It is dangerous to deny the rights of a generation, and Brexit will strip 65 million people of their European citizenship.
PUBLISHED: 13:14 09 November 2016 | UPDATED: 10:20 02 December 2016
As British Jews whose families once fled the Nazis apply for German passports, Bonnie Greer makes a plea for a world that seeks to expand, not restrict, horizons
When I lived in New York City in the 1980s, the great 2nd Ave Deli was around the corner.
This was the home of great Jewish “nosh” where a few dollars could buy you piles of food and great conversation. As a young playwright whose steady income came from waitressing, I could appreciate not only the price, but the efficiency of the place.
In those days, food was served by professionals – people who knew something about putting water on the table as soon as you were lucky enough to get a seat. Once you sat down, someone was there, too, to make sure that the menu card was in your face right away.
This place was where I picked up the smattering of Yiddish words that I throw around when I want to be precise and colourful at the same time.
Now that I have family members, my direct descendants, tiny kids who are the children of a Russian Jewish mother – I couldn’t be happier. It’s like I wished it.
The cashier at the Deli was one of those guys who looked like a boxer out of a Hemingway short story. He was short and muscular, hair cut to the scalp and he never spoke except to tell you what your bill was. He always wore a shirt and it always looked lived in but very clean. You had the feeling that he washed it every night on a washboard in his tub and took it to the laundromat to dry. That shirt, it seemed to me anyway, had a point.
One smouldering New York summer day, the kind of day when New Yorkers say that you can fry an egg on the hood (bonnet) of a car, I brought my bill to the register and the cashier took it like he always did. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled up revealing a tattoo on his arm. It was his Auschwitz number.
I had never for a second doubted the Holocaust. It’s just that it was something my generation saw on television. But there it was, toting up the cost of my knish, and my bagel take-away. I remember tumbling out into the scorching afternoon and saying to myself: “It really happened.”
And so that day was changed and all of my days, I think. I began to read up on the Holocaust again, especially denaturalisation not only in Nazi Germany, but in Spain, Portugal and other countries.
How do you take a person’s nationality away? And then, what happens next?
You become a non-person, an element in the winds of the world, seeking refuge and succour, moving as fast and as far away as you can, like the Ugandan Asians did after Idi Amin expelled them in the 1970s.
Germany has to, in particular, hold a poignancy for Jews, a wound that I cannot begin to fathom.
Many British Jews are in the UK because their grandparents and great-aunties had to flee denaturalisation. Men who walked with Iron Crosses – one of the highest medals the German Army then could bestow – found themselves to be considered nothing. No one.
So when I discovered recently that some British Jews are attempting to “grandfather” German nationality so that they won’t be outside of the EU after Brexit, the use of the word “irony” is too trite. As one of my Twitter followers tweeted me after I sent out the story of this:
“I am currently in this position. Want my son to have freedoms and possibilities.”
To compare the consequence to nationality of the result of the June 23 referendum vote to what happened in Nazi Germany would be absurd and insulting. There is no comparison.
But what is striking in Vote Leave’s Keep-It-Simple-style campaign is not only its dangerous simplicity, but the fact that the denaturalisation of 65 million people, depriving them of their EU citizenship, was wilfully omitted or, worse: not worth considering.
In the world of social media, you meet all kinds of people, many (or most) who have no idea what the top of their maroon UK passport says. Maybe they don’t have a passport, so it’s understandable, but the fact that EU citizenship is not routinely taught in British schools is shocking.
Shocking, too, is the reality of a generation – maybe two – growing up with a freedom of movement which will be replaced, with what? Brexiteers seem to have no idea and much less concern.
For the zealots among them – whose new word seems to be “traitor” for those who dissent – none of this matters because it is what they want. Their aim is to “restore sovereignty”: “UK Laws made by the UK Parliament”. But they are seeking to deny parliament a chance to have its say, using an ancient right called the “royal prerogative” to stifle debate and dissent.
Parliament is the perfect place to debate this question of nationality. They are ourselves as a legislature. If we cannot and do not believe that, then we’re drifting toward autocracy: rule of the many by the few.
There’s a principle hidden somewhere in here – something about the right to say whether you want to be stripped of your citizenship, whether you want to lose it for yourself and your children.
Part of being a parent is to want horizons for your kids, possibilities for growth and much more.
I immigrated from the US not only because the UK is a wonderful place, but because it gave me what the US could not: the world. I could be in the world – live in France, work in Germany, encounter that which was not me. And, hopefully, grow and become better.
It was miraculous to me-and it still is-that the UK could absorb so much difference and still hold on to its core self. Looks like a kind of tribute to a resilient culture, one with a base of confidence in itself.
An immigrant to America tries as fast as he or she can to become an “American” – a term that it is a moveable feast in itself. You are expected to move toward that state-of-being as rapidly as possible, and in the process you might lose something essential. Something that is you.
In the UK, this fluidity of identity – remarkable in such an ancient culture – is something that young people from outside of the UK tell me is extraordinary. Especially young people of colour. They come to the UK to work and to be free, to not be judged, to exist.
“I’m still French and also now I feel that I can say that my parents come from Congo, and I am that, too. I learned this in the UK. I can be all of it”, a young saleswoman in John Lewis’s told me the other day .
Can she be all of it now?
In the Washington Post, in a story about the rising number of British Jews seeking German citizenship, a documentary film maker, Ben Lewis, is quoted as having told the Associated Press: “There’s unease. It’s like the 1930s all over again.”
In the same story, it was reported that some British Sephardic Jews are also checking in with official Jewish community organizations in Lisbon and Porto. Since 2013 when a law was passed, Jews who can claim descent from the Sephardic communities expelled from Portugal in the Middle Ages, can make an application for citizenship.
In The Guardian, Michael Newman, executive director of the Association of Jewish Refugees – founded in 1941 to assist refugees to settle in the UK – told reporters that he had submitted his own German citizenship application and that his organization has fielded hundreds of inquiries from other British Jews eligible for German citizenship. “It is somewhat ironic that we were founded partly to help people become naturalized British after the war and, 70 years on, we find ourselves in the position of assisting people who want to acquire German and Austrian citizenship because of the recent developments in Britain.”
I recently went on the website of the 2nd Ave Deli to see if it was still there. Its first place – on East Tenth Street near where I lived in the 80s — is gone due to a “landlord dispute”.
In other words, it was “gentrified out” – the major reason I moved from New York City and from America. It has since blossomed in other locations and is going strong.
On the site is a wonderful tribute to the Deli’s founder, Abe Lebewohl, denaturalised from several countries quite a few times in his life. I remember him. How could you forget him? He was full of life and gave everybody food, whether you could pay for it or not. And he was a 100% citizen of the world.
The site says that: “On March 4, 1996, Abe was murdered on route to the bank to make a deposit.”
The whole of New York City came; a melange of different languages-of other countries.
I suspect that my Twitter friend who tweeted “want my son to have freedoms and possibilities” was talking about the chance for her son to expand his humanity, to reach out and to be in the world. To look out over the waters that surround this island and see not barriers, but passageways.
The freedom to move.
Bonnie Greer is a writer, critic and playwright. Her new play, the Hotel Cerise, is on at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, until November 12