Pesach is no time to talk of a new exodus

Reaching out to strangers remains the core message of our festival of freedom


The story of Pesach is of the journey from slavery to freedom, from suffering in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. And colour is added to that story by the account of the Exodus itself. The Israelites left in such haste, they did not have time to let their bread rise and so they carried the dough on their backs and as a result we get matzah.

There has been huge discussion recently about how safe we Jews feel in Europe. Many Seder tables will be filled with debate about that, because of the publicity given to those who say they no longer feel safe, who are emigrating to Israel. In fact, most of us are not emigrating. Indeed, in Britain, unlike in France, we tend to feel secure. Many French Jews have come to London to feel safer, rather than Israel, along with the large numbers of French people in general who have made London their home.

But, of course, there are bitter resonances. If people feel unsafe, then the story of leaving in a hurry is an important one. My maternal grandparents left Germany just before the war started, thanks to the wonderful British consul in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, and his deputy Arthur Dowden. They were "lucky" asylum seekers, arriving with the clothes they stood up in and one small suitcase each. The Israelites left Egypt with what they could carry, and no more. Not so different. Clearly, if life feels unsafe in Europe, a planned exit is infinitely better than a forced, panic-stricken departure, leaving everything behind.

But most of us still feel secure in the UK, partly because of strong, positive support from the government and institutions, and partly from a sense of a long, unbroken history in this country. That is not to deny an increase in antisemitic incidents, nor to suggest we can rest on our laurels. But if most of us feel pretty safe here, and show no signs of leaving, what other message can we draw from this Pesach story of ours?

That other message is not about us as victims, but instead as support for others. The Pesach story is a story about a journey from slavery to freedom. If we truly believe we have reached freedom, and are as safe as we can reasonably expect, then we have an obligation to celebrate that freedom by helping others. The Torah frequently repeats the message: "you know the heart of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9).

There has been huge discussion recently about how safe we Jews feel in Europe

What does that mean for us now? Who are the strangers? Any old foreigners? The Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians who have come to work here? Or the asylum seekers, often the most despised of all, the people whose fate is considered not worth worrying about, as they die on old wrecks in the Mediterranean, while we rage about people trafficking and about illegal immigrants?

Many of us have ancestors who came as asylum seekers. My mother arrived as an asylum seeker in 1937, as a domestic servant. Her parents came on one of the so-called Smallbones visas that did not allow you to work or even volunteer. My paternal grandparents were economic migrants. Precious few of us can trace ourselves back to the readmission of the Jews under Cromwell, and even those Jews came as economic migrants.

So I believe that we, as a people, with a mixed history in terms of origins, have a duty to take this message about the heart of the stranger seriously. Asylum seekers are unpopular. All the more reason then for us to help them. Some synagogues run drop-in centres for them, where they can access friendship, a decent meal, a bit of help, some clothes. But by no means all synagogues do this.

Some synagogues run winter night shelters for homeless people, which often includes immigrants who haven't made it good. But many synagogues don't do anything of the kind. The whole message of Pesach should not be about us feeling unsafe, though we should always be watchful and sensitive to changes in the mood music, but about us knowing "the heart of the stranger". And we can only do that by helping, and befriending, people less fortunate than ourselves. For me, that's the message of Pesach, and also the message of Judaism.

But as we help asylum seekers against a rising tide of unpopularity, and as we recognise the hard struggle of homeless people in getting back on their feet, we ought also to remember that currently the most despised groups of Europeans, the ones we accept least willingly, are Bulgarians and Albanians.

Yet only in Albania and Bulgaria, of all Nazi-occupied Europe, did the Jewish population actually grow during the Second World War. It's worth remembering that those we may despise now might turn out to be heroes in disguise. If not them, their children or grandchildren. But even if they are not, we owe them a helping hand, because of our historical experience, not theirs.

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