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Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit: - and 40 years in the wilderness

Friday morning, when I woke up and looked outside, it was a beautiful morning:  the deluge of Thursday’s rain-storms had passed, and there was a luminous soft blue summer sky, and birdsong and a warmth in the air. And on any other day I might have experienced this with gratitude, as a blessing; on any other day I might have turned over in my mind the words of our greatest writer, the words put into John of Gaunt’s mouth in Richard II:

“This happy breed of men, this little world/This precious stone set in the silver sea...Against the envy of less happy lands,/ This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
On any other day I would have ignored the propaganda encoded in the patriotism of the speech and just appreciated the beauty of the language mirroring the beauty of the day and the feeling of it being good to be alive, ‘Now and in England.’ [T.S.Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets]. But Friday was not any other day. On Friday, when I woke and had the overnight news confirmed, I just felt sick at heart – a mixture of upset and anger and bitterness and (if truth be told) more than a smattering of contempt for the Brexiters, who in my mind are represented (in their crudest incarnation) by those tanked-up English football fans who have been going round France this month singing (to the tune of 10 Green Bottles) about ‘Ten German bombers’ shot down by heroic British pilots, followed by the chant ‘Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out’. (Never mind the irony that over 10% of the pilots fighting in the Battle of Britain were Polish or Czech – historical amnesia has been entrenched in this Referendum campaign.) 
I’m not proud of my class-based disdain – but I recognise it within that swirling mix of feelings from Friday morning.  Contempt and disdain is a way we all have of dealing with indigestible painful feelings. And part of the pain I was feeling was, I suppose, the pain of loss – the loss of a particular vision of a European identity and culture that I value, and that I value the UK being part of.
Maybe the lines that I needed to express this pain and sadness and sense of loss were those also put by Shakespeare into John of Gaunt’s mouth: “That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
I do feel a deep sorrow about ‘The Road Not Taken’ – like in Robert Frost’s poem from 1916, we as a nation will never come back to that fork in the road, this historical moment in 2016 when ‘two roads diverged in a wood’; we won’t now be able to take a different route from the populist-driven road that we have been marched into - towards who knows what for us, and our children, and our children’s children?
This isn’t just sorrow for myself, it’s a deep sadness for our young people, who voted overwhelmingly for Remain – apparently more than 75% of 18-25s. They knew better than to succumb to bigotry – the antipathy to foreigners , those on the Continent or those living amongst us. They knew what the best voices in our culture knew and always have known, that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” [John Donne, ‘Devotions upon Emergent Occasions’, 1624]. That’s a small-c ‘continent’ that Donne is writing about. But the resonance of his imagery transcends time and space and speaks to us now – as our young people appreciated when they voted. The fantasy of a self-contained, self-sufficient existence, separated from others  is just that, a fantasy. John Donne knew that as both an MP and a clergyman (he was Dean of St.Paul’s).
We woke up on Friday a divided kingdom, a very dis-United Kingdom. And the challenge now - a challenge for politicians, for all sectors of the community, including religious communities - is to ensure that the ethos of John Donne’s lines is heeded: we need to nurture the spirit and culture of human connection, and inter-connection, to hold to our better selves in order to keep the toxic forces of nationalism and racism at bay. Those powerful, regressive forces of hatred and aggression that led to the tragic death of John Donne’s successor as an MP, Jo Cox, have been unleashed in this campaign – and when they are mixed up with nostalgia for a mythic past, the wished-for return of a non-existent past, well, these forces of un-reason can turn a people very ugly indeed.
You don’t have to look further than our Torah portion this week (Numbers 13-14) to see this illustrated. It’s a strange co-incidence that this week’s sedrah  contains so many of the themes that we are seeing enacted around us. But then, as the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “co-incidence is not a kosher word” – from a Jewish perspective certain events can be seen to come together in inherently meaningful ways. They are ‘beshert’ - the Yiddish word best expresses it - ‘meant to be’. I am not saying (of course) that Brexit was beshert, but that the vote this week resonates with our own Jewish story in uncomfortable and disturbing ways. 
We saw in our text how a national group, the Children of Israel, when faced with the uncertainties of a long journey to a promised land, become filled with fear by the reports of the 10 spies. Even though the spies bring back grapes and pomegranates and figs (it’s like loading up your car with French wine and cheeses to enjoy at home), and they acknowledge that the place is “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) – this is how it’s been advertised to them ,and the analogy would be to a travel brochure for a Continental holiday - they then proceed to offer an exaggerated account about the terrible foreigners who live there: how crowded it is, how powerful they seem (like Brussels), and then the spies drop into their account a mention of the old enemy Amalek, whom the Israelites have already done battle with (they play the role in the nBiblical arrative that historically Germany has done in our national post-War narrative). 
And as soon as Caleb steps forward and offers another view, a more positive view, he’s shouted down and the mood turns ugly. The text says that the no-sayers then conjure up a deliberately malicious report – dibat ha-aretz (13:32), the Hebrew word means ‘defamatory’: the land “eats up its inhabitants” – it’s how the Brexiters talked about the Greeks consumed by debts, the European banks eating them up. The people are of “great stature” – like that dragon woman Mrs Merkel. “And we caught sight of those ancient giants the Nephilim, bnei Anak’ (13:33) : this is a classic tactic - scare the people with pictures of being overwhelmed by old enemies: in the Brexit campaign this role was  assigned to the Turks.
It’s brilliantly-composed archetypal propaganda that the Biblical narrators offer us - put into the mouths of the 10 spies. And then the coup de grace – if we are allowed to use a French expression now in good old England – “we seemed in our own eyes to be like grasshoppers, and that’s how they saw us.” (13:33). The spies’ Project Fear is complete.
And it works. The people are terrified. They think: why would we want to go there? Why would we want to join up with them? And the ancient tropes – “our wives and children would become prey”, they say (14:3) – are just those we heard from that grinning buffoon Farage with his scaremongering about rapists and murderers having free access to our shores. And the solution to such fear – then and now – is the retreat into a nostalgia for the good old days – “let’s go back to Egypt” (14:3). “Let us find a leader and let us return to the land we knew – Egypt” (14:4). Give us back our country.
The tragedy for the children of Israel is that this response seals the fate of that generation. God recognises that they are still slaves in their hearts: they have a slave mentality even though they have been liberated from the house of slavery. Brexiters were enslaved by the lies and half-truths of Farage and Johnson and the Daily Mail and the Daily Express - and we are all the poorer because of it. In the Biblical account that whole generation have to die out before a more hope-filled generation can take over: the generation of Joshua and Caleb.
In the Biblical text we are in the second year of what turns out to be a 40 year wandering in the wilderness. We think these numbers are mythic – and they are. But there are moments that transcend time when the wisdom of the past pierces the pretensions and illusions of today. This week, after this vote, I sense the resonance and power of that 40 years.
We were in the EU for 40 years – and, in spite of its limitations, we gained more from it than most people ever realised. And now we are out of it, and having to start again - and it may take another 40 years to recover from what we have just done. It’s going to be, I fear, a long and painful journey, bamidbar, in the wilderness. “That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 25th 2016]








Sunday, 12 June 2016

Saying Yes to Europe

Who is in? And who is out? Who remains – and who leaves? Who belongs – and who doesn’t belong? Who is included – and who is excluded: thrust ‘outside the camp’, so to speak?  Mi’chutz la’machane (Numbers 5: 3-4). Every group, every tribe, every community, every nation – throughout history  – asks this question, seems to need to ask this question, from time to time. It’s fundamental  to how groups experience themselves: the very identity of the group is seen to be at stake in this question:  are you part of ‘us’? or are you part of ‘them’?

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the identity of religious groups, political groups, family groups, social or cultural groups, ethnic groups, national groups, international groups – the same core questions keep arising: Who is in? And who is out? Who remains – and who has to leave, or wants to leave? 
And once you start asking this set of questions you realise that there’s another set of  questions fused to them: it isn’t just who is in and who is out. It’s who decides who is in and who is out, who decides who remains and who leaves? And also: who makes up the rules in the first place? and who administers the rules, who polices the rules? So issues about identity are fused with issues about authority.
In Judaism, traditionally, rabbis decided who belonged and who couldn’t belong. It was through the maternal line; or through a conversion process and a Beth Din. And it wasn’t too complicated. In Britain nowadays, there are complex government procedures to determine who is a British citizen and who can’t have a British passport. Every group – from synagogues to golf clubs to nation states – has their rules as to who is allowed to belong and who is defined as ‘not one of us’.
Of course in Judaism, what for 1800 years was a straightforward question about belonging has in the recent past become much more problematic . Because now the old question of defining who is a Jew has been replaced by the question ‘Who is a rabbi?’ – who has the authority to decide who is in and who is out? Is it Orthodoxy, or Reform, or the Chief Rabbinate in Israel? And is that the Ashkenazi rabbinate or the Sephardi rabbinate? Whether you belong or don’t belong to any club is all about the authority of who is doing the asking and who makes up the rules, and who polices the rules. This is how questions of identity and questions of authority become fused. And confused.  
This week we read in the Torah a rather simplified picture about this question of belonging or not belonging.  As the people of Israel start off on their great journey through the desert, with the Sanctuary in their midst, certain people are set apart: they aren’t left behind, but they aren’t allowed to remain in the body of the community, they are judged to be blemished, or tainted in some way – temporarily – and are excluded. Those with  indecorous, anxiety-producing skin-conditions, and those in recent contact with a corpse (Numbers 5:2) – they are excluded.  And who decides this? Who has the authority over this, and administers the system?  It’s the priests, the cohanim. 
The symbolic purity of the group – those who belong, those who are part of ‘us’ – can only be maintained by having a group who are not ‘us’, who have to be quarantined as ‘other’ than us. It’s as though if ‘we’ and ‘they’ were allowed to rub shoulders together, as it were, something nasty might happen. It’d not just be confusing, but dangerous.
You can see a fantasy in play that something would happen to the community’s sense of itself if ‘we’ and ‘they’ got mixed up together. In any group, mixing too freely with those thought of as ‘other’ - and managing the differences that arise - is often seen to be too threatening : either to our inner sense of who we are, or who our group is, or our country.  The moral, or material, well-being of our group is felt to be at risk; or our physical health; or our ‘cultural’ health. Sometimes it’s our very freedom that is felt to be at stake – or our ‘sovereignty’. 
You can tell what I am pre-occupied with at the moment. Rumour has it that a rather big question about our country’s future is on the horizon. As we drift towards this fateful day when we will decide whether to remain or to leave the European Union, the seas are quite choppy, turbulent. These are not calm waters we are floating in. Some people in the boat are struggling to row us in to the shore – and others are just as furiously trying to keep us from, as they see it, crashing onto the rocks.
Closeness – or distance: which do we want? We know that beyond Europe there are storms brewing, the global weather is unsettled in unprecedented ways - and I’m talking economic uncertainty and political upheavals as well as environmentally  -  and the question is: are we going to be safer in the harbour next to the shore – or safer further removed, adrift from the mainland.
It probably won’t surprise you that I am going to vote Remain. There are many reasons for this but I want here to say something of how my Yes is informed by my understanding of Judaism, and Jewish values. You might not think that this is a decision in which Jewishness makes any difference to your vote  - but I do think there is a Jewish perspective on the referendum.
For me, it consists of two parts. The first is historical, the second is ethical -though the two parts intersect, as they often do in Judaism. If you are Jewish and reading this I’d imagine that most of you have your roots in Europe, one, two, three, four generations ago: Central or Eastern Europe, or what are now the Baltic States, or Western Europe (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain) – this is where our roots are, historically. And although Europe has been the home of longstanding anti-Semitism against Jews – which is possibly why our predecessors left their countries of origin and sought a new life in this country – European Jews have always had a sense of belonging to a trans-national community. They were loyal citizens of their host community but aware of a larger identity, and the strength that comes from a larger identity of belonging.
You could go into any synagogue in any country of Europe, wherever the borders were and however often those borders changed over the centuries, and you would find a home, be at home. You were at home in the community as a Jew, you were at home in the texts, you were at home in the liturgy, you were at home in a shared identity, a shared history, a shared set of values that did not depend on nationality, but on your trans-national identity as Jew. You could open your page of Talmud in any community you visited and there was the same text: and side by side on the page - the design of which was laid out in Venice - was the Rashi commentary written in France, next to the Ibn Ezra commentary written in Spain, which nestles next to commentators from Vilna and Germany. The Talmud was a Euro-text centuries before the European Union was dreamed up.
This is just one way in which Ashkenazi Jews are historically, in their bones, in their souls, part of a wider European consciousness.  We in the Reform movement have inherited that European identity in our liturgy – open the pages of the Shabbat prayer book, or the High Holy Day prayer book, and you find representatives of almost every European country past and present in its pages and in its anthologies: Franz Kafka from Prague sits next to Freud and Herzl from Vienna, next to Germany’s Moses Mendelssohn and Glueckel of Hameln, and the UK’s Louis Jacobs and the eastern European Hasidic masters rub shoulders with Spain’s Judah Ha-Levi.
Jews were originally known as Ivrim – Hebrews: the word, just to remind you, is from the verb ‘to cross over’, to cross boundaries, ‘to migrate’. Jews are those who live in countries with boundaries but know no boundaries in their hearts. Proud in the sovereignty of our separate identity we diasporic Jews glory in the way in which that identity is not limited by nationality: we know that to belong to something larger, more collective, something that transcends the insular, is a source of strength not something to fear.
Take the example of the Rothschild family: since the 1760s, when Mayer Amschel Rothschild established his banking business in Germany and through his five sons instituted a revolutionary international banking system embracing London, Paris, Naples, Frankfurt  and Vienna, diaspora Jews have recognized the economic, social and political limitations of nationalism.
All of this is second nature to Jewish self-perception, all of the above is part of the historical case for saying Yes as a Jew to Europe – it’s historical, it’s spiritual, it’s psychological, all together. It’s ingrained in our heritage. This is where we belong.
And that’s leaving aside the more obvious historical rationale: that 70 years ago, from the midst of the rubble and ruin and wretchedness of a devastated continent, a grand vision arose: to ''make war unthinkable and materially impossible''. Nationalism had proved a dead end, literally and metaphorically. The dream of a supra-national union of states based on close economic ties and treaties was born. It was an extraordinary and moving vision of a way of living together peacefully with our differences.
I feel blessed that I am part of a generation - and have seen the next two generations grow up – freed from the terrible burden of war. After the bloodshed of the 20th century it is no small thing that the European Union has ensured that no blood has been spilled between its members.  Nobody has had to die because of ancient or nationalistic hatreds. If Yugoslavia had been part of the European Union twenty-five years ago we would not have had a Bosnian war with all its suffering.
And it’s not part of so-called ‘Project Fear’ to recognise that the breakup of the European Union becomes more likely if the UK leaves than if it stays. To say nothing of the breakup of the UK itself. If someone is wanting to jump off a cliff and their friend described the consequences of doing that, you wouldn’t respond: ‘Oh you’re just trying to frighten them!’
God knows, there are multiple ways in which the EU is a flawed arrangement -  but informed scepticism about the limitations of this complex  transnational project can be combined with a commitment to adhering to the vision that inspired its founders. Are we really as a nation going to cut ourselves adrift from the protections that accrue from belonging to this club – of human rights, employment rights and the rest – along with the benefits of trans-national co-operation on terrorism, the environment, scientific research, cultural projects, and so on?  Maybe we are. Maybe the anti-establishment rage that is fuelling American politics, channeled through Donald Trump, will win the day here.
The UK is simmering with anger and frustration: social grievances that successive governments here have failed to address are leading to much bitterness over the lack of affordable housing, the decline in secure jobs, and underfunded public services (the NHS and mental health services, schools, social care for the elderly, the disabled). And in relation to all of these grievances, symptoms of a felt sense of deprivation, or a decline in the quality of living – there isn’t  a single one of them that can’t be blamed on immigrants.  And this is where , from a Jewish perspective, history and ethics/moral values, intersect.
Swirling around Europe, with a toxicity that has become part of this Referendum debate here, are strands of xenophobia. It is most obvious in France and Hungary and Austria and Denmark - but that anger against immigrants is being stoked up here too. And a Jewish contribution to this debate is to call out the fraudulence of this. We Jews who have eyes thousands of years old and know how minority groups can become the scapegoats for social ills, the victims for prejudices and hatreds which have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with governments who fail to care for the well-being of poor and rich alike, we Jews have the experience and the insight to see it when it is happening. And it is happening in this Referendum debate.
Issues to do with immigration have become a very convenient framework narrative to speak about economic and social insecurities. It’s the prism through which Farage and the Daily Mail (amongst others) see everything. People’s  insecurities are real – and need to be addressed – but blaming immigrants for them is morally suspect, and thinking you can protect yourself from these insecurities by isolating yourself  from the rest of Europe is just deluded thinking.
But once this virus of prejudice is released in a society and legitimized as just another aspect of a national debate, it won’t just go away - whichever way the vote goes.  The ancient Hebrews had rams they could sacrifice, to gain atonement for wrongdoing committed against fellow human beings (Numbers 5: 8). We as a society no longer have the rituals to atone for such wrongs. We have different collective rituals – voting is one of them – but whichever way this vote does go, it won’t deal with  the ‘sins’ this Referendum campaign has unleashed. And we are all impoverished by that.
[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 11th 2016]
On Shavuot, the symbolic commemoration of the giving of the 10 Commandments, here are 10 reasons to say Yes to Europe.:
Certain problems and threats we face as a country can only be addressed through working closely with others:
1) climate change and the collapse of eco-systems
2) terrorism
3) health issues to do with epidemics, smoking, obesity, diabetes, alcohol, air pollution
4)antibiotic resistance research
5) limiting the power of transnational corporations to further enlarge the gap between rich and poor
6) The humanitarian crisis concerning refugees in Europe can’t be addressed by closing our borders
7) Objective views of the economic benefits of remaining seem comprehensive
8) The protection of employment rights
9) The protection of human rights through the European Court of Human Rights
10) cultural and educational projects that depend on the free movement of European and UK citizens