sermon · social justice

Until she was no longer useful

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens.

The weekly stories we read are not historical recountings of the lives of ancient people. They are contemporary retellings of the lives of modern people. Genesis is not a book about the past. It is about the present. 

So here is what happened. And here is what always happens.

Hagar had been an Egyptian princess in the court of Pharaoh. Sarah entreated her out to Canaan with promises of work. “You will serve such a holy man,” she promised her. She was given the name, Ha-Gar: the immigrant; the sojourner.

She worked as a maidservant. She, who had been so prestigious in her homeland, cleaned up after Abraham and Sarah in their tents. She washed their clothes and took care of their needs. 

Then Sarah realised that she was barren. She instructed Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and Abraham consented. We do not know how Hagar felt about her surrogacy.

They conceived on the first try. What a successful servant! Then Sarah became jealous. “Isn’t Hagar so haughty? Doesn’t she think she’s so much better than me?”

So she started afflicting Hagar and making her life unbearable. Hagar ran away. And then she came back, because where was she going to go?

Hagar did indeed bear a child, and called him Ishmael, meaning ‘God will hear.’ And then she was no longer useful.

Fertile woman. Hated woman. Did her work well. Did her work too well. Did her work so well she was no longer useful and had to be sent away

Sarah was threatened by her and demanded she leave. She was supposed to be a servant and now she was a competitor, with a rival child, an older boy. If Ishmael is allowed to grow up, he’ll take everything from Isaac. If Hagar is allowed to stay, she might have the upper hand.

And Hagar ran away into the wilderness and was so desperate she almost killed her son. But she found a well of water and they survived. Ishmael grew up to be a bowman.

We don’t know what happened next to Hagar. History does not record.

Now here is what happened. And here is what always happens.

Sentine Bristol was born in Grenada, a British colony in the Caribbean. The Empire lured her over to work in the United Kingdom. She came on a boat called the Windrush. She worked as a nurse in the NHS. A successful immigrant, keeping us alive. Too successful, stealing our jobs.

Aren’t they great, bringing their culture and ingenuity and skills? We will celebrate them in our Olympics opening ceremony. But it wouldn’t kill them to assimilate. Couldn’t someone else have done the work she was brought over here on the Windrush to do?

She brought her son with her. His name was Dexter. He worked as a cleaner until he was in his 50s. 

And then they were no longer useful. Hardworking immigrants. Parasitic immigrants. Did their work well. Did their work too well. Did their work so well they were no longer useful and had to be sent away. 

A new wave of nationalism swept the country. The Home Office destroyed the records of their having arrived in Britain. The government declared a policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, which included people who did not have their papers because their papers had been destroyed.

So the state cast them out. Dexter had to prove he wasn’t a foreigner in the only country he’d known since he was 8 years old. And he couldn’t find the documentation. He lost his job and the right to claim benefits. He was threatened with deportation.

And no well appeared in the wilderness. And he didn’t go on to become a bowman or a great nation. He died of a heart attack from the stress of trying to keep his home. Sentine did not receive justice. She disappeared from the headlines two years ago. 

This is what happened. This is what always happens.

One group gains more wealth than another. Maybe by technology, maybe by force, maybe by resources, maybe by luck.  The wealthy people require the labour and expertise of others, so they entice them with promises of jobs and prosperity. People go wherever the wealth is. They become nurses, midwives, bricklayers, servants, dream-interpreters, delivery workers, chefs, surrogates, cleaners, plumbers and bus conductors. 

The migrant people are despised. They have taken our jobs and brought their diseases. Their ways are too different from ours; they refuse to assimilate. Their beliefs are too foreign from ours; they cannot be allowed into our spaces. We do not trust their food or their clothes or their appearance. They will overtake us by sheer force of their numbers or intelligence or might. They must be eradicated.

The migrant people are prized. Look at the wonderful ingenuity and work ethic they have brought to us. How lucky we are to have them in our ranks. Such awards we must give them for their brains, their athleticism, their musical talent. They have transformed our cuisine and our customs. We cannot imagine our culture without them. We must protect them.

And then they are no longer useful. Maybe they are feared or maybe their hosts become jealous. Maybe the wealthy people are no longer so wealthy, or maybe they no longer feel so wealthy. Maybe there is a new government or an old ideology or a charismatic movement promising to restore former greatness. And the migrant people are surplus to requirement, so they have to leave.

They go back where they came from or onwards to somewhere else, not that it makes much difference either way. They get deported or they go voluntarily because they know they’re not wanted any more, not that it makes much difference either way. They depart on foot into the desert unsure if their children will survive. They leave on camels, in caravans, on boats, in cars. They pile into buses and aeroplanes and dinghies, depending on which paperwork they have and how much money they can stump up front. 

And then they are forgotten. And we don’t know what happens to their story after that.

That is what happened. And that is what always happens.

The Torah’s stories tell of the time when humanity transitioned into a new kind of civilisation, one defined by inequality and migration. That is why they are not just about the past, they are about the present.

The Torah recalls what it was like for an Egyptian named Hagar to seek work and be abused among Israelites. It tells the story of an Israelite named Joseph who sought work and was abused among Egyptians.

And because it tells those stories of inequality and migration, it also tells the stories of all the people who moved to Britain over these centuries. Their struggles, our struggles, are reflected here too.

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens. Unless we do something about it.

I gave this sermon for Glasgow Reform Synagogue on Saturday 7th November 2020, Parashat Vayera.

judaism · sermon · social justice

End the hostile environment

“My mum has been deported.”

“I want to stay in this country after I finish studying, but the government won’t let me.”

“If they send my wife back, I don’t know what will happen to our children.”

These are all sentences I have heard in the last few months. Some from Jews. Some from non-Jews. All from people I never imagined would have to go through such trauma.

At first, these stories felt like anomalous tragedies. Now, I have begun to hear so many stories of visa and migration problems that I can’t dismiss them as individual instances. A government policy is underway, and it scares me.

In 2012, in a speech to the Conservative Party conference, then-Home Secretary Theresa May promised “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The following year, she sent out a fleet of vans around the suburbs of London, directing illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest.”

As prime minister, May has strengthened and extended that ‘hostile environment’ policy. Commonwealth citizens, students, people on marriage visas, immigrants who have been here for over 50 years – all have felt the blunt force of the UK’s strict border policy. There are, inevitably, fears that this will soon come to affect EU nationals.

Perhaps I should not be so alarmed. The UK’s strict controls over immigrations are over a century old. In 1905, Parliament first passed a law placing restrictions on who could come into the country, dubbed ‘the Aliens Act’, whose express intention was to stop migration of Jews from eastern Europe. The parliamentary debate called Jewish immigrants “dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal.”

For as long as I have been alive, successive governments have promised to get tough on immigration. Tony Blair boasted about doubling immigration officers, increasing raids, clamping down on migration and turning away asylum seekers. Gordon Brown famously pledged “British jobs for British workers.” David Cameron called the refugees at Calais “a bunch of migrants.” During Ed Miliband’s election campaign, he brandished red mugs with his top five election promise: “Controls on immigration.”

Until recently, however, the UK’s hostility to immigrants had felt like low background noise. It was like the buzz of a dodgy lightbulb in a house I’d always lived in, humming away almost imperceptibly. Now, that noise has become a din. It has gone from being an irritant to a major problem, affecting people I care about deeply. And I am scared.

Beyond the fear I feel for those who are affected by this, what worries me most is the attitude that is seeping into our society. Underpinning all this anti-immigrant action is a pernicious culture. Fear of difference. Hatred of others. Desire for homogeneity. A striving for monoculture. A reactionary and regressive drive to return to a mythical, ethnically-pure past.

Our Torah portion has much to say on this issue. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, the whole world was of one language and of one speech.[1] The people gathered together in fear: “let us make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”[2] A homogenous, fearing society, they decide to build a tower reaching up to Heaven to challenge even God.[3] Out of this culture emerged an attitude where human life no longer mattered. Pregnant women were forced to do hard labour.[4] If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, ‘Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?’[5]

In response, God recognises that there is only one solution: “let us go down, and confuse their language, so that they may not understand each other.”[6] When the people no longer understood each other, they could no longer exploit each other. They gave up their meaningless work.[7] The antidote to tyranny is diversity.

While Babel may initially have seemed like a curse, it became a blessing. The bedrock of our civilisation is its diversity. Because of the scattered peoples of the earth and its variant languages, we have been given many gifts. We have the Diaspora. We have a world full of incredible cultures. We have Jews spread out across the world, spreading our vision of ethical monotheism. We have the joy of learning to communicate across all these barriers. What diversity of peoples means is that nobody can exploit another without first learning to understand them. We have to really speak to each other. And, when we do, we find in each other that great spark of divinity that guards us against oppression.

What is happening in Britain today feels like Babel in reverse. All my life, I have known this island as one teeming with diversity. I have come to meet people from every different language, religion and background. It has not been perfect. It has not been easy. But the fact that it isn’t easy is what makes it so wonderful. We learn from each other and try to understand each other. We all muck in together to build a country that works for everyone.

In this ‘hostile environment’, people are turning to each other in fear. The undertones of oppression and exploitation are becoming explicit. We are building our own tower: a monolith that refuses human compassion. It should be a source of concern to all of us.

Solutions are not forthcoming from the political parties. The Conservatives are dead set on their agenda. During their recent party conference, Diane Abbott told delegates: “Real border security – to stop drug traffickers, sex traffickers, gangsters and terrorists – that is what Labour stands for.” What made Abbott’s speech most disappointing was that, up until this point, she had been one of very few politicians to resist such rhetoric. It seems our politicians genuinely believe that the public are committed to their programme of fortifying the borders.

We must challenge their narrative. It is not too late to turn back. Babel granted us the gift of communication. I cannot be alone in having heard so many stories of problems with migration and borders. We need to tell each other those stories. We need to share our own family histories. We need to discuss our anxieties about what kind of country can be created out of fear.

We can challenge that fear with the greatest tool we have at our disposal: love. Babel created strangers and gave us the opportunity to love them. It turned us into strangers. Our Torah teaches us that we know the heart of the stranger. Not the pain or the suffering or the struggle. But the beating, loving, creative heart of somebody who has to move from one country to another and strives to make the best of it. With love, we can defeat fear. With hope, we can end this hostile environment.

Immigration Van

This sermon was published in Leo Baeck College’s weekly newsletter and delivered at Sheffield Reform Congregation on 14th October 2018. Afterwards, many of us did discuss our own family’s migration histories.

[1] Genesis 11:1

[2] Genesis 11:4

[3] BT Sanhedrin 109a

[4] Baruch 3:5

[5] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 24:7

[6] Genesis 11:7

[7] Sefer haYashar 12b