Strangers and Sanctuaries

Rabbi Sacks’ address during Refugee Week 2005

June 21, 2005
kindertransport children world war two holocaust refugees

On 21st June 2005, Rabbi Sacks spoke in the Houses of Parliament, giving a public address during Refugee Week.

‘Strangers and Sanctuaries’ was an event organised by the Refugee Council, the Jewish Museum, and JCORE (the Jewish Council for Racial Equality). Please find the transcript of this speech below.

I love the story of the occasion when the BBC needed a newscaster and it put out an advertisement, and an elderly Jew called Isaac Cohen turned up in response to it. The producers got him to do a trial reading of the news. But there were few problems: one: he had a thick Yiddish accent, two: he was short-sighted and three he could hardly read English. People in the studio said, "Mr Cohen, we couldn't help noticing that you have a very strong accent, you are very short-sighted and you can hardly read, why are you applying for the job?" And he replied, "I'm not applying for the job." And so they said, "Why are you here?" And he said, "I just wanted to tell you that on me, you shouldn't rely."

And so when it comes to refugees and politics - "On me, you shouldn't rely!" I am a religious leader and not a politician, and there are few things worse than religious leaders who think they are politicians, or politicians who think they are religious leaders. But it does once in a while help, when we are dealing with a very fraught and complex issue, to see political issues in a wider human, moral, and spiritual perspective, to listen to the experience of various different groups, to look at the issues of now from the vantage point of history. That's what I'm about to do today - and for the rest we rely on your work and your wisdom. And I bless you for it.

My father came over to Britain fleeing from persecution in Poland. He was a refugee. He was very poor, his parents could hardly speak the language, they lived in the East End of London, and they only had enough money for one child to have an education. He wasn't the eldest child so he left school at the age of fourteen; he spent the rest of his life on the Commercial Road in the East End of London. He was not - and I am putting this politely - a successful businessman. But he knew, as we all knew, that had Britain not opened its doors at that time he would have lost his life, and we would never have been born.

In 1939 there were three and half million Jews in Poland. After the war there were only a handful of survivors. Even today, sixty years later, there are fewer than 10,000. There is hardly a Jew alive today that doesn't know in his or her bones what it is to be a refugee, or the child or the grandchild of refugees. And that shapes who we are. To this day I still cannot walk around some great cities of Europe, like Vienna, without feeling in the presence of ghosts, the presence of the ones who weren't lucky enough to find refuge.

And of course, sadly, as happened in the case of Rwanda and is happening today in Darfur, the key leaders of the world knew what was going to happen long before it did. In the case of the Jews of Europe, there was an international conference held in Evian, in France, on edge of lake Geneva, on the 6th July 1938, three and a half years before the Wannsee conference and the final details of the Final Solution. And sadly, it was a moment when the world knew that it had to do something for these refugees, and yet nation after nation stood up and declared, "We have no room". Today, to this day, when I take a flight and look down over the vast, uninhabited open wastes of, let us say, a country like Australia, which was one of those which declared it had no room, I weep. And I weep not for Jews - I weep for the human condition.

I thank heaven for Britain; which in 1939 opened its doors to 10,000 Jewish children in the operation called "Kindertransport". Many of my friends came to this country in that mission of rescue. It was a very moving moment in 1999, when they all came together 60 years later to share their memories. And two memories in particular struck me.

Number one, the moment a little later, a couple of years ago at most, when we unveiled a memorial outside Liverpool Street station in memorial of Kindertransport. There was a lovely lady, Bertha Leverton, who had come over on Kindertransport, who remembered so vividly the moment that she arrived as a refugee. She loved Britain ever afterwards. She told us this wonderful story. She'd fled, she'd lost her parents, her family, she was a stranger in this strange land, knowing no one, and she was taken in by British families, and was whispered a warning. They said, "It's a British habit, it is not polite to eat everything on your plate, you have to leave something", and so, startled as she was, she left something on her plate and ever afterwards, loved Britain for its gentle and kind and sometimes wonderfully eccentric ways.

But the memory that I remember most, and this I share with you, was at that moment when 60 years later those refugees came together, and the most moving speech of the day was not made by one of the refugees, it was made by a member of a family who took in refugees. The person who made that speech was Lord Attenborough. Of course we weep for his family tragedy in the recent tsunami. Lord Attenborough was a child in 1939 when he told this story.

His father was a headmaster of a school, and his mother brought the three boys, David, Richard, and I have forgotten the name of the third, John, into the study, and said to them, "Children, we want to take in two refugees, Helga and Irene, two German Jewish children who have lost their family, but we won't do it without your agreement, because, until now we were a family of five and now we will be a family of seven, and we'll all have to share things more widely, and there will be things that we could do before but won't be able to now. And one of the things we will have to share is our love, because you have us, but they have no one."

Lord David Attenborough told this story and he was weeping. And he said that was the most important day in his life. I have the suspicion that this was the making of the man who made those wonderful films, Gandhi and Cry Freedom and all the others.

Often we think, that countries admit refugees for the sake of the refugees, but the truth is that the very act lifts an entire country. A nation that gives is given back more than it gives. Those who lift others are themselves lifted. So when I and others pray, and open our doors to refugees, it isn't only for their sake, but also for ours.

I think back even further, next year we are going to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish community in Britain, the original settlers in Britain, who came from Spain. Spain gave medieval Jewry its Golden Age, but then in 1391 things began to get very dark. Spanish Jewry had its nadir in 1391 and from then until 1492 more than a century of persecution followed by expulsion of the Jews. Many of them travelled to Portugal, where they found conditions even worse and fled from there in 1497. They wandered over the face of the earth, seeking a place of refuge; they found it in Holland. And it was there in the 17th Century that Menasheh Ben Israel sent a petition to Oliver Cromwell to admit Jews, which he did in 1656.

For centuries Jews have known exactly what it is to live without a home; a home in the sense defined by the poet Robert Frost, "The place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in." Not everyone has such a place. I think back to the more recent immigrants to Britain and what they gave this country. I think of Sir Isaiah Berlin, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Karl Popper, Lord Claus Moser, and all those many others who contributed to British arts and sciences, academia and business, law and medicine. Sir Martin Gilbert, for next year, is currently writing that history. And surely they gave no less than they received. And the reason is simple. It is one thing to be grateful for an act of kindness, a gift, and a favour. It is altogether different to be grateful for life itself and freedom itself. And that is what we give refugees. Life itself, freedom itself.

My late father, like all Jews of his generation, loved Britain in the very fibre of his being, and that is there in all his generation, at the very core of their being those refugees wanted one thing above all others: to give back, to contribute. They knew exactly what the prophet Jeremiah meant when, twenty-six centuries ago, he spoke to some of the first exiles and refugees in Jewish history. "Seek the peace, and welfare of the city to which you are exiled, for in its peace you will find peace." And they, my father's generation, sought it, and he taught his children to do likewise. To express our thanks in deed, in service to others, in contribution to society. I don't think that is remotely peculiar to Jews. It is true of virtually every immigrant group in virtually every society where they let refugees in.

And when you do that research, as the Institute of Public Policy Research has done only recently, you will find that it is refugees and their families that make a disproportionate contribution to Britain: its economy, its arts, its sports, its culture. Britain has been enriched by its refugees, and so has every other country that admitted them. But there is more than pragmatism and benefit at stake. There is a principle. The principle is stated in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 23: "If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him back to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes, in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him". There it is, 3,300 years ago. Why? Because the Bible was, and I think still is, an eternal protest, against a certain kind of culture.

The ancient world, including Greece and Rome, saw slaves not a people but as property. They saw them as things, drains on resources; they treated all of them pragmatically rather than morally, not as human beings with their own hopes and fears and rights, and it was not until the 19th century that slavery was abolished - there's a monument to it in the park just up there - and in the United States not until after the Civil War. And still today there are too many countries where people are without rights, they are non-persons.

The Bible understands, as few books of political philosophy ever have, that change takes time. Therefore you can't immediately make the world right or perfect. The Bible didn't abolish slavery but it does establish a fundamental process by saying: Look at these people not as things but as persons, don't think of slavery as who they are, its just a temporary condition. Relate to them as persons. And therefore he who escapes to find freedom must not be handed back to their masters and thus robbed of their freedom: that is the very heart of what it is to be an asylum seeker or a refugee.

A few years ago the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said to me "We are going to have a year of reading the Bible" and he asked whether I would I support it. I said "Of course, I would support it, but don't think Jews 'read the Bible'. We study the Bible, we argue with the Bible, we wrestle with the Bible. Read is just not good enough a verb." We have a particular custom, it is global custom, that wherever you are in the world you read the mosaic books from Genesis to Deuteronomy in a year, so that each week there's a particular portion of Jews the whole world over studying, and somehow you've got to find a connection with whatever we happen to be doing that week.

So this week we are reading Numbers 13, the story of the spies. Do you know the story of the spies? Moses sent 12 spies to spy out the land. He said "Look at the land: is it good, is it bad; is it fertile, is it not? Look at the people: are they strong, are they weak? Look at the cities: are they open cities or are they walled cities? And come back and give us a report." And they come, the spies, and they say "Forget it" - or as Sir Humphrey used to say: "Courageous, Minister" or "Up to a point, Minister!" Why did the spies say this? Because the people are strong, "they are giants, we are grasshoppers." And the cities are strong, they are "surrounded by high and well fortified walls". When Moses retells the story in Deuteronomy he points to it even more strongly, he says they came back and said, "there are walls to the very heavens."

So we can't do it. And as you know, if you read the Bible, the spies couldn't have been more wrong: the people were weak, the people were scared, it was they who felt like grasshoppers and they saw the Israelites as giants. How did they get it so wrong? Rashi, who is the greatest Bible commentator - this year we will be observing his 900th anniversary of his death, he lived in France - made a fascinating observation. He said the spies made an elementary mistake, they saw the cities were strong so they concluded that the people must be strong. Actually, he said, the reverse is true. Actually, he said, if you see a city surrounded by high walls it means the people are weak, and they're scared, and they have to stop other people coming in. If you see the cities are open, that is a sign that the people know they are strong, they're self confident, they rely on their strength, and believe that no one can defeat them. It is open cities that are a sign of strength not walled cities, defended against outsiders. That was the mistake made three thousand and three hundred years ago, but I wonder if we don't make the same mistake even today.

It's not the societies that put up barriers that are strong, it is exactly the opposite. Those who are strong and those build open societies, who provide a home for the homeless, a refuge for the refugee - if you trace that through history, and you can trace it through history, look through Jewish history, look at the countries who took them in, you will see exactly where the strength lies: in the 16th century in Venice, in the 17th century in Holland, in the 18th century in Britain, in the 19th and early 20th century in the United States. And I think we all remember that famous statement of American principle still engraved on the Statue of Liberty, written by a Russian Jewish lady, called Emma Lazarus. On the statue she envisions America as what she calls, "The Mother of Exiles" and she envisions America or that Statue of Liberty saying, "Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, the tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door." It is that door that is open to those who need a home that is the signal of greatness. To offer shelter to a refugee makes a difference, as I say, to the refugee, but it makes a greater difference to the country offering them shelter. Why that is so, I don't know. But that it is so, I do know.

Perhaps I'll just end with a little story. You know that 19 Princelet Street in the East End of London. It's a normal house. In the 18th century it was a Huguenot Chapel for French refugees, in the late 19th century it was bought as a synagogue for Jewish refugees from Russian, it has been more or less derelict since the late 1970s, but a couple have taken it on and turned it into Britain's first museum of immigration. It tells the story the Jews and the Irish and how they came over, and today in that part of London there are a large number of Bangladeshis, and the kids come there and see the other people's stories and learn about the Irish and the Jews, and it's a wonderful place to be. And I saw a video that they had taken of a group of 6 year old Bangladeshi kids telling a Jewish story. Now this is real culture shock, but it's a lovely story - and I think with it, I will end. So you've got to just picture this as being told by six-year-old Bangladeshi children.

One day two hundred years ago, a Jewish refugee came to a little town in Poland in which no refugee had ever settled before, it was really quite an antisemitic sort of place. And when this Jewish traveller arrived with his horse and his cart full of possessions, everyone surrounded the cart and shouted "JEW, JEW, JEW!" and the Jewish refugee gave them, to their surprise, an enormous smile and said, "What a welcome! I've never had such a beautiful welcome!" and he reached into his pocket and said, "Please, let me give you five rubles each for this wonderful welcome." No one expected this, but he gave them all five rubles each, and five rubles is five rubles, and they accepted it. And the next day, curious to see what this newcomer was going to do, this strange, eccentric person, they surrounded his house, shouting again: "JEW, JEW, JEW!" and he comes out again with a smile and again reaches into this pocket and says, "Sadly, I don't have much money left, today I can only give you a ruble each, but, please, each accept a ruble in thanks for your welcome". So the people take a ruble, they are slightly disappointed, but a ruble is better than nothing, and so they accept it. The next day they surround his house again, and they shout "Jew, Jew, Jew!" and he comes out for a third time with the same ear-splitting smile and says, "Thank you once again. Friends, I would love to reward you for your kindness, but sadly I am almost out of money and so today I can only give you 10 kopeks." And the citizens of the town said: "For a lousy 10 kopeks you expect us to shout JEW, JEW?" And they never shouted it again.