On Wednesday, early evening, I attended a gathering of faith and community leaders at the House of Commons organised by Rene Cassin, ‘the Jewish voice the human rights’ (http://www.renecassin.org), and Tzelem, ‘the Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK’ (http://www.tzelem.uk/). The purpose of the meeting was to express our condemnation of the practice of indefinite detention of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. On April 25, the House of Commons will consider the Lords’ amendment 84 of the Immigration Bill, entitled ‘Immigration detention: time limit and judicial oversight.’ The Commons will also consider the Lords’ amendment 85: ‘Absolute exclusion on the detention of pregnant women.’ Fortunately, there is cross-party support for a change in the law on these matters, and so, the meeting included addresses by Luciano Berger MP, Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health and Richard Fuller MP, Conservative MP for Bedford and member of the 2015 Cross-Party report into the use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom.
The meeting was also addressed by Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Everyone spoke eloquently and passionately. But the two people, whose eloquence surpassed them all, despite the fact that English was not their first language, were two former detainees, who are now part of an organisation called ‘Freed Voices’. We heard from Ajay and Justice about their experience of indefinite detention. Ajay told us that he had first been given a prison sentence, and so he counted the days until his release. But then, on the day of his release he was transferred to a detention centre far away from his family, and was not told how long he would be detained. He told us: ‘Detention was worse than prison. I didn’t have a calendar on my wall. I didn’t have a calendar in my head.’ The psychological agony experienced by both Ajay and Justice was unbearable – and the impact of their experience lives with them still. Meanwhile, we learn from the fact sheet prepared by Rene Cassin that ‘the UK detains around 30,000 migrants every year – including children, pregnant women and people suffering from mental health problems.’ And while the debate about whether or not Britain should remain in the EU rages, the fact sheet tells us that: ‘Of EU countries, only Greece detains more.’ And there is an even more shocking fact about detention in the UK. Rene Cassin, again: ‘the UK is the only country that does not impose a time limit on detention, routinely locking up migrants for years.’
Speaking at the conclusion of the event, Sam Grant, formerly a Liberal Judaism youth movement worker, who is now Campaigns and Programmes Manager at Rene Cassin, reminded us that in the 1930s Jewish refugees from Germany were interned in detention camps on the Isle of Man. Jewish experience in the midst of the twentieth century, Jewish experience throughout history, has been marked by persecution and oppression, and also freighted with the burden of ‘detention’ of various kinds, including detention in ghettos, surrounded by walls with gates that were locked at night. Indeed, the theme of detention goes right back to what the Torah describes as beit avadim, ‘the house of slavery.’ In Exodus chapter 13, verse 3 we read:
Then Moses said to the people: Zachor et-hayyom ha-zeh – Remember this day, on which you went out from Egypt, the house of bondage; how the Eternal brought you out from this place with a mighty hand: No unleavened bread shall be eaten.
‘No unleavened bread’: in remembrance of liberation. ‘Zachor! Remember!’ Why do we remember the Exodus and re-tell the tale of the liberation of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt? After all, it was a long time ago – around 3,200 years ago to be precise. And yet, the tale has been told and re-told for millennia. After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and our ancestors could no longer go on pilgrimage to the Temple to celebrate the festival of Pesach with their offering of a lamb, the early rabbis created the first Haggadah (Mishnah, tractate Pesachim, chapter 10), the first ‘telling’ of the Exodus story designed for a new way of celebrating the festival – in the home, around the table. Later generations of rabbis developed the text of the Haggadah, until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century ensured that a more or less standardised version could be circulated throughout the Jewish world – albeit with variations between Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.
For the next 300 years or so, the text of the Haggadah remained virtually unchanged. And then, in the wake of the Enlightenment, and following emancipation from the ghettos, and the rise of Progressive Judaism, new forms of the Haggadah were written and published – a process that accelerated in the second half of the twentieth century. Today there are hundreds of different editions of the Haggadah – some of which have been specifically produced for sharing the telling of the Exodus story with other ethnic, cultural and religious communities.
So, why do we remember the Exodus and re-tell the tale of the liberation of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt? Why do we, for whom the events related, recede further and further back into the past with every succeeding generation, gather around our Seder tables each year to retell the tale? A compelling answer to this question can be found in one of the most important passages in the traditional text of the Haggadah; a text which remains largely unchanged to this day in all the various editions. As a prelude to the telling, uncovering the matzah and lifting the matzah plate, we recite the following declaration:
Ha lachma anya di achalu avhatana b’ar’a d’mitzrayim… This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all, who are in need come and share our Passover. This year here, next year in the land of Israel; this year oppressed, next year free.
Our ancestors ate ‘the bread of affliction’, when they toiled in beit avadim, the house of bondage’ over 3000 years ago. And still today, there are those who are starving for food; still today there are those in need of liberation; still today, many are oppressed and persecuted, and long to be free. And so, in our Liberal Judaism Haggadah, on the left-hand page facing the text of Ha lachma anya – the page used in the LJ Haggadah for commentary and additional texts, we are offered a question to ask before the traditional four questions – and an answer (Haggadah B’chol Dor Va-Dor – A Haggadah for all Generations. Eds. Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein & Rabbi Pete Tobias, p. 6b. Liberal Judaism, 2010, p. 6b):
Why is this night no different from all other nights? Because on this night, millions of human beings around the world are still enslaved, or deprived of their rights, just as they are on all other nights. As we celebrate our freedom tonight, we remember them.
The children and adults who work in sweatshops of the developing world to produce the cheap clothes wealthier customers are eager to buy.
The adults or children sold into a lifetime of slavery to pay a debt, or those captured in war by slave traders, even in the modern world.
The women and men from Eastern Europe and elsewhere traded into a life of degradation as sex slaves in the West.
The men, women and children forced to live in abject poverty by the lack of care by many nations’ leaders and insensitive citizens.
The passage concludes with these words:
May the message of this Festival of Pesach be clear to us and all the world: we cannot celebrate it properly unless we recommit ourselves to working for the liberty of all who are enslaved. The symbols on the Seder plate, the unleavened bread which will eat for the next seven days, are to remind us that there is still a oppression in our world and that we are obliged to work to remove it from society.
The meeting on indefinite detention was held on Wednesday because of the crucial Commons vote next Monday. A conscious decision was also taken to hold the meeting before the commencement of Pesach, and everyone there was given a key to put on the Seder plate – a key symbolising our commitment to add our voices to the call for an end to indefinite detention. So, as you prepare for Pesach, email your MP, exhorting them to support the Lords’ amendments 84 and 85 to the Immigration Bill. And, if you use Twitter, tweet the hashtags: #key4freedom and #Time4aTimeLimit and call on others to add their voices. If you find that you have no time before Pesach/Shabbat begins, there’s always Sunday: a day before the crucial Commons’ vote. May our celebration of the festival that the rabbinic sages called z’man cheiruteinu, ‘the season’ – or ‘time’ – ‘of our liberation’, remind us that the time has come for an end to all forms of slavery and unjust incarceration in this country and throughout the world.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah,
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue, Erev Pesach, 22nd April 2016 – 14th Nissan 5776