The test of a good society is how you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society – so said David Cameron in 2010.
But the absolute tragedy that has hit the residents and the community of Grenfell Tower in West London has brought into sharp focus that we are failing those very people.
And I know this more than most. As a Labour councillor, representing one of the most deprived areas in Barnet I come into daily contact with a set of people who feel ignored by those in power. They feel talked down to. They feel ostracised by our society. They are isolated and some feel like an underclass.
In our own community, we know how important it is to look after those in need. We go to great measures and expense to make sure that access to care is available for our elderly and vulnerable, that there are high quality Jewish housing associations and we provide services for skills and training for those in need.
These privileges that we enjoy are not available for the most vulnerable within wider society.
At the same time, we should not forget that we have a hidden poor – who are not Charedi – a common stereotype in our community. Often when on our many council estates in Barnet I notice Mezuzahs and I make a point of knocking on these doors – many of those people tell me that they feel ashamed. They tell their children attending Jewish schools not to tell anyone where they live.
Residents working and paying rent in social housing, living in terrible conditions with ongoing mould and asbestos cracks. A one bedroom flat being shared by a family of five.
People in work forced to live in social housing as their pay doesn’t cover the costs of private rent. All whilst their homes are being demolished to make way for expensive luxury flats and being told that the council will only rehouse them in Luton or Bedford – forced to choose between their jobs or kids schools or having a roof over their heads.
A resident who I worked closely with who has severe mental health issues was only rehoused due to help from Labour councillors and a generous lawyer friend of mine who saw the injustice in the way that some local authorities treat their poor and vulnerable. Access to legal aid in most housing cases was removed by the coalition government.
A single mum who faces benefit sanction after benefit sanction often because she was just three minutes late to the job centre (which has now doubled in distance due to closures) as they couldn’t find enough money for the bus after they had finished sorting out the kids for school.
This is in the London Borough of Barnet in 2017. This is Britain in 2017.
Grenfall Tower may be a moment when people open their eyes and see what has been in front of them for a long time. I think that people were beginning to see the injustices in our society, and I believe that some of these injustices – broadly summed up by the unfairness in where austerity hits, played a significant part in the Labour Party’s recent election success.
Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – is a term we perhaps overuse in our community. But perhaps we need to do a bit more Tikkun Kehilla – repairing our communities.
Too many people in our wider communities who are poor, young, old, sick or vulnerable or Just About Managing are disproportionately affected by austerity and economic stagnation. I think that we, more than most should be alive to this – we should champion those in need, we should be their voice – and there is nothing more Jewish than this. And whilst I was not surprised to see the enormous generosity offered by our community in donations, I think that we can go further.
It is our responsibility as Jews and as citizens to ensure that when we cast our votes or speak with those in power – whoever is in power – that we do not just use these rights and responsibilities to think about ourselves but also about our responsibility to others who we share this society with.
Judaism has always taught me that it is my obligation to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy”. David Cameron was right in 2010, but we have collectively failed that test. Maybe Grenfell Tower will remind us of our duty to speak up louder than ever before.