Presentation at Kol Chai Synagogue

This is a ten minute presentation which I delivered at Kol Chai Hatch End Synagogue on 19th November 2016 during Interfaith week. I did not actually read out my poem then but I have included it here for the blog as I referred to it.

What I am going to talk about today is hospitality and community building. Although these get mentioned a lot in interfaith circles, I am going to ask you to try to understand them for the complex processes that they are. I believe the ethics need to be explored  so interfaith relationships that we have developed and are developing become more meaningful and deeper. I would encourage you to read Mona Siddiqui’s article entitled Divine Welcome: The Ethics of Hospitality in Islam and Christianity which is featured in ABC Religion and Ethics on 1 November 2016. I just wanted to share two quotes from the article that left me very reflective:

hospitality has no universal definition…. it is multi-layered and evokes a variety of theological and philosophical perspectives.”

and

“hospitality is fundamental to the spiritual life. It is not only expressed in acts we perform and gifts we give – it is, more importantly, a state of mind. A generosity of spirit lies at the core of human hospitality, making hospitality the virtue which defines humanity itself.”

Indeed hospitality and interfaith relationships face challenges in the political and social aftermath of Brexit happening here and Trump being elected the other side of the Pond. These events betray how this world is becoming more uncaring, unpredictable  and individualistic. Indeed I am sure most of you agree that this lack of compassion is the complete antithesis of what our faiths stand for!

When I started preparing for this talk, the Calais Jungle had been destroyed and the unaccompanied minors were living in shipping containers or sleeping rough. I wrote a poem how I felt at the time.

Calais Jungle

The Calais Jungle
burns
My heart burns
The name just betrays
what people thought of those that lived there

Perhaps it was named by those that live there

A place fit for
animals
not humans
not people

Migrants
is the new name for these people
not refugees
seeking refuge
but people moving
with ulterior motives
to take
to pillage
to infiltrate
viewed with suspicion
disgust like
human excrement
not viewed with compassion and love

These people become non entities
They need to be removed
moved on
cleared up
like rubbish

Their jungle gets destroyed
Still some stay
Those unaccompanied minors
are provided with shipping containers
Some fend on the street
Sleeping rough
in freezing temperatures
Cold hungry
but who cares?

Calais Jungle in debris
Ashes
And my soul burns
It screams for justice

Hopelessness
has spread
I wonder at those that fled
who have disappeared
to sexual exploitation
to human trafficking
to be part of the countless unpaid workers
Worse off than slaves
Stripped off any dignity
as those that use them
Who play on the migrant fear
of the Authorities getting them
and deporting them
Their illegality being their enslavement

Those that stay their fate is no less bleak
Non entities entering no man’s land

This zone Europe has carved out

Due to the constant Anti- Immigration Rhetoric

These migrants are forced into an existence of surviving
On charities
not living
They are on the edges
counted by a few
their names only known to a few
In contrast to the Authorities
they are nameless
the authorities do not care
the lack of political will is telling
the disregard
the dismissiveness

How could a Jungle have been built
and how could it have flourished?

Provided shelter and community and hope
and then again so quickly destroyed?
Where were the spaces the centres
the homes
to welcome these people?
All those people in Calais
in the surrounding areas
the rest of France
where are their hearts?

So the French never accepted?

Where are the hearts of the British?

Refusing to let them in!

What is left instead?
is
a void
That is sucking up Europe’s humanity
its claims for being civilised!

France the home of the Revolution
Liberty Fraternity Equality
No longer ring true
They are lies
Always were
For they were for some
Never for all

For France now for me is a caricature
A parody of itself
Bathed in arrogance
Drowning in shame
The Calais Jungle symbolises the death of Europe
The death of its humanity

I wrote this poem on 26th October 2016 and I believe that day will be considered a watershed moment for European history and November 9th 2016,  the day Trump was announced President Elect another  9/11, another day where the World changed.

The world has changed. Many are arguing that Neo-liberalism is dead and there is a crisis in global politics.  Most would agree that a new era has begun. Many are saying that this is not a refugee crisis but a European crisis.  My friend Rabbi Michael Hilton who invited me today commented: “We are all the poorer for how we have treated these vulnerable young people!”

When the Calais Jungle was being destroyed, I could not stop thinking of these young people! This angst, turmoil and pain, I felt, perhaps is similar to what Lot felt when the angels came to him and he pleaded with them not to stay in the street but he insisted that they come into his house instead. Lot acted on his gut instinct that he wanted to shelter them from being assaulted. Some of these unaccompanied minors did not receive that protection. I believe therefore that what this parasha (Torah portion) highlights: is the importance of hospitality.

But in Lots story I believe, there is also another important theme.  I recall in a Sufi gathering I attended over twenty years ago, the Sheikh asked us why do you think that when she turned back, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of stone?  I recall my friend who was sitting next to me, was the only one in that gathering,  to say that she was punished for regretting leaving behind the wealth and glamour and glitz of those cities. Her bitter regret literally turned her into a pillar of salt.

A few commentators talk about the immense materialism of those cities that lead to the arrogance and superiority complex of its inhabitants. Most focus on the sexual misdemeanours, commonly understood as homosexuality. Of course a closer examination of the text from the Bible and Quran reveals a picture where the actual misdemeanour was male rape being practiced en masse. There was no respect for privacy and the concept of consent was non existent.  Indeed, the marginalised, the poor and vulnerable, none of these groups in Sodom and Gomorrah had any protection. For what was the main crime of these cities was that the mob ruled, the mob being the wealthy those who were in positions of power. The mob’s wishes became the established norm and there was a complete disregard for the minority. So male rape became acceptable and very few questioned the practice.

I would argue that mob rule and the little regard for minority views and rights mirrors what is happening in some of our communities. It is chilling with Post Brexit and Post Trump that the mob suddenly resurfaces and the ugly nature of the mob is exposed and mob thinking is becoming more pervasive and mainstream. Some of us are becoming more immune to the violence perpetrated in some countries and communities. Am I too cynical or am I being too harsh that our societies are becoming more and more like Sodom and Gomorrah having a tendency to worship the glamour and glitz of the rich as personified by shows like “Made in Chelsea” and getting caught up in the Celebrity culture and the sheer consumerism of modern day Capitalism? I find there are only a few of us that are doing something positive in our communities and reaching out to the vulnerable across communities.

This anti migrant vitriol we are constantly fed in the media shows that refugees are not welcome and are not deserving of our hospitality. However in all our faith traditions the importance of assisting the vulnerable, the marginalised  is highlighted. Indeed as Siddiqui argues, both the Jewish and Muslim traditions talk about  Tzedakah which is based on the Hebew word צדק, Tzedek meaning righteousness, fairness or justice. In Islam helping those less fortunate is called sadaqah which means strengthening something with something.

When I attended a Shabbat service at Wimbledon Shul in early September I found out Tzedakah is the opposite of charity which comes from the latin word whose word origin signifies an individual charitable act done to assuage the guilt one is feeling about being better off.  The Rabbi explained that charity is a selfish act done out of duty. But Tzedakah is about creating social justice.  I know in Islamic traditions Sadaqa is done for the love of God and a Sadiq is a righteous, sincere and truthful person who wants a fairer and just society. So Tzedakah and Sadaqa incorporate hospitality and community building.

For me now more than ever interfaith needs to be done in the spirit of Sadaqa or Tzedakah.  If I have learnt anything from Brexit and the election of Trump is that  if there was ever a time to step up in our efforts it is now. There needs to be a generosity of spirit towards others who do not just share our faiths but also do not share our political views and practice their faith differently to us. This is hard stuff that can be soul destroying but if we really want to open our hearts so people stop being so angry and bitter and end up voting for people like Trump, it is time we stop living such segregated lives. Here I do not mean segregation by faith but in terms of getting out of our comfort zones and our Liberal London Bubbles. This I believe takes wisdom, insight, patience and perseverance. It is no easy task but I believe if we tried to do it together it would lessen the hate that is out there and we may find more love for each other.

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