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A few weeks ago, a group of pregnant women were driven into the desert by Tunisian authorities and abandoned there. Their phones were stolen, and if the Tunisian authorities followed their usual practice they were left with little or no food or water. If they were not beaten and tortured in detention as Black African migrants in Tunisia often are, that was the extent of the concessions. In all likelihood, such generosity had not been made to the hundreds of others from whom the pregnant women had been separated when they were arrested in trying to leave Tunisia to reach Europe by boat in order to claim asylum. If you are a European citizen, this was done for your benefit – the EU gave upwards of €100 million to the Tunisian government between 2015 and 2022 for the purpose of strengthening its borders, and last year proudly announced a ‘strategic partnership’ with the increasingly authoritarian regime, pledging €1 billion as part of its program of cutting off routes for refugees by outsourcing the necessary violence to the North African countries from which African migrants usually depart. All this fits very well with the British government’s own policy of hostility towards refugees, and it has raised no objection. There would, of course, be no need for refugees to pass through Tunisia anyway if British and European governments provided them with safe and legal routes, but we have chosen instead to turn the Sahara, as well as the Mediterranean, into a graveyard. The Tunisian authorities out of sight, the women started to walk back toward the coast.

Days later, I happened to be one of the people on shift with the Alarm Phone. The Alarm Phone primarily exists to support migrants crossing the Mediterranean – people travelling, usually already at sea, can call the number, and if they are in distress the team on shift can relay information about the boat to coast guards which are generally reluctant to rescue boats of migrants from the global South, to civilian rescue ships, or failing that, to commercial vessels. A degree of pressure can be placed on authorities to refrain from human rights abuses if they know that an external observer is aware of the situation. The work of the Alarm Phone is vital and undoubtedly saves lives, but there is always a limit to what it can do remotely in the face of persistent governmental efforts to restrict any civil measures to make the crossing safer. On this occasion, a man who had managed to evade capture to a sufficient extent to have retained his phone, and was now accompanying the group of women, was in contact with us. One of the women was about to give birth, and he wanted us to contact NGOs who might have been able to help. No relevant NGOs were able to operate in the area; we could offer nothing except the numbers of local health authorities which the group, after their recent encounter with Tunisian authorities, were understandably reluctant to call. We heard nothing from them for a while.

This took place a few days before Ash Wednesday, when Catholics heard at Mass the Gospel reading advising us, less on what we should give, than on how we should give when we do so. When you give alms, do it secretly. When you pray, do it secretly. When you fast, do it secretly. The King James Version refers, strikingly, to the recipient of our prayer as ‘thy Father which is in secret’. For most British Catholics, this is a free choice. We live in a democratic country with a law which acknowledges, even if it inconsistently practices, an obligation to secure our rights. Part of our privilege – especially those who are citizens, and those who are white - is that secrecy is not imposed on us. It is easy for us to avoid persecution; we can live our lives in public view and it is up to us how much we do in public. For the many people whose presence in this country is criminalised by our immigration laws, who cannot legally rent or work, who cannot make themselves known to authorities without grave consequences, secrecy is not something they can opt out of. Jesus’ own situation had more in common with theirs – toward the end of his ministry he could not heal or preach in public without the risk of apprehension by political authorities. In that way he is closer to them, just as we know that the itinerant preacher is closer to the poor than the rich. Our ability to live openly is another thing that separates us from the child refugee, the adult fugitive, the member of an occupied people who God was when he came down to us.

From Tunisia, the man contacted us to say that, as the baby started to crown, he had carried the woman giving birth on his back to a road, and found her and another woman with her a taxi to take her to a hospital. After walking for days through the desert he had found strength to carry a pregnant woman; having narrowly avoided imprisonment and abuse by authorities he had exposed himself to the risk of capture for the sake of a woman and child to whom he owed no special obligation.

His act of heroism will never be known, let alone rewarded, because he remains one of the thousands of people obliged to remain hidden due to the threat of persecution. Probably he still faces the lethal crossing, and then years of the dehumanising bureaucratic nightmare of European asylum processes, the end result of which may well be the decision that there is no sanctuary for him here.

His act of heroism was not unique; marginalised people cut off from mainstream protection and support are obliged to rely primarily on solidarity with each other. I think of the two migrants we know to have drowned this time last year rescuing others from the sea before any help arrived. We should use such privilege as we have as usefully as we can, but must keep in mind that, when it comes to the experience of those crossing borders, we are the ones at the periphery. We all know of the grandstanding charity of the powerful – the kind that has its place on television – which imposes a narrative convenient to power, of a global poor indefinitely dependent on the generosity of the global rich, concealing the unjust relations which create the need the charity only partially fulfils. God is in secret; God’s work is done in secret. If our work does any good, it will do good just to the extent that it was done without regard for the approval of power, which usually means that it will remain obscure. So be it – the more we are in secret the closer we are to God, and to the people to whom he is closest. Perhaps this is all to say just that we should expect to find him where he told us he would be, but I find that I need to keep being reminded.

This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

I have the mixed privilege and burden of British citizenship, a Jewish upbringing, and eight years as a human rights observer in Gaza and the West Bank with the Christian Peacemaker Team (now the Community Peacemaker Team) and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme of the World Council of Churches. So I am distraught at the news from the Holy Land.

I feel with the Israelis, many themselves children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, hemmed in by hostile Arab nations.  I feel with Israeli parents watching their teenage children snatched from home and conscripted into an army of occupation, and finding it harder, with each exchange of rockets, to see this as a true expression of their Jewish faith.


I feel with Palestinian farmers, robbed of their ancestral lands, watching the pillaging of their olive trees.  I feel with the Palestinian children and their teachers I used to watch, bullied at Israeli checkpoints on their way to and from school. I feel with homeless refugees under merciless bombardment in Gaza.


The Nakba


We Brits share responsibility for this prolonged tragedy. When Britain granted freedom to colonies in Africa and South Asia, we left behind, in each case, an elected parliament, a civil administration, and a working framework of law and order.  But when Britain ended its Mandate in Palestine in 1948, we played ‘God Save the Queen’ and sailed away knowing that Arab armies were poised to invade, and that the new State of Israel would fight back. The outcome – the Nakba – was predictable.  Jordan occupied the West Bank.  Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. There was no Palestinian State. Thousands of Palestinians became, and remain, refugees.




Palestinians’ recent factional divisions are at last healed. The ongoing slaughter in Gaza has reunited Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank and in their diaspora, in support of Hamas. They respect Hamas as a bastion of Islam, and as the provider of schools, hospitals, universities and social facilities. They contrast Hamas’ resistance to Israel with the perceived ineffectiveness of their West-aligned Fatah rivals.


What of those Hamas terrorists?  Every oppressed party in the Middle East has a military wing. Jewish parties under the British Mandate were no exception: remember Irgun and the Stern Gang?  The armed counterpart of Hamas is the Al-Qassam Brigades. They were responsible for the attack on 7th October 2024. This does not absolve Hamas itself from all responsibility, but does not justify damning them all as terrorists.


The Al-Qassam Brigades were proscribed by the UK in 2001 under the 2000 Terrorism Act.  Hamas as a political party was not proscribed until twenty years later. The latter proscription has been pointless and unhelpful. It has obstructed direct negotiations with Hamas, hindering Britain’s possible role as a peacemaker.




It is easy to misunderstand the relation between Judaism and the State of Israel. The Holocaust was a theological challenge to religious Jews. Jewish festivals – Passover, Hanukah, Purim – typically celebrate God’s protection for His Chosen People. In the Holocaust six million Jews were slaughtered just for being Jews. Where was God in Auschwitz?


The creation of the State of Israel seemed to be God’s answer – the Promised Land Restored! Many Jews (but not all) sincerely experienced criticism of Israeli politics as an attack on their faith, a rejection of God, and clearly antisemitic.

The history of Palestine is a catalogue of appalling mistakes made by Israelis, by Palestinians and – not least – by the UK. That said, in a situation of oppression we cannot pretend to be neutral. But when we rightly speak out for Palestinian rights, we need to recognise that we are up against two traumatised communities.


How else to explain why Netanyahu’s government believes that bombing Palestinians without mercy will discourage them from supporting Hamas? How else to explain why Al-Qassam launched its attack on unarmed Israeli civilians on 7th October 2024, knowing that Israel would respond against Palestinians with overwhelming force in return?


It is easy to blame this side or that. The language of blame – ‘apartheid’, ‘genocide’, terrorist’, ‘boycott’ – can only exacerbate the tragedy. The Holy Land cries out for prayer, for empathy, for mutual compassion, for reconciliation.


There is no space here to spell out what that means in political terms. I attempted this several years ago in a submission to the UK Foreign Affairs Committee. If you care to read it, it is still on the Government website –

This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

  • Writer's pictureLondon Catholic Worker

Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have been called to respond to "the signs of the times"; we have decided to follow this call by making ourselves a website that works properly. houses information about our community and the broader Catholic Worker movement, as well as an archive of all the posts and newsletters featured on our previous website. The newsletter archive currently goes back to 2005, with older editions to be added soon. This blog will carry news about our events as before, and we'll be able to update it much more regularly with other articles. If you would like to write - or have already written - anything relevant to the intersection of religion and social justice, we'll be very happy to host it here if you send it to us.

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