>We currently have a Prime Minister who appears very British. David Cameron went to Eaton, he was educated at Oxford University, and he can even claim to have Royal blood as he is a direct descendant of King William IV and his mistress. He would pass any test of Britishness.
But Prime Minister Cameron also has Jewish immigrants in his family tree. His great great grandfather, on his father’s side was Emile Levita, a German Jew, who arrived in England in the 1850s, gaining citizenship in 1871. As the Government seek to tighten immigration controls, I cannot help but wonder whether David Cameron’s great great grandfather would have been allowed in.
And in the interests of political impartiality; our Liberal, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is married to a Spaniard, and his mother is from Holland. And the leading candidate in the Labour leadership election, David Milliband, has a Belgian born father, and Polish born mother, as does the candidate currently in second place, his brother Ed.
In the lead up to the General Election, my wife and I took great pleasure in watching the leadership debates, and hearing about the various policies of our three main political parties. They disagreed on many issues, and there appeared to be a lack of common ground on most things, except when the subject of immigration came up. As they discussed this topic, they seemed united in their calls for tighter limits and stricter checks. The main disagreement centred on whose policies would best achieve caps on the total number of immigrants entering the UK, yet they all seemed to be in agreement that there were too many people wanting to, and entering, our country. Both my wife and I were disappointed as we listened to all three men, one of whom would become Prime Minister.
Just over a year ago we went through the process of obtaining a visa, so that my wife, could come and live here. Despite the fact that we were married, had jobs waiting for us, and could prove our income, the process still took over three months, and definitely served to raise my blood pressure on more than one occasion. And just last week, a close friend who has been living here for 4 years, received her Masters here, has a job, and pays taxes, was told that she would not be able to stay because she does not have enough points according to the system introduced since the election. It appears that she simply does not make enough money to satisfy the requirements. It seems that the borders are open, but only if your bank balance is big enough.
Although I was born in England, my mother was an immigrant to this country from Israel, and my grandmother was an immigrant, coming here from Germany after Kristallnacht, and initially staying in one of the West London Synagogue hostels. I am sure that virtually every one in this room fits into one of the following categories: a) you emigrated here, b) you have a parent who emigrated here, or c) you have at least one grandparent who emigrated here. We are members of the West London Synagogue of British Jews, but we weren’t always British; we have all been immigrants since Jews were readmitted to Britain.
‘My father was a wandering Aramean, he went down to Egypt with meagre numbers, and settled there, and there he became a great and very populous nation.’ This verse in this week’s Torah portion, is a reference not just to one person, but to our ancestors; Abraham was a wandering Aramean, and Jacob went down to Egypt. We are all, as the Jewish people, collectively, the descendants of wanderers and immigrants, both in our ancient past, and in our more recent history.
This week’s Torah portion instructs us that as we enter the land of Israel, and bring the first fruits – a symbol of the fact that we have not just arrived there, but settled there – we should recite the line: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean…’ Just as we became settled, we reminded ourselves of our immigrant past, and the experiences of our ancestors.
With no Temple and no state in the land of Israel, this line was nonetheless preserved, by its use in the Passover Seder, so that every year we remember ‘My father was a wandering Aramean’ at one of the central festivals within our calendar. The entire Passover Seder is an interactive, educational event designed to instil in us the sense that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and that we fled from there to the Promised Land.
Remembering our history is not just about knowing where we come from, but it is also about knowing where we are going, and how we will behave in light of our experiences.
One of the most often quoted verses in our Torah is taken from Leviticus: ‘Love you neighbour as yourself, I am Adonai your God’. This is known as the Golden Rule, for it stretches across the religious divide, and each tradition has its own version. Yes this verse is unquestionably important, but we rarely quote the verse a few lines down in the passage which states: ‘But the foreigner, who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God’. We are not just told to love our neighbours as ourselves, we are told to love the foreigner, the stranger, the immigrant as ourselves.
This commandment was necessary because often the “other” is an easy scapegoat for the majority within society. We Jews have often been on the receiving end; we have been persecuted as foreigners and strangers – suspected and mistrusted by the host societies in which we have settled.
Immigrants are an easy scapegoat for a society because they are different. They may look different, they might sound distinctive, and they may behave in a foreign way. In this way, the immigrants are a noticeable other, and as such, an easy target to blame for many of the problems in society.
Different societies may target different foreign groups, but the fear and the suspicion is the same. In Arizona, legislation has been introduced to allow the stopping and searching of people who look like they might be an illegal immigrant. This law will indiscriminately target all Latinos, whether they have arrived lawfully or illegally. In France, President Sarkozy has turned his attention to gypsy travellers as a group which must be targeted and expelled. And in Britain, as the Labour leadership contest heats up, once again the candidates are seeking to be the toughest standing against immigration; with the two Eds, Milliband and Balls, both claiming that Labour lost the last election, in part because they were not tougher on immigration.
For us Jews, the Torah is unambiguous: We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and we know what it is like to be an immigrant – oppressed, scapegoated and presecuted.
We can list the differences between the contemporary situation and the historical situation of our ancestors. And we should distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. But it is almost universal that people migrate in search of a better life for themselves and their families. And it is clear that the overwhelming majority of immigrants are positive contributors to the societies in which they settle. Just yesterday, the Business Secretary Vince Cable commented on the need to recognise that immigrants are an important factor in business recovery and economic growth.
As a Jewish community, we have settled and established ourselves as an important part of British society. But we must always remember that one need not look too far back into our history to find common experiences with the immigrants of today.
There is a building in the East End of London which symbolises the repetitious nature of the immigrant story. This building on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street was built in 1742, as a Huguenot chapel, called La Neuve Eglise, by French Hugenots who had come to England fleeing persecution. In 1898, the building was consecrated as the Machzikei HaDath, or Spitalfields Great Synagogue by Jews who had come to London from Eastern Europe. And in 1976, it became the London Jamme Masjid, serving the local Bangladeshi Muslim community.
First a Chapel, then a Synagogue, now a Mosque. If that isn’t telling of the composition of British society, then I don’t know what is.
We must never forget where we have come from as a community. Our father was a wandering Aramean, and virtually all of us can find an immigrant experience in our more recent histories. We were the immigrants of yesteryear, and we need to remember our experiences when we enter into the debate about immigration today. The multicultural nature of British society is one of the things which we should embrace and celebrate. We are beneficiaries of that society, as was the great great grandfather of our Prime Minister. We must never forget where we came from, and as such we must treat others as we would want to be treated.
Bayom hahu – on that day, when we can all treat each other with compassion and acceptance, regardless of race, religion or nationality.
Bayom hahu – on that day, when we can embrace one another as brothers and sisters, each of us members of one human family.
Maybe, just maybe, that will be our ultimate Exodus from Egypt, and entry into the Promised Land.