Let My People Stay

Wearing a kippah and knowing Hebrew didn’t seem the most relevant asset when I visited the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais 15 months ago with leaders of different faiths. Suddenly a young man touched me on the shoulder and addressed me in Ivrit. He’d been an asylum-seeker in Israel, he explained. People had been decent to him but there was no future there. So he’d returned to the Sudan, been shot at, and then made his perilous way across the sea and through Europe – to here. He showed me his tiny, flimsy tent.

Now Israel is proposing to deport its asylum-seekers, or detain them indefinitely. In defiance, Rabbis for Human Rights has started the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement to give refugees shelter and protection:

“Who here would be willing to house people?” asked Rabbi Susan Silverman at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands.  (Haaretz)

As that gathering clearly understood, ‘Jewish’ in the description ‘a Jewish state’ needs a moral, not just a national, meaning.

Meanwhile a hundred rabbis protested in Washington this Wednesday, urging the passage of a clean DREAM Act. DREAMers are undocumented children who’ve fled to the USA from Mexico and other South American countries.

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist translates for such children at immigration courts, writes about their experiences in Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions. – (Those are the forty questions the children have to answer at the hearings)

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

She describes the huge risks of violence, rape and ‘disappearance’ which the children run on La Bestia, the nickname for the train through Mexico on the roofs or between the carriages of which most of those children reach the border, before trying to give themselves up to US patrols before vigilantes find them.

The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) offered a pathway through education for such children to become citizens. Meanwhile, they were protected under the DACA programme (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted during the Obama presidency. Last September President Trump determined to end this protection.

Alongside rabbis, protesters in Washington included leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS (which assisted Jewish refugees to the States). Taking their cue from Moses, they sang ‘Let my people stay’, and ‘God is my strength’ as they waited to be arrested. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the ADL said:

As the Jewish community intimately understands, at its best, the United States has been a beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants facing persecution… A clean Dream Act is a moral imperative for the heart and soul of our nation.

I grew up hearing from both my parents what it was like to flee persecution and start again with nothing. The Yishuv, the embryo Jewish State in Palestine, helped my father and his family; the British Consulate and many kind individuals, most not Jewish, assisted my mother. The message they passed on to me was clear: what others did for us, we must do for others.

Meanwhile here in the UK, people, including many children, sleep rough on nightmares of the violence they have fled, waking to a cold, lonely and uncertain future.

We can’t help everyone. But we are not at liberty to do nothing and help no one. Where the physical lives of the persecuted and destitute are on the line, our moral lives are on the line too.

 

‘We can’t leave it to others’: Thoughts for the 35th Martin Luther King Day

Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:

You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?

Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as

A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.

In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.

But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.

Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.

This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.

It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.

We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.

 

In Honour of Aharon Appelfeld

I had wanted to write about the moon in the water of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. I was running with the dog at dawn when I saw, trapped on the surface of the water among the reflected branches of the trees, the image of the moon. Maybe it’s the Hebrew word sihara, the rarer, more poetic term for ‘moon’, which makes me think of the adjective ‘serene’, but there was a silence, a beauty and a mystery to this scene, the cream moon-shadow floating on the blue-black water among the trees.

I wanted to write about how such images sustain me in the torn-edged rush of life. I like to say my prayers in such places, in woodlands, beside small streams, in a garden. It’s different, praying amid such company. It’s not so much about me saying words of prayer, as letting the noise inside my head yield to the stillness, quieted by the call of a bird, the semi-silent movement of a sheep in the neighbouring field. Then reverence and prayer enter me. I do not know the language of the oak trees, blackbirds, or of the slowly flowing water but I am content to be articulated by their wordless liturgy.

I just now read that the Israeli novelist and short-story writer Aharon Appelfeld died yesterday. I met him several times in Jerusalem, a peaceful, wise and quiet man. I met his son Meir also, on one searing occasion when his wife was very ill. I’ve taken down from the shelves and placed next to me his books A Table for One, illustrated by Meir, in which he writes of his love for Jerusalem’s cafes, and his autobiography, The Story of a Life.

I find Appelfeld’s fiction hard, as no doubt it is intended to be. Often it depicts a world of waiting and not knowing, a bewilderment as threatening as Kafka’s, but with its castles, courtrooms and transformations, its deadly geography concealed. His characters often seemed trapped in the ordinariness behind which we know hides waiting a most unordinary death, which, like so many millions of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s, they cannot escape.

Appelfeld himself survived, hiding in the forests of the Ukraine for over two years. One learnt to keep quiet, to distrust fluent speech: ‘War is a hothouse for listening and for keeping silent…I’ve carried with me my mistrust of words from those years’.

Moments of trust came from elsewhere:

In the forest I was surrounded by trees, bushes, birds and small animals. I was not afraid of them. I was sure they would do nothing harmful to me…Sometimes it seemed to me that what saved me were the animals I encountered along the way, not the human beings.

From the moment I first read them, I have stored those sentences in my mind. I think of them often. We humans are creatures of politics and history, unable for the most part to escape the lethal battlefields of identity and ideology. They are shaping up their armies across the globe even now and whether we like it or not it is almost impossible to escape being enlisted.

That is why I savour a moment by a canal, the moon shadow on the water. They are evanescent; the rising day will lot them out. But they are also redemption, partaking of the slow, trustworthy rhythms of ancient time, by which all life is nurtured and sustained.

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