“It is felt by many people that we hear too much about the troubles of the Jews in Germany… They are an anomaly… an undigested particle which causes disorder… they are of Oriental origin, yet having lived for long in Europe they claim to be treated as Western people and usually the claim succeeds… There is the belief that Jews possess a great and occult power. And certainly the Jews must bear some of the responsibility for keeping this belief alive.”
These are the words of George Malcolm Thomson, a widely respected newspaper columnist, writing in the pro-Conservative Evening Standard in the summer of 1938. He claimed that that they possess “an international organisation.” and are “quick to use their influence over opinion, their power over money to help their fellow Jews”. He bemoaned the rise of Jewish refugees “who pour into Britain” warning that, “if we get overloaded with Jews there may be a reaction against them.”
A few weeks earlier, another pro-Conservative paper, the Sunday Express, published a major article about the position of Jews in Nazi Germany. It acknowledged that their position was worsening but speculated that antisemitism had grown there because German Jews had become too prosperous. The Express indicated its sympathy with anti-Jewish measures that the Nazis had taken. But it returned at the end to its real focus: Britain, claiming that: “Just now there is a big influx of foreign Jews into Britain… They are over-running the country”. Over at the Daily Mail, this paper that had openly supported the British Union of Fascists, especially during 1934, and regularly reported Hitler in positive terms, chimed in with the headline: “German Jews pouring into this country”. They were praising and repeating the words of a magistrate, Herbert Metcalfe, who had made an anti-refugee outburst while overseeing a trial concerning a street altercation between Jews and fascists. He sentenced three Jews to six months hard labour with a recommendation of deportation.
Despite the ominous headlines, in comparison with the volume of asylum applications, relatively few Jewish refugees were actually permitted to enter Britain at that time. The events that occurred 81 years ago in November 1938, increased the clamour among a more liberal segment of society to deal with an obvious humanitarian crisis, but they were repeatedly drowned out by the wave of hostility to refugees, especially Jewish refugees, in the pro-Conservative press.
Today is the anniversary of the horrific events in Germany and Austria that took place over two days and nights on 9/10 November 1938, initially labelled Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass”, but renamed by German anti-fascists as Reichsprogromnacht. Over these 48 hours Nazi stormtroopers led a wave of violent attacks on Jewish people and property which many ordinary citizens participated in or cheered from the sidelines. Some 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were smashed and looted, 267 synagogues were destroyed, 91 Jews were killed, and thousands were taken from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps. During those two days and two nights the Nazi regime’s goal of completely removing Jews from German life, underwent a major step change.
In that period there were few individuals willing to put their head above the parapet and confront the anti-alien position head on. One was a former Liberal MP Sir John Hope Simpson who wrote a piece, also published by the Evening Standard, entitled: “Open the Gates”. In it he argued that, “if Great Britain were yet to announce that she were willing to accept one hundred thousand… she would set a worthy example which other nations… could scarcely fail to follow.” Interestingly Hope Simpson also took a very critical view of Zionist practice in Palestine in the 1930s, observing that, “The most lofty sentiments are ventilated in public meetings and in Zionist propaganda” but “the Jewish National Fund and other organs of the movement did not uphold or embody a vision of cooperation or mutual benefit with the Arabs”.
As we remember the events of Reichspogromnacht, it is of course sad to reflect that the stance against refugees in the pro-Tory press continues to be characterised by, at best, suspicion of refugees, but more usually just utter inhumanity. The architects and main perpetrators of the deliberately created Hostile Environment towards migrants and refugees – David Cameron, Theresa May, Amber Rudd – have all stepped down from their positions, or been replaced, but the policy itself has not yet been superseded. The victims of that “environment” from the Caribbean community still chase after justice. For some it is already too late. Deported to destitution, some British citizens from the Caribbean met with an early death.
And what a contrast between the humanity of a Liberal such as Sir John Hope Simpson,
and the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, who, in coalition with the Tories, repeatedly voted for every single piece of legislation that constituted that Hostile Environment.
The chink of light for those voters for whom attitudes towards migrants and refugees is of paramount importance in deciding which way to vote, however, is the debate on immigration that took place on the floor of the Labour Party conference at the end of September this year. That debate was brimming with humanity towards and empathy with migrants, and several delegates who were themselves migrants contributed to it.
The policy that delegates passed was refreshingly radical. It embodied the shift in attitudes that longstanding anti-racist activists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have enabled since 2015: it declared that “Free movement, equality and rights for migrants, are socialist values and benefit us all.” It pledged to oppose current Tory immigration legislation; campaign for free movement, equality and rights for migrants; reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business, and number caps/targets, close all detention centres, and scrap all Hostile Environment measures.
It is a policy that should be positively welcomed by all who understand the real meaning of Reichspogromnacht and the atmosphere that was present in the press and politics here at that time. And if those in leadership positions of the Jewish community removed their blinkers, and took a few moments off from their propagandist war against Labour’s leadership, they might see some principles that large sections of the Jewish community, in common with other minority communities, would appreciate and support.