sermon · social justice

It could be you

A woman passes her baby over the fence to an American soldier. She does not know the soldier. She does not know if the baby will be safe. She does not know whether she will ever see the baby again. But she knows that she must give the baby to someone, anyone, so that he doesn’t grow up there.

A sixteen year old boy with a promising career as a footballer grabs on to the side of a plane. He begs. He hopes the plane will take him too. The plane takes off, flinging him to the ground. He dies instantly.

An elderly woman with nothing to her name takes off on a long journey across desert mountains by foot. If she is lucky, she will arrive in a squalid refugee camp and spend the rest of her days living in white tents managed by the UN. She probably will not be so lucky.

Today those people are Afghans. 

Only a few generations ago, they might have been you. 

Most of the people here have ancestors who fled just as these refugees do today.

The great migration of Jews into England came at the end of the 19th Century. They had been living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe for centuries. Under Tsarist persecution, Jews were confined only to certain parts of the Russian Empire. They worked as peasants and in menial jobs, building their own communities in the shtetls.

When the Tsar’s power was threatened and the Russian Empire began to crumble, his supporters blamed the Jews. For decades, state-backed mobs rampaged through the villages. They torched houses, massacred people, stole property and made life unbearable. We call these waves of antisemitic violence pogroms.

So, our forebearers fled. Most did not make it. Some arrived in England. When they did, they were met by hostility, racism, cramped housing and sweatshop jobs. 

Not long ago, the hordes of fleeing refugees were you. You know what it meant to be a stranger. Even if you do not remember. 

The Torah asks you to remember. According to our narrative, thousands of years ago, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were refugees from a famine in Canaan. We were wandering migrants with no home. We were enslaved and confined to one part of the Nile and worked hard labour building garrisons for the Pharaoh. We were mistreated and judged with prejudice. We are instructed by Scripture to remember how that felt.

This week’s parashah sets out the rights of migrants. Never abuse them. Do not exploit them. Pay them upfront. Don’t hold their property hostage. Give them dignity. Don’t mess them around. Make sure they have food and shelter. Look after them.

Why? Over and over again, Deuteronomy repeats: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.”

You have to support strangers because they are you. When you look at migrants and refugees, you are not allowed to see them as different. You have to look at them as you. It is the most-repeated commandment in the whole of Torah: to know what it is like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Remember what this means.

Not everyone remembers. 

Last week, Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times praising border controls. He took his family story of fleeing as refugees from the Nazis to advocate for keeping some foreigners out.

He wrote, and I quote here: “strongly believe in immigration control. And I am not in the slightest bit put off by the suggestion that this would have prevented my grandfather from becoming a British citizen […] yes, I would deny immigration to some very deserving and worthy people I would be quite happy to live next door to. Even people I would be happy to be related to. Just because I favour immigration for someone, that doesn’t mean I favour it for everyone.”

Personally, I cannot share Mr. Finklestein’s flippant disregard for immigrants, or join him in championing border controls. Like his, my family also fled the Nazis. Most did not make it out. Only a few, who were children, or who could prove they would be useful as nurses, were permitted entry. Under the current system, I doubt they would have been allowed. If I were a refugee today, I would not fare so well as my grandfather did.

But the reason I object to Danny Finkelstein so strongly is not selfish pragmatism. It is religious. It is because I truly believe what the Torah teaches about the rights of strangers. Those refugees are my ancestors who fled persecution. They are my progenitors from millennia ago who were strangers in the land of Egypt. Those Afghans, gripping onto planes and handing their babies to soldiers and walking for miles in the sun… they are me.

And they could be me again.

The only thing that stands between a comfortable citizen today and a desperate refugee tomorrow is luck. 

We in this room do not have to think about what we would do if our corner of the world was faced with famine or war. We do not have to imagine where we would go when faced with our own version of the Taliban.

But if ever I did have to think about this, I would pray that somebody, somewhere, had taken to heart the message of the Torah. I would want somebody to say that no number is too many, that their homes were open, and that my life mattered, no matter what I could provide.

Thankfully, there are people in Britain today, making precisely this case. 

The Jewish Council for Race Equality has put together a Jewish community response to the Afghan refugee crisis. It sets out clear actions the government must undertake to meet its moral obligations.

It must scrap its anti-asylum seeker legislation. It must stop deporting Afghans back to certain danger. It must allow more refugees into this country. 

I urge you all to sign this petition in support of these very reasonable demands.

These are really the minimum standards we must meet. The Torah never even thinks to introduce border controls or to police citizenship. Our Scripture assumes that migration is natural and inevitable. God’s instruction is that, once strangers are with you, you give them all the rights and compassion you would show to someone you have known all your life.

Torah repeats itself so many times to drill home this message.

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.

Shabbat shalom. 

I delivered this sermon at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue on 21st August 2021 for Parashat Ki Teitzei.

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