Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests …..

At the age of ten I went to live with my grandmother in Switzerland for a year. I can still remember handing over to her my shiny new stiff covered blue and gold British passport for safekeeping. She took it and held it, stroked its cover and opened it to the page which informed the world that Her Britannic Majesty requested my safe passage in the world. She told me how lucky I was to possess such a wonderful document and how I must never do anything to lose it.

I remember the scene vividly. We were standing together in her bedroom by the elegant Venetian writing desk she kept there. I remember her voice, the urgency of her words, and something else: something that communicated itself to me and resonates within me almost fifty years later.

At the time it seemed an important conversation and one I should pay attention to but I didn’t really understand why or what it was she was trying to communicate.

Now I do. My grandmother, the pampered only child of wealthy Berlin parents who grew up with all the advantages that money could buy in that cultured elegant world of the late 1800’s fell in love with and married a Jewish lawyer from Hannover in late 1922. With a young son, my father, born in 1924 they should have been set to live a comfortable and happy life together. My grandfather rose in the ranks of the legal system and was becoming a respected Judge, but within ten years of their marriage their idyll was ended as the political situation in Germany worsened and the Nazis, having come to power in January 1933 began to implement their policy of removing all Jews from public office and public service. My grandfather had no job, no position, and life became intolerable. They moved within Germany to another family home in Baden-Baden, suffering a kind of internal exile. My father was sent away to school first in Switzerland and then in the UK and on 9th November 1938 as the synagogue was destroyed by fire on Kristallnacht, and the men of the community humiliated in public, my grandfather was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

The story continues – of my grandparents fruitless attempts to protect extended family from being transported to the gas chambers. Of my grandmother’s extraordinary efforts to protect her husband and bring him to a family home in Switzerland which she achieved in 1939.Because of this they were stripped of their German nationality and became officially stateless. There are intrigues and horrors galore in the family archives, but the upshot was this. They left Germany having bribed and paid heaven knows what kinds of fines in money and kind, my grandfather desperately ill after the various arrests and incarcerations and beatings, my grandmother frantically learning how to deal with a world she had not been brought up to even imagine, and they ended up in French Switzerland living on favours from friends and from various refugee agencies, moving to ever cheaper accommodation, often with barely enough to eat or to warm themselves with, let alone pay the necessary medical bills. All the time they were uncertain as to how long they could take shelter in Switzerland, their papers were endlessly circulated among bureaucrats, their permissions to stay always temporary and for short periods. The last letter refusing any more extension of permission to stay arrived only two or so days before my grandfather died in 1950. His death certificate describes him as “sans papiers” – a man without papers, with no nationality or right to stay as citizen or even as refugee. His grave, provided by the Jewish community of Lausanne, is so modest that currently even his name is worn away.

My grandmother eventually took Swiss nationality, helped by the fact of a family home and presence in the country. She was grateful to Switzerland for giving her this eventual security. She was desperately grateful that her son had settled in England, been given British nationality and that his children too were under the protection of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government. She wanted me to know, without telling me any details of the story which we only fully uncovered years after her death, that the most basic security that had been denied to her and my grandfather was beyond precious. To be a refugee, a seeker of asylum running from a chaotic government that seeks your destruction is to have nothing and nowhere. It is destabilising, it prevents any normal development or relationship in life, it causes your family to scatter or worse, it means you scream in your sleep as you remember what your waking mind suppresses. To be a refugee and seeker of asylum is to be the most vulnerable kind of human being it is possible to be. Just holding onto identity, to remember the person inside you, not to fall apart into a dislocated existence takes all the energy and resilience one has.

Yesterday I took part in a day of study and prayer with imams and rabbis and priests, in a tent close to Harmondsworth detention centre. We called in Abraham’s Tent. We looked at the texts of our tradition that speak of caring for the vulnerable, the stranger, the one whose world has fallen apart and who looks for help from others. Yesterday we fasted, the coincidence of both Muslim and Jewish fast days with the concomitant introspection they call for gave us yet another dimension in common. I was proud to join with the others to draw attention to the conditions facing many of those who seek asylum in the UK and who find they can be detained indefinitely in what is essentially a high security prison, while the process to accept or reject their application grinds on. They are there not because of any criminal activity or intent, but because they have fled their own country, requested asylum in the UK, and their papers are not in order. We are the only country in Europe with no time limit on how long someone can be kept in detention while the process takes place. The treatment of vulnerable people, many of whom are already traumatised by earlier experiences that caused them to flee their own countries, is against the British values my grandmother so idolised. Tens of thousands of people are put into detention each year, with 30,902 entering detention in 2014 and the rate is increasing.

I am proud to hold a British Passport, and I am grateful. My grandfather died without any passport at all, despite having been an upholder of Justice all his life. I understand what my grandmother wanted me to know – to be stateless and without official identity or secure place to live is to truly have nothing, to be at the mercy of everyone and to feel no mercy at all. Surely in the UK it is time to treat all people with dignity and respect whether they ultimately receive the right to remain or not. It is time to limit indefinite detention to the all-party parliamentary group recommendation of 28 days and to remember that everyone in this system is a fellow human being.

http://www.appgmigration.org.uk/news       #Time4aLimit

packing abrahams tent