Friday, 31 October 2014

On Swamping Migrants - A Lech Lecha Sermon


I wonder if Abraham should count as an economic migrant.

Actually, I don’t wonder, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an economic migrant.


Vayehi ra-av baaretz vayered avram mitzrayima lagur sham, ki caved hara’av baretz.


Rashi, our greatest commentator, alive in the 12th Century brings a teaching that dates to the first two centuries of the common era; ra’av bair, pazer raglecha – a famine in the city, makes your feet go wandering.

Famines will do that to a person.

No food, no possibility of sustenance, of life persisting for you, for your family.

Pazer raglecha – off you go in search of pastures greener.

It’s hard wired into the human condition since, I suspect, before there was such a creature as homo sapiens.


Jacob, Isaac’s grandson, flees persecution.

Behold, his mother tells Jacob,

Esav achicha mitchatein lecha, lehargecha

Esau, your brother is plotting to kill you.

And off goes Jacob. He flees to Padan Aram.

Who wouldn’t?

I wonder if Jacob would be classified as an asylum seeker in this country if he turned up today pleading a real and immediate threat of his life being ended.

Actually I don’t wonder – I know he wouldn’t have a chance.


I had an interesting Kiddush conversation with a group of French new members of the community.

Et beinvenue mes amis francaises

I was commiserating about the rise of antisemitisim in France and asking about if this ascending threat accounted for their decision to come to England.

No, they responded, it’s the tax system.

Mes amis francaises had come to Britain in search of the opportunity to make what they can of their lives in an open, fair, democracy that in its imperfect way, values those who get on their bike.

How fortunate for our new French friends, that Paris is only a train ride away, and they need no visa.

I suspect my great great grandparents chose this mighty isle for much the same reasons.

Was there oppression in Odessa and the like? Yes, but they came to Britain because the horizons were brighter and the possibilities of life greater. Good on them. Thankfully for me.

I wonder for how many of us that is the case.


This wandering off, escaping deprivations and persecutions is a familiar enough trop.

I could tell the same story on the week we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah for the horrendous failure to allow the new arrival Lot safe passage.

I could tell of Joseph’s brothers, sustained during famine in Egypt.

I could tell of the Israelites who so discomforted Pharaoh that he embarked on a programme of mass murder.

Oy mah hayah lanu – as we sing on the 9th of Av – what has befallen us, time after time after time we have been victims of programmes of mass murder for the sin of being strangers in a strange land.


Our identity is formed in wandering and in dislocation. Even before Egypt and the oft repeated Biblical instruction to do right by the stranger because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ even before the centuries of exile and displacement, we were a dislocated people.


And here’s an interesting, and very old truth, about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us dislocated folk who can so destabilise an indigenous population.

We don’t know what we are doing at first. We are very liable to do things that the host community find deeply odd

Let me take Abraham as an example.

He arrives in Egypt and thinks the locals are going to take a fancy to his wife.

So he tells Sarah to tell everyone she meets that she is his sister.

Indeed Pharaoh does take a fancy to Sarah and showers Abraham with gifts.

Until that is, he realises he is wooing a married woman.

Mah zot asitah li, lama lo higadatah li ishtecha hi

What have you done to me, why didn’t you tell me she’s your wife?

I wonder how the Daily Mail would have reported that story of an immigrant’s deceit in search of pecuniary advantage.

Actually I don’t wonder.


And here’s another interesting, and very old, truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us.

We make quite a contribution, eventually. All the think-tanks and peer review articles tell us so.

Here’s my theory as to why there are so many Jews in the arts, in business, in science and the rest of it.

We are used to seeing things ever so slightly from the outside.

We aren’t accustomed to assuming that what has always been will always be, because we know that life changes and one generation’s well-established Jewish community become, all too soon the Fiddler on the Roof, precarious and hopping along the rooftops in search of another place to call home.

And that lightness of foot, that perspective that brings another viewpoint, that has experience is just a bit broader.

All those things make for success.


And here’s another very old truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us.

Narrow protectionism is always unsustainable in the long term.

When Jews were first allowed back into England, in the seventeenth century; we were kept out of the guilds, not allowed to own land, train as Drs all those kinds of things.

There were quotas for Jews at the public schools when I was growing up.

Quota for Jews!

Today, thank God, quite rightly, the kinds of institutionalised formalised racism that was such a marker of Jewish life in this country in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries is criminalised.

But we have such a long way to go.


Because this is the most important truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us dislocated folk.

The test of the decency of a society is how it treats the stranger.

That’s why the command to love the stranger, or not oppress the stranger, or open your heart to the stranger is the most repeated verse in the Torah.

The test of our decency isn’t how we treat people who look like us, speak like us and make us feel cosy in our familiatude.

The test of our decency is how we deal with people we don’t understand, don’t like the look of, don’t really trust.

This is the great teaching of the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas; how do you treat the Other in their otherness, without forcing them to be just like us, without, as Levinas would say, depriving them of their difference from us.

The test of our decency comes when we feel discomforted, challenged, provoked. Being decent isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to require a certain bravery, a certain integrity.


Do I mean that anyone arriving on these shores should be given a council house and income support and ushered straight to the head of the queue to our health service and education service? No, of course there needs to be a more sophisticated approach.

But this, this is not good enough.


This week our government, my government, announced it was withdrawing financial support for search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea – those penniless bedraggled dislocated folk attempting to get to Europe on overcrowded rafts.


Here’s what the Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore has to say of the decision.

‘The flood of anxiety about immigration is about fear. [she wrote] The current hysteria is about fear of losing elections and now, predictably enough, there is so much fear that we will let these people drown. They will die trying to get here. That will show them. This is what [Moore continues] Theresa May reckons saving the lives of those drowning was a “pull factor” in illegal immigration. Yeah, that will show them, Theresa, [concludes Moore] Drowning.’


Moore diagnoses an epidemic of othering, where it is becoming acceptable to speak of immigrants as a problem, a threat. I’m sure she’s right, it’s felt, this last week, that it’s only borderline unacceptable to speak of immigrants as a swamp.

There is, in all of this, the discourse of Pharaoh, whose fear of the Israelites was entirely predicated on our swarming through his land.

And look where that ended up.


I know there are hard decisions to be made; to preserve a sense of identity in communities, to fairly allocate resources among those with very different relationships to what Rousseau called the social contract.

But it is not right that we slam our doors tight shut in the face of the desperation of others.

It is not right that the fear of a nascent political party can be allowed to spook our political leaders into acts immoral; acts that would spell death for generations of our people dating from Abraham to my own most direct ancestors.

It cannot be right.


Let me conclude with a long extract from Suzanne Moore’s coruscating piece this week. It’s as religious as I could ever be.



In her brilliant book Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas talked about how we classify dirt as “matter out of place” and construct taboos around it. Immigrants now, many of them displaced people, are referred to en masse as less than dirt. We can see pictures of them clinging on to fences or trains for dear life, arriving in only the clothes they stand up in. We see these desperate people as a threat.

Some individuals, of course, may be. Some have come illegally. Trafficking humans is the slave trade reworked for the 21st century. There is money to be made in selling the glimpse of a life to someone in a camp in Jordan.

Sure, I understand it is hard to make the case to those who feel abandoned in Thanet. They feel disconnected from London, never mind Eritrea. But it is a downright lie to tell them that the flow of human capital can stop without changing our entire economic system.

Thus we are in a politics of denial, where those who speak the truth, from Nick Boles to Ken Clarke, appear oddly heroic. The “stop the world I want to get off and have a pint” appeal of Farage has spooked our leaders, who have followed him down an ever more shady path.

Denial and cowardice have resulted in talking about actual people as vermin, as dirt, as not worth saving.

This is truly disgusting and, if we like to think of ourselves as a fair people, we will not look away when someone is dying in the water. If we do not fight this dangerous talk, we will all go under.[1]



As a Jew, as a citizen of this great country, and as a human being, I can only add ‘Amen’

Shabbat shalom,



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