It seems at the moment, on an almost weekly basis, we are celebrating or commemorating significant anniversaries – the founding of the NHS, beginning women’s suffrage, Windrush (marked this weekend), end of the first world war, founding of the State of Israel, and so on. Of course, it is no surprise that these anniversaries often fall around (either before or after) a war, since it is war that often prompts significant social upheaval, scientific advancement and change to the fabric of that which is ‘tradition’. Before I return to this theme let me first refer to the Torah portion this week – Parashat Chukkat.
There are two little vignettes of the journey of the Children of Israel in the wilderness in our Torah portion this week, which capture either the beginning or the very end of the 40 years of wandering. The two vignettes both involve a request by the Israelites for safe passage through a neighbouring tribal land. The first – Edom – the descendants of Esau – is preceded by a reminder of the terror of slavery in Egypt ‘you know the adversity that has befallen us’. The second to the Amorites. Both requests are refused with the threat of violence.
With Edom this leads to a detour and the long route to the Promised Land. The Amorites on the other hand prepare to do battle and become one of the first tribal lands to be part of the conquest for the Israelites.
But that’s not what I find so incredible. Here’s this people who have fled slavery and oppression and in telling their ancient tribal cousins their story they ask:
- Let us pass, I pray you, through your country; we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, nor will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your borders.
And Edom, cold-heartedly (or perhaps still bearing the ancient grudge of Jacob and Esau) says that they cannot pass through their land and if they do, there will be war. It reminded me of a different anniversary that falls in just a week or so’s time. 80 years ago there was a famous conference taking place – The Evian Conference.
In July 1938 President Roosevelt convened an international conference to try and work out a way to offer refuge to the Jews who were desperately trying to flee Nazi Europe and were – just to show this is not the first time America has had a problem with immigration – being refused visas by the United States of America. In the conference nearly every country expressed sympathy for the thousands of Jews trying to emigrate. None (except Dominican Republic and later Costa Rica) accepted any more refugees. Plus ca change!
The Jews were shut out from the world. Chaim Weizmann was quoted in The Manchester Guardian as saying: “The world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
Of course, the failure of the conference led to the post Kristallnacht response of the Kindertransport. The international failure to find a solution to the problem of Jews trying to escape the clutches of state sponsored oppression and murder is something that the world cannot forget or be forgiven for. And yet, we can learn some lessons.
This synagogue is currently involved in a huge array of projects for refugees and asylum seekers that Nic Schlagman (Head of Interfaith and Social Action) and I coordinate. The regular Drop-In for Destitute Asylum seeker families once a month, a new plan to offer a parachute provision to help our guests who gain leave to remain after their asylum claim is approved, and weekly employment and English language training for Eritrean Refugees.
This week, I’m excited to say, we reached a point of signing off a Memorandum of Understanding between Liberal Judaism and South London Liberal Synagogue for us jointly to sponsor a refugee family under the vulnerable persons scheme for Syrian refugees to be resettled in London. It’s an opportunity to reject the populist rhetoric and instead come to understand the real meaning of being human, of putting Judaism into action and potentially saving the life of a family.
When I first commented on the news on this government backed programme, a programme formally approved shortly after the Brexit referendum (which took place two years ago today), I said I hoped it would heal some of the wounds of the Brexit debate which had created a toxic environment along with racist attacks. I promptly received an email accusing me of giving succour to antisemites because I was advocating importing Muslims. So Jews would either be attacked by the ‘surge’ of Muslim refugees or by the far-right for helping them come here in the first place.
In 80 years we see essentially the same arguments: There are too many immigrants, we’re very sorry that they’re refugees but we have done our bit, and if you dare try and pass through here we’ll make the environment as hostile as possible. We will regard you all as a threat to our national security.
There is a thread that runs through the response by Edom to the wandering Israelites, the abject racism that sits beneath the treatment of the Windrush Generation, hostile environments which leave asylum seekers in this country destitute, the hideous scenes we have seen in the USA of the treatment of families, and the international community’s behaviour at the Evian Conference.
At its heart there is a fundamental mistrust, frequently verging on hatred and bigotry, of the interloper – pouring into our countries to ‘infest’ us. And the biggest problem, as we discovered with the travesty of Windrush which we commemorate this weekend, is that this is the language and rhetoric which is creating policy, not a visionary political leadership which discusses the nature of the sovereign nation state in the 21st century, the enormous challenges of global migration, economic inequality, resource shortages like food and water, Islamo-Fascism and conflict.
With community sponsorship, we in this community have an opportunity to practically contribute to a wider public debate about what it means to be British, what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be a global citizen. As such, the synagogue will continue to do what makes it so proud in helping the most vulnerable settle here in our wonderful country, from Lingfield House just over 70 years ago to Streatham today, we will help them find their feet and ultimately in addition to saving their lives, help them play their part in British society.
The anniversaries of great moments in our national history – the NHS, the arrival of the Windrush generation (always citizens) and the celebration of their contribution to life here, the beginning of the Kindertransport, the start of suffrage for women, are moments to be embedded into our national consciousness because they have almost always bent the arc of history towards progress and away from the mistakes like Evian. Through this consciousness, this remembrance, we carry forwards the responsibility of the future for our world for future generations.
 Numbers 20:14-21: 14. And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, Thus said your brother Israel, You know all the adversity that has befallen us; 15. How our fathers went down to Egypt, and we have lived in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and with our fathers; 16. And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and has brought us out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the edge of your border; 17. Let us pass, I pray you, through your country; we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, nor will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your borders. 18. And Edom said to him, You shall not pass by me, lest I come out against you with the sword. 19. And the people of Israel said to him, We will go by the high way; and if I and my cattle drink of your water, then I will pay for it; I will do you no injury, only pass through by foot. 20. And he said, You shall not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.
Numbers 21:21-23:21. And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22. Let me pass through your land; we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well; but we will go along by the king’s high way, until we are past your borders. 23. And Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness; and he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel.
 The failure of Evian led Gold Meir to reflect in her memoirs: “the ludicrous capacity of the [Jewish] observer from Palestine, not even seated with the delegates, although the refugees under discussion were my own people….”. After the conference Meir told the press: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”