Column for JN Jan 20 2023
It’s sad to admit this, but very few things said by politicians shock me these days. Even the repellent Andrew Bridgen, who finally lost the whip for his comparison of the implementation of Covid vaccines to the Holocaust — it was terrible, of course, but Bridgen should have lost the Tory whip long before now.
However, Suella Braverman, who is apparently the Home Secretary and manages to make her predecessor, Priti Patel, look faintly human, has outclassed Bridgen in the repulsive stakes.
Braverman was speaking at a meeting in her constituency, Fareham in Hampshire, last Friday night. My assumption is that much of the meeting was devoted to Braverman’s war against asylum seekers.
There were questions from the audience following her address. Joan Salter, a very courageous woman, well-known to the Jewish community, who has been awarded an MBE for her work in Holocaust education, is a child survivor.
Salter, now 83, told Braverman: “When I hear you use words like ‘swarm’ and ‘invasion’, I am reminded of the language used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others. Why do you feel the need to use that kind of language?”
Several things happened in the wake of that question. First, that Braverman — whose husband is from a Jewish family, in fact his father was apparently a long-standing volunteer at the Yoseftal Hospital near Eilat — chose to reply citing her own parents’ arrival in the UK as immigrants, arriving “with nothing” as she told the audience.
Second, that Braverman dug her heels in and insisted that she “would not apologise” for the language that she used “to demonstrate the scale of this problem”. It seems quite extraordinary that Braverman is unable to recognise a parallel between the story of her parents — which she chose to raise in answering Salter — and that of present-day refugees. Even more extraordinary that in responding to Salter she did not acknowledge Salter’s point about language — or how words like “swarm” to “invasion” might once have been disgustingly applied to her Kenyan-born father or Mauritian-born mother.
Chillingly, the Fareham audience applauded Braverman, which indicates to me at least that many present either did not understand the import of her reply — or, worse, agreed with her.
On the day after the Braverman/Salter exchange, a non-profit organisation called Freedom from Torture tweeted an edited version of the question and answer, focusing specifically on Braverman’s refusal to apologise for her words.
And this is where it gets really unpleasant. Because whoever it is that operates the Home Office Twitter account accused Freedom from Torture of manipulating Braverman’s response, and challenged the NGO to remove its version of what she said.
Regrettably, those who still — in the face of all reason and logic — support Braverman — attacked Freedom from Torture.
But fortunately there remain enough honest reporters who were able to supply the full version of what the Home Secretary said. And that means that a)the Home Office civil servants were trying to torpedo the truth and b)that perhaps even Braverman herself recognised that she had crossed a line.
As we Jews have all too many reasons to know, words matter and they have consequences. Some of those consequences are playing out right now in Israel. But here, in the UK, a Home Secretary who is the child of refugees does not understand the impact of the language she continues to use when facing the real challenges of immigration.
If Andrew Bridgen can lose the whip for arrant stupidity, perhaps Rishi Sunak should pay attention to what’s going on in the Home Office.