Children from Calais

My thought for the week for West London Synagogue written from a sukkah of annual leave!

As we begin the cycle of Torah reading again with Simchat Torah, I am reminded once again of what I consider to be the stunning messages of the story of creation about humanity. Let me give three examples: firstly, we are all equal to one another and equally important – since only one person was created at the beginning, in the image of God; secondly, that we have the capacity to make choices about the lives we live – it makes no sense otherwise for God to give Adam and Eve the responsibility not to eat of the fruit of the tree; thirdly, that we are never far from violence and whole worlds depend on our avoidance of it – as shown by the story of Cain and Abel.

Our Torah is a magnificent text that has never ceased to inspire interpreters and readers in every generation.

In her sermon on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Julia asked us to write to our MPs to raise our concern for child refugees in Calais, citing her own family history of escape from the clutches of Nazism. Since then, the first children from Calais, with family already in the UK, have begun to be processed and reunited with their families. Rabbi Julia’s reflection of recent history is exactly what the rabbis described about the 36 exhortations in the Torah not to mistreat the stranger (in Hebrew the ger). I’m teaching 2nd year rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College the very text that reminds fellow Jews some 1800 years ago not to mistreat the ger and not to accuse the ger of failings which we also have. Why? The sages of the Talmud say because the Torah repeatedly states, “You yourselves were gerim (strangers) in the land of Egypt”.

In other words, we are all strangers.

The lazy reporting of the first children who have come to the UK from Calais has featured photographs of people who do not look like minors, prompting some truly ghastly invective on social media. The photographs are not reliable. We should ask ourselves about what kind of care we expect for people who are being processed for asylum claims and what purpose is served by encouraging us to doubt their legitimacy? What dignity should these people be afforded as human beings and especially as children? After all, Ben Azzai, the sage of the 2nd century, says the greatest principle of the entire Torah is that we are all made in the image of God – stranger or not.

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