Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5776 (2015)
ROSH HASHANAH MORNING 5776 – 14th September 2015
Our Relationship with the People of the World
What is the purpose of the Haftarah? I have no doubts that some of you, regulars at Marlborough Road or less regular, have pondered this as you listen to some seemingly inane passage being read to you. Originally, its purpose was probably polemical. It was making a political points against the Karaites – a breakaway sect that followed only the Torah and did not give elevated status to any subsequent texts, and especially to rabbinic laws. Its role was to somehow complete or complement the Torah reading by providing a connected text from the Prophets.
In our Haftarah this morning, the prayer of Hannah is heard by Eli, the priest of God in Shiloh – this is before Jerusalem was established as the central and only temple. As Hannah goes to the Temple, we have the privileged knowledge from the narration of her position and state of mind. We are told about her bitter grief as she takes a vow quietly, but very emotionally. Eli only observes Hannah from a distance. He prejudges and misjudges her behaviour and so reprimands her immediately: “How long do you propose to carry on drunk like this! Throw your wine away!” This is so typical of us human beings – we use limited information to make a prejudicial judgement.
So it has been with us this last year, in general I fear, and more specifically in one context which I shall, to no-one’s great surprise, address this morning. Last night, I explained to the congregation that I am addressing four types of relationship in my addresses these High Holy Days. This morning, I wish to focus on our relationship to the wider world and its populations.
We get a glimpse of other people’s behaviour from a distance, often through the distorting lens of someone else’s editorial prejudices. We all too often mis-judge the situation. I was guilty of moral cowardice in summer 2014. In the context of Operation Protective Edge last summer, I turned down a request to hold an event to support refugees, in particular Syrian refugees, just before Sukkot. I was wrong to do this, and my error was confirmed when I attended the event on the afternoon before Sukkot began at Bet Tikvah synagogue. Rabbi Hulbert even expressed his surprise that the event was not taking place at Marlborough Road, as he thought it was more ‘our kind of thing’The event’s purpose was to ask the Mayor of Redbridge to commit to this borough taking in fifty refugees, in the manner that almost everyone is suggesting now should be done. The mayor’s response then was supportive, and the local press covered the event at bet Tikvah, but this has still not not translated into firm action by our local authority to re-settle refugees.
Time and again, thirty-six times across the five books of Torah, we are instructed to love the stranger, specifically and precisely because we know the heart of the stranger. We know what it is like to be Hannah mis-judged by Eli in the temple at Shiloh. We know what it is like to have a German name when given refuge by Britain in the late 1930s, but still be treated as an enemy alien or potential threat to national security. We know what it is like to have children separated from their parents in the just under 10,000 who were allowed to enter Britain via the Kindertransport. Remember, that is 9,864 child refugees in less than a year and that number was too small. In the current refugee crisis, our country will only admit 4,000 people per annum for five years. That number is pathetic and immoral and we ought to be disgusted that this is the limit on this country’s humanity. If each of this country’s 433 local authorities were to take in only 50 refugees – ten families of five, then our country would be accepting 21,650 needy people. The UK should have done at least that in 1939-40; we could do at least that now.
The United Kingdom’s current unaccompanied minors scheme provides leave to remain until the children reach the age of 18. What then happens to them? The UK ‘system’ requires that they then return to their country of origin! If that policy has been in place in the 1940s, then my Dad would have been returned to Germany after 19th October 1943! For example, over 600 Afghan teenagers have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan over the past six years, because it is deemed a safe place to which to return. It doesn’t matter that, having been schooled here for maybe 3 -5 years, these young people are western in their outlook and have probably lost contact with their family. Our policy is to send them back.
Some, possibly many, of the German Jewish refugees who came to Britain in the Nazi period were middle-class. It was only the comparatively well-off who could afford to pay for the journey, or pay for the visa, or have the contacts to get the job offer needed. So, when a Syrian refugee is pictured with a mobile phone, who are we to say that they cannot possibly be a refugee.
Last Tuesday morning, one such refugee joined Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference to tell us his story. A dentist in Damascus, he and his mother fled to Beirut in 2012 because he was to be called up into President Assad’s army. Fearing being returned to Syria, they went to Cairo, but there, too, they heard that Syrians, not liked by Egyptians, were being returned to Syria. Then he had the toughest decision, as his mother could not travel further and told him to leave her behind. Via Alexandria, he paid $2500 for a place on a boat to Italy. Promised a large boat, what they were put on was so small that the 400 passengers could not stretch their legs. In the Mediterranean for seven days with just dates and water, they needed mobile phones to contact the people in Italy who would help refugees, and without whom they could not have landed. He made his way across Europe, hitching lifts, taking trains where he could. He needed five attempts to get into England as a stowaway on board a lorry, and once in the UK he was taken to an internment camp and, eventually, given leave to remain for five years. He is desperate to convert his dental qualifications so that he can practise here. He hopes that he has two sisters and two brothers still in Damascus, but he cannot be sure. They have applied often, but cannot get a visa to go to any country in the world.
I’m afraid I must turn to a history lesson. On 7 July 1938, a thirty-two country international conference was held at Evian, in France, to discuss what could be done to help the German Jews. During the conference, the British government made it very clear that it would not be able to increase its quota for refugees, citing high levels of unemployment. France also said that they were “at the extreme point of saturation”The Australian delegate reported “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
Hitler noted how ”astounding” it was that, even though these countries criticised Germany for its treatment of the Jews, they nevertheless refused to open their borders to them. The British delegate to the conference even apologised to the Germans for interfering.
“Never again” was the mantra after the Holocaust and yet we have watched other genocides unfold since 1945, most notably in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia. The quality of a society is detected by the way in which it treats the weakest members of that society. Within this country, our society fails that text. Internationally, our country sets an appalling example by the tone of its political leaders’ speeches and by too many of their actions. We, the population of this country either condone these actions or do too little to make clear that this cannot be done in our names. I need to repent for this sin of doing too little, of being a bystander of whom it is said “All it takes for evil to flourish is that good people do nothing.” No longer!
We, the people of this country, have to make clear that we have consciences, informed by our Jewish values – including, as we will read from the Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon: “And if a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34) Our British values of justice, fairness and safety should also inform our thinking and our action.
This is why the adults and children present on Saturday stood together with posters stating that refugees are welcome. This is why every one of you, and everyone at Bet Tikvah Synagogue too, has a leaflet on your seat inviting you to DO something to support all those who are refugees, strangers in a strange land. We can and must do something and the leaflet explains what we will do. We can and must also change the language and messages of our political leaders, so they understand what we see as immoral and that we expect better of them.
This morning we have heard the story of Hannah in the temple at Shiloh and Eli’s reaction to her. Hannah was able to correct her accuser, and we heard how that story ended. More importantly this morning, we have heard stories of two women in distress. In our Torah portion, the distress of the mother and the cry of the boy were heard by God who responded by gently enquiring “What troubles you, Hagar?” Then, most importantly, God is pictured telling the mother “Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is.” On this line, the Midrash comment is most important. For remember, this is Ishmael, the father of the Arab nations and the Islamic peoples. The Midrash tells us that God always judges us on our present behaviour and situation, not for where we were or where we will be. We must do no less than this. There are millions of people in distress, in fear, and whose lives are at risk. We did not hear the cry of Aylan Kurdi or his brother, nor respond to the distress of their mother. We can and must do better for thousands of others – this new year, this season of repentance and the alarm call of the shofar, and the best teachings of our Judaism expect no less of us. I know the good in everyone here – we will hear the cry of the boy where he is, of the girl where she is, of the refugees where they are and, as we are taught by our Liberal Judaism, we will respond.