What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

What defines our humanity?

I haven’t gone to the demonstrations in London today. It’s partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t love demonstrations. But it’s chiefly because I want my whole life to be a protest against certain policies and attitudes advocated by President Trump, and not just by him alone, or Republicans only, or the US only, or solely by politicians. We must be activists against heartlessness not just somewhere, but everywhere.

The first chapter of Bereshit is my creed, the magnificent, misunderstood poem which opens the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a discredited attempt at the history of the universe, but a beautiful declaration of values:

light and dark, land and water, God sees that they are good;
grasses, flowers and trees, God sees that they are good
stars and planets, fishes, birds and animals, God sees that they are good;
human beings created equal in God’s image,
endowed with freedom, imagination and conscience, God sees that they are good.

This remarkable creation, vital, interconnected, interdependent, is henceforth entrusted to our hands. Our humanity is defined by how we honour that trust. Truly to be human is to respect nature, honour all life and stand up for the humanity of others.

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at Hoop Lane Cemetery, where many refugees from Nazi Germany lie buried, to dedicate plaques in honour of courageous rescuers. Among them were: Irena Sendler, the young Polish social worker who smuggled countless people out of the Warsaw Ghetto; Sir Nicholas Winton, who, with Trevor Chadwick, brought more than six hundred children to Britain; Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who enabled thousands to flee to Shanghai.

The night before, I was with Refugee Tales. Through walking together, telling their stories and the power of music, they campaign against the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. I was asked to write one of their Tales this year; it’s about S, who fled for his life from country X. Although as ‘a highly skilled migrant’ he had permission to work here, he was peremptorily detained and sent to Harmondsworth (‘At first it looks beautiful – from the outside; inside it’s really a prison’).

I saw a man sobbing. He’d been in detention for six months: “When I was brought here my girlfriend was pregnant. Meanwhile she’s given birth. I haven’t ever seen our baby”. Another man tried to kill himself, – out of despair. He’d been inside for over a year. He didn’t understand what it was that the authorities were waiting for.

Tomorrow is Sebrenica Shabbat, in memory and in outrage over the fate of the thousands of Muslim men and boys massacred in July 1995, and all the innocent people slaughtered, mutilated and made to ‘disappear’, in the brutal Bosnian war. Women often still do not know the fate of husbands and sons.

God of mercy… we remember with sorrow…
The young dreams that never came to fruition,
The old age that was not spent with family and friends. (Prayer by Mehri Niknam)

Today is the first of Av, the beginning of the nine days of mourning leading to the bitter fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and Jewish communities across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

It is held that the Messiah is born on that day of fasting and sorrow. We should take this personally: what is there redemptive within us, our societies and our collective humanity, which we must learn from so much suffering and cruelty and put into practice in our lives.

The issues which define our humanity are not all over the oceans. They are here in Europe too, in our cities, at our doorstep, in our hearts.

 

‘If this is a man?’ Primo Levi, the Torah, refugees…

If This Is A Man, the searing question which forms the title of Primo Levi’s first and most powerful testimony, has never gone away.

It points in two directions. It focuses on the victims. Can wretchedness grind the humanity out of a human being?

Consider whether this is a man…
Who labours in mud / Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread / Who dies at a yes or no. (Primo Levi: Shema)

An American colleague, Menachem Creditor, outraged at the separation of families, wrote a personal prayer for last Wednesday’s International Refugee Day:

God, we know there is little chance these poor children, newly huddled tender masses, will be reunited with their parents, little chance these terrorized parents will hold their children again…

I remember standing some years ago at the Hoek of Holland with ‘children’ who travelled that way on the Kindertransport, at the unveiling of a memorial. ‘It was an act of mercy’ one of them said. ‘And it was an act of cruelty: think of the parents…’

Levi’s question focuses equally on the perpetrators. Are we still human if we mock, beat, and kill? Is it human to allow other human beings to drown, starve, weep in lonely desperation?

The three simple words ‘this’, ‘Torah’, and ‘Adam’ – occur twice in immediate sequence in the Hebrew Bible. Together they form the statement: ‘This is the teaching of what it means to be human’. What is that teaching?

The first time the words appear together is in the description of ritual impurity occasioned by death: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in the tent’ (Numbers 19:14). But their meaning is incomparably broader that that context: ‘This is the teaching for humans who are mortal’.

The inference could be that we needn’t bother. We all die in the end, so why make an effort? Neither the Bible, Jewish wisdom, any other faith, nor our plain humanity has ever understood matters that way.

We are physical, vulnerable, mortal beings. We get hungry, lonely and frightened. We want comfort, company, community. If these are our needs, they must be those of everyone else also. So what are we going to do about it? Just as we hate others doing nothing when we suffer, so we must not do nothing when others are in trouble:

Never say: “What am I and what difference can my actions make?” Everyone needs to understand, know, and fix firmly in their heart that all their thoughts, words and actions are never lost…Every one of them makes an impact… (Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)

He was thinking of the second sequence of the three words, ‘this’, ‘Torah’ and ‘man’. This time the context is a basic existential question posed by King David: ‘Who am I?’ he asks God. How come I’m the recipient of so much privilege? Is ‘this the Torah of the human being, Lord God…’? (2 Samuel 7:18-19)

His words point to the other facet of mortal existence: to be human is to partake of God. To live is to embody a fragment of divine life; to feel life’s boundlessness flows through our consciousness; to apprehend wonder, know love and experience the fathomlessness of pity. We are mortals yet traversed and transformed by what is immortal.

If so, how can we let the lives of others be stymied by misery and their children be prevented from reaching out in joy and wonder towards the world?

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

A specifically rabbinic response to racism and antisemitism

I have a full heart after speaking at the synagogue of my friend, companion and colleague Marc Soloway, about my book My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution. I think of the love my great-grandmother had for her children, the love and faith she carried in her heart through all the terrible years. She began even her last postcard, from Theresienstadt, with the words ‘My Dear Ones’. Life is precious and the bonds of love are ‘powerful as death’.

That is why hatred is such a sin against humanity, both that of the person who is hated, and of the person who harbours hate. ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’, the Torah commands. The word ‘brother’ must be understood as comprehensive and inclusive. It is not okay to hate people because they are white, because they are black, because they are Jewish or Muslim. When we hate others because of the bare fact of their religion, nationality or identity, we destroy each other; we denigrate them and defile ourselves. That is why the rhetoric of racism, antisemitism and nationalist and religious abuse is so dangerous and must be countered, in whatever form or forum it is expressed.

This week the Board of Deputies of British Jews met with Jeremy Corbyn. This followed a powerful Parliamentary debate in which John Mann spoke movingly about the threats to his family while chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, – online attacks, a dead bird in the post.  Meanwhile communal action by Jews and those in solidarity with us has once again been branded a ‘Corbyn smear’. In fact, many of those who dare to raise these challenging issues are, or wish to be, Labour supporters, and several Jewish Labour MPs and local party activists have received appalling abuse.

The Board and the Jewish Leadership Council welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘personal involvement in the discussion’ and his further comments recognising and apologising for antisemitism in the Labour Party. But they found the meeting ‘a missed opportunity’; none of the six action points they had set out in order to establish a rigorous, unambiguous and transparent policy were agreed.

Antisemitism is not, of course, solely a province of the left. Across parts of Europe, and the globe, it is once again a weapon of the far right. For yet others it is simply a politically expedient tool, to be exploited as a cynical instrument of self-interest. Nor are Jews alone in facing a rise of racist attack in an increasingly aggressive and dangerous world.

Saying we have no place for antisemitism and racism is not enough. Professing ideological opposition (‘I don’t believe in racism, so how can I be a racist’) may be little more than self-deceit. It is our actions, far more than our words, which show who we are.

So what must we do to stand up both for ourselves and other vulnerable groups? It is not my role to determine what must be done politically and legally. Rather, as a rabbi, I want to stress a specific Jewish response. It derives from an incident in the Talmud on which I often reflect. During the Roman persecutions in the early second century Rabbi Pappos comes upon Rabbi Akiva, who is teaching Torah in public, an activity strictly forbidden by the Roman rulers. ‘Desist’, Pappos insists. Rabbi Akiva refuses. He is promptly caught and imprisoned. Shortly afterwards Pappos is also incarcerated. (Tyrants will always find reasons for persecuting their ‘others’) ‘Happy are you Akiva’, Pappos tells him when he meets him in prison, ‘At least you were caught for something’.

In standing up against antisemitism and racism we should know who we are. I do not mean this in an arrogant manner. Rather we should seek strength in knowing and living what it means to be Jewish; by making ourselves more deeply literate in our history and faith, studying our texts, knowing the language of our traditions, exploring and expanding our spirituality, participating in our communities and living our values. In this way we stand up for our Judaism and for humanity in general, because to know our Judaism is to know that we and every other human being created in God’s image, of unique and special value, never to be hated, but protected and cherished in his or her particular dignity.

 

My heart is my compass: Dr Abuelaish and ‘I Shall Not Hate’

Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.

He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.

Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.

‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.

Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.

From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…

From where did he draw the strength?

God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.

Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…

Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)

Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.

Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.

Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.

On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.

What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.

Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.

Will it work?

I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.

We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.

 

Where God is in a bleak climate

I woke up this morning thinking of Moses’ words to God: ‘va’eida’acha – let me know you’, wondering what this means. I’ve been trying to work out why this was on my mind.

I’d listened to the news on my way back from Cambridge last night. I’d heard about Vladimir Putin’s televised address in which he spoke of Russia’s new weapons, nuclear, intercontinental, five times the speed of sound, undetectable by any defence system present or future. What a thing to be proud of! And what about what Russia is doing in Syria? Poor humanity!

I’d listened to a report on changing wind patterns in the Artic, the possible cause of the unpleasantly named ‘Beast from the East’. Even the penguins are in trouble, the polar bears too. Others may feel this is foolish, but it pains me: more elephants are currently shot each day by poachers than are born. Who gave us the right?

There are times when I simply feel frightened for the future, and ashamed of being human, part of this species inflicting such hurt on creation.

I’d been on an interfaith panel at The Perse School in Cambridge. We’d been sent in advance the questions pupils wanted to ask. Next to my name I saw:

How can religions, supposedly all about love and peace, use God’s name in war?

Part of me was glad we ran out of time before that particular issue was raised.

But I know how I would answer.

I’d walked a couple of miles last night in the freezing streets. Poor people who have no roof over their heads, nowhere to retreat from the elements, no hot food, no stove, no bed. How can we do more for them?

I’d looked out at the frozen gardens, watching the birds, virtually queueing by the feeders, tiny, fragile, ice upon their wings. A couple of raisins or sunflower seeds could be a matter of life or death for them.

What sort of human wants innocent people, innocent creatures to die?

All this adds up to why Moses’ questions ‘Let me know you, God’, was on my mind.

Knowing God isn’t about being certain God’s on one’s side, automatically, ipso facto, just because one’s a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, or anything else. It’s not about knowing what God’s against and whom God hates. God’s is not the will behind the invention of even more lethal weapons of war. All this is idolatry; worse, it’s idolatry posing as religion.

Every act of terror purportedly in God’s name defiles that name. Every time we cause hurt to any living thing we hurt God too.

So what about Moses’ question – ‘Let me know you, God’? Even for Moses, isn’t this asking too much? No one ever really, truly knows God.

But we know enough. We know all we need to know, and we know it with the heart. There is something of God’s presence in those hungry birds. There is much of God’s being in every homeless, hungry person. God is present among the civilians in Syria, the DCR, and every war zone, unable to escape the clever weapons which destroy their towns, homes, children, souls, lives.

We are not mere bystanders while all this takes place around us. We are joined together by this moment of existence, this flow of life which animates us all this very breath-take, now. We are bound to each other by this call for compassion which cries out from round about us: Help me! Shelter me! Feed me! Save my children!

What more do we need to know about who or what or where God is?

 

Stoneman Douglas #NeverAgain – I admire the pupils’ courage

My teenage class this week wanted, perhaps needed, to talk about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.

-          People blamed pupils for tweeting and using WhatsApp while it was happening, but they must have been terrified.
-          We’ve had lock-down practice at our school, but this – it’s beyond me. I can’t even begin to imagine it.

One student at the school had tweeted “Our school is having a shooting. I’m not even kidding I’m about to die.” Poor people. Thank God if pupils here in the UK can’t imagine such a thing.

But since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, many classes in the US have had ‘active-shooter drill’ practice, from Kindergarten age upwards. ‘Seeing a school shooting as an event to prepare for, rather than an awful aberration, seems to have fueled the students’ anger’, noted The Guardian newspaper.

I respect that anger. I admire the initiative shown taken by pupils from the Stoneman Douglas high school since. All strength to their #NeverAgain campaign with its slogan ‘Protect our lives not our guns’.

Yet more guns cannot be the main answer. What’s clearly needed, what has clearly and self-evidently been needed for years, are changes to US gun laws. (It’s easy to say that from the UK, but that makes it no less true.)

My role in my teenage class is to provide the Jewish content. Our rule is: they choose the topic and bring the You Tube video or online article; I bring a relevant Jewish text or idea in response. The deal is that I get at least two day’s notice.

But this discussion was unplanned. So what was I to bring?

I tried to draw the discussion round to the significance of human action. We exist to make a difference. Action in defense of what is just and right is not an option but an obligation, a categorical responsibility, the core responsibility which defines what it means to be human. (And what is more right that the right of pupils and staff in schools to survive their day, learn and help create a better tomorrow?)

That’s why I agree with The Economist:

It has been the response of the surviving students… that has kept the tragedy in the news a little longer than usual. The pupils… have poured their grief and rage into a new campaign for gun control. In television interviews, speeches and social-media posts they have excoriated politicians who take cash from the National Rifle Association…

I admire their activism.

This week brings the festival of Purim. The language of the key text of the festival, the Scroll of Esther, draws repeatedly on the Torah’s description of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt. Both describe the situation of the Jew in the court of the all-powerful non-Jew: Joseph and Moses before Pharaoh; Mordechai and Esther before Ahasuerus.

But the key actor in Exodus is absent in the world of Mordechai and Esther. In Exodus Moses calls upon God and God at once intervenes. But God isn’t mentioned, not even once in the Scroll of Esther. The world, and our fortunes within it, are entirely delivered over to human agency.

That is not the same as saying that God is absent. There are God-like, God-inspired and God-required courses of action. But that action is dependent upon us.

This is something the frightened and grieving pupils and teachers of Marjory Douglas Stoneman high school have understood and grasped. Their courage and determination bring hope to us all.

 

Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

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.

 

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