Refugees, children and a time to act

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Sitting in the drawer of our sideboard are some German silver teaspoons that my grandmother’s family smuggled out of Germany when they left with just a suitcase each. Yes, my family were middle-class, they had silver teaspoons – you know what, being middle class probably saved their life. Think about that next time you make some crass comment about refugees with mobile phones. Who would have thought that the story of mass migration of the 19th and 20th centuries would so soon be a part of the 21st century on a scale of such magnitude that the international community once again has got to figure out how to work together to save the lives of refugees.

When I was younger and watched films about the Holocaust, I wondered how it would be to hide your children from danger. What would it mean to smuggle a child silently through secret channels? Once I had children I wondered what it would mean to have to carry a child in your arms for miles. I guess it might be due to being a grandson of a refugee from Nazi Germany that the frightening nightmarish day-dream still occasionally flashes through my mind. Would I be up to the ultimate demand of a parent to cradle my children in my arms as I carried them to safety?

It’s a selfish thought of course, were it not for history it would be the nightmare of a fantasist. It’s the scar of hate that has left its mark on the history of my family. Even so, I know it’s self-indulgent. The selfishness of it was brought home this week, in light of the death of the child Aylan Kurdi, I found myself explaining to our children what it means to be a refugee over our comfortable Friday night dinner (after they watched me have my photo taken with a sign saying #refugeeswelcome). Initially I was reminded of Lord Attenborough’s parents who told him when they planned to take in Kinder from the Kindertransport, “We absolutely love you boys, but we will have to show even more love to these girls…” I struggled to find the words. Attenborough was 15, my kids under 6.

Here was a lesson for my children. Not everyone is as fortunate as they are. There are people who left everything behind and found themselves homeless in war torn countries, temporarily housed in refugee camps or fleeing to countries that might be able to offer them asylum….

Nope. That’s not understandable to a child under 6 years old. We spent a bit of time talking about feeling safe and having a home and that there are people who don’t have those things and left it at that.

But then I had a thought which really scared me. I’m still dad who makes them laugh. I take them swimming. I cheerfully lead services at synagogue and they can stand next to me as I recite the closing blessing of peace. But could I face my daughters in ten years time when they ask me what I did when faced with the biggest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. It is simply impossible to think that I’ve created a career giving sermons on a weekly basis telling people how they might think and behave and then when I confront the basic human need of a home, freedom, safety, on an unimaginable scale I might have no words and no actions.

I’ve not got a messiah complex and it’s not something I’m doing alone. The best partners are those like Citizens UK with whom I’ve worked in the last year. They have a stunning array of possible actions in which you can get involved. I’m not blind to the complexities of the issues. But there is simply no way that, with more than 10 million people who have fled from their homes, I can be satisfied with the UK government only committing to accept 20,000 refugees over 5 years and we have no sense of the actual timetable for their admission. The figure should be more like 100,000.

It’s down to us. We cannot stand idly by and now we have the momentum it must be sustained. I will not be silent. My British sense of justice, freedom and safety obligates me. My Judaism obligates me. My family history obligates me. My children obligate me.

The time is now to act. (Psalm 119:126).

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Some information about taking action:

The Citizens UK campaigns include:

World Jewish Relief are coordinating a major Jewish communal response

Tzelem – The rabbinic call for social and economic justice voted to take action including banners on synagogues, such as at my community at West London Synagogue, and other things in the pipeline.

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Liberal Judaism has information about their partner organisations

At some point the Movement for Reform Judaism will decide on specific action

In terms of a rabbinic lead, it’s hard to think when the senior rabbis of the main denominations have not been so universally outspoken saying very similar things:

  • Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger – Senior Rabbi of West London Synagogue had a letter in the Times here.
  • Rabbi Danny Rich – Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism interviewed on Radio 5 live, info here.
  • Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner – Senior Rabbi of Movement for Reform Judaism writes here.
  • Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism, quoted in the Guardian here.
  • Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations, spoke on Newsnight and wrote in the Guardian here.
  • Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations spoke on radio here and in the JC here.
  • I had an article in the Express here.

And Sir Mick Davis, Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, is quoted here calling for help.

The Board of Deputies gave a parev statement whilst the wheels of democratic communal leadership grind forwards looking for consensus in their response.

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