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Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger on the crisis in the Mediterranean

Rabbi Baroness Julia NeubergerRabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger of West London Synagogue reflects on the on-going crisis in the Mediterranean and the Jewish imperative to act to help desperate people in extreme danger. Standing witness, she argues is not enough. We should be taking action.

In our our haftarah this past Shabbat we heard: “God looks for justice, and finds violence, for righteousness, but behold a cry.”

The head of the Red Cross in Italy has spoken about the few who were rescued from the migrant ship that sank off the Libyan coast leaving some 800 people dead. He referred to the look in the eyes of the survivors: “They are under shock, completely shocked… Some of them want to speak, some of them want to stay silent… It’s the first time I see such a high level of shock. It’s clear from their eyes.”

Two survivors said that they had managed to stay afloat by clinging to the bodies of their fellow passengers. Others said that the children on board drowned because they were trapped on the boat’s lower levels. Meanwhile, the Tunisian captain of the boat has been charged with reckless multiple homicide, Italian officials say. He has also been charged along with a Syrian member of the crew with favouring illegal immigration.

Those two were among 27 survivors who arrived in Sicily late on Monday. The authorities say the disaster was caused by mistakes made by the captain and the ship being overcrowded. They said the boat had keeled over after the collision which had been caused by steering mistakes by the captain and the panicked movements of the migrants on the 20-metre former fishing trawler. The people were nationals of Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal, kept locked up in three different layers in the boat. At some point, “the little boat lost its balance, and people started to move around. Those that were down wanted to come up and vice-versa, and many people fell into the water, and then the boat capsized,” she said.

But why are they all coming? Well, look at what’s happening in Libya. And accept – despite all the politics around this over the last couple of days – that as a nation we bear some responsibility. We caused a terrible state to become a failed state, and then we failed to act. Then look at ISIS killing Christians for no other reason than that they’re Christians, some of them possibly waiting for one of these illegal and dangerous small boats to get away from murder. North and Central Africa are in meltdown and yet the EU decided to stop its Mare Nostrum search and rescue only too recently, and to concentrate on the ‘people traffickers’.

If you hear our politicians – from all parties- talk about the tragedy, they offer a bit of sympathy and then say that something must be done about the illegal trade in people. And yet, and yet…

There’s no-one amongst us Jews who didn’t come to this country, historically speaking, as a migrant or refugee, unless we converted to Judaism. We understand the tribulations of desperate people, because we have a folk memory, or more recent memories, to remind us. Members of my congregation, West London Synagogue, were on the ill fated St Louis and other ships. It’s not so long ago. People are leaving because they’re desperate. They were desperate before and in search of a better life. Now many of them are terrified, for their lives, and risk their lives coming to Europe’s shores. And we dither and wring our hands, and are not prepared to tackle ISIS and the other horrors of much of Africa.

I can’t help feeling that what we read our haftarah applies to us. Not necessarily to us personally, though we all share in the political climate that has become so negative about asylum seekers and migrants. But to us as a nation. A horrific human tragedy is rolling out before our eyes, and, much of the time, it hasn’t even been making the front page of the news. What’s wrong with us? Even if the people traffickers are pretty terrible people, as they must be because of the condition of the boats, they wouldn’t have a business if things were not so desperate for these people. If we see images of Christians being beheaded on the shores of the Mediterranean, of Coptic Christians being lead to their deaths, we feel sick. But can’t we make the connection?- Libyans and Egyptians are fleeing Libya for fear of being slaughtered by ISIS, and we in the west do nothing, unless it is our citizens going off to join ISIS forces in Syria.

What is wrong with us? We should be jumping up and down saying that Europe has to rescue these people and save their lives. The fact we don’t want them within Europe; apparently we don’t, and the Prime Minister said yet again yesterday that the UK will take no more, doesn’t justify letting them die terrible deaths. Especially not the children. We have a responsibility. And yet Fortress Europe wants to send a message to desperate people who might be killed by ISIS that it’s very dangerous, and you might die if you come to Europe. Well, you might well die if you stay… desperate people will take desperate measures.

When we Jews discuss what happened to our people before the war we criticise the authorities. How could they allow this? How could they deport people to a certain death and ignore the horrors, unfolding on their borders? That’s what we said and say. And yet exactly the same is happening now. The horror is unfolding, and we’re doing absolutely nothing about it.

At West London Synagogue we run our drop in for asylum seekers, and the congregation has been wonderful in volunteering; a few members have joined us purely to volunteer in this project. But I can’t help feeling that, as Jews, we must up our game. This tragedy, and series of tragedies, should make us speak out about migrants and refugees. We can’t take everybody. We all know that. But Christians in fear of their lives in Libya? Isn’t that a legitimate reason to flee? The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Egypt earlier this week meeting with President el-Sisi. In his Easter message, at Pesach, the season of the celebration of freedom, he highlighted the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, including the 148 victims of a Kenyan university attack earlier this month. His instruction then was for those living in peaceful societies to “stand as witness” to what was happening to Christians elsewhere. He argues that the treatment of Christians was the worst it had been since the 13th Century. But I think we should go further.

Justin Welby rightly backed military action against Islamic State fighters in Iraq. He also made it clear their appeal to young Muslims in many places, including Britain, had to be tackled in other ways. We could- and should- go further. Of course we have to look at ways of preventing radicalisation, and challenge our Muslim friends, who are as terrified by this as we are, to find ways into this thinking, and to try to stop it. But I think we need to take a tougher line. We should be saying to Justin Welby that we stand with him, but that he should be talking to whatever government comes in, and we will join him, in a cross party, apolitical, humanitarian concern, saying Christians fearing for their lives should be granted asylum in the UK and Europe more widely. We at West London should be looking at expanding the services we offer to asylum seekers, assuming that these people are allowed in, and extending our drop in to more than once a month, and beyond those with families to individuals; after all, this time most of them have lost their families. We should be pulling in colleagues to help us with this from local Christian and Muslim communities, all of whom are as horrified as we are.

But the difference between us and Justin Welby is, I believe, that we should not simply be standing witness. We should be taking action. For ‘you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’. Isaiah is telling us about wrong actions, and ignoring suffering. We know what’s right: saving human lives. Wringing our hands and being shocked simply won’t do. If we criticise the world for what it did not do for us during and before the Shoah, rightly, all the more reason to act now, as a community, galvanising other communities, to get the government to allow some of these people in, those genuinely in fear of their lives, and providing support, friendship and comfort to them once they are here. We have to do it because of our historical experience, but, more than that, listening to Isaiah, because it is right.

I do not believe there is an alternative course of action. The haftarah makes that clear. We are too comfortable. We forget the oppressed. Yet our Torah portion last Shabbat told us ‘kedoshim tihyu’, you shall be holy…. It really means different. Different from the other people, more shocked by injustice and oppression, and more inclined to act and less inclined to stand witness. That’s what being Jewish is about. And we cannot stand by any longer. God ‘looked for justice, but behold violence; for righteousness, but behold a cry’. We cannot listen to the cry any longer and ignore it. This time, at this season, just after Pesach, we have, whatever our political views, to act. Let’s listen to the cry, and help establish righteousness. And take some action to help the migrants, and to persuade the government to change course, whichever government it may turn out to be.

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