Now more than ever, we must stand in solidarity with Gypsy and Traveller communities against legislation that threatens their way of life
Our nation has rightly been shocked to its core by the events this weekend around the tragic death of Sarah Everard, with much of that outrage channeled at the government’s newly proposed ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’.
But in all the important conversations around protecting the right to protest, we risk overlooking the bill’s most pernicious section, especially for us as Jews.
Section 4 of the bill is essentially an attack on minority communities, Gypsies and Travellers, and their right to live their traditional way of life.
The attempts to criminalise trespass would in practice allow the police to imprison, fine, strip away homes and seperate children from some of our country’s most vulnerable people for the crime of having nowhere else to go.
All of this during the disruption of a global pandemic.
At Monday’s debate Conservative MPs premised their comments in favour of these measures with “while many travellers are law abiding”, as if that somehow mitigated the prejudice that they were espousing.
We’ve spoken a lot over the last few months of ‘no other minority’, but can you imagine the communal outcry had a Member of Parliament referred to Jews as a ‘public nuisance’ or the like, caveated by the fact that “many Jews are law abiding”.
With good reason.
We talk a lot about antisemitism as ‘the last acceptable form of racism’ and yet don’t bat an eyelid when anti-traveller prejudice is shared across our communities, including even at Board of Deputies meetings.
How can we reasonably expect the public to engage with the nuances of antisemitic tropes and the complex relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism when we fail to call out even the most explicit of dogwhistles. We have to do better.
While many (sometimes using this paper) have tied themselves into knots arguing otherwise, the Jewish calling towards social justice is deep and incontrovertible.
Every year in Parashat Shoftim, we read the phrase ‘tzedek tzedek tirdof’ – justice, justice you shall pursue’ (Devarim 16:20).
Even more applicably in this case, we are told in Kedoshim that in our dealings with ‘the stranger … [you must] love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (Vayikra 19:34)
We have long felt like strangers in the United Kingdom, but we are not alone in that. As minority groups we have a shared knowledge of how precarious our rights are, and a shared obligation to stand with others when they are under threat.
Beyond our religious obligation, we as Jews also share a history with Gyspy and Traveller communities in Europe, a common history of prejudice, persecution and scapegoating.
Our link runs especially deep with Romani Gypsies, who shared our tragic fate under the Nazis.
What we call the Shoah or ‘the calamity’, is known by the Romani community as the Porajmos or ‘the devouring’.
Our families suffered alongside each other through pogroms, were crowded into the same ghettos and perished alongside each other in the concentration camps of Europe. The difference being that for Romani Gypsies pogroms have persisted long after, arguably to this day.
There is wide consensus that the status quo doesn’t work for settled communities or for Gypsies and Travellers, but the answer isn’t further criminalisation.
As the Board of Deputies and Rene Cassin submitted last year as part of the Government’s consultation, responses focused on strengthening police powers risk immense harm to Gypsy and Traveller communities with little-to-no benefit.
To quote Vice-President Edwin Shuker “It is the lack of authorised sites which is the root of the problem”, not insufficient police powers, and this is a view shared by the vast majority of police officers when consulted.
We cannot be silent in the face of government policy attacking minorities; we as a community know all too well where that road leads.
Now is the time, more than ever, to stand in solidarity with other minority communities and to stamp out prejudice within our own.
- See the open letter from British Jews to the Home Secretary, in solidarity with Gypsy and Traveller communities – Click here.