AN elderly lady visited my surgery to express her concern about the number of immigrants in Solihull. ‘They’re queuing up to come in’ she told me.
She didn’t want to talk to me in front of my caseworker, a Scottish Muslim whose parents arrived in the UK from Iraq, settling in Glasgow, a generation ago.
She wanted to keep England for ‘people like us’. When I pressed her on what she meant, she became frustrated: I should know because she saw me as ‘one of us’.
She was most clear in her own mind who ‘people like us’ were: the white people from the community she had been born and brought up in, sharing a sense of community and belonging which she clearly no longer felt.
Last Wednesday I went to Poland to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, on a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. As you can imagine, it was harrowing to see the sheer scale of unbelievable depravity and murder perpetrated by the Nazis.
There were many walls of photos of the victims; women’s shorn heads, with date of arrival and date of death lasting on average only two months.
But what, somehow, was worse was the visit we made to the nearby town of Oswiecim. That town had been 56 per cent Jewish before the war.
As part of the de-humanising process the Nazis encouraged non-Jewish locals to vandalise and plunder Jewish businesses and to desecrate the Synagogue, which they later destroyed.
It is easy to blame groups of people who are ‘not like us’ for the woes and problems of our society.
In these difficult times we are already seeing the rise of far-right, racist groups preying on our fears and seeking to apportion blame – as the Nazis did.
You’ll see innocuous-looking pamphlets coming through the door singling out Muslims, Jews, homosexuals and members of other groups and faiths; horror stories of acts ‘they’ committed.
These groups are testing the water, seeing how ready we are to accept their poisonous message, before they take the next steps to dehumanise people who ‘aren’t like us’.
The people of Oswiecim not only stood by, they joined in the persecution of the Jews. Don’t say ‘it couldn’t happen here’, because it already is. ‘People like us’ are always different to members of other groups; that’s part of belonging to a community. But we are all one humanity, and the traits which bind us are so much greater than those which keep us apart. The ‘final solution’, my friends, is tolerance.