November 1, 2013 admin


It’s moving to read in the Torah how Abraham describes himself. When speaking with the Hittites, from whom he wants to purchase a burial ground, he refers to himself asger vetoshav ‘a stranger and sojourner with you’ – even though he has resided among them for almost a hundred years. When arguing with God about the fate of Sodom, he calls himself afar va’efer ‘dust and ashes’, a phrase used only once again in the entire Hebrew Bible, by Job, overwhelmed by the power and wonder of God’s creation. There is a great humility, coupled to a quiet assertiveness – ‘I’m not just a stranger but also a sojourner and live here’ – in how Abraham understands his place on earth.
Such an attitude should guide us in our relations to other groups, in how we regard our rights, and their rights, to be where we are.
The van sponsored by the Home Office and driven round several London boroughs, including Barnet, for a trial week in the summer urging illegal immigrants to ‘Go home or face arrest’ has been in the news again. The Advertising Standards Agency, which received many complaints, has determined that the message used misleading statistics, but, extraordinarily, cleared it of being offensive and irresponsible. I hope the van will not appear again on the streets of Britain. It seems the Home Office itself regrets using them.
The realities facing millions of people in their native countries are extraordinarily bitter. Countries blessed with prosperity and benign governments based on democracy, equality and freedom, are faced with extremely difficult decisions. There is a moral obligation, ratified through the United Nations, to offer asylum to those with a well-founded fear of persecution. Every country needs a just and humane system for responding to refugees. The idea behind the vans is to offer help to go home for those not allowed to stay in Britain, as an alternative to the horror of forcible repatriation. But there should be no place in our societies for incitement to xenophobia and racism. Jewish experience tells us that these are extremely easily aroused.
I hope none of the asylum-seekers who attend our centre saw those vans. How terrifying that would have been! There are many in our communities who well remember what it felt like to be informed by placards, shouted it at in the streets, or cold-shouldered by neighbours, with the message that ‘You don’t belong’.
In Israel the Knesset is about to debate the Prawer-Begin bill concerning the Beduoin population of the Negev. The Bedouin are recognised as full citizens of the country; many have land claims going back to the Mandate or pre-Mandate period. Many have served in the army. It has been acknowledged for decades that legislation is needed to resolve unsettled issues, and there have in the past been many discussions with Bedouin communities. But the present bill gives cause for worry. Rather than recognising key Bedouin villages, so that they can access the basic amenities of water and electricity from the national grid, it threatens to move as many as tens of thousands to settlement towns which have proved socially and economically unsuccessful. Polls suggest that most Israelis do not favour the plan. It does not seem like a way forward rooted in those Jewish values of universal equality and dignity so courageously described in Israel’s remarkable Declaration of Independence.
It’s chastening to remember, with Abraham, that we are all temporary residents before God on earth and that we have a primary obligation to treat each other with respect, understanding and kindness.

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