Leading British Rabbi Under Fire for Backing Some Curbs on Refugees
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Leading British Rabbi Under Fire for Backing Some Curbs on Refugees

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Sources close to Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi are defending him against accusations that he reneged on previous commitments to asylum rights in the United Kingdom by supporting controversial steps to limit refugee immigration.

The statement comes after a Sunday Telegraph article earlier this month claimed that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had “undergone a change of heart” over the right of asylum seekers to find safe haven in Britain.

The article, based on an interview Sacks gave to the paper, quoted him as arguing that Britain was “besieged” by asylum seekers and that measures had to be taken to stop the influx.

“The present system — beset by delays, humiliations, hardships and human traffickers — cannot continue,” Sacks reportedly told the newspaper.

He went on to suggest the possible establishment of U.N.-administered “regional protection zones.”

Under the proposals — also favored by the Prime Minister Tony Blair — asylum seekers arriving at British ports would be registered and then returned to temporary transit camps near their homelands, where their asylum applications would be vetted.

The issue is part of an ongoing national debate, and comments from high-profile figures such as Sacks rarely go unnoticed.

Sacks reportedly told the paper that although Britain has a proud history of accepting refugees — including Jews — “asylum cannot be granted to all who seek it. As the philosopher Michael Walzer puts it, affluent and free countries are, like elite universities, besieged by applicants and cannot admit them all.”

In previous speeches, Sacks has highlighted the imperative of a just asylum system.

Speaking in 2001, Sacks said, “Asylum continues to be a deeply controversial issue. But I still can’t help feeling that the great nations are those who welcome strangers, that provide a refuge to people fleeing from persecution.”

Sources close to the chief rabbi’s office told JTA that Sacks’ recent comments were “entirely consistent with the stance which the chief rabbi has always taken in speaking out forcefully on behalf of asylum seekers.”

But the proposals, as reported in the article, have raised eyebrows in the Jewish community.

Edie Friedman, director of the London-based Jewish Council for Racial Equality, called Sacks’ comments “very worrying.”

“As Jews, we have been fortunate to have been given the fundamental right to apply for asylum,” Friedman told JTA. “It is important we are not seen as saying that right applies to us, but not to future generations.”

Friedman also said that even if Sacks didn’t intend to join the anti-asylum lobby, his arguments could be construed as doing so.

Refugee groups have complained that right-wing tabloid stories, which claim Britain is being overrun by bogus asylum seekers, have led to a climate of mistrust and attacks on refugees.

JCORE believes the asylum issue should be debated further, but it is incumbent on Jewish groups to stand up for refugee rights, Friedman said.

The transit camp proposal has been criticized by Amnesty International, which says they may be in breach of international law because they are likely to involve arbitrary detention.

Other communal figures also conveyed their concern about the implications of the chief rabbi’s remarks.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, chair-elect of the Union of Progressive and Liberal Synagogues’ Rabbinic Conference, expressed unease over the proposed regional protection zones.

“I would worry about the zones absolving countries of their responsibility to be open. A society founded on fairness and justice must welcome refugees,” he told the London Jewish Chronicle.

The paper’s editorial also took issue with Jonathan Sacks’ suggestion to the Sunday Telegraph that the phenomenon of multiculturalism had complicated the development of a shared, “sense of pride in being British.”

“We Jews, more than most, should recognize from our own experience as seekers — and beneficiaries — of asylum, and of acceptance of ethnic differences, the imperative to emphasize the benefits, not the so often-overstated threats, of welcoming strangers in our midst,” the paper’s lead writer commented.

However, other communal figures have broadly praised the chief rabbi for his stance. A London-based Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchak Schochet, said he applauded Sacks’ courage in speaking out and advocating proposals to cope with asylum claims.

“Today, sadly, the escalation of crime and the very real threat of terror is in no small measure attributed to many asylum seekers. This is not a prejudice but a reality that has to be confronted. Clearly new policies have to be embraced,” Schochet said.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, when Sacks was asked how he might respond to possible criticism about his comments on immigration, he seemed to take it in stride.

“Every Jewish leader since Moses has always been criticized,” he reportedly said. “Vigorous debate has always been part of Jewish life.”

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