Jonathan Wittenberg
Jonathan Wittenberg

Our kindness will not stop the shock, but it might soften the pain

2GFB2H1 U.S. Air Force Airmen guides qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the noncombatant evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2021. The Department of Defense is committed to supporting the U.S. State Department in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan and to evacuate Afghan allies to safety. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Crul) Via Jewish News
2GFB2H1 U.S. Air Force Airmen guides qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the noncombatant evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2021. The Department of Defense is committed to supporting the U.S. State Department in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan and to evacuate Afghan allies to safety. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Crul) Via Jewish News

Wednesday’s Psalm has a terrible resonance: ‘They kill widows and refugees.’ It’s what everyone fears from the Taliban. Already there’s news of forced marriages, of blocking education for women, and worse. Who knows where the horror began or will end?

We must lobby and pray for as many as possible of those most vulnerable to be able to leave Afghanistan. Then we must give what help we can: entry to the UK, food, housing, clothing, education, employment, health and mental health support. We must show that steady kindness which can’t stop the shock to mind and soul but may soften that pain so devastatingly described by Zarlasht Halaimzai as she watches her mother trying to explain to a Home Office official why they’re seeking asylum:

Here was a woman who had lost everything that helped her make sense of life – her family, her community, her livelihood and her language. All her friends were either far away or dead, trying to convince a case worker that we were unable to return home because our lives were in danger…(https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/20/new-lives-refugee-britain-afghanistan-asylum-uk-taliban)

‘With you shall he dwell,’ the Torah commands, referring to slaves who flee cruel masters. How much more must this apply to defenceless people fleeing a tyrannical regime. ‘In the city, where they can make a living,’ adds the ancient rabbinic Sifrei. It could be commenting on that refugee stuck in Calais, trying to hide in lorries to reach here:

‘I spent five years in the army…I was with them in Helmand. I hope this is enough to take me in.’ (The Guardian)

Afghan people have lived with fifty years of war without time to heal. Like Jews, they know generations of trauma. Our aspirations are similar: education, culture, professions, contribution to society. We understand too how new horrors re-open half-closed wounds. How appalling the news must be now for Afghan families, fearing the fates of relatives still there.

Sidney Bloch wrote about his uncle Harry in No Time for Tears, who borrows money, rents houses, then welcomes three families off the last refugee boat from Holland in 1940. Sidney, just ten, asks if he knows them. Harry replies: ‘I know they’re refugees…I don’t need to know anything else about them.’

We, of all people, understand what that means.

About the Author
Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi at New North Masorti London Synagogue
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