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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Markaz Yitro

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam's sermon or read it below:

This week’s Torah portion identifies the creation of one of biggest problems I see in society. It ruins lives and leaves people completely let down by the structures that are meant to be there to support them.

Let me explain. This week’s parasha describes the giving of the first set of rules within a benevolent society. Not quite democracy yet but rules without dictatorships. That should in theory immediately make for a better society. Rules to create respect, equality, harmony. Or does it? Nestled right up with the rules being expounded we stumble across the issue with all laws in anything other than a dictatorship. Rules are always open to interpretation.

Now don’t get me wrong the very fact that Her Majesty’s government has complicated tax laws that need explaining and interpreting pays my mortgage and puts food in my fridge. The fact that our complicated legal framework means people need others to interpret the law to fight their innocence does the same for my brother’s family and countless other members of the shul. I’m not suggesting barristers or tax consultants are the enemy here. Far from it. However, we learn from Yitro that with rules and laws we need entire structures of people creating a judicial system to interpret, adjudicate, arbitrate, decide, determine, judge, rule on case after case after case.

So why is that a problem if we have professionals to arbitrate and thanks to Yitro’s management consultant-type advice, the onus is not on one person to settle every dispute.  We can get as niche as you like to find the specialist in the interpreting the law you are looking for, whether it’s employee benefits tax solutions or insolvency- have I got the relative for you?!

The real problem comes when the interpretation of rules becomes the manipulation of power and when the very rules which are meant to protect the vulnerable and create the best of society are used in a power grab and to further one’s own agenda. 

Yitro himself is a good example of this. When he creates the structure, we are forced to ask ourselves what agenda did he come to the conversation with?  Was he simply a loving father-in-law showing his son-in-law a more productive way of working or is he criticizing Moses for neglecting his daughter and grandsons and being too absent because he is working too hard?  When people give advice, we are always wise to ask ourselves where is this advice coming from?  Having an agenda doesn’t always imply bad advice but our ability to weigh it up, hear the implications of the standpoint will always give a fuller picture.  It is not just what the people are saying but why they are saying it. 

I’ve sadly seen too often in custody battles where the manipulation of the rules with an agenda means women use rules which are there to protect other women from domestic abuse in order to cut innocent fathers out of their children’s lives.

Today we are seeing that same hate for “the other” as fuel to manipulate planning legislation in order to drive out an innocent community from their home.

When we invited Ali to talk to us today from the Markaz in Golders Green we did not do so because we feel ourselves to be more expert in planning law than Barnet Council. Far from it. In fact, I am grateful that planning law is not dictated by bribes or threats in this country like it is in other places. There are also some local residents asking legitimate questions about the impact of the centre on their lives.  However, there is an all too powerful voice of hate running through this campaign, and Islamophobia is fuelling the corralling of far-right voices from far and wide to wade into a costly battle to put a stop on turning a Christian cultural centre into a Muslim one.  They are going out of their way to ensure the new owners require a complete change of planning while suggesting it constitutes a threat to our Borough.

Would I try and corral a community to speak for a planning application we have nothing to do with? Not usually, but when someone is using planning law on one hand, raising legitimate concerns about noise or parking whilst on the other is suggesting all mosques are a breeding ground for Islamic extremists, I know this isn’t actually about planning consent. When someone suggests that as a Jew, I will be less safe because Muslims will be praying in the same postcode in which I live I know that I can no longer remain silent. They are abusing planning law to persecute a religious community.

Laws are made to protect us not there to beat the innocent with. When a lawyer who proudly markets himself as the “Mosque Buster” threatens Barnet Council with a judicial review it affects us all. We are living through a pandemic in a borough struggling to feed and house all its residents sufficiently, we do not want to see the best part of £1m of our tax-payers’ money used to fight against a simple, hate filled campaign against the Markaz and yet we cannot let their ability to play the system so effectively be the reason why a Muslim community is driven out of Barnet.   We have to raise our voice louder than this Golders Green so-called residents’ group. We have to mark them out to be the fascists that they are and ensure Muslim and Jew, resident and borough councillor, stand shoulder to shoulder and say we will live alongside each other, pray alongside each other and no one will manipulate the law to prevent us from doing so.

In this week’s parasha we are given the 10 commandments.  Each commandment begun with a new verse of Torah until we get to Exodus 20 verse 13 which tells us

יב  לֹא תִרְצָח,  {סלֹא תִנְאָף;  {סלֹא תִגְנֹב,  {סלֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר.  {ס}

12 Thou shalt not murder. {S} Thou shalt not commit adultery. {S} Thou shalt not steal. {S} Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. {S

Murder, adultery, theft and giving false evidence against your neighbour all lumped together in one breath, all ways of destroying lives and bringing down society.  When a so-called lawyer takes planning law and uses it as a weapon against a community because of their religious beliefs and practices we cannot stand idly by, the Torah explains this false testimony is akin to their murder and most definitely the theft of their most basic human rights.

In that spirit I invite you to ensure your voice is heard. Whether you live in the borough or not you can have your say and if you live in a ward where your councillor is on the planning committee then make sure they know they have your support to ensure the Markaz open its doors and ask them not to allow the far-right bullies to manipulate their decision.

We have created a part of our website

to make it as easy as possible for you to put your name to Barnet Council to help them support the innocent in this dreadful battle.  Those opposing have tapped into groups from well outside the borough to make their numbers look overwhelming. We need to meet their numbers and remind them that many of us are local to ensure there is no thought that the local voice is one of antagonism towards the Markaz community.

We will pray with our liturgy to build a better future and we will pray with our democratic rights to be part of building a better future for everyone.

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782