The Refugee Question - To Accept or Reject?
We have already mentioned that the story of Jews in the Diaspora is essentially one of a people in motion. Never fully anchored, in the deepest sense, to the places that they have lived - seeing them all, on one level at least, as representing exile - Jews have found it relatively easy to move from place to place. Sometimes they have moved to a new place, looking for improved economic opportunities. More often, there has been an added element of rejection by the place in which they lived previously. At other times they have actually been expelled. Frequently throughout history, they have responded to prolonged or sudden violence by taking their possessions and searching for new places where they can put a distance between themselves and that violence.
In their search for safe or better prospects they have often founded new communities; e.g., many of the New World stories are of this nature. Equally often, however, they have moved to new communities, seeking the safety and the familiarity of an established community to support them and help them put down some kind of roots. This means that one of the crucial parts of the Jewish story is represented by the interaction between settled Jews and refugees. How should the settled Jews react to the newcomers? How have they reacted in the past?
Theoretically, this is not a difficult question. As we have seen in Part One of the program, is an essential value that has been stressed in Jewish sources for thousands of years. Nevertheless, as so often happens, the reality has often fallen short of the ideal. Difficulties and tensions between the newcomers and their ‘hosts’ have often accompanied the arrival of new immigrants in a community. This is not just a question of generosity or the lack of it on the part of the existing community, though sometimes this has played a large part. In fact, we see cases in history where communities have been willing to donate large sums of money to help Jewish refugees but when those same refugees have turned up on the community’s doorstep, the latter have made great efforts to move them on elsewhere.
It should be pointed out, however, that there are just as many cases of the opposite reaction, when a community has gone out of its way to help and integrate the new arrivals. In such cases, the ideal of Jewish responsibility has guided the host community in its decisions.
Reception of immigrants may be tense because of a fear of financial burden on the host community, or due to a fear that the newcomers would in some way compromise the position and the status of the existing community in the eyes of the surrounding population. This may especially be the case when the local community has worked hard and long to attain this modus vivendi, and they see the newcomers as threatening all the work that they have invested in the business of acceptance. If the newcomers are poor or clearly very ‘foreign’ to the area, this is likely to increase such tensions.
Another scenario that is likely to weigh against the ideal of calm acceptance by local Jews is the community’s economic situation. If it feels financially vulnerable, it may well feel that the influx of newcomers may threaten the livelihoods of some community members. For all these reasons, then, we see many situations in Jewish history where the acceptance of refugees by an existing Jewish community has been more problematic than the ideal would suggest.
Let us take an example of community ambivalence. Towards the end of the twelfth century, the Jews of medieval England had reason to feel moderately content with their situation, at least in comparison with many other Jews of their generation. Most of them had come from France a little over a century before, attracted by economic possibilities that had opened up there after the conquest by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. They had put down roots in England as the king essentially needed them for economic reasons. Since their arrival, some Jews had become extremely rich and the majority carved out an acceptable living. There had been no serious outbreaks of violence against them, unlike their brothers on the European continent who had suffered some terrible attacks over the last generations.
In the early 1180s a group of refugees from France, survivors of massacres and victims of imprisonment, made their way to England as they felt unable to stay in France. They journeyed to various Jewish communities, including the small, but significant, community of York. The imminent arrival of the refugees provides the opening for the excellent historical novel, The King’s Persons, written in 1963 by the American Jewish novelist, Joanne Greenberg. Let us quote her opening scene. A group of Jewish community leaders meets to discuss how the newcomers should be greeted:
“Let us greet them with dignity!” the Rabbi said. “Let us welcome them with open hearts.”
“When they have reach York, we should be celebrating,” a man said. “Let us sing our greeting to them; their bitterness should end in joy and their lamentation close with laughter.”
“Ah!” - and a hand went up in the ancient gesture of argumentation - “but is it not true that there will be many newly widowed, newly orphaned, who are in mourning as well as in exile? Would it be fitting, then, to greet them with feasts and with gaiety”?
Rabbi Elias looked at Baruch, who sat with his son at a place of honor. Baruch was one of the wealthiest men in England, and his decision, although neither would admit it, carried more weight than the Rabbi’s…
“The point is not how we greet them,” he said, “the point is what we will do with them once they get here. These are my relatives, too,” he added, as if to excuse himself to the Rabbi’s astonished look, “but they are sick and wretched. They have nothing. We will have to pay their tax for the first few years; are we to set them up in business as well?”
“My God!” Rabbi Elias raised both his arms. “Are there not few enough? We will surely find places for them. Let us greet them as honored guests, not as burdens!”
The 1180s turned out to be the turning point for the English Jews. Towards the end of the decade they encountered the same hatred that had caused the violence against the Jews of mainland Europe over the past century. Massacres broke out against the Jewish communities that caused a stream of new refugees from within England to flee to the more remote areas of the country. Many of the refugees from the south of the country made their way north to York. There they hoped that they could escaper the violence. They were wrong: the final massacre of the community of York in March 1190 was perhaps the most horrific of all.
In Greenberg’s novel, as the pressure starts to threaten the Jews of York and they begin to realize that they are potential targets for killing, tensions break out between the older community and the newcomers. Many among the community and its leadership are convinced that the presence of the impoverished newcomers makes their situation even more dangerous. We now read the following scene:
There was a fear among the people that had shown itself in these few months in fits of envy and anger, and that resisted the sensible [approaches] of humor and forgiveness. Something new was working in the no longer peaceful minds of Northstreet’s Jews, and Elias did not like what it was doing to them. He had often said that Yorkers were too complacent and should be shaken from their secure and rooted sense of rightness. Now that it had come, he saw how wrong he had been. Fear was making some of them vainer and more cruel than ever. He went into the house, and as if surprised, greeted the assembled men. Since Baruch’s death, a new President had been chosen, and still a bit tentative and cautious in his newness, he greeted Elias and raised the subject. His argument was for closing the doors of York to the homeless of massacres in the south. For all his indirection and care, his picking and choosing of the most advantageous words, his proposition was still as blunt as a fist to the face. When he finished, they all said their little words. Elias groped for a stool on which to sit, for he could not take his eyes from them. “We are all in accord,” the President said…
The Rabbi rose again and turned to leave. “I will fight you all,” he said. “Rabbi Yom Tov and I will fight you all. If it comes to it we will let the whole community put forth its decision. If the vote goes against us, we will leave. I am going now from my house. Be gone when I return.”
In these two passages from the novel, we have much of the drama and the potential tension that has repeatedly challenged the theoretical values of mutual Jewish responsibility and solidarity. Let us now examine the situation through the eyes of the students.