The fifth son

Rabbi Eli Pink describes his continual desire to reach out to the fifth son of Passover and introduc

For different people Passover will always bring to mind different things. For many people, Passover will always mean the frantic cleaning of the house for any trace of chametz – leavened food that is prohibited on Passover. For others it will bring to mind the matzah price wars between the supermarkets and local grocery stores. And for some, the genial atmosphere of the family meals springs to mind. However for me, Passover, and especially the Seder meal, has always been about the fifth son.

Allow me to explain. Passover is the festival which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and birth of the Jewish nation approximately 3300 years ago. In commanding us to teach our children about the Exodus, the Bible uses four distinct expressions, which the authors of the Haggadah, (the liturgical text used at the Pesach Seder), explained to refer to four types of children - the wise son, the wicked son, the simpleton and the clueless son – and gives the appropriate approach to each son.

However there is a fifth son, the lost son - the son that does not even reach the Passover Seder. The son who does not even know that there is a Passover Seder. It is this son that talks to me the most.

Having grown up in a family of educators, my father being a Headmaster, my mother a teacher and three of my brothers - community Rabbis, education has always been at the forefront of my life. Passover would exemplify this, with a cross-section of the Jewish community always present at my parents’ Seder table. As I grew up, I too yearned to reach out to the ‘fifth son’ and help unaffiliated Jews experience the beauty that is Passover.

My main field of operation in my early years as a Rabbi was the Ukraine. It was an incredible feeling to celebrate a Passover Seder in a former communist meeting hall, protected by members of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry Police (formally the K.G.B), helping 350 people regain their Jewish heritage that had been suppressed by the selfsame officers during the communist regime. It was heart-warming to hear tens of families, young and old, proclaim ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ the same declaration that Jews everywhere had been proclaiming for 2000 years, yet that a few short years earlier would have earned them a night-time visit for counter-revolutionary activity.

I remember my first communal Seder in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. We expected two hundred people, catered for three hundred, and hosted three hundred and fifty. From two hours before our published starting time, queues were beginning to form outside the doors and for three hours the hall was full of three hundred and fifty ‘fifth sons,’ relearning Jewish traditions.

Memories like these do not fade quickly. I keep them with me and they give me the impetus to carry the Passover message into the entire year, looking for the fifth son wherever Divine providence takes me.

Rabbi Eli Pink was Program Director for the Tzivos Hashem International Childrens’ Organisation in the Ukraine before settling in Leeds, England together with his wife Dabrushy and children Leah and Avremi. Rabbi Pink is the Director of Education for Lubavitch Foundation of Leeds.
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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.