As the seasons turn from Pesach to Holocaust Memorial Day and onwards towards Shavuot we consider our history as immigrants as well as countless verses from the Torah that guide our attitudes towards ‘Ger’ (the foreigner). Exodus 23:9 is often called upon at this point to inspire, “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” However, I believe that there is something deeper than our shared experience of exile or recent experiences of anti-semitism that should denote how we act in support of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Rabbi Hillel stated that ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) was the foundational value of the Torah. Where there has been outcry within the Jewish communities regarding such allegations of anti-semitism, there should be similar responses to other injustices within wider UK society. Equally, Pirke Avot 2:5 tells us “don’t separate yourselves from the community” fostering a sense of solidarity for Jews in the diaspora with those who reside in the same communities.
The debate surrounding migrants has come to the forefront within recent weeks through policies aimed at the Windrush Generation. Whilst Theresa May has finally apologised for causing the Windrush Generation ‘confusion and anxiety’, there is a difficult balance of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ that is being exposed within British society. There has commonly been a dichotomy that delineated the ‘good’ migrant from the ‘bad’, deciding that particular bodies are allowed some freedom of movement whilst others must be locked up. We need to be careful not to fall into this idea that privileges the lives of some over others and does not offer solidarity to all those who are exposed to hostility.
The Hunger Strike in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is an exemplary way that women who have been subject to the exceedingly ‘hostile environment’ of the government have fought against these dehumanising conditions. Reading from Detained Voices these women have spoken about how their ‘lives are not valued, our human rights are not upheld, our spirits are crushed, our identities are anonymous, our faces without form, and we continue to be detained indefinitely, perpetually imprisoned pending an endless unjust administrative hellish nightmare.’ These testimonies are heartbreaking, and are just a few of the stories of those locked up in Immigration Removal Centres.
René Cassin seeks an asylum system where human rights are a primary concern, not an afterthought. Whilst it is important that we call for #time4atimelimit, we can and should be doing more to call for a complete overhaul of the way in which we treat refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. The incredible solidarity shown by SOAS Detainee Support and End Deportations, amongst other groups should inspire us. We need to listen to those who have experienced violence and abuse at the hands of our borders and our state and act in solidarity to ensure that this does not continue. It is for this reason that I believe that as solidarity is a Jewish value, so is resistance.
Resistance is a common theme within Judaism, from the Battle of Cable Street to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, now we must continue this and stand up with those most at risk of harm from contemporary policies. One way that we can stand in solidarity with those detained in Immigration Removal Centres is to visit detainees to support them both practically and emotionally.
As a member of AVID, René Cassin is now looking to set up a group for those who identify as Jewish to visit people of all faiths and nationalities within detention centres across the UK. For more information on what visiting entails, please see the AVID website.
If getting involved with the Jewish Visitors Group is something you may be interested in, please fill out this non-commital survey to ensure that we understand the wishes of the wider Jewish community in supporting those in Immigration Removal Centres, as well as being able to keep in contact with you about the development of the project.
Sofi Shall undertook René Cassin’s Fellowship Programme in 2017 and is a member of René Cassin’s Detention Campaign Group.