Jews are a remembering people. Zachor! Remember! – one of our commanding imperatives. During July we recall a particular chapter in our history as a people. On the 17th Tammuz 586 BCE, the Babylonians, who had laid siege to Jerusalem since 10th Tevet in the winter, breached the city walls, finally destroying Jerusalem and King Solomon’s Temple on 9th Av, Tishah B’Av. This year, 17th Tammuz falls on the evening of 8th July, and Tishah B’Av on the evening of 29th July. It’s such a long time ago. Why do we remember this devastating moment? We remember because the account of what happened has been passed on to us. Indeed, the destruction is recorded in searing detail in Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, in the K’tuvim, the ‘Writings’ the third section of the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, and on Tishah B’Av it is traditional to read m’gillat Eichah, the scroll of Lamentations. Further, when King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE, he allowed the exiles to return and to rebuild the Temple. And so, a chain of memorial was established from 586 BCE onwards, with Tishah B’Av as the sacred marker of remembrance. By contrast, when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, the ten tribes that resided there were scattered, ensuring that their stories could not be told.
On Tishah B’Av we recall our people’s long experience of churban from 586 BCE onwards, which included, of course, the razing of Jerusalem and the last Temple by the Romans in 70 CE – on 10th Av – following the four-year Jewish war against Rome. Significantly, destruction usually entailed dispersion. And so, we have been refugees time and time again, journeying everywhere, including, to these shores – and then away from these shores. 18th July marks an important date for the Jews of England, who mostly arrived here from France at the time of William the Conqueror in 1066. It was on 18th July 1290 that King Edward I, ‘the confessor’, signed the edict of expulsion which dictated that all Jews had to leave the country by 1st November, the ‘Feast of All Souls’.
Of course, we know that our experience of being refugees did not end with the barbarities of the Middle Ages. Most Jews living here and now in 2020, have parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, who were refugees. Many of us have been told stories of their experiences.
It is because remembrance of churban is not just an imaginative leap into the past, but tangible memory passed on from generation to generation, that the words we read in Torah, in particular, in Mishpatim, Exodus 23:9, should resonate deeply with us: ‘A stranger you shall not oppress,; for you know the nefesh – ‘being’ – of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ And so, it is vital that as we witness the global refugee crisis and its impact on millions, forced to flee war, persecution and destitution, we draw on the experience of our people and of our own families, express our solidarity, and do what we can to offer assistance and support.
One of the foremost Jewish champions of refugees in the last few years has been Lord Dubs. Born in Prague, Alfred Dubs was one of 669 Czech children, saved by English stockbroker Nicholas Winton on the kindertransport between March and September 1939 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alf_Dubs,_Baron_Dubs. When the European migrant crisis began to reach an unprecedented peak, revealing large numbers of refugee children so close to our own shores in Calais, Lord Dubs became determined to campaign for the admittance of 3000 child refugees. In 2016, he sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 to offer unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain. Finally, the amendment was accepted by the government following a second vote in favour by the House of Lords. However, the Home Office abandoned the scheme in February 2017 after accepting only 350 child refugees. Lord Dubs did not, of course, give up. The campaign goes on and you can support it through the charity, Safe Passage, which has helped over 1800 child refugees so far reach safety, and is currently concerned about the government’s planned Brexit agreement for child refugees, which would mean the end of family reunion from Europe. https://www.safepassage.org.uk/
This Tishah B’Av, when we remember our people’s history of destruction and displacement, let us resolve to make the plight of refugees today a Jewish priority.
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