Changing the story people tell, altering the narrative of a nation, can feel like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around by engaging a group of swimmers to push it in a different direction.
I spent yesterday at a conference arranged by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. The subject was promoting inclusion and countering anti-migrant narratives. This meant narratives of xenophobia, racism, including anti-Semitism, and hate for refugees.
The room was full of inspiring people; the world full of disturbing realities. Moving examples of generosity, welcome and integration were shared. But it was felt the world was headed in a different direction, driven by narrowing identity slogans of ‘Me’: Russia for the Russians; America for the Americans. How do we tell a more complex story of identity? How do we create a community of ‘We’?
I thought of this Shabbat’s Torah reading, with its (almost) concluding verse: ‘You shall have one and the same system of justice; it shall be the same for the citizen and the stranger’ (Leviticus 24:22). It’s the first piece of Torah I ever learnt. The great 11th century Bible commentator Rashi makes the stirring comment: ‘I am the God of you all; just as I make my unique name known over you, so do I make known over the stranger’.
‘Tell success stories about refugees; talk about the great contributions they make’, one delegate stressed, ‘That’s how to change public opinion about refugees’.
Others demurred. Refugees from persecution have a claim on our humanity not because they will become a success, though they may, but because of our shared humanity. That is what connects us: our shared hopes for safety, food, a home, a future; our shared fears of violence, homelessness, hunger, being unable to look after our children. How does one persuade people to open their heart to these truths?
I was struck by the contribution of a storyteller who works with children. You don’t change attitudes by going on about human rights, he said. People just think, ‘these lefties and their slogans’. But when someone’s child comes home from school and talks about the new friend in the class, that’s different.
I spoke about how members of our community invite refugees to cook together, share music, and tell their stories. Food, music, family, stories: that’s who we are and how we learn who others are. It’s when we are accepted for who we are that we feel at home. I often think about how Isca, my mother, first felt at home in Britain when she studied at Birmingham University, at the Quaker College of Woodbrooke and was invited to play the cello.
The most challenging conversations concerned how to respond to groups which promulgate racism.
They need to be challenged. I was impressed by Stop Funding Hate, which persuades big brands not to advertise in newspapers which incite xenophobia.
But they also need to be understood. We live in a world of renewed fear, for jobs, housing, national security. It’s not helpful, someone said, to think in terms of; ‘refugee’ and ‘local’; ‘outsider and insider’. Instead, we need to think of a more embracing ‘us’.
We have three objectives, the UN Commission told us: Protecting the human rights of everyone; listening to people’s stories; and create communities of ‘we’.
‘Creating communities of we’ seems to me like an ancient, contemporary, honourable, essential, deeply human and deeply Jewish endeavour.