Rabbi Pete Tobias
18 May 2016
This past week I have been feeling particularly anxious. It’s a common feature of my life; according to my therapist it has to do with issues of trust and confidence. When it gets particularly bad, as it has done in these past few days, it’s accompanied by a sense of sadness and helplessness. All these feelings are around right now, and I have decided to share them with you.
I’m not doing it because I want to use this sermon as an opportunity for a kind of group therapy session, though there is an extent to which a Jewish congregation is a place where it feels safe to confront such feelings. I hope that’s true for all members of our congregations. I’m doing it because I have the distinct impression that, despite the personal circumstances which may be factors that contribute to my lack of confidence and trust, my sense of sadness and helplessness, this is a time when many other people are feeling it too.
The inspiration for this sermon came from a survey that I found on Twitter the other day. Of course we are surrounded by surveys and opinion polls at the moment: I’m sure the various opinions expressed in them do little to improve the sense of bewilderment that I believe many of us are feeling right now. But this particular poll didn’t just ask people whether or not they wanted to stay in or leave the European Union. Having first ascertained that information, the question then asked 100 citizens of the United Kingdom how much trust they placed in the views and opinions of others.
The specific question posed was: ‘Thinking about the EU referendum, how much do you trust what the following types of people have to say about whether we should leave or stay in the European Union?’ The ‘types of people’ included people from well-known businesses, academics, politicians, well-known actors and sportspeople, religious leaders and so on. The answers were then grouped and assessed based on the respondents’ preference for remaining in or leaving the EU. The percentage of each group that trusted the people in a particular category was combined with the percentage that did not trust those same people and a level of net trust was established. For example among those who wish to remain in the EU, 55% trust people from well-known businesses while 25% do not trust them (the don’t knows were factored out). So the net level of trust for businesspeople among those wishing to remain in the EU is +30%. The equivalent levels of trust for people from well-known businesses among those wishing to leave the EU came in at 27% trust them while 55% do not, giving a net trust among ‘Leave’ supporters of -28%
I don’t want to blind you with statistics, but here’s a snapshot of the results. With regard to the views of Academics, those who wish to remain have a net trust of +49% while those who wish to leave have a net trust of -28%. For economists the Remainers have a trust level of +41% while the Leavers’ trust level is -36%. The biggest discrepancy between the two groups relates to opinions expressed by people from international organisations like the UN or the IMF where those wishing to remain have a net trust of +40% while those wanting to leave are at -59%. Not surprisingly, no one trusts actors or sports personalities, and both groups show a remarkable level of mistrust of politicians, British and foreign, as well as senior religious figures. The only voices where both Remainers and Leavers agreed on the net level of mistrust was newspaper journalists who achieved a level of net mistrust of -65% from each group.
Too many figures to absorb properly – a bit like the perplexing spectrum of supposed facts and figures with which those deeply mistrusted newspaper journalists bombard us on a daily basis. But the general trend is clear. I’m not the only one who’s having some serious issues of trust right now. On the basis of this survey, those who want to leave the EU don’t trust anyone.
I’m not suggesting that my issues about trust and confidence are because I’m in the Brexit camp. I’m pretty sure I’m not, but the beauty – and curse – of democracy is that my future – and all of our futures – is bound by whatever decision is made in next Thursday’s referendum. And for good or for ill, it would seem that a decision made by the British people to leave the EU is going to be based on serious, frightening even, levels of mistrust of just about anyone.
Is this a manifestation of our island mentality? That’s not just a statement about what it means to live physically on an island like ours; it’s defined as: ‘the notion of isolated communities perceiving themselves as superior or exceptional to the rest of the world. This term does not directly refer to a geographically confined society, but to the cultural, moral, or ideological superiority of a community lacking social exposure.’
We Jews have a long history of that. For centuries our Eastern European ancestors lived in ghettoes, cut off from the outside world around them. It was a situation that was forced upon them by their host societies, but it was also one that, for the most part, they welcomed. They feared the outside world (often with good reason) and it feared them. The consequence was isolation and a deep sense of mistrust. If a similar questionnaire about ‘who do you trust?’ had been conducted among Jews in 17th century Poland, the answer would simply have been ‘them’ or ‘everyone who isn’t like us.’
That wasn’t the entirety of the Jewish experience, however. In Sephardi communities along the Mediterranean coast, Jews regularly mingled with other cultures and a completely different attitude and worldview emerged. The culture became richer, the cuisine, as an example of that cultural richness, became more varied (and significantly tastier!) and, at its height, the Sephardi Jewish community enjoyed wealth, wisdom and respect that its Ashkenazi cousins could not begin to match. This was achieved by meeting the world full on, and embracing its possibilities, rather than cowering behind walls of imagined superiority and deep mistrust.
Ashkenazi Jewry finally reached that point a couple of centuries ago, when emancipation extended to the Jews the opportunity to become part of a developing western society. Some Jews embraced the possibilities with open arms; others were suspicious (and still are) – and history has shown that there is perhaps good reason for that suspicion. And maybe some of the trust issues I have stem from some deeply ingrained part of my Jewish psyche that subliminally instructs me to be fearful of everyone, because that was the experience of my ancestors…
Of course this isn’t just about Judaism and my Jewish ancestors. I use our history only as an example to show that our culture, our knowledge and our sense of location in the world only develops when we have greater contact with that world. It doesn’t diminish or damage us; it provides new opportunities, new horizons, new visions. And what is true for our community is no less real for all of humankind. We grow through our interaction with others: personally, communally, globally.
But that growth cannot occur where there is mistrust and fear. And if the therapy, the self-analysis in which I have engaged for the last few decades has taught me anything, it’s that mistrust and fear of others derives from a lack of confidence in oneself. That insecurity manifests itself in our relationships with others, in the homes we share with our families, on the streets where we live our lives. And that mistrust finds its most heinous and shocking expression in a small Yorkshire town where a deeply loved and respected MP loses her life. For me, and, I am sure, for many of us, that incomprehensible event of last Thursday has introduced into our experience of the world new levels of anxiety, sadness and helplessness.
The mental state and the motivation of Jo Cox’s murderer are unknown. But what can be said for sure is that the horrific event is a consequence of the fear and mistrust that has emerged as a result of the bitterly polarised argument and counter-argument of the question of whether to leave or remain a part of the European Union. Whether to be part of a greater whole, or be isolated and separate. Whether to embrace the cultural possibilities of involvement with others, or maintain an island mentality. Whether to trust in others or to remain fearful and suspicious of them.
The survey that I quoted makes it quite clear which side of this increasingly unpleasant and now seemingly murderous national debate trusts and which does not. Our Jewish history, our world’s history, the blood on the pavement outside the library of the little Yorkshire town of Birstall, demonstrate the consequences of suspicion and mistrust.
I feel as though this needs a Jewish quote with which to conclude. And the one I think works well comes from our Liberal Yom Kippur Additional service. It’s a service that reflects on the development of humankind from its earliest days on the planet until now. According to our liturgy, back in those early days, when human beings first appeared on the planet, our ancient ancestors learned that:
‘…though each individual,
unaided and alone, is weak and helpless,
God’s gift of love has taught us
the art of living with our fellow men and women in
I actually studied that section of the Yom Kippur service with the 2016 Kabbalat Torah group this morning. And as I discussed the development of humanity with this group of young teenagers, whose futures will surely be affected by the outcome of this vote, it occurred to me that this referendum isn’t about economics or immigration. It’s what I’ve been saying all along. It’s about trust. Trusting in our human ability to love, to develop the ‘art of living with our fellow men and women in one humanity’. Without trust you can’t build relationships, you can’t build communities, you can’t build a future. So what future do we want for our children? One of suspicion and mistrust and isolation? Or a future of trust, of hope and of vision. Ken y’hi ratson. May it be God’s will that human beings, created in the divine image, discover enough confidence and trust to embrace the hope, the vision, the potential with which we have been endowed. Amen.
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