Refugees Then (1940s) and Now (2000s)

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On Facebook a friend, writing about the BBC’s two-part feature “The Holy Land and Us – Our Untold Stories”[1], says,

The one thing that stood out to me was the post war arrival of thousands of refugees crowded into boats. It made me think about the views to refugees arriving here in boats and how contradictory our ideas can be. Do people have different views about refugees arriving in Palestine in boats and refugees arriving here in boats?[2]

I have not yet watched this but here is how I would answer my friend’s question about attitudes towards refugees:

I suspect the reason for the difference in  attitudes to Jewish refugees arriving in Palestine in the 1940s and all the refugees arriving in Europe in recent years is at least two-fold:

  1. Unlike today’s refugees the Jewish refugees were not coming to Europe, they were leaving it, thus becoming someone else’s problem.
  2. In the 1940s most of Europe had a bad conscience vis-a-vis the Jews, for having looked the other way when the nazis’ treatment of the Jews of Germany and occupied countries was becoming obvious. This is true both of countries like the UK as well as of non-nazi citizens within Germany and Austria.
  3. Refugees coming to our countries back then were mostly Europeans like us, not foreigners with a vastly different culture like today’s refugees.

Today’s refugees are coming to Europe, thus becoming our problem and inconveniencing us; with the exception of the Ukrainians this past year they are foreigners with a religion and cultures alien to us; and unlike those alive in the 1940s we today do not feel responsible for nor have a bad conscience about contemporary situations that prompt people to flee their homelands.

Needless to say, I think this applies not just to refugees arriving in Britain by boat but to refugees arriving in other European countries receiving a less-than-enthusiastic welcome.

My own country of Austria is a prime example of this. Not only is there at most a reluctant welcome of today’s refugees, but attitudes to Jews and Israel have shifted as well: WWII and the Holocaust are distant history to those born in the past fifty years and most of them don’t feel any guilt/shame/responsibility for what happened to the Jewish people, thus they are less sympathetic to Israel’s plight. On the other hand, Palestinians, portrayed as the underdog, evoke sympathy.

  1. “The Holy Land and Us – Our Untold Stories” on HD TV Omega Stream, may require registration. If you are in the UK you should also be able to find it on BBC iPlayer.[]
  2. Facebook Post by Jim Stewart on Mar 22, 2023[]
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