Shabbat Masei 5779, 3rd August 2019
In this week’s Sidra, God commanded the Israelites to set up Cities of Refuge, places where people could feel safe. You can tell how important it was. The Sidra goes into great detail. We can read in the Book of Joshua how Joshua was commanded to make sure the cities were set up. It was a radical advance in biblical times to set up places of safety for those who feared for their lives. Yet many people in our country, especially young people, feel far from safe.
I remember when we were looking at secondary schools for Yoni ten years ago and there was a television programme about children in Birmingham applying to secondary school. Two of the families talked about how important it was for their child to get into the school of their choice - not because of the education offered, although that mattered, but because if they got into the wrong school, they would be beaten up because they lived in the wrong post code district. Suddenly, our concerns about secondary school paled into insignificance. Imagine being scared of getting into the wrong school simply because you lived in street with the wrong post code. Yet those post code wars, reflected in gangs from rival neighbourhoods, were a reality that affected 11-year olds as they started a new school, at a vulnerable time in their lives when feeling secure was vital to their progress.
In the ten years since, things have got worse. Knife crime has gone up by a shocking 54% over the last five years in England. In 2018 more than 250 young people were killed in the UK through knife crime. We hear about it in the news but we have heard about it so often that it has ceased to shock unless it happens somewhere near us - as happened to a teenager on our local bus route a couple of years ago.
Yet the rise in knife crime is not inevitable. Whilst it has been increasing in England, in Scotland over the last ten years there has been a 64% decrease. This has been achieved by a systematic programme determined to tackle crime. It includes talking to youngsters and helping them understand the consequences before they become involved. It involves reaching out to them in primary schools, since the transition to secondary school is often a time of risk, and for them to hear the stories of those who have been affected. A similar programme is being planned in London. It will look at expanding after school provision because 11-16 year olds are most vulnerable on their way home from school. It will also look at the risk factors, which include being in a household which suffers from multiple aspects of deprivation, such as income, employment, education and safety.
This can all seem distant from the reality of many of us here. We can also feel a sense of powerlessness. What can we do to help with a problem which seems so complex and which has deep roots and multiple causes? Yet, we know that we cannot stand by. We are commanded, ‘Lo ta’amod al dam re-echa - you shall not stand by whilst your neighbour’s blood is shed.’ Judaism teaches us that we are all responsible for what happens in our city. In his book called ‘Justice in the City’ Aryeh Cohen addresses this question, saying: ‘While I don’t have an absolute obligation for all the poor and suffering people, I do have a proportional obligation to respond’. And he continues, ‘My proportional obligation is mediated by the polis, the institutions of the city which are, or should be, the institutions of justice.’ We can’t on our own tackle every injustice and be responsible for everyone but we do have a responsibility to do what we can. Being a citizen brings both privileges and obligations. We are fortunate that our congregation is part of Citizens UK Birmingham, for through Citizens our voice is multiplied, as we join forces with others in our cry for justice. Citizens in Birmingham is determined to tackle knife crime. For some of the groups that are part of Citizens, it is a day to day reality. By joining with them, we can help to end this terrible and needless loss of life. We can help in other ways too. We can contribute to charities which work to educate young people away from knife crime, such as the Ben Kinsella Trust named after a 16-year old who was murdered in a knife attack. We can campaign against the ending of youth provision, the poverty and deprivation which all contribute. We can mentor young people, helping them to see a future away from violence.
Our young people are our future. Children are, as our tradition teaches, a precious heritage and a gift from God. Every young person deserves to feel safe, to not have to worry which school they go to, or fear leaving the school gates or stepping outside their home. It is possible to change things if we have the determination and will. Every city should be a city of refuge, a place where people of all ages can feel safe. May we help to bring about that time bimherah v’yameinu, soon and in our time.