OPINION: Even poor slaves in Egypt had doorposts

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OPINION: Even poor slaves in Egypt had doorposts

Rabbi Richard Jacobi & Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen reflect on Pesach's message of social justice

Seder plate!
Seder plate!

Succot is normally the time when rabbis, cantors and Jewish communities turn to issues of housing, homelessness and the fragility of life near or below the poverty line. Yet, as we approach Pesach, we, along with other rabbis and cantors across the UK Jewish community, will focus on these issues.

Pesach is the festival at which we celebrate our freedom after 430 years of living in Egypt, a stay that ended in bitter enslavement by the ancient Egyptians. Yet our Torah tells us the slaves on their last days in Egypt were still able to kill the paschal lamb and daub its blood on their doorposts. This implies that even in the darkest hours of their slavery, families had homes.

How is it that in one of the richest countries of the world in 2019, we tolerate discriminatory practices that deny large numbers of people their own homes?

According to a 2017 survey by Shelter – a charity helping millions struggling with bad housing or homelessness – ‘No DSS’ policies (shorthand for no benefits) affect about one-third of housing applicants receiving housing benefit. This is hundreds of thousands of people. Another Shelter survey in 2017 found almost two-thirds of landlords claim they do not want renters on benefits.

The ‘No DSS’ policies coincide with other forms of housing discrimination and disproportionately affect women and people with disabilities, as Shelter’s analysis suggests a high percentage of those receiving housing benefit are women, single parents or in receipt of disability benefits.

This makes the private renting sector a form of Egypt for the most vulnerable. Like the prophets, and according to our Jewish tradition, we call out these discriminatory practices as unjust and antithetical to our Jewish values.

Stop and think for a moment – people are sufficiently poor to qualify for these benefits, they are eligible for them and so are awarded them, but our ‘civilised society’ then says to them: “We will not house you, you are on your own.”

Rabbi Richard Jacobi (right) & Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen (left) are members of the steering team for Tzelem: The rabbinic call for social and economic justice in the UK

One of us, along with our family, experienced the effects of these discriminatory policies first-hand, having volunteered with the charity, Refugees at Home, as hosts. In the past few months, the charity asked us to temporarily house people who had been living rough on the streets of Manchester.

The local authority said it did not have a duty to house one young couple who had been sleeping outside the town hall, as they were not vulnerable enough.

However, they could not find anywhere to live because so much private rented accommodation is unavailable to those on benefits. They had been let down and abandoned by a society of which they are a part, and which has a duty to care for them.  We all have failed them. We are shocked by these discriminatory practices that force people just like us on to the streets.

Tzelem: The Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK, a cross-communal activist body, is partnering with Shelter, which is doing a great deal of work to fight discrimination caused by ‘No DSS’ policies by way of the Equality Act, litigating on behalf of clients who have been rejected, and challenging lenders’ discriminatory policies. We will campaign with Shelter to ensure these discriminatory polices are outlawed and made a thing of the past.

If you are a landlord, we ask you do not use any letting agent that practices discrimination against the poorest people in our country.  Instead, treat every prospective tenant on a case-by-case basis, regardless of salaried income or income through the benefit system.

If you are a letting agent, and are issuing ‘no DSS’ notices, what you are doing is immoral and should be stopped immediately.

If you are affected by these discriminatory practices, we encourage you to ask your rabbi to bring your case to us at Tzelem, or to contact our partners at Shelter’s legal team directly.

As our tradition teaches: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.”

  • Rabbi Richard Jacobi & Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen are members of the steering team for Tzelem: The rabbinic call for social and economic justice in the UK
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