The fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by a tide of immigrants is far from new. It comes with the fear that immigrants will steal our jobs and be a burden on the taxpayer. Yet we have been here before, and not just with the ‘tide’ of Caribbean immigrants who came to work in Britain’s vital national industries after the Second World War. More than half a century earlier, in the final decades of the 19th century, thousands of Russian Jews were driven ‘beyond the Pale’ (i.e. forced out of the congested Pale of Settlement in which they had previously been confined) and had to find new homes outside Russia. But who would welcome them? As the English Illustrated Magazine put it in 1891:
Races, like families, have their poor relations, who have a habit of turning up at inconvenient times and at awkward places. The presumption is that for the difference that separates him from his betters the poor relation is somehow always to blame. He has let his opportunities slip. His education is defective. His manners are objectionable. He is either too obsequious or too self-assertive.
These indeed are the objections made to immigrants today. But in many cases (as with the Russian Jews then, as with asylum seekers today) the immigrants have been forced from what was once their home and must find a new place in which to live. The article continued:
England is the country upon which the tide of immigration breaks.
What is being done here to cope with the difﬁculties inseparable from this state of things? Well, Jews, who have always been in the habit of watching fraternally over their own poor, have so far proved equal to the emergency. The efforts of all their charitable organizations charged with the task of dealing with the many and varied needs resulting from the Russo-Jewish immigration—the Board of Guardians, the Russo-Jewish Committee, the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter, the Jewish Ladies Association—are concentrated upon the following objects :
- That immigrants should in no case become a burden to the British ratepayer.
- That each victim of Russian oppression should be enabled sooner or later to become a breadwinner for himself and family in that branch of industry for which he may be best ﬁtted.
- That preferentially, and wherever possible, a home should be found for immigrants in countries less populous than England, and more ﬁtted for colonization.
- That by means of representations made to Jewish authorities, and published in Jewish papers in Russia and on the Continent generally, regarding the congested state of the British labour market and the aggravated difﬁculties awaiting every fresh arrival, something may be done to stem or at least to lessen the tide of further immigration.
It must not, however, be supposed that money is lavished upon the immigrant in sheer ﬁts of philanthropic ecstasy. No endeavour has been spared to render him self-reliant, and to save him from the evils, material and moral, consequent upon the indiscriminate distribution of money doles. Jews know how to estimate at their true value alms whose aim or effect is, not so much to relieve the recipient from his troubles, as to relieve the giver from the trouble of thinking.
To speak of these immigrants as pauper aliens is a misuse of language. A pauper is a person whose support becomes a charge upon the public rates. That is exactly what the Russo-Jewish immigrant is not. Poor relations they may be, these victims of a blind and inhuman policy, but an ideal of honour that has not been dimmed by centuries of political and social degradation are some warranty that the house of Israel will not suffer the most distant and the lowliest connection of theirs to sink to the status of a pauper.
But one hears it argued, “If they do not become paupers themselves, these immigrants oust the British workman from his proper place, and force him into pauperism.” This is a constantly recurring theme in the columns of nonsense that are talked and printed upon the immigration question. The bulk of foreign Jews enter into no manner of competition with the British labourer on his own ﬁeld. Among a thousand dockers, for instance, there may be one or two Jews, and they are English born. The coal-porters may be in favour of anti-Semitic legislation, but it is doubtful whether a single Russian Jew is to be found among coal-porters.
What the Russo-Jewish immigrant has done is to enormously develop one branch of industry, the cheap boot trade, and to create another, the cheap clothing trade. Time was when the British workman hardly ever dreamt of wearing any garments that had not ﬁrst done duty to a more aristocratic body, and did not come to him with faded or “renovated” glories. Now he can attire himself in a new suit of clothes at a lower price than he had to pay for an old-clothes outﬁt. There may not be quite so much style about the new and cheap article; but working men feel as keenly as others that there is a certain homely dignity in being the original and sole possessors of such raiment as they can afford.
Who is it shall say them nay? If England to-morrow copied Russian methods and expelled her Jewish cheap tailor hands, the whole of the trade would pass to German manufacturers, already keen competitors with English houses in this branch. As it is, the Jewish labourer who earns his wages here, spends them here. As to driving the native workman into pauperism, this ﬂimsy charge vanishes before a couple of solid facts. At the moment when these words are being penned, two interesting pieces of information lie at hand. The one is a return of statistics of pauperism, issued 25th June, which points to this noteworthy circumstance, that the very lowest rate of pauperism ever yet recorded, whether in England and Wales or in the metropolis, was reached in the ﬁfth week of April last. The other is a comparative statement of the number of paupers, indoor and outdoor, for the second week of June, during the last four years. The ﬁgures show a constant decrease, being 92,502 in 1888, 89,632 in 1889, 88,559 in 1890, and 88,231 in 1891—an increasing population with a diminishing rate of pauperism. What becomes of the contention that the Jewish immigrant is driving the native workman into the workhouse?
Of the immigrants who land on our shores it should be remembered that a very large proportion are mere birds of passage. They stay here just long enough to smooth their ruffled plumage, and then are off again on their ﬂight westward. But those that remain are not, and are not likely to become a source of weakness to the state. It is not always wise to judge of them by their appearance on landing. They often bear a rough and unattractive look. Five days travelling, during two of which they are cooped up in the steerage of an incommodious Hamburg vessel, will account for much that is unpleasing in the aspect of the immigrants. Has not many a more favoured traveller been seen to land at Dover, woe-begone of countenance and limp of ﬁgure, after an hour or two’s tossing in the Channel?
The article eventually came to what we may think an optimistic conclusion:
…that the saving common sense of the British people may be trusted to suffer no reversal of the traditional policy, in obedience to which this land has for centuries afforded an asylum to kings fleeing from fickle subjects, and to subjects fleeing from tyrannical kings.
Those Jewish refugees were indeed absorbed, and their descendants – in Britain and elsewhere – have proved to be of great value to the country that accepted them. What, one wonders, will modern Britain do to absorb the so-called ‘tide of immigrants’ today?
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