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

judaism · sermon · torah · Uncategorized

The most boring part of the Torah

Genesis 10 is the most boring part of the Torah. Gandhi said it sent him to sleep. Militant atheists hold it up as a paragon of inane irrelevances. Although it is very clearly part of this week’s section of the Torah, everybody skips over it. You won’t hear any Liberal or Reform synagogues read it out this weekend. Even Chabad’s lectionary, known for keeping in even the driest sections for the sake of tradition, skips over Genesis 10 as though it’s not there.

It’s the genealogies. The lists of all the people who begat other people from Noah to Jobab. All the sons of Shem, Ham and Japheth roll off the tongue and over the heads of the readers. We can see why people would want to cut it out. In the rest of this section of the Torah, God floods the planet, Noah builds an ark, saves Noah, along with his family and favourite animals, then dramatically hangs a rainbow in the sky to symbolise a promise never to destroy the world again. At the end, after we’ve skipped over Genesis 10, the people attempt to build a tower so tall it can reach Heaven, only to be struck down and separated into many nations with many languages. By comparison with everything else, Genesis 10 is boring.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. The Torah is a carefully crafted text. Nothing gets in there by accident. The genealogies aren’t just a list of names that break up two well-known stories; they’re integral to the Genesis narrative. They tell us something deep about what kind of book the Torah is, who it’s for, and what makes it different from every other book that’s gone before. I find that in the boring bits, whether in a book or a relationship or a friendship, you find out the most important stuff. You find out who somebody really is.

It might help to put this text into the context of other Ancient Near Eastern prologues. It was common, in the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean, to begin with a list of people. These were the kings and their years leading up to the present day. For people in these societies, years were marked by the reign of their rulers and stories were told in relation to kingdoms. The Torah begins differently. The ancient Israelites were suspicious of monarchy and authority. They only managed a brief spell under a united kingdom, preferring instead to unite by their loyalty to God rather than to a person. For them, authority comes not from might but from history and tradition. So their story does not begin with a list of kings. It begins with a seemingly innocuous list of ancestors.

On closer inspection, these ancestors are not really people at all. Look, for example, at the descendants of Ham: Cush, Mitzrayim, Put and Canaan. These names are familiar. We know Mitzrayim as Egypt, the place our ancestors left in the Exodus. We know Canaan as Palestine, the place they entered. Put, according to Josephus, was the founder of Libya. Cush is commonly identified with Sudan. These are the nations of north-east Africa.

We see too the names Babel (Babylon), Accad (Akkadia) and Ashur (Assyria). These are the names of nations in the Near East. Later, scholars will come to identify Ashkenaz with Germany and Tarshish with Spain. The point is clear: this is a universal text. It is a story not of one great empire and its kings but of everybody. In this, the most boring bit of Torah, we find its most essential message: universalism. We are, all of us, part of this planet, sharing in its fortunes. We are, all of us, the children of Noah, descended from one common ancestor, connected by a universal God.

It encourages us to value unity in diversity – we may all come from a common ancestor, but we have gone in many different directions, all of which are to be celebrated. I think that’s the reason why it’s sandwiched between the stories of Noah and Babel. In Noah, people are violent and angry, so God floods the whole world. We realise that if the world floods, we all drown together. Our fates are so deeply intertwined that whatever we do to the world will affect all of us. In Babel, everybody speaks the same language and tries to build a tower together. But they are so single-minded that they subject everybody to the same conditions. They have no respect for difference or the unique dignity of each other, so God must separate them and diversify their languages. They needed difference.

Genesis 10, the history of all the nations of the world, combines the two messages of universalism and diversity. Yes, we all come from Noah and yes, we are all different. Yes, we share in this world, and yes, we are all part of different and exciting nations. Yes, we are all the same. And, yes, we are all different. This is a message that we can all share in what’s good in the world if we can all see what’s good and different in each other.

The nations of the world will, inevitably, look different in a decade to how they look now. The UK will most likely leave the European Union. Catalonia may or not become independent. Perhaps our Scotland will hold another referendum; Ireland and Northern Ireland might re-examine their borders. We will probably see new movements to restructure states all over the world. New nations will unite, new nations will split.

Separating or uniting need not be inherently good or bad things. What matters is the spirit in which they are done. If people split based on malice and anger, as did the generation before the flood, they won’t succeed. If people join out of a desire to be homogenous and to force everyone to conform, as did the generation at Babel, they will fail. Only if they can respect difference, uniting in a spirit of diversity, will people succeed.

tower of babel