Well, not really. But between the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, and our own little Tea Party here, something is happening, and I want to listen and take notice. I have felt an affinity to UKIP ever since I spent a Shabbat in a hostel in Aberdeen last summer. The hostel was a small one, with a German couple in one room, and an Italian woman in another. On our first morning, the Germans were up, with their maps and hiking shoes on, eating oatmeal at 8.00, out of the house by 9.00, the whole day planned in detail. I saw them again at 6pm, clutching a checklist entitled ‘Aberdeen, Saturday’, with a little check next to every task. The young Italian women woke up at 10.00, smoked two cigarettes, drank coffee, watched telly till noon, then did her ironing, complained about her country and mooched a few beers of us. Which is to say, that when UKIP intuits that this whole ‘European Super-Nation’ idea might be straining at the seams, I am pretty much willing then and there to don my Farage button.
But, with Shavuot and its concomitant reading of the Book of Ruth nearly here, I can’t stop thinking about the stranger, the migrant, the foreigner, and a beautiful teaching from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In the Hebrew, a single etymological root can bifurcate into a contronym, two words with opposing meanings. The Hebrew root (n-k-r) is such a contronym. It means both to recognise someone as familiar, and to experience someone as a stranger, as completely unfamiliar. In the Book of Ruth both meanings come together in the pivotal moment of the pivotal scene of the entire story. Boaz has just discovered that there is a Moabite women in his field. Recall, that the Moabites are a Biblical slur; detested by Israel as inbred (see Gen 19:30-38) and cruel (Judges 3:15). Boaz now finds this on-the-dole Moabite immigrant, eating in his field without a passport or work permit (okay, the last bit is hyperbolic). What does he do?
Let me build the tension by segueing into modernity, to a non-descript row of buildings where the Home Office Court of Appeals is located. The place is quietly packed with immigrants desperate to stay. We were there waiting our turn. The man next to me was crying. It turned out he and his daughter were to be forcibly sent back to Algeria. He was long divorced from his British wife, the girl had contracted a bad disease with a scary name, and without their NHS funded medicine, he told me, she would probably die. He was crying because, as a taxi driver, he could not afford that medicine in Algeria. He was crying because his barrister had tried to argue this point before the appellate judge. The judge had apologised and told the barrister that whilst the law stated that if the medicine had simply not been available in Algeria, they would have a case, but because that medicine could be purchased in Algeria his appeal was dismissed; the small detail of our taxi driver not being able to afford the medicine had no bearing in the court’s decision. The man was crying, because he held that decision in his hand, and effectively he was holding his daughter’s death warrant.
…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers: Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes out of the heat of the Israeli summer. And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have found grace in your eyes that you should recognise me (l’hakireni)-Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”
Writes Rabbi Sacks: “In Hebrew the root n-k-r is a contronym. It means ‘to recognise’ – to grant rights and privileges. It also means ‘to be a stranger’, someone others do not recognise. Ruth uses it in both senses in the same sentence. ‘I am a stranger; why have you treated me like a friend?’ A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”
We won our court case, thank God, but as we leave, I watch another case unfold. A young Iranian man is being forcibly removed. He is saying quietly over and over the same words in Farsi. And the translator is translating: “Your Honour, he is telling you that if you send him back to Iran he will kill himself, now he is saying it again your Honour, and again your Honour. And again.”
This is not a diatribe against UKIP, we are not all hewn from the same stone, and that day in a hostel in Aberdeen, does not bode well for Brussels. But the Home Office nightmare and the story of Ruth will stay my hand from a UKIP vote. For with Shavuot approaching, with the law coming down from on high, the Rabbis whispered something else to us as well, don’t be Ruth-less.