Passover: On Not Knowing the Heart of the Stranger
“How do you solve a problem like immigration?”, the BBC’s Your Call phone-in show was entitled this morning, thus further perpetuating the fallacy that immigration or indeed immigrants are the problem to begin with. The name of the show, and also the character of the people who called in to express their contempt for immigrants and a want to shut the borders and start again as if that were even possible or desirable, is shamefully entirely in-keeping with the xenophobic political and cultural atmosphere which has descended over this nation since the start of the most recent recession.
It has encouraged by both mainstream parties on the left and right, and also UKIP, the latest incarnation of the know-nothing right that hates everything yet suggests nothing. The beginning was Gordon Brown when he came up with the useless slogan, “British jobs for British workers,” formulated out of a want to appeal to his party’s trade unionist base which is, to speak broadly, far from internationalist. The present Conservative government, unable to resurrect our failing economy, has taken on this idea and deepened it, appealing to the latent fear of the foreigner and the notion that immigrants are busy either stealing jobs, clogging up waiting lists for housing, or arriving here only to live off the welfare system. Just today, for example, David Cameron will announce proposals to cut non-European immigration still further, while instituting new restrictions on access to state-subsided housing and the National Health Service.
This evening, Jews around the world will celebrate and commemorate the first night of Passover, the exodus out of Egypt, and the transition from slavery into a free state. In so doing — and if you’ll excuse the pop Judaism — Jews will consider not only their own triumphs and struggles but the universal, timeless, and essential message of the holiday. In the Haggadah, recited at every Passover Seder, it reminds Jews that “in every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out from Egypt,” to consider that journey afresh and not only what that means for Jews today but also those in their own countries who are in need and around the world yet to experience their own human liberation. “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger,” it states clearly in the Book of Exodus, “for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9).
What was so marked about the way those callers to the BBC spoke about, and the manner in which our government deals with, our nation’s immigrants was and is how little empathy they have for the stranger. ‘The immigrants’, ‘these immigrants’, ‘them immigrants’: they are often referred to in the collective and in a manner designed to lump them all together and demonise them as a parasitic collective. I find it deeply disturbing and shameful for a country that markets itself around the world as a tolerant, open, and pluralistic democracy. I might suggest that before they speak in future, our Prime Minister, our politicians, and the British people ought to consider themselves as if they were the stranger, to think what it might be like to be the outsider in a strange land where the majority seem to hold you in contempt merely for who you are, what language you speak, and indeed what colour your skin is, because the current debate and tone is frankly unacceptable.