Whichever way people voted, everyone agrees: the political and economic repercussions of Brexit will go on for years. We only have to think of yesterday in Parliament. But one matter has swiftly become clear; I already heard about it the morning after the poll: many people feel ‘outed,’ made to feel ‘other’. Here’s what they’ve said:
‘Suddenly I feel a foreigner’.
‘They asked me to come to the UK to work but now they want me to go home’.
‘Will I be deported?’ (then tears).
‘I walk down the street and think: maybe this person doesn’t want me here; maybe that person doesn’t want me here.’
Perhaps what I’ve been hearing isn’t typical, but I doubt it. I’ve spoken to some of the Hungarians, Spaniards, Germans, French, Bulgarians I know – and that’s just around the neighbourhood. (Last week I wouldn’t have referred to these friends by country, but that’s the way they’ve been made to perceive themselves now). Many feel anxious, uncertain, angry; they sense they’ve been given the thumbs-down.
Perhaps ‘outed’ is no more than just a feeling, a hyper-sensitive reaction. After all, there’s racism and prejudice before the EU, after the EU, and certainly within the EU. Why should the referendum have made a difference? But I believe it has; it’s brought to the surface, semi-legitimised something ugly within our society.
And it’s not just a ‘feeling’ for the person who told me she’d been hit for being ‘a foreigner and a Jew’ in the run-up, or for the student insulted for being Jewish, or to the children who found their school daubed with anti-Polish hate slogans, or to the Muslims targeted during Ramadan.
There’s a debate about where there really is more racism since the vote, or just a politically-motivated need by some to claim that there is. I certainly don’t believe the great majority of ‘leavers’ voted as they did because they’re racists. That in itself would be another kind of collective calumny.
But there are racists out there, and no doubt among the ‘remain’ voters too, and across the EU, and race hate is on the rise. And I’m not waiting for the statistics to prove how big that rise is, or why it came about, before saying that any such racism is wrong.
One action we can and must take in these time of uncertainty is to show solidarity within our Jewish community which is more vulnerable now (consider how Jeremy Corbyn received the report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party!) with different faith communities, and with other groups and individuals who are, or feel, attacked and insecure. We must express that solidarity and be heard and seen expressing it.
In this week’s Torah portion the spies sent by Moses to explore the Promised Land report back that they felt like ‘grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in the eyes of the inhabitants’. Maybe it was only their imagination, but what they thought others thought about them invaded and diminished their own self-esteem. That’s what happens when a person experiences, or senses, the contempt of others.
There is a further question we have to ask ourselves in this connection; it’s uncomfortable but essential: who might those ‘others’ be whom we in turn find ourselves blaming for doing the ‘outing’ and ‘othering’?
There are more than enough people who hold xenophobic attitudes and commit racist crimes. Such views have to be challenged, such actions reported and condemned, and their perpetrators brought to justice.
But far more people probably feel that they themselves have long been society’s other: not heard, not empowered, not included in the opportunities from which those who ignore them have grown rich. If we don’t listen now, it will not only be to our peril, but constitute our own form of prejudice.
We are virtually all someone else’s ‘other’ and all of us, too, are inclined to ‘other’ someone else.
When the Torah insists that ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ it offers no immediate definition of who that neighbour is. It divides the world into two, us and our neighbour; not into three: us, our neighbour and the other. The Torah asks us not to ‘other’ but to relate. It’s a high, perhaps impossible, ideal.
‘Love’ is a vast and vague term. The Torah no doubt means something far more down-to-earth. If we could try to respect, be aware of and stand up for the rights and dignity of our neighbour as we would want them to stand up for us, then and only then will we live in a society at peace with itself, inside or outside the EU.