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Monday, 27 April 2015

Death by Drowning

Drowning is a terrible, terrifying, fate: the panic clutches your throat, you lose your balance, you hit the water, there are screams, confusion, you’re choking, struggling for air, spluttering,  gasping for breath, grasping at hands, bodies, nothing to be done, this is the end, you’re fighting for life, choking lungs, churning helplessness, no air, everything you’ve lived for, gagging, retching, nothing left, can’t breathe, this can’t be how it ends, this can’t be how, this can’t be, this can’t, this... Can’t.

“Waves of millions of people coming from north Africa seeking a better life in Europe, if that links in...to a new common [European] migration policy then whilst on the one hand it may appear to be the decent thing to do, I think you’ll find overwhelmingly public opinion will say we simply can’t” (Nigel Farage, ITV News Ten, 20/4/15). ‘We simply can’t. Simply can’t. Can’t.’ Repeat it often enough and can’t begins to sound like cant.
Cant - ‘the insincere and hypocritical use of pious phraseology’. ‘We simply can’t’. Actually Farage in not insincere. He is sincere in what he believes. It just that what he believes happens to be toxic. Morally toxic.
I’ve been struck this last week about how many conversations I’ve had with people – or overheard people having – about last weekend’s boat disaster off the coast of Libya. There are not that many larger news events that actually penetrate our small daily worlds, our personal dramas and worries. But this one seemed to - that story and the pictures of 700, 800, 900 (we will never know) deaths. I’m aware that the phrase I just used, ‘boat disaster’, somehow anaesthetises the horror of the story. All those people drowned, terrified souls, men and women and children, many who’d paid their life savings to buy passage in a rickety wooden fishing trawler - out of their Egypt towards their Promised Land - and many others who were locked in the hold, being trafficked from their homelands to the fleshpots of Europe.
Somewhere inside us, this event has snagged on our imaginations. We haven’t been able to let it go – even though it’s been only one of several other boats that have sunk this last week, with scores more deaths, that have hardly been reported. The tides of news wash in and over us, and the tides wash out, but this incident is the one that sticks inside, that won’t leave us, flotsam snagging on our compassion, or our guilt, or our indifference, or our feelings of helplessness, or anger, or wish to blame someone for what happened.
Blame the boat owners fleecing their human cargo, blame the victims who wanted to better themselves at our expense, blame the Muslims who were rumoured to have been throwing Christians overboard, or blame those on the boat who rushed to one side of the vessel thus causing it to capsize (so it was their fault really), blame the European lawmakers and politicians who withdrew funds last year from maritime rescue missions: someone has to be to blame, we feel, and our righteous indignation gets stoked up – anything so that we don’t have to open ourselves up to the horror of death by drowning, anything so we don’t have to feel numb, wordless compassion, or (which is more difficult) act on our feelings of compassion.
Compassion – ‘feeling with’. How much impotent compassion can we bear to feel ? And how much shame can we bear to feel? Including the shame of it being our country’s Home Secretary who led the campaign to curtail the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue mission last autumn with the extraordinary argument that if people know they will be rescued if they get into trouble at sea, it’ll only encourage them to come. Typical political cant, based on zero evidence. In reality numbers increased by 160% in the three months after the cancellation of this humanitarian programme.
Yet these are the strangers our Torah talks about, these strangers who seek our shores, who wish to live amongst us Europeans. And where is the generosity of spirit, where is the identification in this country with the outsider, where is this Judaeo-Christian ethic of concern for our fellow guests on this planet?
I have been wondering if one of the things this tragedy has stirred in us, and why it’s snagged in our psyches,  is the dim awareness – an awareness that we can’t quite articulate – that this horror story is not only about desperate Africans and others, whose names we don’t know, but that it’s carrying a message about all of our fates on this fragile planet. That our lives are far more interdependent than we realise. Certainly environmentally this is true, economically this is true, politically too, our telecommunications are global -  in so many ways we are bound together in complex ways with the world’s nations and economies and cultures. And one response to that interconnectedness – with all the problems it generates - is the retreat into nationalism and the little Englander xenophobic pieties of the UKIP-ers and those who swim in their wake. Let’s look after ourselves, and to hell with everyone else.
This attitude reminds me of the story told in the midrash of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who said: “Imagine a group of people in a boat and one person takes an iron awl and begins to drill into the deck below him. The people around him start shouting, ‘What are you doing?’ and the person responds ‘Why don’t you mind your own business? I’m only boring a hole under where I’m sitting’” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6).
The fantasy that we should be able to do what we want in our part of the boat - it’s delusional. Because in this world we are actually all in one boat together, even though we don’t want to believe that we are.  Yet we sense in dark - but maybe it’s clear-sighted – moments, that the boat might be sinking. But that’s unbearable to think about. Meanwhile, each person’s needless death diminishes us, each person’s story of economic impoverishment, or of persecution, or of the struggle to bring up a family in safety, each story prematurely ended, implicates us: it is not just the sea which is cruel, the traffickers who are heartless; we will be voting soon in the UK for political parties whose lack of a moral compass can shipwreck us; parties that can act in ways - on our behalf - which are the antithesis of the values of compassion and justice that we want to see enacted in our world. Values which could keep us all afloat for more than a mere generation or two.
Immigration is obviously a hot topic right now, it’s been simmering away for years, and now with the forthcoming election it’s high up the agenda. You’ll have your own views and I’m too long in the tooth to imagine that anything I might say would make much difference to how anyone thinks. The Daily Mail and the Times and the Telegraph - with their non-domiciled and plutocratic foreign-based owners steering our political discourse - are far more powerful in bending minds than I will ever be.
But when it comes to immigration, and asylum, a Jewish ethical view is fairly straightforward – it comes a remarkable 36 times in the Torah, far more than any other religious and moral requirement: active care for, care about, the stranger is at the heart of the Judaic vision, because (as we heard again in our portion this week, Leviticus 19:34) ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt’. And even though Egypt was a long time ago, far off in our mythic past, you don’t have to go that far back in time to understand our identification with the stranger, the immigrant. There can’t be a single person reading this in the UK, I imagine, who isn’t either an immigrant themselves, or the child of, or grandchild of, or (at a stretch) great-grandchild of an immigrant into this country. This is who we are. So our Jewish ethical vision is rooted not only in our texts but in our genes, and our own family history. Even if you have joined the Jewish people relatively recently, I’d bet this immigrant story is part of your not-too-distant past as well.
But I know - because I'm not completely naive - that you can’t make government policy, national policy, around the simple dazzling moral clarity of compassion towards the outsider. I know there are issues about jobs and housing and the strain on resources, schools, the NHS, questions of cultural cohesion. But what I know too – and I’ve learnt it from Ira my Ukrainian cleaning lady, and from Lukas my Polish handyman, and from Tori my Romanian hairdresser, and from Roshan my Sri Lankan IT man, and from Marek who does his job on security here at the Finchley synagogue with such wonderful good humour and grace - what I’ve learnt from them is that they are contributing their skills and talents to our country, and they are paying their taxes, and like a few million other immigrants are making a net contribution to the economic wellbeing of the UK.
Immigrants who arrived in the UK after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011. But of course we mustn’t let boring old facts get in the way of any prejudices we might have. You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the wool Guardian reader to realise there is something about the immigration rhetoric in this country that is just pandering to the ugliest aspects of our natures: our selfishness, our fearfulness, our intolerance.
The polls suggest we are in for an interesting few months politically. But when it comes to the polls I just remember the text we read today: lo t’nachashu, v’lo t’onaynu – ‘don’t practice divination, and don’t trust soothsayers’ (Leviticus 19:26). For which I read: ‘pollsters and spin-doctors’. The Torah’s vision suggests that our task is to keep our minds free of the cults around us; holiness means keeping ourselves on this demanding and difficult path of compassion and justice as best we can.
Distrust of the outsider, the stranger, is as old as human nature - about what they might do to us, or take from us, or how they might change us: what we might lose. The feeling or fantasy that the stranger is a threat to our well-being is almost hard-wired into our genes. Which is why the Biblical vision was and is such an extraordinary challenge to received opinion: care for the stranger, love of the stranger, compassion for the outsider – this required (and still requires) a revolution in human consciousness. And few of us are revolutionaries. But it just happens to be the Jewish mission, to make revolutionaries of us all, in our minds and in our hearts. 
 
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 25th, 2015]

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