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    Boat people or buck people?

    asylum seeker refugee boat people australiaSydney has a unique museum that traces the story of people – in total, almost every Australian – who came to Australian by sea to find a new home.

    The Jewish part of the story was highlighted some years ago in a ceremony when I displayed and described a Torah scroll rescued from a German synagogue prior to the Holocaust. Today that scroll is old and unable to play a role in synagogue life, but it symbolizes the long, proud history of Australia as a country that has given new homes and new hopes to so many. The “so many” includes thousands of Jews who found Australia a hospitable place and brought dividends to Australian life as a whole.

    Not every Australian government supported Jewish immigration, but the historians agree in retrospect that the Jewish arrivals more than repaid the debt that they owed Australia.

    The story repeats itself in the USA, Britain, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and so many other lands where the Jewish contribution to national life is proud and positive.

    Jews have a long record of migration. Someone even said we are constitutionally a people without sitzfleisch. It’s not a fair comment because it isn’t itchy feet that motivated Jewish migration but vision and ambition; often it was persecution and the search for somewhere to build a new nest.

    In today’s world there are refugees who, like us, could not stay where they were but need a place to settle and, hopefully, become good citizens and enhance the well-being of the country that takes them in. They often pay large sums to unscrupulous entrepreneurs who send them off in shaky boats and if they survive the seas they arrive unheralded on the shores of Australia.

    The Australian government has long sought a way of handling the problem and has now* apparently done a deal with Papua New Guinea whereby people will be processed there and possibly allowed to settle. It saves Australia embarrassment but smells of immorality and may deny Australia the contribution which the refugees might bring to Australian society.

    As Jews we can say only one thing, that one must love the stranger – a principle set out 36 times in the Torah. The stranger must be given a fair go and a fair hearing. Of course Australia is entitled to set its own immigration guidelines, but it has no moral right to shift the problem elsewhere and say, “We don’t want to know you”.

    We thought that Australia had learnt compassion for the stranger. Where has the Australian tradition of compassion vanished to? Sure, tell the world that there are channels through which refugees and immigrants can and should go, but don’t simply pass the buck.

    This new Australian proposal doesn’t sounds like a “boat people” but a “buck people” policy.

    * This article was first published in July 2013.

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