Sanctuary: Call to expand the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme (a sermon)

Our Torah reading this morning takes us on the journey from Joseph the spoiled home-boy to being sold into slavery and finally ending up in Egypt languishing in prison, where our Torah portion finishes this week, seems straightforward enough. But from there he’s going to ascend to the greatest height in Egyptian society and that will spell the beginning of the end of this story of one family as they go on to become a hated people in a land where a malevolent ruler ‘knew not Joseph’. Egyptian Slavery is looming over our heads already as these boys squabble over how to treat their brother.

If we were to retell the Joseph story, and not as a West End musical, we have the makings of a gritty drama. A teenage boy is sold into slavery and trafficked into an unknown land by passing merchants. Now, finding his feet slowly in the new culture as a housekeeper, with a modicum of success, the reality kicks in. This refugee is the victim of a crime, but as is often the case, it is the refugee accused of committing the crime (in the UK refugees are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators) and it is Joseph who is sent to jail where he is left. Yet our refugee is desperate for a better life and even in prison he assumes a position of influence and power until his special abilities for interpreting dreams will be called on by Pharaoh.

I want us to read further into this story. This is the story that builds our story, the story of the Jewish people. It is the story out of which will be generated our sacred myth of exile and redemption. And it is the story that begins to typify the real experience of Jewish life for millennia. Jews know what it means to survive and thrive, even as a minority. And we know the perils that come with that survival.

If we took a poll here now and I asked everyone in the room whose family had left one country to find refuge in another to stand up I can guarantee nearly everyone would be standing. And those not standing would probably stand when I asked all those who arrived as a kind of economic migrant though fleeing horrendous poverty and persecution to stand up. My family alone came from Nazi Germany and Russian hardship.

We have moved through countries, lived through governments of all stripes, fled, built, succeeded and been destroyed. But if there is one thing that all Jews know and understand it is the story with two sides – migration and success and seeking refuge and being a minority.

Occasionally, we had nowhere to flee. As Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State of Israel, noted in 1936 in regards to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, “”The world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.” The failed Evian Conference in 1938, which was a political effort to increase quotas into other countries for Jews trying to flee, had country delegates saying they were at “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees” and “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”. From this failure there was a new attempt to save children from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria and find foster homes for them in the UK, spearheaded by amongst others the Jews and Quakers – it was the Kindertransport that enabled 10,000 children to survive. And we know many of these kinder today. The UK was the place of sanctuary for those children.

Last week on 10th December we marked the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A document in part drafted by a Jew and professor of law, Rene Cassin, passed in 1948 partially in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. You see that story of the Jewish people again – thriving and building. The UDHR is an astonishing and optimistic vision for human life. And some 65 years later we still don’t seem to be able to figure out how to make it a reality.

This optimistic message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights suffers from the inherent problem with human rights. They can achieve nothing unless someone takes responsibility to act on them. Either they lie in a passive state and people are abused, or they are acted on and lives are saved.

If our Joseph story, the slavery of Egypt, and our life in the UK teaches us anything it is that we have this historic duty and a moral imperative to act when on our planet there are others imperilled or in need of help. Our story in our generation is that of Sanctuary in the UK and the Jewish experience of devastation, refuge and rebuilding. We must never find ourselves saying, as in the Evian Conference, “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees” to justify not offering refuge to people whose lives are at risk.

I’m never normally this impassioned in my sermons, but hearing the account of 3,000,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and that we have only admitted less than 100 of the most vulnerable persons in a special relocation scheme I had to speak out. The UNHCR is saying that some of the most vulnerable people, suffering trauma and at risk need to be given a chance to live – and need to be rescued from the harshness of winter in a tent city. I spoke with an MP yesterday who said that of course we must maintain our aid and that is where our principle measures of support must be focussed, but that does not have to be to the exclusion of supporting the most vulnerable people in relocating here. And Lebanon and Jordan may not be able to cope much longer either.

This may be the worst refugee crisis since the 2nd World War. 6.5 million Syrians are displaced, 2 million cannot go to school and the UNHCR estimates there will be 4 million refugees by the end of the year. Highlighting the work of the government and in debate over some of these issues Government Minister James Brokenshire said in the House of Commons on Wednesday 10 December, the Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that, “The most effective way for …[individuals to contribute assistance is] through their local authorities and the vulnerable persons relocation scheme.”

And that is what this Chanukkah I’m going to ask you all to do. I’m going to ask you to approach our local authority.

Liberal Judaism has proudly led the Citizens UK campaign to make sure that the UK is a place of sanctuary. Liberal Judaism communities across the country are calling on the government to increase the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the UK from 750 to 1500 per annum through a resettlement scheme funded by the EU. (And this is obviously outside of a wider debate about immigration, asylum or open door policies – all of which have become such a toxic topic for politicians in the lead up to the General Election in May).

On Thursday, I spoke with the Citizens UK organiser for this area who gave me extra information and on Tuesday I’m meeting the mosque to discuss the possibility of an interfaith stance.

But for now let me tell you that this Chanukah, Liberal Judaism communities across the UK will be jointly lighting Chanukah candles and calling on their local authorities to resettle 50 refugees amongst our communities and offering to help with that process. We can participate in this action by sending a letter to our local Westminster Council, led by Philippa Roe. We will ask her to agree to resettle 50 refugees in our area and, importantly, we as the largest Liberal synagogue in the country, will pledge our support to help however we can.

Friends will we say that because we hear we are at “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees” we cannot play more of a part. I hope not. That is not the British way and it is not the Jewish way. I urge you all to let me know that you wish to help and give your name to support the campaign. That way we can all take action this Chanukkah to make our Sanctuary Dedication real and potentially save a life.

May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen

(And here’s my colleague Rabbi Charley Baginsky’s Davar Torah that influenced this sermon).

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