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Dehumanisation has ended in atrocities says Jewish leader, while pressure grows on May to attack child separation policy
A leading British rabbi draws a chilling parallel between Donald Trump’s policies on immigration – which have seen thousands of children separated from their parents on the US border with Mexico – and historical trends that have led to genocide, as pressure grows on Theresa May to denounce the US president’s approach on his UK visit next month.
The intervention by Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of Reform Judaism – a progressive section of the Jewish community – comes as church leaders, politicians and the children’s commissioner for England voice their outrage at what they see as inhumane treatment of families in the US, and a wider, dangerous dehumanisation of public debate on immigration.
Janner-Klausner told the Observer that the warning signs were clear, and that political leaders had to act now to prevent the kind of decline in respect for fellow human beings that became commonplace before some of the worst atrocities in history.
Expressing concerns widely shared among Jewish leaders – who campaign constantly to remind the world of circumstances leading to the Holocaust – and other religious figures, she said: “The numbing of empathy, the dehumanisation of other people through the encouragement of disdain are documented stages in history that have led to atrocities and even genocides.
“What has happened on the US-Mexico border is a moment of reckoning as it points to a systemic toxicity in public discourse and action. This needs to be stopped now.” She said the planned visit by Trump to the UK next month should go ahead: “I believe that our prime minister should be meeting her counterpart, to convey to him in the strongest terms the depth of opposition that these policies have evoked.”
Nick Baines, the bishop of Leeds, said the US president’s approach to immigration had to be challenged: “The office of the president of the United States has to be respected but in a mature relationship we must speak with him as equals. This means that the immorality of his policy requiring the separation of children from their families must be addressed in his conversations here. Not to do so would be an abdication of responsibility on the part of our leadership.”
Writing in the Observer, Bishop Michael Curry, the American Episcopal minister who gave a sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle last month, asks British people to pray for the US in its period of “national shame” and make sure it follows a “moral compass”.
“The rhetoric from our government leaders, which casts ‘the other’ – in this case, families seeking refuge – as dangerous, inhumanely violates the Christian tradition,” he writes. “Selfishness is a sin. We cannot live up to our country’s ideals if we embrace only our own desires and put our needs above all others – even above God. Being a US citizen does not make us more human than people on the other side of our border.”
He adds: “We ask that our friends in Britain continue to pray for our country in hopes that we may continue to follow a moral compass pointing in the direction of love, compassion, goodness.”
The US president is due in the UK on 13 July and will hold talks with the prime minister and meet the Queen, probably at Windsor Castle. He is unlikely to enter central London where protests are being planned. Some 22 demonstrations are being organised across the country including in Cambridge, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Edinburgh, as well a march in London that will end at Trafalgar Square.
While Trump was forced by a wave of condemnation at home and abroad to end the policy of separating children from their families last week, his Republican administration is not making any special efforts to immediately reunite the 2,300 children who have already been taken from their parents under his “zero-tolerance” policy.
John Sandweg, the head of US immigration and customs enforcement under the Obama administration, who has been highly critical of Trump, warned that some migrant children may never be reunited with their families because of the logistical difficulties. “The parents can be sent back very quickly to Central America, whereas the kids are staying in the US for years while they’re going through the immigration process,” he said.
The Labour peer Alf Dubs, who was saved from the Nazis and brought to London from Prague in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport programme, said he was so disgusted by Trump’s policies that he thought the visit should be cancelled: “Trump should not be allowed to come as a guest of this country. It will be seen as condoning his appalling behaviour. However much the prime minister tells him she disapproves it cannot counteract that impression being given. This is a time to show we will not tolerate this.”
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “Separating children from their parents is cruel and deeply distressing for them. In some it will cause long-lasting emotional damage. Children should be reunited with their parents as quickly as possible. It is often said that you learn a lot about a society from the way it treats its children. It would appear now, the US government has learned a lesson about its own society from the way it has been treating other people’s children.”
At prime minister’s questions last week May – whose own immigration policies particularly as home secretary, have been criticised by charities and others – said she did not approve of Trump’s treatment of families, and that his visit would be an opportunity to convey that message.