Of Refugees and Migrants

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah is the rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. She delivered this sermon on Shabbat Lech L’cha/Saturday 24 October 2015.

Over the past four years, the news has been dominated by the refugee crisis; in particular, by the millions of refugees fleeing from the conflict between the extremist warriors of so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the entrenched dictatorship that is the Syrian regime. The news has also been taken up with debates about the huge movements of people from the Middle East and Africa towards Europe – variously referred to as ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘migrants’ and ‘economic migrants’.

Whenever people encamped around Calais try to get to the Channel Tunnel, disrupting Eurotunnel services, the crisis becomes the headline news story. Who are these desperate people, who live in what is described across the media as ‘the jungle’? They come chiefly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – and also from Darfur and Eritrea. On October 17, the news reported that the numbers encamped at Calais had doubled to 6000. On October 22, the news focused on the measures taken by French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, “to protect some of the 6,000 people at the camp from cold temperatures as winter approaches,” and to deploy a further 460 police officers.

Since August, a number of social activist networks, such as Calais Migrant Solidarity have been directing their energies towards supporting ‘the jungle’ community at Calais. On August 2, a group calling itself Worldwide Tribe formed when some friends got together in Tunbridge Wells and decided, as The Guardian reported on August 14, “to make a documentary to counteract the negative portrayal of the refugees in the media.”   Worldwide Tribe started a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to fund the filming. Within four days they had raised the £18,000 needed to go ahead. The group then decided to help with the relief effort by setting up a JustGiving page. The ethos of Worldwide Tribe is very interesting. Jasmine O’Hara, a group member explained to the Guardian reporter: “We’re not politicians, we don’t pretend to have all the answers, and we’re not charity workers. We’re just normal people from Kent who want to help our fellow human beings with their basic needs.”

It is significant that Worldwide Tribe is based in Kent. Of all the counties in England, Kent is on the frontline. Just 20.6 miles across the Channel from Calais, Dover is, literally,’ the first port of call’ for those determined to reach these shores. And yet, unlike the tone adopted by the right-wing media and Kent-based UKIP supporters, Worldwide Tribe is motivated by compassion and openness. “We are all the same,” Jasmine O’Hara, added in her remarks to the Guardian; “the world is our home and we believe it is imperative to have a global mindset and conscience.”

Would that everyone might say, ‘Amen’ to that statement. As it happens, discussion in the media and amongst politicians tends to assume that British citizens will be wary of these ‘outsiders’. In addition, the prevailing discourse, sets up an opposition between ‘economic migrants’ – predominantly from the Eastern European nations of the EU – and so-called, ‘genuine refugees’. We are invited to feel concern for the latter and to resent the former.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, up to the outbreak of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Jews migrated from czarist Russia. In 1905 the British government enacted The Aliens Act, the first anti-immigration legislation, in an effort to curb the flow of newcomers. We don’t know the exact proportion of those who were escaping poverty vis-a-vis those who were fleeing persecution. As it happens, the story of my own maternal grandparents reflects both routes to these shores. My maternal grandmother, who was born and brought up in a shteitl outside Siemiatycze, near Bialystok, came to London in 1905 in flight from the wave of pogroms that year. My maternal grandfather arrived around the same time, from Chernivtsi, known in Yiddish as Chernovich, a sizeable city in the western Ukraine, which back then was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to a study by Fred Stambrook, the period from 1880 to 1914, was a ‘golden age’ for ‘the Jews of Bukovina,’ which is the region spanning Northern Romania and Western Ukraine in which the city Chernivtsi is located. Another study of the Jews of Bukovina, focusing on the Jewish community of Sereth, another city in the region, attests to the extent to which Jewish life in Sereth and Chernovich flourished, and was reinvigorated in the mid-19th century by the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as the haskalah. I don’t know why my grandfather decided to leave Chernovich and travel to England. According to my grandmother’s testimony, he loved literature – English, European, and Russian – and used to read from Tolstoy to her in the evenings. Perhaps, for him, coming to England had something to do with wanting to experience the wonders of the wider world. Certainly, my grandmother told me that as soon as she arrived in the Jewish East End, aged 17, and went to stay with her cousin and her family, she vowed she would not wear a sheitel, a wig, when she got married. Although she and my grandfather continued to observe many of the traditional rites and practices of Jewish life, including Shabbes (Shabbat) and kashrus (kashrut), they were also very open in their outlook.

I have gone into this detail about my maternal grandparents, who married on March 25, 1906 in Whitechapel, because it is clear from their story that they were not simply ‘refugees’. She was; he wasn’t. My grandfather was struck down by a heart attack in the early 1940s, so I never knew him. Conversations with my grandmother, my booba, who died when I was 14, included stories about ‘Cossacks’ on horseback, and being struck by the lash of a whip as she tried to escape. She also told me, how, as a young girl, brought up in a small village, she longed for broader horizons, and so, once her cousin had come to the big city of London, she wanted to go there, too. I have a photograph of her, taken in a studio in the East End with a friend, not long after she arrived. The two of them are dressed in ‘Wild West’ garb, complete with neckerchiefs and broad-brimmed cowboy hats. Her friend sits on a horse, while she stands, right arm stretched up, with her hand grasping the reins, her left hand on her hip, looking confidently into the camera, resplendent in fur-skin trousers. That photograph tells me that she came from ‘over there’ to ‘over here’ to be free in every sense of that word.

The narratives about our ancestors in the Book of Genesis centre on these themes of migration and flight. This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, narrates the beginnings of our people. From the very first verse, we learn that our ancestors were challenged to go on a journey. We read at Genesis chapter 12, verse 1:

Va-yomer Adonai el-Avram: Lech-L’cha mei’artz’cha u’mimoladt’cha u’mibeit avi’cha el-ha-aretz asher are’ka.

The Eternal said to Avram: ‘Go for yourself from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.’

Lech L’cha – ‘Go for yourself’. The imperative, Leich, ‘Go!’ is modified. Avram was urged to go, not simply because he was commanded to do so, but because he chose to go. We read at verse 4: Va-yeilech Avram – ‘Then Avram went’ – and the passage goes on to tell us that his nephew Lot went with him, and also his wife, Sarai, and all their household. Avram and Sarai were migrants. They were not driven by persecution; they went on a journey in search of a new life. Similarly, in the next-generation, when Abraham sent his servant back to Haran to find a wife for his son, Isaac, we learn that Rebekah made her own decision to leave her home and go on a new journey. Parashat Chayyei Sarah, records at Genesis chapter 24 that when her mother and her brother asked her, ’Will you go with this man?’ hateil’chi im ha-ish ha-zeh – Rebekah replied, simply, ‘I will go’ – Eileich (24:58).

The use of the Hebrew root Hei Lamed Kaf, to ‘go’ or ‘walk’ is very instructive. Neither Abraham and Sarah nor Rebekah were on the run. By contrast, we learn that when Rebekah’s son, Jacob, deceived his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing due to his older twin, Esau, he had to flee for his life from Esau’s wrath. We read at the beginning of parashat Va-yeitzei, at Genesis chapter 28, verse 10:

Va-yeitzei Ya’akov mi-B’eir Shava; Va-yeilech Charanah.

Jacob went out from B’eir Sheva and went towards Charan.

The sense of flight involved in ‘going out’ is captured at the beginning of the next verse (28:11):

Va-yifga ba-makom, va-yalen sham, ki-vo ha-shemesh.

He alighted on the place, and lodged there, because the sun was coming down.

Jacob ‘went out from B’eir Sheva’ in flight for his life. We can imagine that his feet barely touched the ground as he ran. But then he was forced to stop and break his journey because night was falling.

The resonance of the root Yud Tzadi Aleph, to ‘go out’, is given a twist in the tale of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, related in the following parashah,  Va-yishlach, after the story of Jacob’s reunion with his brother, following an exile of 20 years. We read at Genesis chapter 34, verse 1:

Va-teitzei Dinah bat-Leah asher yal’dah  l’Ya’akov lirot bivnot ha-aretz.

Dinah, daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

This is a remarkable unique verse. According to the Torah, Jacob had twelve sons and only one daughter, the daughter of his first wife, Leah. So: a lone daughter in search of ‘the daughters of the land’.  The use of the root Yud Tzadi Aleph, to ‘go out’, implies that Dinah’s departure was a rupture from the expected, and also suggests that like her father Jacob, she was embarking on a perilous journey into an unknown terrain. What impelled Dinah? Was it loneliness? Or: Curiosity? Perhaps, she was a rebellious spirit, who struggled against the confines of a daughter’s life in the household of Jacob? The Torah does not reveal Dinah’s reasons for ‘going out’. But like a ‘cautionary tale’, what follows in the very next verse tells us that she got her comeuppance: ‘Then Shechem, son of Hamor, the Hivite, the Prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her’ – literally, ‘afflicted her’: va-y’aneha (34:2). Before Dinah got the chance ‘to see the daughters of the land’, she was seen, grabbed and raped.

So, long before the Torah relates the slaves’ Exodus from Egypt: y’tzi’at Mitrayim– literally, ‘the going out of Egypt’ – the use of the Hebrew root Yud Tzadi Aleph in the Torah narratives signals a hazardous journey. These ‘going out’ tales are a far cry from the earlier migrations of Abraham, Sarah and Rebekah. As we can see, the Torah indicates a distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ in the use of these two Hebrew roots, Hei Lamed Kaf and Yud Tzadi Aleph: migrants propel themselves towards their goal, the land of promise over the horizon; refugees are driven to take flight from persecution and oppression; even when this means finding themselves subjected to the terrors of the wilderness, or stranded in ‘the jungle’ at Calais, or packed onto flimsy boats in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, we know that in today’s world, migrants, too, find themselves in these circumstances. The distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is not so clear cut on a planet divided between rich and poor, stability and chaos. Today’s migrants and refugees are united in their desire to have what we have here in Britain and take for granted: safety and security. As relatively privileged British citizens, don’t we have a responsibility to play our part in enabling migrants and refugees to live in safety and security, too?

The Torah exhorts us no less than 36 times concerning our treatment of the stranger. As we read in the Holiness code, in parashat K’doshim, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 34:

The strangers that sojourn with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.

To this teaching at the heart of the Torah, let us add a new contemporary teaching from the mouth of Jasmine O’Hara of Worldwide Tribe: “the world is our home… it is imperative to have a global mindset and conscience.”  May we, like the members of Worldwide Tribe open our hearts and our minds to the needs of refugees and migrants, and to all those in search of a secure home, and may we resolve to do what we can to ease their plight. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Shabbat Lech-L’cha

24th October 2015 – 11th Cheshvan 5776