Sermon: Shabbat B’ha’alotecha

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 18 June 2016

I don’t know if you’ve heard but it seems that there’s going to be something called a ‘referendum’ next week and that by next Shabbat we’ll know whether we are to ultimately remain a part of the European Union or ultimately to be apart from it.

We’ve been subjected, ad infinitum and, sadly, ad nauseam to yawn-inducing claim and counter-claim, accusation and counter-accusation, accompanied by unpleasant invective and personal attacks. Leave – and this will happen. Remain – and that will be the consequence. Each side wheels out its spokespersons who have been many and varied: captains of industry, lorry drivers, American Presidents past and present, bankers, Jeremy Kyle, Nigel Farage, Trade Union leaders, University professors and so on. I can’t remember the last time so much political heat has been generated with so little light and illumination as the outcome.

Some 1800 years ago, the rabbis acknowledged that the age of prophecy was over. Sadly, too few of our political lords and masters have had the good grace – or common sense – to learn from that, follow suit and stop making prophetic utterances.

We’re enjoying a 48 hour cease-fire in the match between proponents of ‘Project Fear’ and ‘Fantasy Economics’ – but how sad that it needed the murder of an MP – possibly related to the Referendum – to bring about that moratorium.

I’m not one of those who decides on issues by making the decisive question: “is it good or bad for the Jews?” But as we all come to our personal decision about the vote, it is legitimate to ask: is there anything in Jewish history, teaching and experience that might inform how we, as Jews, decide how we should be casting our vote? Are there particular Jewish dimensions that have a bearing on where we put that crucial mark on our ballot papers next week?

Phillipe Sands is Professor of International Law at University College, specialising in human rights issues. Last month he published “East West Street” in which he writes about three men from Lviv in the Ukraine. When they lived there just over 100 years ago – all on East-West Street – it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was called Lemberg. From 1918 to 1939, it was part of Poland was called Lwow; under Soviet rule until 1989, it was Lvov and now is Lviv.

The three individuals were Phillipe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, and two who became famous: Hersh Lauterpracht and Raphael Lemkin. Lauterpracht coined the phrase “crimes against humanity” and Lemkin coined the word ‘genocide’ to describe crimes against a race or group with the intention of destroying that race or group. He was the driving force behind the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Reading it, I was struck by the relevance of how Sands describes Lemberg before WW1, as he was doing research for his book. He writes::

I encountered a city of mythologies, a place of deep intellectual traditions where cultures and religions and languages clashed among the groups that lived together in the great mansion that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The First World War collapsed the mansion, destroying an empire and unleashing forces that caused scores to be settled and much blood to be spilled.

This vast empire was ruled from Vienna by Emperor Franz-Joseph, just as the Sultan ruled the Ottoman Empire from Constantinople. Both men managed to hold their empires together – empires with many different countries, religions, political and nationalist minorities. Their skill was to allow some freedom of expression to minorities as long as it didn’t disrupt the overall cohesion of the empire. Of course it wasn’t all wine and roses – especially for some of the minorities. It worked for the Austro-Hungarians, the Ottomans and, of course, for the British Empire: a mixture of divide and rule, the stick and the carrot. More recently, it worked for Yugoslavia until the breakup of the Soviet Empire allowed the inner tensions between different groups to explode murderously. The Russian Empire was the exception because the Tsars encouraged anti-Semitism and the persecution of minorities.

So there are some interesting parallels with the European Union. An enormous territory, with many different ethnic groups, each with their distinctive language, history, culture etc. Each has their autonomy, but abide – albeit not always willingly – by the rules formulated by the centre, in this case Brussels.

So if we are looking at it from the point of view of “is it good for the Jews?” there is an argument that throughout modern times, Jews survived best when under a fairly strong central authority. Nationalism has not been a good friend of the Jews.

There is a resurgence of right-wing, nationalist parties in Hungary, Austria, France and so on. Even given the appalling attacks on Jewish institutions in recent years, Jews still enjoy greater security in a European Union abiding by common principles than we ever did pre-war. Then we lived in sovereign countries beholden to nobody but themselves, where Jews were scapegoated and sacrificed on the altar of extreme nationalism, with nobody able to protect them, nobody able to intervene from beyond their borders. The only war in mainland Europe in 70 years was the civil war in Yugoslavia and we can only speculate about if or how things might have been different had Yugoslavia been part of the European Union.

Whatever we might think about what it has become, the idea of a pan-European union was a marvellous vision to arise out of the ashes of the Second World War, an attempt to create something that would enable nations to live peacefully together, the antithesis of what had happened in the previous 20 years. It meant, amongst other things, that within just a few years of the most-murderous conflict, two major protagonists – Germany and France – had built bridges of political, economic, and industriual cooperation between them.

But even if we focus on more peaceful times, Jews have never gone in a big way for nationalism. Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, one of my teachers at Leo Baeck College, argued that romanticism led to nationalism and nationalism has, all too often, ended up in barbarism – with the Jews on the receiving end.

Jews have invariably been trans-national. The Ephrussis of Edmond de Waal’s “Hare with Amber Eyes” or the Rothschilds are obvious examples, with branches of their family in all the major capitals of Europe. And what was true for the Ashkenazi world was true in the Sephardi world also: branches of the Dwek or Sassoon families could be found in Baghdad, Cairo, Bombay, Singapore, Rangoon, Aden and so on.

Jews were cosmopolitan before the Nazis and Communists made it into a dirty word, suggesting treasonous behaviour, people who can’t be trusted, who have loyalties beyond their country. In the good sense of being cosmopolitan we are a people with a shared set of values, a shared history, a common liturgy, a religious practice that might vary from country to country but where a Polish Jew could  morfe-or-less recognise what was happening on Shabbat in, say, a Moroccan Jew’s home. It was a shared lifestyle, practice and ethic none of which depended, in its significant points, on national boundaries.

Paradoxically, whilst having that trans-national consciousness, as Jews came into modern society from the 1750s onwards, they also became intensely patriotic. But never in a way which approached anything like xenophobia.

The most common command in the Torah is not to oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… you know the heart of the stranger. We have friends who used to live on a farm in Leicestershire. On the walls were ploughing certificates from his grandfather and great-grandfather. I asked him how long his family had been in this part of Leicestershire and he said that they could trace their family back to somewhere in the 13th century. I felt a pang, a bit of jealousy, I guess, at that rootedness, that sense of being connected to a patch of land somewhere over several centuries.

I wonder how many of us here can trace back our family’s presence in this country more than 150-200 years? We know what it is to flee persecution and we know what it is to be economic migrants. It upsets me no end to hear Jews condemning the economic migrants of our time, as if their ancestors weren’t just that – and were seen as that when they came by the ‘natives’ just as many see the new arrivals now. Of course there are serious concerns about this and many other social grievances – but they are the fault of successive governments infinitely more than they can be blamed on immigrants. Those concerns, insecurities and anxieties need to be addressed. But the way some political parties, individuals and newspapers are playing on them is less-than-honest, suggesting that all the ills of society will be resolved if we left the European Union and imposed very strict border controls on immigrants. Thank goodness UKIP, Brexit and the like weren’t around when we came knocking on the doors of this country!

As Jews, the horizon of our concern about this issue cannot, surely, just be about the economics of Remain or Leave. We talk about Tikkun Olam, about repairing the world, making it a better place for our children and grandchildren to inhabit. There is such a long agenda of tikkun olam work which needs to be done and which can really only be seriously undertaken with trans-national effort and cooperation: dealing with climate change; terrorism; epidemic health issues; the refugee crisis; limiting the power of monopolistic international corporations; protection of womens’ and workers’ rights; inequalities between rich and poor and so on.

We know that building bridges, connecting people, is the best way to promote peace. Security is gained not by erecting fences but by opening gates.