TWO VOICES: What does Jewish history teach us about the current immigrant crisis?

TWO VOICES: What does Jewish history teach us about the current immigrant crisis?

Two Voices
Two Voices

This week’s Two Voices asks: What does Jewish history teach us about the current immigrant crisis?

Two Voices

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz says…

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Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

According to Jewish tradition, our forefather Abraham could lay claim to many firsts: the first monotheist, the first Jew… but also the first immigrant. Abraham journeyed back and forth between Ur Chaldea, Canaan and Egypt. Not only was he the first immigrant, but he also embraced that identity: he was the Hebrew, ‘ha-ivri’, which can be translated as one who crosses over, the ‘border-crosser’. In short, the immigrant’s narrative in Judaism started with Abraham and was cemented by the Torah’s many-fold injunction to ‘love the stranger’. This is part of our historical and theological DNA.

As a rabbi, I try to be the best representative of the moral voice of our tradition. The Torah exhorts us to love the stranger 36 times. We have an obligation to link these texts to our lives. Through supporting refugees, we weave their unheard voices into the consciousness of our communities and when relevant, we speak from personal experience.

I’m an immigrant. My son was born in the Netherlands, my baby daughter in the UK. My English is fluent, I’m culturally confident enough to find my way, I am a tax and national insurance-paying citizen, but I’m still an immigrant. My whiteness, middle-class-ness, level of education doesn’t make me any less of an immigrant. I stand in solidarity with immigrants and refugees. My tradition demands it of me, and I find myself in Abraham’s good company.

Esther Hugenholtz is assistant rabbi at Sinai Synagogue in Leeds

Rabbi Benji Stanley says…

Rabbi Benji Stanley
Rabbi Benji Stanley

Ben was full of praise for Takum, a fortnightly Torah learning course for people in their 20s and 30s on issues of responsibility and justice. “It got to me,” he said.

We had been challenged, almost too much, by a rabbi, to consider the plight of asylum seekers and our arbitrary privilege. He brought Emmanuel Levinas’ question: “In western society – free and civilised, but without social equality and a rigorous social justice – is it absurd to wonder whether the advantages available to the rich in relation to the poor… one thing leading to another, are not the cause somewhere of someone’s agony?”

It harrows me today in moments of quiet; it makes me want to cry and scream out when language is used that dehumanises those who, at this precise moment, are living without security, without everything I have always taken for granted.

To bring the Jewish experience to bear on education, we prioritise educational spaces in which there’s a complex, nuanced discussion of both our ancient narratives and experiences, and contemporary issues, in which we consider how these discussions might play out in action. At Takum, we confront uncertainty, but in a communal environment that wards off instability or despair.

We’re now planning Takum’s second year, and hope to engender still more action. Perhaps we’ll focus on asylum issues.

Benji Stanley is Reform Judaism’s young adult development rabbi

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