Yom Shabbat, 23 Av 5779
Saturday, 24 August 2019
Parashat Pinchas 5775

10th July 2015 - Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the daughters of Zelophehad who approach Moses with the claim that they deserve to inherit their father's land since their father has died without leaving a son. Unsure about what to do, Moses consults God who informs Moses that their cause is just and that he must transfer their father's share to them. "And the Eternal One said to Moses: 'The plea of Zelophad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them' " (Numbers 27:6-7).

The story about Zelophechad’s daughters thus teaches us an important lesson about justice. Justice is an important concept in Judaism. In Deuteronomy 16:18-19 we read: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all your settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”

According to our tradition, the commandment to institute a judiciary is so important that it constitutes one of the seven Noahide laws – laws that don’t just apply to Jews but to humanity in general.

In general, I think we can look at the British legal system with pride. Though threatened by cuts to the legal aid budget, on the whole it guarantees that everyone gets their rightful hearing in court and is given the opportunity to mount a defence. Even those who are arrested under the Terrorism Act may only be held without charge for up to 14 days.

However, in my opinion largely unknown to the general public, the UK currently detains thousands of asylum seekers in, what they call, immigration removal centres. The largest such centres is situated in the same borough as Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. Harmondsworth Detention Centre is not a nice group home – it is a high security prison where detainees are robbed of their freedom for indefinite time periods. The detainees have not been found guilty of crimes by a court. Their only crime is that the UK Borders Agency has decided that their immigration status does not warrant a further stay in the UK.

“The Immigration Act 1971 first included the power to detain immigrants; later legislation has extended or amended that power. People can be detained on arrival in the UK as immigrants or when seeking asylum, if considered likely to abscond, or when they have already been refused the right to remain and deportation is expected to be imminent. The decision to detain is made by immigration officers without reference to a court.

In theory it is Government policy not to detain survivors of torture or those with serious medical conditions or mental health problems, but in practice even proven survivors of rape and torture, pregnant women, and those with severe mental and physical health problems are often found in detention. Many innocent men, women and children who have been locked up in immigration detention centres have suffered severe mental health problems, with detention in many cases adding to trauma already suffered in their home country.”1 At the moment, the UK is the only country in Europe without a time limit on detention.

This is certainly not my idea of justice and this is why I participated last Sunday at the “Time for a Time Limit” interfaith tent. Together with clergy and lay members of different faiths, we pitched a tent on Harmondsworth Moor, just a stone throw away from the Detention Centre. Throughout the day we heard testimony of former detainees who all had stories to tell that are too gruesome to repeat. As one of the detainees put it: “Every day in detention is a day in hell.” It was an honour to be able to participate in a study session where I shared the Jewish views on the treatment of strangers and listen to what the Emeritus Archbishop of Southwark Kevin McDonald, two imams and a Quaker had to say from the perspective of their faiths. Discovering the common commitment in our faiths to treating the stranger with justice and encouraged by the local MP John McDonnell who stopped by our tent, we were reminded of how important it is for people of faith in particular to speak out on this issue.

We live in times when anti-migrant and anti-asylum rhetoric has sadly gained huge popularity. But, as the Quaker tradition teaches (1822 Quaker faith & practice 23.26): “That which is morally wrong cannot be politically right.”

We therefore must all join forces together in appealing to the government to follow the recommendations of The Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom prepared by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration. The most important of the recommendations is to introduce a limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention. In a morally just system, decisions to detain should be very rare and detention should be for the shortest possible time and only to effect removal. The Government should learn from international best practice and introduce a much wider range of alternatives to detention than are currently used in the UK.

In Deuteronomy 16:20 we are warned: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.” If we want to live in a just society we must actively pursue justice, we mustn’t stand back and watch, or even worse, remain blind to the injustice that happens right on our doorsteps. Together let us ensure that that which is morally wrong will never be regarded as politically right.

To learn more about the issue visit http://detentionaction.org.uk/

 

1From the Quaker statement on immigration detention by Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network (QARN), https://www.quaker.org.uk/news/quaker-statement-immigration-detention;