Column for Jewish News Oct 15 2015
Last week I attended a remarkable event at JW3, London’s Jewish community centre.
It was an evening dedicated to reporting back what various communal organisations were, and are, doing to help asylum seekers and refugees. For some in the audience, such as JCORE’s long-time executive director, Edie Friedman, this was not a new story. For others, in which I include myself, it was an evening filled with revelation, as speaker after speaker – gratifyingly, mainly, though not entirely, female – took to the microphone to describe the extent of their work.
We heard about uphill struggles with both local and national government, about Britain’s shamefully narrow policies regarding asylum seekers, about how Britain is the only country in Europe where someone can be detained indefinitely. We heard about synagogues that operate extraordinarily professional drop-in centres for asylum seekers, where referral is by word-of-mouth among the immigrant communities. We heard about the international aid work carried out on the Turkish-Syrian border by World Jewish Relief.
And we heard about small but joyful victories, such as the campaign by Finchley Progressive Synagogue to persuade Barnet Council to accept 50 Syrian refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. Of course, 50 people is a drop in the ocean, but if the Kindertransport experience is anything to go by, those 50 people will remember their reception by Britain, and those who made it possible, for many years to come.
Behind the speakers we could see slides illustrating those on the platform or messages of support. One such message was from the Chief Rabbi, whose representative on issues of international aid and development, Rabbi David Mason, was in the audience. One of the supporting organisations, apparently, is the United Synagogue.
But there was nobody on the platform describing initiatives from the Orthodox community. Indeed, another of the supporting organisations, Tzelem, billed as “the rabbinic call for social and economic justice in the UK”, describes itself as “cross-clerical” in its make-up – but according to its own website has just one rabbi from the Orthodox community on its steering committee.
As far as I could make out, the driving forces and voices behind the work being done comes primarily from the Progressive and Masorti movements. No Orthodox synagogue runs any of the drop-in centres, though the way in which the Liberal Jewish Synagogue representative described the thinking behind it – “part of the Jewish DNA to help the stranger” – could quite easily apply to Orthodox synagogues.
I have not heard of many Orthodox rabbis, with the honourable exception of Mill Hill’s Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, who have used the High Holy Days to speak out about refugees. Last week, Rabbi Schochet wrote a powerful piece in Jewish News, saying: “… I had major surgery this past summer by an Egyptian doctor who became my hero. I have a friend whose child’s life was saved by a Pakistani doctor. Many of us will interact almost daily with people from different cultures that contribute to our lives. The bottom line is this: When a world has people who are refugees, you know there’s something deeply wrong with our whole culture, our priorities and our humanity”.
So where are the members of the observant community in this acid test for Anglo-Jewry? We are in danger of a situation evolving in which the much-needed help for refugees and asylum-seekers is derided by the Orthodox as a Progressive, lefty, kumbaya initiative. Nothing to do with us, some people seem to have decided. If the “apikorsim” want to play at being social welfare heroes, that’s up to them, is the not-so-subtle message being transmitted here.
The other scary and unspoken issue is the fact so many of the refugees are Muslims. Earlier this year, I spoke to someone who, as an immigrant himself should have known better, who expressed anxiety that if “we” let “them” in to the UK, then “we” would be over-run by maniacal extremists. Given that a good 90 percent of the current Jewish community is descended from immigrants, that’s a risk we should be more than willing to take. All we need to do is to substitute the word ‘Jew’ for the word ‘Muslim’ and rewind to 1938.
I would just implore the more observant among us to hear the happy incredulity with which the Syrian witness at the event, Razan Alakraa, told her family: “You cannot believe what the Jewish community is doing to help us.” Now that’s a response you can’t buy, but it came from the heart. It needs to be seen to come from all of us, not just one section of the community.