Shared Hope and the Dispossessed

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Mira Awad, Shay Alon (guitar) and Mark Greenfield (drums)

הַשְׁכִּיבֵֽנוּ יהוה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְהַעֲמִידֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לְחַיִּים
וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ
Source of our life and our Sovereign, cause us to lie down in peace, and rise again to enjoy life.
Spread over us the covering of Your peace.(Evening service liturgy)

I’m about the same age as Mira Awad and our families have histories that are microcosmic reflections of the 20th century. Her Palestinian family were dispossessed in the birth of the State of Israel. My family were migrants, fleeing hardship and antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the turn of the 20th century and then dispossessed refugees fleeing the rise of Nazism in the mid-20th century. She and I have every reason to feel bereft of hope for humanity because the scars of family trauma run deep through the generations. Yet, I discovered quite the opposite as I sat with her for Friday night dinner and then heard her perform.

As I explained during the week to my children (who are born into a family of refugees on both sides, whether from Germany or Egypt, where my father-in-law was born and fled from in the 1950s) – Mira was a Palestinian Israeli who sang in Arabic, Hebrew and English. They innocently asked, “What’s a Palestinian and what’s Arabic?”

If ever there was a question loaded with the heavy weight of political discourse it was those two questions. Yet, I found great freedom in telling my children that the land of Israel was important to peoples not just a people. Jewish people live there and so do Palestinians and also Bedouin and Druze. I told my children, the Palestinians feel connected to the land and call it home and that Arabic is one of the national languages of the State of Israel. We share, at least theoretically, the land with other peoples. That was enough for two under 6 year olds. But it was a moment of great congruence between my values, my professional life and raising my children.

We share the land

The Hebrew is HaChevrah HaMeshutefet – Shared Society. We all teach our children about sharing. We teach them about the way in which we ask them to give up monopoly control even with the pain that might entail. And through sharing, our children discover that the enjoyment of life can actually be enlarged, not diminished. We teach that possession of a thing, of a space, is never absolute and we see the pain when they are dispossessed.  Sounds simplistic right? But I’m not simplistic: I know that children ‘sharing a toy’ is not the same as national aspirations for self-determination nor a counter to terrorism and the rhetoric of violence.

Yet, I still do not know how we’ve reached this point in the arc of human history. On Saturday night, I watched Mira with her stunning voice and beautiful music, justify describing herself as an optimist. She has every reason not to be optimistic. She’s a Palestinian Israeli, born to a Bulgarian mother and Palestinian father in the Galilee. Her family know intimately about the twists and turns of history, the impact of conflict and belonging. She knows the challenges of walking the complex path of identity, in which you can be attacked from all sides for being a traitor, participating in white-washing, and betraying your heritage. It’s for that reason she describes herself as an acrobat Bahlawan in Arabic (the title of her enchanting Album).

Bukra – Tomorrow

So as she gave a concert at West London Synagogue it saddened me to hear her introduce her song ‘Bukra’ (Tomorrow) by saying she was an optimist and that she was not going to accept being criticised for saying she was an optimist. She believed in tomorrow, not through naivety but a profound and strident humanist vision of tomorrow.

I was inspired by Mira, because she did not have to see beyond the depressing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, nor did she have to work for a shared society in Israel where Palestinian Israelis are one of the most obvious victims of inequality, racism and exclusion. But she did. Mira let us hear through her music (the most simple of shared human expressive forms) that we could all be humanists. To be a humanist is to recognise the essentially human failures but to believe in the hope for that other essential part of humanity – we can work together, feel empathy, strive for betterment, prosperity and create things for beauty and advancement of humankind, share time and space and make peace.

Shared Space

Our shared space for that evening was the West London Synagogue. Mira had joined us for the Friday night service, something new to her at WLS at least and then we joined her in the same space the following evening only this time I was in the pews and she was on the bimah. She listened to our prayers, for Israel, for peace and we listened to her songs of fragility, of love and of hope.

We need compelling visions of the future more than ever. Mira offered us just that.  Never should any of us have to apologise for a vision of trust, of faith in humanity and of peace. It is a disgrace that anyone should be forced to justify her optimism and it is a sign of the depths to which we have sunk that it is necessary. Only a fool would not see that human beings can inflict terrible acts of harm on one another. But only someone with no tomorrow would allow that to dominate their relationships.

The Zenith and the Faithful

We have lost sight of the truth that the thing we all are in search of most of all, is a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualisation is at the top of the pyramid and is the most new-agey of concepts. But beneath that aspiration are basic needs of safety, security, family, friendship, respect and so on. We have reached a nadir in human relations. We suspect our fellow human beings of wishing us harm before we remember that what most of us want is a quiet, good life where we can provide for our families, feel valued and loved and safe and secure. Our mistrust of our neighbours will be civilisation’s downfall (and I’m not talking about the battle of civilisations, I’m talking about the work of advancement and betterment of the human condition).

It is time we left the lack of trust to our politicians. Religious leaders, musicians, artists, gifted voices: we are in the business of hope and of faith. And that faith and that hope begins with each other – our faith in human goodness and our hope that tomorrow we can share the creation of a world that is better, more radiant and more beautiful than ever. Let us be the faithful, let us be the hopeful for tomorrow.

Bukra 
Is a brand new day
Things can still be going our way
If we make it through the night
Soon will come the morning light.
(Bukra, Mira Awad)

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Crossing Seas, Making the Change: Advocacy Academy and Citizens UK

(A sermon) Tell the Israelites to go forward (Exodus 14:15)

Imagine that moment of crossing the Sea of Reeds. Could you? Pursued by the Egyptians, Moses begins praying and God says to him, מה תצעק אלי – why are you crying out to me? The midrash, one of my all-time favourites, interprets this to mean: why on earth are you praying to me now? Moses, my friend, you’ve picked one hell of a moment to stop and pray. I mean you could pray on the other side, but now? Seriously? Come on, why are you crying out to me. Get on with it, do something, lift your staff up.

The midrashim feel the hesitancy in this moment. It’s a scene from a movie where the motion stops and the viewer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Of course, the other famous midrash has Nachshon ben Amminadav impatiently plunge into the sea when the rest of the tribes are fighting over who will be first, and he causes it to part.

Why are you crying out to me?

Moses, I’ll tell you what, pray on the other side – Mi chamocha be’eilim Adonai – who is like unto you God among the gods (Exodus 15:11).

This is THE moment of change. It is what we resist so often as communities, the threat of change, of youth, of action. Every action carries with it a change and that can be scary or inspiring. It’s up to us.

The Advocacy Academy – The tools for change

Last night I was in Brixton surrounded by the most incredible energy at the second birthday of the Advocacy Academy. It’s a brand new charity, established by Amelia Viney (a trustee of Liberal Judaism) that I think needs supporting and is giving young people a voice, giving young people the tools to advocate for themselves and their communities. Giving young people the skills and opportunities to build their confidence and tackle the things that make them angry.

Helen Hayes the local MP was there as the patron of the Advocacy Academy. She had listened to these young people before and supported them in reaching out to their constituency MPs, but you could see she was moved again.

I can’t tell you how stunningly powerful it was to hear a young man talk of his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts only to discover a confidence to address it and to bring the issue into his school assembly. Or the self-described angry black woman, a young woman who found a voice to deal with racism and misogyny and many other oppressions and is writing about it for her local paper. We laughed and were moved as we heard another young woman who had finally found her place after coming out as Bisexual to her parents in front of Helen Hayes in Parliament in front of an audience of 70 people. The young man who wanted to address housing problems in his neighbourhood who proclaimed ‘We own Brixton not the developers’. The young woman with a disability who realised what she could do, not what she couldn’t, who told me that she wanted to finish her degree and set up a charity to support other young people with disabilities transitioning from child to adult services. And the young Colombian woman who is establishing a forum for other Latin ancestry young people to celebrate their identity, who has got her MP to bring on board charities and host an event at parliament.

Young people who have something to say. Who have a change they want to make. Who feel ignored or disempowered, voiceless and worthless. They hear society say you don’t count and you’re up to no good. And it makes them angry. And here was the Advocacy Academy giving them the skills to use that anger. It was moving, we cried with them, it was inspiring and it was led by the young people who had such composure and grace and talent. It reminded me why I was so passionate about youth work for most of my young adult life and why I think communities are so important.

And you know what else. It was about making a difference. A change. It wasn’t prayers for redemption. It was being the force for redemption.

Crossing Seas

And so I suppose it was fitting that on my way home from Brixton I walked through Kings Cross only to spot Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner and George Gabriel of Citizens UK preparing to greet young refugees on their journey to being reunited with their families. The courts had found that these minors, alone and living in the squalor of Calais had the right to be living with their family in the UK. It was some comfort after the death two weeks ago of 14-year-old Masud from Afghanistan, who died trying to get here to his sister. This was a sea crossing of a completely different sort. Citizens UK had taken action.

I had gone from hearing of the next generation of Nachshon ben Amminadavs to witnessing what our current leaders are doing waiting at the Eurostar terminal.

The crossing of the sea, a crossing of the channel.

What is redemption, what is freedom?

And you want to know what made me angry? I felt like here at West London Synagogue we’re doing great work helping the destitute asylum seekers. But we’re Moses praying from the edges. I’m Moses here right now. It was coincidence I was at Kings Cross, WLS had nothing to do with it at all.

מה תצעק אלי – Why are we praying now?

What did those stunningly courageous young people in Brixton have in common with the incredible work of Citizens UK – a non-partisan organisation committed to civil society and making politics work for all communities? What was in common – they saw the sea, they saw the channel and they were determined to make it part.

I want us to be making the change in a serious, systematic way. Whether it’s social care for older people, a housing crisis, discrimination or protecting the rights of refugees. To do that we need to be on the inside, not the outside. The Advocacy Academy taught me an important lesson. We need to take risks like join Citizens UK, we need to be advocates for our civil society, using all the privilege and power we can muster. We need to be doing, not praying. We need to be angry that the world is not right and then we need to be angry enough that we are willing to change the world, not provide a salve for the symptoms.

So if you’re angry about any of the issues I’ve brought up then let me know so we can work together.

Exodus 15:2

 עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישועה – God is my strength and song and will be my salvation.