A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.

The Launch of Tzelem at the Speaker’s Rooms 28th January 2015


In the beautiful and opulent surroundings of the State Rooms of the Speaker’s Apartment in Westminster over 60 Rabbis and Cantors from the different Jewish streams in the UK came together to launch a new organisation: Tzelem- the Rabbinic  Voice for Social and Economic Justice in the UK.

Founded on the Jewish principle that we are all created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim), Tzelem builds on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible which speaks of the vital importance that social and economic justice is available for everyone.  Jewish tradition has long advocated the rights of the marginal and the powerless, and our teachings are rich in texts calling for us to take part in asserting those rights, and standing up in the face of the powerful in order to achieve them.

It is the purpose of Tzelem to continue this tradition by critiquing the issues at the root of our society that keep the vulnerable and powerless exposed and helpless.  We aim to take action in order to change the structures that maintain the marginality of the weakest in society, and to change the way they are viewed.

Four Rabbis spoke from their own close experience of mental illness, child poverty, homelessness and immigration. It was a sobering experience made even more poignant in the surroundings in which we heard it, to be told that one in four children in Britain do not have adequate nutrition. It was painful to hear stories of the rapidly downward cycle into homelessness that left people without hope for the future, or so ill after exposure to the elements that their whole self fragmented. It was moving to see a colleague speak of his own struggle with bipolar disorder and the depression that accompanied it made all the more difficult because of the fear of stigma, disapproval and rejection.

 Rabbis and Cantors, like other clergy, see every strata of society and this is one of our strengths and one of the reasons we must be a driving force in contributing to a fairer society. Our texts and tradition demands it of us, and so does the lived experience of our role. We see what is often hidden from other members of society – the desperation, the poverty, the lack of hope, the pain and the willingness to ignore the weak and vulnerable in the busyness of life. Tzelem has come like a ray of hope into the worlds of many colleagues. We have watched other faith traditions step forward and demand justice and economic security for all members of our society and we spoke out as individuals each in our own milieu, but the creation of this platform with rabbis and cantors from across the spectrum of observance has given us energy and hope that our voice will be amplified, that together the voice of Judaism and its demands for justice for all will be heard in all the corners of the United Kingdom.

At our launch we reminded ourselves of what our tradition demands of us, and we reminded ourselves of the poverty and the pain that exist within the communities in which we live. We cannot stand by while the pain of our fellow human beings calls out to be addressed and ameliorated. As Hillel wrote two thousand years ago “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14)

For more on the texts of the launch and on Tzelem, see http://www.tzelem.uk/#!Launch-Resources/c14bu/7293522D-5710-49E6-BA0A-8E5986FA912A