limit to what you can absorb.
“We will seek to gain the best possible evidence from Israel, and we will make known the outcome through the next international division report.”