What unites us – Rabbi René’s Shabbat morning sermon

Parasha Korach: 20 June 2020 / 28 Sivan 5780

On Shabbat morning, Rabbi René Pfertzel led a joint online service attended by members of Kingston Liberal Synagogue and Wessex Liberal Jewish community. He gave a powerful sermon which you can read in full below:

Statues and plaques

Under the terms of the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Sir Edward Codrington, a British admiral who took part in the Battle of Trafalgar, received a  government compensation of £2588 for the 190 slaves he owned at the Rooms plantation on Antigua, who had been freed under the same act.

This sugarcane plantation was established by his ancestor Christopher Codrington in the 17th century. Upon his death, he bequeathed a part of his estates to the Church of England to establish a seminary which trains priests for the West Indies even today. Through his bequest, Christopher Codrington was also a benefactor of All Souls College, Oxford, and helped funding what will become the Codrington Library.

Earlier this month, a plaque in Brighton commemorating Edward Codrington was taken down by protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement, as a protest about his past as a slave trader. This is just one of the examples of statues or plaques that are taken down throughout the country at the moment.

More recently, the governing body of Oriel College, Oxford, has decided to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, who made his wealth by expanding the British Empire in Africa by almost half-a-million miles square. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign started back in 2015, and succeeded in the wave of the worldwide protest after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the 25th of May.

As it is the case in such circumstances, everybody has an opinion. There are those who are outraged by the defacing of statues – even the British icon Winston Churchill is under fire !-, and those who are enthusiastic and believe that it is about time we get rid of racist, slave traders who, in a way, pollute our streets by their statuesque presence.

About 500 years ago, Britain had gone through an iconoclastic period when statues in churches were defaced during the Reformation. The same happened in France during the Revolution, and more recently in Afghanistan, when the Talibans destroyed two giants statues of Buddha in Bamiyan.

Iconoclasm occurs when people do not want to assume their past. The Talibans did not want to remember a time when Islam was not the predominant religion in Afghanistan. British reformers and French revolutionaries wanted to erase the symbolic presence of the Catholic Church. And the radical fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement – which is largely a peaceful protest -, refuse to accept that Western societies were based on slavery and sheer racial inequalities.

The past explains who and what we are today

Let’s turn for a moment to our inner world. We are today the result of countless experience, from our early days on this planet, until today. This past is unique to us, is part of us, and in a large measure explains who and what we are today. The dynamics we are constantly repeating today are an echo of those dynamics we grew up with. To a large extent, our ability to be parents comes from our experience as children. We can love and cherish our past, or loathe it. It doesn’t matter. The past is the past, and we cannot change it. But we have also to leave the past in the past, and to take ownership of our present time. I believe, we are faced with the same choice today.

I disagree with the defacing of statues, not because they are some sort of sacred relics of our past, but because it doesn’t address today’s issues. We know that European wealth is largely built on slave blood and trade, but also on social inequality. The Industrial Revolution weighed largely upon the shoulders of countryside poor people who came to live and work in major cities in dire conditions.

And even today, slavery exists in our big cities, where people come from deprived countries to work without passport and no social protection. Our stores are filled up with products that are made by workers in sweat shops on the other side of the world. Cheap labour is necessary for the expansion of neo-liberalism.

We remember the past, and teach our children so the future is better

Back to the Black Lives Matter movement.

A survey conducted in the US by the US National Institutes of Health has shown that between 2009 and 2012, among the deaths due by the use of lethal force by law enforcement, black people were 2.8 time more likely to be killed than white people[1]. Racial inequality is a documented fact. In Wessex and in Surrey, we are not exposed to that. These are mainly white middle-class areas of the country. In some of the main European cities, the Parisian suburbs for example, the East of London, and other places, racial inequality is blatant.

What could be a Jewish take on this ?

Looking back at our history, we experienced a long series of persecutions, rejection, and attempts to completely annihilate our people. We know what it means to bear such a painful history. We may forget it today in our comfortable lives, but it happened just yesterday.

We have survived by remaining faithful to our heritage and to our values, and also by putting an emphasis on community and collective responsibility. While I completely sympathise with the Black Lives Matter movement, hear and understand their anger, I think that, instead of giving in to a version of humankind that is divided in races, as they are invited to by white supremacists, I would like to say, in line with the teachings of our tradition, All Lives Matter.

The solution is not in putting the emphasis on what distinguishes us, but on the contrary on what unites us, what makes us part of the same species. It is true they need allies, and Jews are natural allies of the black community, precisely because of our history. The main divides are not between ethnicities, religions, or nationalities, but between those who embrace human diversity in unity, and those who refuse to see humanity in the other.

As for our history as a nation, or a group of nations, we are not responsible for the actions of previous generations. However, we need to acknowledge that our current wealth is based on this past, and consequently, we need to implement changes, so that in a few generations time, people won’t march in our streets, shouting their anger and their disgust at what we have achieved today.

Human responsibility is a great Jewish value. We are not responsible for the past, but we are for the present, and certainly for the future. As Jews, we have an innate sense of the passage of time. We remember and commemorate our past, we teach our children so that the future is better. That is probably one of the most profound messages we can offer the world around us.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080222/