“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]