LONDON — When Baroness Helena Kennedy, one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers, declared, “We are witnessing a soft fascist breeze which could easily become a gale,” it was hard not to shudder.
Kennedy was the keynote speaker at a unique June 20 London conference marking Refugee Week. The forum was called to highlight the parallels between the refugee crisis of the 1930s and the debate engulfing Britain today about immigration.
Back then, it was all about Jews; today, it is all about Syrians and thousands of other would-be asylum seekers, desperate to leave their countries of origin. But as speaker after speaker in the ironically-titled “Welcome to Britain?: Refugees Then and Now” conference observed, headlines and public discourse could plausibly be attributed to both the past and the present.
The conference, held at King’s College, part of London University, was organized by the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group in conjunction with CARA, the Refugee Council, JCore (the Jewish Council for Racial Equality), the Wiener Library (a specialist Holocaust institution) and King’s College’s Institute of Contemporary British History.
Its focus was chosen in memory of a largely forgotten but remarkable politician, Eleanor Rathbone, who died in 1946 and who devoted much of her parliamentary career to working for refugees, both those from the Spanish Civil War and the many Jews seeking shelter in Britain.
Rathbone, indeed, was known as the “MP for Refugees,” according to Dr. Susan Cohen, honorary fellow at the Parkes Institute of the University of Southampton, who was awarded her doctorate for her thesis on the unusual politician.
Rathbone was aided in her campaigns for refugees by being utterly independent, Cohen told The Times of Israel.
“She was independently wealthy, she sat as an Independent MP — and who knows how she would have worked if she had been obliged to toe a party line. She was a real maverick, but so effective,” Cohen said.
Rathbone’s seat was a peculiar one, the Combined English Universities, which she represented for two decades. The constituency was abolished in 1950.
So absorbed was Rathbone in her work that she wrote a pamphlet, “Falsehoods and Facts About The Jews,” published by great friend and ally in her work for refugees, Victor Gollancz.
Rathbone visited Prague in January 1939 to see for herself the situation of Jewish refugees; she established the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees in 1938; and was a ferocious campaigner against the internment of German Jews who were put in camps after the war began, in response to public fears of “enemy aliens.” It was said of her that she was so formidable that junior ministers hid behind pillars when they heard Rathbone coming down House of Commons corridors.
The day-long conference, marking the 70th anniversary of Rathbone’s death, was opened by Stephen Wordsworth, chief executive of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA), an organization set up in 1933 to rescue Jewish academics who had lost their posts due to the Nazis. Eighty years later, Wordsworth said, their work was still sadly necessary.
Diana Packer, a PhD candidate at Northumbria University, evoked the days of the notorious Aliens Act of 1905 and the impact of the arrival of Russian Jews in the early days of the century on the willingness of the British government to accept Jewish refugees in the 1930s. Such concern filtered down to the Jewish community, Packer said, citing a 1938 booklet published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews entitled “While You Are In England,” offering such helpful advice as “Do not wave your arms about.”
The co-convenor of the conference Lesley Urbach, was the first of several speakers to bust the “myth” that Britain had been warm and welcoming to Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 40s. She gave a paper pinpointing the numerous rejections by Home Secretary Herbert Morrison of applications to allow Jews in to the country.
One of Rathbone’s closest associates, the MP Victor Cazalet, said in May 1943, “I get a little tired of people saying how wonderful this country has been,” a put-down echoed by Urbach herself.
Morrison — the grandfather of present-day UK Labour politician Peter Mandelson — had repeatedly rejected visa applications by Jews on the grounds that more Jews in Britain would risk increased anti-Semitism.
Articulating government policy of the day, Morrison told the would-be applicants that “the fact that you are refugees from Nazi oppression is no guarantee that you would fight [for Britain] against the Nazi regime.”
Jews, observed Urbach, were to be admitted into Britain on “a utilitarian rather than a humanitarian basis,” a distinction frequently made today by the present British government when considering immigration policies.
The event concluded with a presentation by Barbara Winton, remembering her late father, Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from Prague on the eve of the outbreak of war in what became known as the Czech Kindertransport. What her father had done, she said, represented “the power of compassion as a driver for action,” and the delegates were encouraged to draw the same parallels today.
But it was left to Baroness Kennedy to cast a clear and cold eye on the present-day attitudes to refugees.
“I want to force cynical politicians and journalists to sit in a room with an asylum seeker, as I have done, and then decide what the policy should be,” she said.
Today’s refugees, just as in the 1930s and 40s, were “human beings, with a story, and a back story — and not deserving of the vilification which they are getting in some quarters.”