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Jews, Gypsies and Travellers: a particular empathy

The legal eviction from their land of a large community on the edge of London raises disturbing questions about deep-rooted discrimination that Jewish historical experience can help to address, say Keith Kahn-Harris, Simone Abel & Shauna Leven.

The residents of a settlement called Dale Farm outside the town of Basildon in Essex, east of London, are facing eviction after a long legal process. A crucial stage is reached on 19 September 2011 when bailiffs are scheduled to enter the site and forcibly clear it of its remaining inhabitants.

Many of the latter have already left, following the failure of an injunction in the high court on 31 August which sought to halt the proposed eviction. What was notable about those last-minute proceedings was the strikingly small room in which they were heard: large enough to accommodate no more than a tiny fraction of Dale Farm’s inhabitants or representatives of the growing number of NGOs concerned with the unfolding developments there. This is telling of the way in which the Gypsy and Traveller community have to date been treated in the United Kingdom: often divorced from the very judicial and political decisions that determine their livelihoods and futures.

In the courtroom that day with representatives of the Dale Farm community were staff from René Cassin, a human-rights charitable organisation that uses Jewish historical experience and positive Jewish values to campaign and educate on universal human rights. René Cassin’s work at Dale Farm is part of a larger campaign focused on ending discrimination facing Gypsies and Travellers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

There are overwhelming historical parallels between the direct and indirect discrimination that Gypsies and Travellers face today and the treatment Jews have experienced throughout the ages. For this reason, the two communities have the potential to develop a particular understanding and empathy for one another.  Indeed, the prominent historian Ian Hancock has stated that Jews are “practically the only friends [Gypsies and Travellers] have”. 

Both groups were forcibly expelled from their property and exterminated during the Nazi holocaust on the basis of their ethnicity/race. Jews know only too well what it is like to be a stranger in the land of their birth, and to have their fundamental rights overlooked or actively violated.

Although the Jewish people find themselves in a position of relative strength and influence in Britain today, many Jews are conscious that this was not always the case and that it is time to lend a hand to their Gypsy and Traveller counterparts.   

The background

Dale Farm is part of a Gypsy and Irish Traveller site which has been housing over 1,000 people. The site has two parts: a legal site that has planning permission, and a site where the land is owned by Gypsies and Travellers but where planning permission has been repeatedly refused.  

Dale Farm was established in the 1960s and 1970s, when Basildon council gave planning permission to about forty families to settle on what was formerly a scrapyard. In the 1980s, the authorities encouraged more Gypsies and Travellers to move to this area. In 1982, part of the site was declared “greenbelt” under planning law, a designation that made further development on it illegal. Its growth in recent years is in part due to the efforts of local planning committees to shut down other similar sites around the country. In 2005, Basildon council began a legal process to evict families from the unauthorised portion of the site. 

After a five-year legal battle, the court of appeal declared that Basildon council had acted lawfully. A notice of eviction was hand-delivered on 4 July 2011 with a deadline of 31 August 2011.  All appeals - culminating in the injunction of 31 August - have failed, and the council has confirmed that the evictions will take place during the week beginning 19 September.  

The council and watchdog groups anticipate that the eviction proceedings will involve bulldozing existing housing and other actions whose total estimated cost could amount to £18 million. The current residents will be left homeless and impoverished, with no access to schooling. In addition, several elderly residents are known to be ill, and at risk of deepening health issues if they are (for example) denied access to electricity.

The human-rights dimension  

United Nations observers visited the site in 2011 to assess whether the council's actions constituted a violation of human rights. Raquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur on housing, described the impending eviction as “[constituting] a grave breach of human rights if not carried out with full respect for international standards”. In March 2011, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Cerd) placed the UK under its "early warning" system, designed to prevent serious violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969). In spite of these significant measures, Basildon council has taken no mitigating measures.

Gypsies and Travellers are officially defined as ethnic groups, legally entitled to protection from ethnicity-based discrimination. This right flows from international law as well as the UK’s Race Relations Act (1976). Their special status notwithstanding, Gypsies and Travellers continue to suffer chronic exclusion, and the statistics demonstrate that they face significant obstacles to accessing education, employment, housing, healthcare, and the courts.

Several recent studies indicate that Gypsies and Travellers die, on average, at an earlier age than the remainder of the population. In fact they have both lower life-expectancy and higher child mortality than any other group. Moreover, the effect of laws passed by the UK parliament has been that Gypsies and Travellers have fewer authorised campsites on which to live. The equivalent of one mile of land would be sufficient to accommodate all Gypsies and Travellers in the UK; the government has been unwilling to provide this, and 21% of Gypsies and Travellers have found themselves homeless.

The problem of homelessness is both a cause and effect of the other great obstacle that Gypsies and Travellers face: discrimination. The legal understanding of discrimination is that it does not have to be overt and intended to be described as such; the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that discrimination may occur where the impact of a seemingly neutral measure varies across different groups, irrespective of whether or not that is the intention.

The court has also ruled that depriving Gypsies and Travellers of security of tenure violates Article 8 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). Accordingly, the UK has a legal obligation to facilitate the Gypsy and Traveller way of life - indeed, a duty to take affirmative steps to ameliorate the problem.   

The next steps

Basildon council’s arguments did not seem especially compelling in the injunction process on 31 August. For example, the council argued that the Dale Farm site interfered with the “aesthetics” of an area that was formerly a scrapyard. The council also cited increased traffic in the area as a countervailing interest that should override the human rights of the community living at Dale Farm.

Although the outcome of the proceedings was negative for the Dale Farm community, the interest that this eviction has garnered will hopefully continue to build and result in a better organised and more effective opposition to subsequent evictions of Gypsy and Traveller sites.   

As long as local councils are armed with nuisance and planning laws which they have the discretion to apply in a discriminatory fashion against “undesirable” inhabitants, there will be evictions of the kind now taking place at Dale Farm. Beyond the compelling human-rights argument, this begs the questions: is eviction really an efficient use of public resources, and is it conducive to achieving outcomes and improvements? Where the result is the homelessness of an entire community, including many elderly people and children, it is difficult to see how the Dale Farm eviction is at all justifiable.

The Dale Farm case may end badly for the residents. But the interest that the case has sparked among diverse human-rights and community groups inside and outside the UK, may signal a turning-point in the position of Gypsy and Traveller groups in the country. If other minorities, such as the Jewish community, can begin to recognise their own experience in that of Gypsies and Travellers, then there is hope that their pariah status may be eroded, a greater degree of understanding developed, and better practice established.

About the authors

Keith Kahn-Harris is a London-based sociologist and writer. He teaches at Birkbeck College, Leo Baeck College and is a Fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. His most recent book is ‘Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community’. His website is kahn-harris.org and he tweets on @KeithKahnHarris.

Simone Abel is director of René Cassin, an organisation that draws on the experiences and values of Jewish people to promote universal human rights. She previously worked for Human Rights Watch, and as a journalist  

Shauna Leven is the Director or René Cassin, Shauna has a wealth of private and NGO experience. Before joining René Cassin,  she worked as a Legal Advisor to the Government of Liberia in Monrovia and has also worked as a litigation attorney at leading US law firm McGuire Woods LLP.  She holds a Joint Degree from Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia and a BA in Politics and Economics from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Simone Abel is director of René Cassin, an organisation that draws on the experiences and values of Jewish people to promote universal human rights

Shauna Leven is a management consultant who works with René Cassin

Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum, July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is here


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