Challenging borders with solidarity
The migrant crisis on the Polish border with Belarus that exploded this winter has particular resonance with Jewish people, write Julia Bard and David Rosenberg
The banner of the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) appears on many anti-racist and pro-refugee demonstrations, but one last month felt particularly poignant. We were protesting outside the Polish embassy in London in response to gross inhumanity by Polish border guards preventing asylum-seekers crossing from Belarus into Poland and into the EU. This demonstration, called by Stand Up to Racism, was as much a protest about Fortress Europe as against the local enforcers at this particular crossing point.
Many JSG members have family roots in this region. In our own cases four of our eight grandparents were born in Poland and Belarus – the others in Ukraine and Russia. In the forests where asylum-seekers are attempting to cross that border, the Polish government has built a two-mile militarised zone with fences, barbed wire and checkpoints, and are barring human rights observers. Some refugees who have got through have frozen to death in the forest before they could find help. In an act of barefaced racist profiling, local families have been instructed to report those who “look as if they don’t belong,” while Polish state TV channels spread fake horror stories of refugees committing perverse and criminal acts.
These forests were the scene of all-too-real horrific events in the 1940s. They surround the site of the former Nazi death camp, Sobibor. In October 1943, Jewish inmates rose up and overpowered the guards. Around 300 escaped to the forests. The lucky ones found shelter with local families but most were hunted down – not by the Nazis, but by ultra-nationalist Polish partisans who opposed German occupation but were also deeply antisemitic.
Today, far-right forces in Poland are ratcheting up anti-refugee sentiment and reviving traditional antisemitism, but in several cities, anti-racist campaigners, including Jewish activists, are marching to support migrants and refugees. The Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich joined Christian and Muslim leaders to condemn the actions on the Belarus border and demand that the government uphold asylum-seekers’ human rights. Marek Jezowski, a prominent figure in Poland’s Liberal Judaism movement, supports those helping the refugees there. Speaking in a personal capacity, he says: “I am highly critical of the Polish government's inhumane policy of pushbacks, combined with its refusal to allow the entry of specialist assistance NGOs and the media into an artificially formed border zone.”
But the fate of desperate minorities near a place of such immense Jewish tragedy has escaped the notice of Britain’s chief rabbi and Board of Deputies. Neither have commented on it, even though our own government is implicated by sending 150 military engineers to help secure Poland’s border defences. This is not an aberration. Since March 2020 the Tories have been partnering the Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma, anti-refugee Polish government in leading a very right-wing group in the Council of Europe. This group also includes AfD from Germany, Vox in Spain, Lega Nord in Italy and other far-right parties. But the chief rabbi and the Board of Deputies will not, it seems, lay a glove on the Tories because they and these allies express support for Israel.
Just a few days after the Polish embassy demonstration, the reality of Fortress Europe was brought closer to home. We have become inured to reports of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean where more than 23,000 human beings have perished since 2014. This time a makeshift boat sank in the English Channel with 27 fatalities. There was shock and outrage across Britain. On social media, many Jews condemned the heartlessness of government policy and expressed empathy with the refugees, often recalling the plight of those who sought to escape Nazi Germany. But again, silence from the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies, whose admiration for Home Secretary Priti Patel’s efforts to outlaw solidarity with Palestinians shockingly seems to trump solidarity with other minorities, or support for British Jews’ instinctive expressions of anger on this local, immediate issue.
This stance prioritises Jewish nationalism, distorting the norms and values derived from millennia in which Jews have lived as a minority among other peoples. It is often seen as miraculous that the Jews, who are scattered across the globe, have survived at all. In a world organised into states whose borders are understood to define the territory of a group of people sharing a common culture and speaking a single language, minorities may be tolerated but only if they emulate – and preferably assimilate/disappear into – the majority culture.
But nation states and the nationalism on which they are founded are a recent phenomenon, and their prioritisation of the “majority” has been continuously contested, both within, by the presence of minority communities, and from outside, by their borders being breached militarily and politically, and by the arrival of foreigners. In a world where collective identity is equated with territorial nation states, Jews are just one minority whose existence conflicts with the concept of nationhood. The Roma, who have never possessed nor wanted a homeland, have been similarly relegated to the status of a non-nation or worse. Like the Roma, the Jews have for millennia been mobile, multicultural and multilingual — characteristics that transgress physical and ideological borders. Jewish cultures and languages reflect this long experience of being a recognisable group despite living in many different lands.
Even when Jewish communities have been geographically stable, as many were in eastern Europe, the borders often shifted, changing their nationality and status. For example, in 1918 a citizen of the town of Lemberg would have been living in the Austro-Hungarian empire; in 1920 their town was Polish and called Lwow; in 1939 it was under Soviet rule and named Lvov; from 1941 it was occupied by the Nazis; then in 1944 it returned to Soviet jurisdiction; and today, without moving an inch, they are in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Each change meant functioning in different languages and dealing with different institutions and cultural expectations. Maintaining our identity and communal connections across or despite borders is the norm for Jews. Our cultural resources, traditions and ways of living have enabled us to survive and at times flourish as a minority.
The narrative most Jews grow up with is that Jewish life in the diaspora has been a 2,000-year litany of discrimination, hatred and persecution, leading inexorably to the Nazi Final Solution. If this were the case, the Jews almost certainly would have disappeared. But even a superficial exploration of the history reveals good times and bad, golden ages and Inquisitions, periods of calm and times of turbulence – like any other nation. By casting life as a minority in “other people’s states” as untenable, even deadly, this narrative serves a nationalist purpose, both for the governments of those states and for the leadership of Jewish communities.
Our presence on last month’s demonstration was motivated partly by the closeness we feel to the Polish Jewish experience and to the treatment of minorities in Poland today. It was also informed by our knowledge of our community’s experience of Britain’s first hostile environment when they arrived here as migrants and refugees fleeing pogroms, persecution and systematic discrimination in the tsarist Russian empire at the turn of the 20th century.
Wealthy Tory politicians such as Captain Colomb, MP for Bow, objected to “England with its overcrowded population, being made a human ashpit for the refuse population of the world.” The press stereotyped Jewish immigrants as unhygienic and verminous, spreading lurid tales of criminals, prostitutes and anarchists among them. In east London’s traditional immigrant quarter, the Bishop of Stepney claimed that Jews were “swamping whole areas once populated by English people” and reducing local churches to mere “islands in the midst of an alien sea.”
Another local Tory MP, Major William Evans-Gordon, with other middle and upper class supporters, formed a populist anti-immigrant movement, the British Brothers League, which recruited 12,000 footsoldiers from the urban poor just beyond the Jewish enclave of Whitechapel, telling them that poor housing, low pay and unemployment were caused by immigrants.
In 1905, Britain’s Tory government passed Britain’s first modern peacetime immigration law: the Aliens Act. It was promoted by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who later promised Palestine to the Jews, but clearly did not want them as neighbours. The principles and machinery established through that Act have underpinned every subsequent inhumane piece of British immigration and refugee legislation. It established categories of “desirable” and “undesirable,” created immigration officers who could turn people away on arbitrary medical grounds and gave them powers to deport immigrants who had no visible means of support. The numbers allowed to enter strictly as refugees, supposedly protected from the Act, reduced to a trickle. The Liberals had opposed the Aliens Act in 1905, but implemented it when they gained power in 1906.
This legislation was strengthened either side of World War I making it extremely difficult for German Jews suffering under Nazism to enter during the 1930s. The comforting myths of Britain’s generosity to refugees, perpetuated by the political class and repeated by some well-meaning progressives when campaigning in support of refugees today, are simply not true. The best known act of “generosity” – the Kindertransport – allowed in fewer than 10,000 children, and left their parents at the mercy of the Nazis. These children were cared for by voluntary groups and some extraordinary individuals; the British state did nothing. Meanwhile, the mainstream right-wing media continued to run a filthy “alien scare” campaign. The Daily Mail warned of “German Jews pouring into this country.” The Sunday Pictorial carried the headline: “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole.”
Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of asylum applications Britain received in the late 1930s were granted. Even after the war, with a Labour government, Britain took in shamefully few Holocaust survivors from the displaced persons camps where they were languishing, while welcoming former collaborators coming as migrant workers from formerly occupied eastern Europe.
Britain’s Jewish community has deeply ingrained knowledge of these historical experiences. Even as sections of the community have shifted rightwards politically, they have retained that instinctive awareness and abhorrence of discrimination, and empathy with refugees. Around the country, synagogues provide regular practical support to asylum-seekers, complementing similar projects by more recent immigrant groups. It was heartwarming to see a recent condemnation of the government’s draconian Nationality and Borders Bill by dozens of rabbis, co-ordinated by the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, an organisation which challenges discrimination and aids asylum-seekers, under the heading “Not in our Name.” But it was revealing that most of the rabbis who signed the statement represented Liberal, Reform and Masorti (modern orthodox) Jewish congregations. Only one came from the United Synagogue movement, headed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Perhaps it was in response to the rabbis’ letter and the adverse commentary on social media that the Board of Deputies broke its apparent silence on this legislation, and eventually issued its own milder, more constipated statement, expressing “concerns” rather than condemnation, and welcoming at face value “the government’s wish to increase the fairness of our system so we can protect and support those in genuine need of asylum.” A small step forward. We have to push them further to say something about Poland’s abuse of the desperate people in the forests.
The refugees seeking sanctuary on this politically inflamed border of Europe have already made unimaginable journeys. They have come from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Congo, Iran and Russia – as far as we know. They are Kurds, Yazidis, trafficked women, gay men, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, babies, children and young people. They are starving and thirsty, freezing and sick. They all have reasons to risk everything trying to get themselves and their families to safety. But they are pawns in a deadly political game. Polish border forces, with help from British troops, are building barriers and pushing them back, inflicting suffering that fulfils the draconian imperatives of Fortress Europe.
In Poland it is a crime to help the people who have crossed the border. Nevertheless, human rights groups risk imprisonment to go out into the forest to search for anyone who manages to call for help. There have been demonstrations in support of the people stranded on the border and there has been a chorus of voices from ordinary Polish people, including Jewish Poles, asking how they can help. In response, Grupa Granica was established as an alliance of 14 Polish organisations helping the refugees obtain their human rights to a place of safety, to food, water, medical care – to life. They say, “Help is legal, violence is illegal.” One initiative is for people to put green lights in their windows, indicating that they will offer the refugees a meal, emergency supplies, a chance to wash and recharge their phones. They leave out shoes, milk or bottles of water that volunteers can collect for the people in the forest. And the green lights also make them a target of the Polish authorities for these crimes.
These good people don’t accept their government’s inward-looking, racist definition of the Polish nation but are working to create an open, multicultural Poland, just as we are working to transform Britain’s hostile environment into a vibrant, welcoming society where everyone can flourish. For Jewish people, this crisis echoes down the generations. Wherever our families came from, we are conscious of ourselves as a people who cross borders both between and within nations. That is why we fight for the rights of all human beings to cross borders when they need to and when they wish to. We work for a world where no-one needs to flee for their safety, freedom and human rights.
At the Polish embassy in November human rights activists gathered to demand an end to Poland’s vicious enaction of Fortress Europe. Jewish and Polish people were raising their voices alongside other anti-racists to defend the people whose experiences on the edge of Europe demonstrate so clearly that it’s not minorities who transgress borders; it’s borders that transgress human communities.
This article was first published in the Morning Star.
Posted: 27 December 2021