B’Chol Dor v’Dor

The Challenge of Anti-Semitism from the Haggadah to now

Published 11 March 2015
matzah 0 post

The keynote address at The Jewish Center in New York. This lecture was delivered during Rabbi Sacks’ engagement as professor at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Levine:

Good evening and welcome to this very special programme here at The Jewish Center. It’s a pleasure to be able to thank our partners at Yeshiva University for making this evening possible. Special thanks to our friends, Paul Glasser and Stu Halpern – you are consummate professionals. It’s a privilege to work alongside you in the service of our community. The Jewish Center has enjoyed a deep and enduring relationship with Yeshiva University over these past decades. And it’s an honour to acknowledge the presence of the former President and Chancellor of Yeshiva University, our Rabbi and our teacher, moreinu verabeinu Rabbi Norman Lamm.

One final word of thanks is reserved for Jewish Center members, Elliot and Debbie Gibber, who are co-sponsors of our pre-Pesach programme. And I encourage you to stay apprised of the numerous outstanding programmes and events over the coming weeks. From the Chief Rabbi to the Vice President of the Israeli Supreme Court, we hope you’ll always find opportunities to elevate your Jewish lives here at our Center. You know, in a few days, we’ll read about the completion of the Mishkan, spiritual heart of the Jewish people in the wilderness. Of course it had many functions, but in housing the Tablets and the Torah, it was the great icon of our mesorah. While one generation passed on in the wilderness and another arose to take its place, the Mishkan remained the home of our eternal Torah. That was the constant. Both literally and figuratively, it was responsible for transporting the Torah, preserving it, while at the same time, making it accessible to every member of the Jewish people.

You know in fact, wondering where the Jewish people would’ve found acacia wood, not indigenous exactly to the Sinai desert, the Midrash suggests that the wood came from trees, which Yaakov Avinu instructed his children to plant in Egypt generations earlier. Not just the spiritual identity, but the very substance of the Mishkan itself bespoke the language of our ancestral tradition. You know, in our generation, there are precious few individuals possessed of the capacity to faithfully transmit the complexities of our mesorah, and at the same time, make it accessible to such a wide audience. Rabbi Sacks has written extensively about the virtues of influence and inspiration. Though in ancient Israel, it was the king who wielded power, it was the prophet who exerted influence. The Navi commanded no armies and had no means by which to enforce his message, yet, while the power of the king typically followed him to the grave, the influence of the prophet endured. While it’s true that the era of prophecy ended more than 2000 years ago, the Gemara tells us im ein nevi’im hein, b’nei nevi’im hein (Pesachim 66a) [meaning] even if the Jewish people are not prophets themselves, it must be remembered that they are descended of prophets. The Chief Rabbi is the heir to this great prophetic legacy, the extraordinary capacity to influence and inspire a fractured world. After serving as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years, Rabbi Sacks is now the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University, the Kress and Efrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. He’s also been appointed as Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King’s College, London. What he’s accomplished in these past decades is simply remarkable. Rabbi Sacks holds 14 honorary degrees, including a doctorate of divinity conferred to mark his first 10 years in office by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Fourteen honorary degrees. If anyone’s keeping track that’s 14 more honorary degrees than anyone else in this room.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, the Chief Rabbi was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for his contribution to diaspora life. And 10 years ago, he was knighted by Her Majesty the Queen and made a Life Peer, taking his seat in the House of Lords. He’s also the author of 25 books, several of which will be available immediately following our programme this evening. In the world of rabbinic leadership, Rabbi Sacks has become our most outstanding model. Through the depth of his scholarship and his unending eloquence, Rabbi Sacks translates the vocabulary and values of our mesorah into a poetic code of sanctified Jewish living. Rather than sacrificing religious complexity on the altar of the quotidian, he embraces it, he elevates it, and demonstrates its relevance to our contemporary moment. Rabbi Sacks, I have referenced your writings and quoted your words on countless occasions. Both to our community and to me personally, you are an ongoing inspiration. I am humbled by the honour of introducing our very special guest, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks:

Rabbi Levine, beloved friends, Rabbi Levine, thank you so much for that lovely introduction and may I salute your wonderful, generous, compassionate, learned, and sensitive leadership of this great community for so many years. Thank you also for that lovely introduction, one word particularly resonated with me, the phrase ‘unending eloquence’, the eloquence I’m not sure about, but the unending…

But friends, bear with me if I pay a special tribute to a remarkable individual, because a memory came back to me so powerfully this evening. You see 47 years ago, as a young sophomore, undergraduate student in search of Jewish enlightenment, I came to New York in the summer of 1968 and came to this shul where an extraordinary Rabbi, Rabbi Norman Lamm welcomed me in, not knowing me from Adam, gave me his time and his wisdom, spoke to me of his dream of modern orthodoxy, of the particular challenge of Yeshiva University. And that encounter has resonated with me in all the years from then till this day. Rabbi Lamm, your leadership, not only of this community, but of Yeshiva University, of Modern Orthodoxy has been so outstanding in its dignity and intellectual integrity. We salute you and we wish you many more years of health, happiness and blessing, Amen.

And yes, Rabbi Levine, getting the knighthood and the place in the House of Lords are actually two different things. The House of Lords means I have to turn up and speak, which I do unendingly, mind you so does everyone else. But the knighthood is something different, that’s just an honour, and that was really nice, that was 10 years ago, because it allowed my Mum, aleha hashalom, to meet the Queen. She didn’t care too much about the knighthood but “I got to meet the Queen!”

And this was a nachas shepping moment like you’ve never seen. The only problem is this – and I speak here very simply – that when you are knighted by Her Majesty, you have to kneel. Now Jews do not kneel, you know, except to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and then only with the greatest possible rarity, but Mordechai loh yishthacheveh veloh yichra (Esther 3:2) you don’t do that kind of thing. This posed a technical problem for the Palace staff, which they solved with great grace. And they got me a sort of stand, a bit like this, so I could lean marginally forward from the perpendicular without actually kneeling. And so I went through this whole rigmarole, and, Her Majesty was clearly both perplexed and bemused and she turned to Prince Phillip and said, “Why is this Knight different from all other Knights?” Which kind of introduces my theme this evening.

Sadly, this is my theme this evening because there are bits of the Haggadah that from time to time resonate with a meaning that we never really expected before. And for me, the passage that never resonated at all was, vehi she’amdah la’avoseinu velanu, you know, that promise, that havtachah, that promise which Hakadosh Baruch Hu chisheiv et haketiz, he made that promise to Abraham that we would come through, his descendants would come through every trial. That is what stood for us, sheloh echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu, because it’s not Egypt alone that stood against us to destroy us, uvechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us vehakadosh baruch hu matzileinu miyadam, and Hashem delivers us from their hand.

Now growing up, I felt that paragraph belonged to my parents, to my Booba and Zeida, to their world. It made no sense in our world at all. My father olav hashalom, you know, was of that generation, you saw it everywhere. Whenever the traffic lights went red, he always used to say, “antisemitic traffic lights!” And, he knew it, he came from a place in Poland called Kielce, which you shouldn’t know of, but which became notorious because they had a pogrom there in 1946, even after the Shoah. So he knew what antisemitism was all about. Whereas I growing up, I and my brothers growing up in London, in a really non-Jewish world, who had non-Jewish friends, and going to the university, I did not experience, I don’t think my brothers did, a single episode of antisemitism for the first 50 plus years of my life.

And it was around 2002 that our youngest daughter came back one day. She had gone to a, she was a student at the London School of Economics, she had gone to an anti-globalisation rally, which quickly turned into a tirade, first against America, then against Israel, and then against the Jews. And she came, she sat on my bed with tears running down her face and she said, “Dad, they hate us. Now Dame Rebecca West, the great novelist, once wrote that “given all they have been through, to be a Jew is to have an unsurprise-able soul.” It was at that moment I discovered I had a surprise-able soul. I did not expect to see this in the 21st century. And therefore I thought what I’d just do very simply for you tonight is just talk about Pesach from the point of view of antisemitism. This is a story though, that definitely has been told, it’s just an interesting story. So I’m going to talk about certain moments where Pesach interacted with the world outside to generate very difficult moments for the Jewish people. And at the end I’ll say what I think we have to do right now, because I don’t want to leave this, God forbid, on a negative note, that would be quite wrong.

But let me begin really, almost at the beginning. And here, it’s very interesting. We do not know who the Pharaoh of the Exodus was, but we do know the first reference to Israel outside Tanach. And it is so interesting, because the first reference to Israel, which goes back pretty much almost to the time of yetziat mitzrayim, of the Exodus from Egypt is on an inscription, inscribed by Merneptah IV, who was the direct successor of Ramses II, who most historians believe is the Pharaoh of the Exodus. So, we actually have a report from Ramses’ son. I mean, he lost believe it or not, […], his first 13 sons actually, it’s an extraordinary thing, but Merneptah IV, which was his oldest surviving son, recorded on a block of black basalt, which I’ve never seen, but it’s today in the Cairo Museum, and it says the following, it records the following sentence. “Israel is laid waste. Her seed is no more.”


In other words, the Egyptians believed that was the end of the Jews. They left Egypt, they left the world, there were no more Jews. The first reference to Israel outside Tanach is an obituary. Oddly enough, so was the second. The second reference to Israel outside Tanach is on something called the Mesha Stele, inscribed by Mesha, King of Moab, in the ninth century BCE. And it says virtually the same thing, right? Destroy Israel. So, the Jews were believed to have been finished by the Exodus, but my story actually begins a thousand years afterwards, in the third Century BCE by an individual who is not as widely known as he ought to be, but who I regard as the ancestor of antisemitism. We know that the Egypt of Ramses II reached its zenith at that point and then began a fairly precipitous […] and was taken over by a number of empires, but most significantly by the empire of Aristotle’s […], Alexander the Great, and the Alexandrian Empire, which conquered the whole of North Africa and much of the Middle East, was divided in two.

 
As you know, after Alexandria split into two ruling dynasties, the Selucids in Syria and Ptolemies in Egypt and Ptolemy II is where our story begins. Ptolemy II is probably known to all of us for the first ever translation of Tanach into any other language, the so called […] the Septuagint. And at that time, there was a very large Jewish community in Egypt, especially in Alexandria. The Gemara says about the shul in Alexandria, that it was so noisy that somebody had to stand on the bimah and wave a flag to tell people when to say, Amen. We have shuls like that in London, I don’t know about you.

And, in the 3rd Century BCE during the reign of Ptolemy II, an Egyptian priest called Manetho, are you familiar with the name? Manetho undertook to rewrite the story of the Exodus. And this is how Manetho rewrote the story. He said the following, that these Hebrews, these Jews were not trying to leave Egypt,. they were trying to control Egypt, and they were in fact a group of lepers, and Pharaoh decided that he did not want them in Egypt any longer. They had taken over the government, he defeated them and he ordered them to be exiled from Egypt. And an Egyptian called Osarseph who changed his name to Moses came before Pharaoh and said, “let my people stay,” and Pharaoh wouldn’t listen, and he drove them out. That was Manetho’s rewriting of the story of Pesach and the Exodus,

Now you may think so what, an Egyptian priest writes a revisionary narrative in the 3rd Century BCE. However, it did change an entire tide of opinion. Until then we do not find the great Greek writers saying much about Jews at all. And what they do say about Jews is quite positive. Theophrastus, another student of Aristotle wants to explain to the Greeks who are the Jews and you know what the calls them? A nation of philosophers, because they’re always studying. I mean, it’s a beautiful, poetic description, so we don’t really have negative descriptions of Jews by the Hellenistic writers. After Manetho, we get almost exclusively negative accounts by the Greek writers. And so serious was this that Josephus faced an antisemitic writer in his day called Apion who basically retold Manetho’s account of the Exodus. And Josephus had to write a whole book Contra Apionem, Against Apion to defend Jews against the lies of Manetho. So those, Manetho’s words continued all the way through to the first Century. They were hovering in the background, and the trouble is they were taken up by Hellenistic writers. One of the most catastrophic… and it just shows you when one bad lie enters the bloodstream of a civilisation, it can stay there for centuries.

There’s an aftermath of this story which is truly horrendous, and here it is. One of the writers who takes up Manetho’s account is a Roman writer of the first Century called Tacitus. A German philosopher of the 19th Century called Schopenhauer writes a commentary on Tacitus and he quotes Tacitus and exemplarises on Tacitus’ account of the Jews of Egypt, and he calls Jews […] and Schopenhauer, on the basis of Tacitus, on the basis of Manetho calls Jews “masters of the lie” and you know who takes that sentence to heart and quotes it at every opportunity? Adolf Hitler. Schopenhauer became, because of Schopenhauer’s commentary to Tacitus, based on […] Manetho, Schopenhauer became Adolf Hitler’s famous philosopher. So here is a lie that lasts 23 centuries and passes from Egypt to Greece to Rome to Germany. So that is the first moment of Pesach interacting with antisemitism.

The second moment is probably much more serious. You see the Greeks didn’t like Jews very much, but, you remember what, what they say in The Godfather when the mafia are about to shoot you just as, just before you sleep with the fishes, they say, “it’s nothing personal, strictly business.” So when the Greeks didn’t like Jews, it was nothing personal because the Greeks didn’t like anyone who wasn’t Greek, they called them the Barbarians because they made noises like sheep.

They felt, you know, these are just uncivilised, they’re the barbarians. So when Greeks don’t like Jews, that was not antisemitism, that was xenophobia – not liking the people like us. Antisemitism was born with the birth of Christianity. And that was a terrible tragedy which has – Baruch Hashem – there’s been a reversal over time. But for the better part of […] became very serious. What did this have to do with Pesach? Well I’m sure you know. The climax of the Gospel narrative is a Seder service. So, the Last Supper is quite possibly a Seder. All the key events in the last stages of Jesus’ life take place on Pesach. So it was on Pesach that the followers of Jesus used to have their main celebration, which in the course of time became Easter, but Easter is always very close to Pesach. So it was a Pesach-oriented thing. Now, because of this negative attitude that the Romans inherited from the Greeks on Jews, anything that looked like a civil disturbance on the part of Jews was terribly ultra-sensitive.


Now here we hit an extraordinary historic catastrophe, which is that Romans were ultra-sensitive to anything that looked as if Jew were having an uprising or a rebellion against Rome, but they were sensitive about this all the way through, from Pompeii all the way through, but they were ultra-sensitive from the start of the Great Rebellion against Rome in the year 66, Churban Bayit Sheni in the year 70, all the way through to the Great Diaspora Revolt of 115-117, to the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135. It was just during that period that all the Gospels were written, so anything that made Jesus look as if he had been put to death by the Romans, which he had been, everyone knows, I mean nobody will dispute the fact. Crucifixion is not a Jewish punishment, it’s a Roman punishment. The Beit Din, the Sanhedrin […] did not have capital powers at that time, so there was never any question that it was the Romans, but going through chronologically the Gospel, from Mark to Matthew to Luke, you see a gradual increase of shifting the blame to the Jews until by John already, Pontius Pilate is almost an innocent and it’s the Jews who are begging for his death.


So an entire history of blaming the Jews, not only for rejecting the Messiah but for being responsible for the death of the Messiah, grew up. During that critical period when, if you were a Christian, you did not want to upset the […] because they were the ones who controlled your future and therefore you had to blame the Jews, and you can see that happening in real time as you go from Gospel to Gospel. It’s already present in the first Gospel which is written at almost exactly the time of Churban Bayit Sheini and increases all the way through to John. So, you have here real antisemitism. This becomes very marked in the 4th century. It’s very interesting, Christians until then knew that Jesus was Jewish and Christianity began as a form of Judaism. They knew it, and they knew under the Roman Empire that they were interested, there were Jews living in the neighbourhoods where Romans were living, throughout the Roman Empire, and therefore they started going to shul. It is conceivable that the Rabbi gave a better drashah than the Vicar did, I’m not sure about that, or maybe the chazzan was better, maybe the music was better, [crosstalk] they started going to shul. Now the leaders of the Church, the Church Fathers, did not like that at all, they called that judaising, and it was absolutely anathema. They began a work of literature and it was a scary literature, you don’t want to know, it was called the Adversus Judaeos literature, it was a literature of pure, unadulterated antisemitism. And it took the Holocaust and the reflection on the Holocaust for a French historian called Jules Isaac to tell that story which had been buried for many centuries. He told that story. A very great and considerably impressive Pope called John XXIII read his books. In 1961, met Jules Isaac and realised that the Church has a responsibility for owning up to its […] antisemitism and it was John XXIII who set in motion what became […] and changed relationship between the Church and the Jews.

I have to say there were many Popes who did well, but none as well as the current Pope, Francis I. I had the privilege of being with him in Bergen a couple of months ago. This man has said more positive things about Judaism than any Pope in all of history, and we’re very blessed by this, it’s a very important fact. So the second Pesach connection is the birth of Christianity, which created this centuries of hostility to Jews, above all in Europe. What was the third moment? The third moment we can date with some precision to the year 1095, where Urban II announces the first Crusade, and 1096 crusaders on their way to the Holy Land to liberate it from Muslims, stop and go out of their way to northern Europe, to Worms, Speyer and Mainz and massacre Jewish communities. At that point, antisemitism becomes more than just a negative attitude, and it becomes an active form of persecution. For the next five centuries, Jews in Europe suffer major persecution at the hands of Christians.


And the whole view of Jews becomes different. No longer are Jews the ones who didn’t accept Christianity. No longer are they the ones who might have been responsible for the death of Jesus, they become an active demonic force for evil. If something bad happens, it’s the Jews doing it. They were accused of desecrating the Host, that is desecrating the stuff that was used in the Eucharist. They were accused of poisoning wells, they were accused of spreading the Plague. When the Black Death took over 10 million casualties in Europe, it was Jews who were blamed for the Black Death. Whatever Jews could be blamed for, they were blamed for. But there was one English contribution to this, for which I am deeply, but seriously, deeply ashamed, and that happened in a little town in Britain called Norwich in 1144. It was there that a Christian child disappeared. His name was William. Nothing much happened for five years, but after five years, a Christian writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote an account in which he claimed that this young boy had been taken by Jews […] so that Jews could use the blood to make matzahs for Pesach. The blood libel, the alilat dam. Never was there a crazier lie. I mean, anyone who knew anything about Jews knows that the tiniest speck of blood renders food inedible. This never made any sense at all. It made sense in Christian terms, because at the end of the 11th century, Christianity formulated the doctrine, the word didn’t exist before the 11th century, called transubstantiation that in the Eucharist, in the Catholic Mass, you are actually drinking the blood and eating the flesh when you drank the wine and ate the wafer. So as soon as transubstantiation enters Christian theology, Jews get blamed. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon.

Now at least five Popes publicly declare during the Middle Ages, the blood libel was absolutely false, it was untrue. Pope after Pope after Pope, […] it did not stop the blood libel spreading. There were at least 150 recorded cases from 1144 to the 20th century and nothing the Catholic Church could do to stop it. It has left its mark on the Haggadah. Where? Shfoch chamatcha al hagoyim. It appears then and only then because Easter being close to Pesach and the Gospel being about it and, and the blood libel being about making matzahs for Pesach, all of this was focused on Pesach. So if there was going to be a massacre of Jews in any little European town, it would take place on Pesach. And that’s why Jews knew they needed special shmira gezeira, special protection on Pesach and that’s when shfoch chamatcha entered. If you look in the Shulchan Aruch, you’ll find in the Medieval […] Rishonim, if there is a blood libel, use white wine instead of red wine for the arbah kosot. It made a serious impact on the Haggadah. The trouble is of course, and here we deal with something very, very tragic indeed.


What happens in the 19th century? This is really one of the worst things to happen This is the blood libel which has no place whatsoever in Islam was taken into the Middle East, into Islam in the 19th century, in Egypt, in Lebanon and in Syria, by […] and Coptic Christians. The most famous blood libel in the Middle East, as you know, was the 1840 Damascus blood libel. The first time the Jews had to mount an international rescue mission. Sir Moses Montefiore from the Board of Deputies, Adolphe Crémieux of the Consistoire had to travel to Damascus to secure the release of the Jewish prisoners and if you go to the Hebrew University, you will find […] in Judeo-Arabic that the nine wives of the nine Jews who […] were released wrote to Judith, Lady Montefiore to say thank you to her husband. The end result of that is that in 1983, the man who until quite recently was the Defence Minister of Syria, Mustafa Tlass in 1983 produced a book called The Matzah of Zion in which he […] has re-ignited the blood libel. And in 1991, the Syrian representative at the United Nations Human Rights Commission recommended that all members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission should read The Matzah of Zion to know what Syrian[…]with Zionistracism. So the blood libel is still, believe it or not, alive and well in the Middle East. Europe having been cured of the virus, the Middle East is now being infected. And this came to Islam from outside […].

What’s the next moment? The next moment, unfortunately was, what do we say in the Haggadah? Vayarei’u otanu hamitzrimshene’emar hava nitchakma loh. It’s very interesting. The Haggadah, which is of course based on a Tanaitic Midrash understands vayarei’u otanu hamitzrim, not as the Egyptians did evil to us, it translates it as the Egyptians pretended to be our friends. re’im […]. They pretended initially to be our friends, but then they, you know, […] and that I’m afraid is the story of Europe in the 19th century. With the French Revolution, the first sentence of the French Revolution National Assembly, “all men are born and remain equal in rights.” The question was, did Jews come under that category? And you remember towards the end of December of 1789, the Count, Clermont–Tonnerre gets up and says to Jews as individuals, everything, but to Jews collectively as a nation, nothing. So this was the French revolutionary way of saying yes, certainly be Jews so long as you never behave like Jews in public. So this was a form of saying “you don’t have to convert to Christianity, but you do have to convert to being secular in public, what do they call it ‘be a man in the street, be a Jew at home.’ And that unfortunately turned out to be […] because really and truly, what happens or in whole of Europe, by 1879, was something which was the worst mutation of all. I in 1879, a German journalist called Wilhelm Marr coins a new word – anyone know what the word was? Antisemitism. Didn’t exist before 1879.


Why? Because until 1879 Jews have been hated for their religion. Now you couldn’t talk about religion in public because this was the secular Europe. So Jews were hated for their race. And that was a dramatic and disastrous turn because you can change your religion so Christians could […] for the good version of the Jews, but you cannot change your race and therefore -[…] for the elimination of the Jews. This was the worst of […] and of course it grows to a crescendo as we know […]. In 1880, Édouard Drumont had published in France, La France Juive, a virulently antisemitic book, published for the first time in 1880, went through over a hundred editions and was a bestseller until 1945.1894, the Dreyfus Trial, 1897, the notoriously antisemitic Karl Lueger becomes mayor of Vienna where Hitler gets his first tutorials in antisemitism and all of this reaches […] culmination in the darkest night of all. We know that the Nazis tried not only to kill Jews, they tried to kill Judaism and so they have this demonic reversal. So Josef Mengele, Dr Mengele, the notorious medical superintendent in Auschwitz used to say in […] of Netanah Tokef, here I decide who will live and who will die.


And so some of their worst actions were reserved for Pesach. And as you know, the Pesach 1943 they scheduled the complete liquidation, extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto. And that is why the Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place on erev Pesach. As, you know, Jews, they have hung on, survived for longer than the whole […], but that was the turning point in Jewish history. At that point, Jews said “ we get up and we fight back. We are now no longer going to die al kiddush Hashem, we’re going to live al kedushat hachaim. And that was the great turning point in Jewish history, except for the fact, as I said, that what had started as Christian antisemitism eventually re-infected the Middle East where it had all begun 23 centuries ago, And so, on erev Pesach 13 years ago, as the celebrants were sitting down to begin the Seder in the Park Hotel in Netanya, a suicide bomber exploded a device killing 29 people and injuring 150 others. And that is really how the theme of Pesach and antisemitism have been interwoven from the earliest dates until today.


And now the question is, and for this I have no idea, why? And I think the answer is absolutely simple. I think we have to be unembarrassed to say it loud Pesach is z’man cheruteinu, Pesach is the season of our freedom. Judaism was the first religion to say the fundamental thing God seeks to give us is freedom. And people who hate Jews are the people who hate freedom. That is why we were attacked by every totalitarian or tyrannical empire that that part of the world has ever known. That is why Jews were always attacked, whether by the Egyptians or the Assyrians, or the Babylonians or the Persians, the Iranians or the Alexandrian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Christian and Islamic empires of the Middle Ages, all the way to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, every nation that sought to wipe out individual freedom or cultural integrity and difference always had to attack the Jews, because we were the ones who stood up for freedom. We were the ones who stood up for the right to be different.


Haman, don’t forget, when did he take these, when did he cast lots? 13th Nissan, just, you know, erev Chag Hapesach, it wasn’t actually erev Chag Hamatzot and 14th, 15th, erev Pesach and the first two days of Pesach are when Esther and Mordechai gather the Jews and ask them to fast, which after several of our wonderfully self-indulgent Pesachs away, we also […]. Anyway, so here is the thing. It seems to me that as the world faces a new threat of freedom, from ISIS, from the radicalists in society, today, more clearly than ever before in history, we can now see, the people who hate Jews are the people who hate freedom and we have to stand together with all people who care for freedom to fight against persecution, whether it is of Jews, of Christians, of Sikhs, or […] of Bahai, you name it, we have to stand together because Jews, one of the first people to introduce freedom as a religious ideal .

Friends, I feel after events in Copenhagen, in Paris, in Belgium, that Europe is finally beginning to get it. They are finally beginning to understand that the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews, that people only hate Jews because we’re different. But it’s what being different that makes us human, hat makes every life special, that makes every life like an olam […] like an entire universe. And for the first time I’m feeling that Europeans will understand that if Europe loses its Jews, Europe loses its soul. No-one will ever, as long as human beings walk this earth, forgive Europe, if they allow Europe, 70 years within living memory of the Holocaust, become a place where it is not safe to live as a Jew anymore. The entire moral reputation of Europe is on the line, the entire freedom of Europe is on the line and therefore I say this, that at the end of the day we suffered, our people suffered. The Ramban says Jacob, after his wrestling match with the angel limped and he said, we limp after every persecution, today more than ever. But the truth is that every one of those empires I just enumerated, every one of which was the superpower of its day, every one of those has been consigned to history and our tiny people, one fifth of 1% of the population of humanity, most of whom appear to be in this room this evening, are still standing, staying on this road.

My friends, think about it, think about it. Today just as we complain that antisemitism has returned, think about the other side. Think about the fact that we’ve been around for 4,000 years and never in all of 4,000 years, did we have two things simultaneously. Number one, sovereignty and independence in the land of Israel, number two, freedom and equality in the diaspora. Sometimes we had one, sometimes we had the other, never before have we had both. And let us therefore, mindful of all the worries and mindful that we need leil shimurim, still say vehi she’amdah la’avoteinu velanu. Hakadosh Baruch Hu kept his promise with us and we will keep his promise, with, our promise with him, to believe in him, to keep faith with him, to fight for freedom and human dignity and let us all, as a Jewish people and as a humanity drink the arba cossos together and say Am Yisrael Chai.

At this point the Master of Ceremonies asks the crowd present […]. Any questions? Rabbi Levine has the microphone so just raise your hand.

Audience Member:

The Arabs don’t see the Jews as a race, they say we’re a religion, that’s why […] Israel, but you’re calling it antisemitism so I’m just wondering about that.

Rabbi Sacks:

It is very, arresting when you are having a conversation with a Muslim and I have many good and wonderful conversation partners, especially from the Middle East, who after a long conversation, sometimes years of conversations, say, why do Jews actually need a country? You’re a religion, you’re not a nation. I say if that’s true, then Islam is a religion not a nation and you have 56 countries, and then Christianity is a religion and not a nation, but there are 102 countries today whose majority population is Christian. So if you have 102 Christian nations and 56 Muslim nations, how come one Jewish one is one too many? I’m afraid that’s the only answer you can give. Don’t forget also, don’t forget also that there is only one reason the Jews and Christians […] in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem, and that’s because we were there first. That’s the only reason. They are Abrahamic monotheisms, they have read our book. And they have said that is their holy land, and it’s their holy land because it is our holy land. If our holy land were in Brooklyn then Christians and Muslims would then fight over Brooklyn, so I think you’ve got to be very crafty when you say we are a nation, just as Islam has 56 nations and Christianity has 102.

Yeah. Can you speak very loudly please.

Audience Member:

You are making the point that freedom […] explains that is essentially […] concept of […] does it help explain and why there’s a, when you look at Jews, for example, you explain antisemitism because of […] amount of freedom. But when you look at the Muslim community who haven’t had the same degree of persecution, that’s a different community. You could not only […] is really trying to deny, you know, the Muslim community a sense of freedom. Does it explain the Christian antisemitism throughout the ages? You know, I question your explanation.

Rabbi Sacks:

I’m sorry. I was going about 95 miles per hour. at that point in my speech, because I didn’t want to wander into Rabbi Levine’s endless eloquence so I was going very fast at that point. So let me now give you my analysis if I can. We are given, at the beginning of the Torah, two very interesting vignettes of failures of civilisation. Number one is the generation of the Flood, number two is the Tower of Babel. Those are the essential preliminaries to the […] And I see the central […] how can order and freedom co-exist? Yeah?


So the generation of the Flood, a world filled with violence is a world of freedom without all hope. It’s Hobbes’, State of Nature, the war of every man against every man, in which he said famously “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What you have then, is the story of the Tower of Babel and I don’t believe we have all the archaeological evidence available for us to give the full depth of interpretation of the Tower of Babel. Here it goes, what is the opening line of Genesis 11, anyone know? Vayehi kol ha’aretz safah echat u’devarim achadim. So the whole world was of one language and shared speech. And most people read that as a kind of serene beginning of nature, and the story of the Tower of Babel explains the confusion of languages. That would be fine were it not for the fact that if you read the Torah, you’ll see quite explicitly that the division of humanity to 70 nations and 70 languages happens in Bereishit Chapter 10, not Bereishit Chapter 11. So, all the other thing of one speech and one language of Bereishit Chapter 11 of the Tower of Babel is not the pristine innocence of humanity all speaking the same language.

That is if the chapters are in the correct chronological order. What we now know due to all the written documentation from Sargon II and Ashurbanipal II, is a fascinating discovery, these, the first empires, say, they actually have descriptions that really, I conquered this land and that land, and that land, and I made all the peoples I conquered speak my speech. In other words, though, the one language and shared speech of Babel is the language of imperialists, it’s the language of the first empires conquering smaller nations and forcing people to speak their language and hence Babel, and later Egypt become the paradigm of order without freedom as opposed to freedom without order. The central issue of Tanach is that issue of order and freedom. Freedom is absolutely central to the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, freedom of the will. Judaism is a religion, a culture of will and choice. Unlike Greece, ancient Greece, which is a culture of character and destiny. And these are different kinds of characters.

Freedom of the will does not function in the literature of ancient Greece the way it does in ancient Israel. So the issue of personal freedom and […] freedom is the central dynamic, and therefore Abraham is told in Chapter 12 to leave behind all the things that make you conform – your land, your birthplace and your father’s house, and go somewhere and be different. That is the […] I put forward in my book, Dignity of Difference. God told Abraham to go and be different in order to teach the world the dignity of difference. And that has been in Jewish hearts ever since. The first account of an antisemitic […] genocide in the Bible in Chapter three of the Book of Esther that we just read on Purim, yeshno am echad mefuzar u’mefurad bein ha’amim… vedateihem shonot mikol am, these are the people who are different. Antisemitism is the paradigm case of this […]. We know that every nation is different, every person is different, that’s true. The Jews were the only people who consistently over time insisted on the right to be different and the dignity of difference. They were the only population in Europe who over time refused to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith. And that is really what I define as antisemitism – this refusal to accept the right of individuals to be different, which is the central premise of […] but that’s a very long story. […]

Good, right, back of the room, yes, you will have to speak extremely loudly […].

Audience Member:

I will try. In your eloquent remarks, you touched upon Europe and the Jews. In your estimation, I know you’re not a prophet, because Rabbi Levine says you’re a prophet […] However, in your estimation, do you think that the Jews of Europe have a future in Europe?

Rabbi Sacks:

Wow. I was sitting with that wonderful historian […] Bernard Lewis 10 years ago, and somebody asked him, Professor Lewis, what do you think is going to happen in Iraq? And he said, well, I’m a historian so I only make predictions about the past. And then he said, and what’s more, I’m a retired historian, so even my past is passé. But I think the issue is serious and I will be candid with you. In May 2007, it’s nearly eight years ago, I went to see the three leaders of Europe, I was able to see the three of them together. Angela Merkel, José Manuel Barroso, the Head of the European Union, and Hans-Gert Pöttering, the Head of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and I sat with them and I said to them, Jews and Europe go back a long way, and it’s been a difficult story.


The experience of Jews in Europe added certain words to the vocabulary of humankind, words like expulsion, disputation, forced conversion, inquisition, auto-da-fe, ghetto and pogrom, even without mentioning holocaust. I said, that is the past, we will wrestle with our past, but right now the question is the future. Jews in Europe are asking, is there a future for the Jews in Europe? And that should concern you, the leaders of Europe. That is exactly what I said more or less to the date eight years ago to the three leaders of Europe. They were very shocked by what I was telling them But now, sadly, they know exactly what I was warning them about. I do not know how Europe will ever live down a situation like that, I really don’t. I mean, it’s shocking. There was a time, a couple of years ago, the Dutch Parliament banned shechitah and they called me in because of the Lord, not the Knight, the Lord thing, I’m actually a […] parliamentarian so I was able to go and address the Dutch Parliament, and I really did deliver the shortest speech I’ve ever delivered, […] after a long introduction, of two sentences, I said, Holland was where European religious liberty was born. Don’t let it be the place where European religious liberty died. And that really shocked them and they unbanned shechitah.


But yeah, we don’t want to have to do that kind of thing too often, you really don’t. Europe must know if it is not safe to be a Jew in Europe, it is not safe to be a Christian in Europe, it is not safe to be a Hindu in Europe, it is not safe to be in Europe full stop. And that has been the litmus test of every civilisation since Jews first set foot on earth. I mean, that is the test. So there is no question whatever, that the leadership of Europe, at least Angela Merkel, at least the Prime Minister of France, and at least three Prime Ministers of Britain since this began, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, all of whom have been terrific. They know what’s at stake, they really know what’s at stake. Whether all the Prime Ministers of Europe know what’s at stake, I’m not sure, I’m really not sure. I’m worried about Scandinavia, I’m worried about Hungary, I’m worried about Belgium, I mean even, I am a little worried about Holland and these are difficult, difficult, difficult times, but I do believe that as long as […] we stay and we fight because we are fighting for something very big.

And I’m speaking here specifically about England, I mean, I don’t think any of us can judge a country that we’ve […] So I cannot tell you how things are in France and in Germany and this but I can’t tell you. I’ve been to all those countries, I have a personal […], but I know that if you ask French Jews, some of them are very negative about the future, but not all of them. So, I’d be dishonest if I gave you a general principle. I think Britain’s still worth fighting for and I intend to stay and do the fight, but I do believe, I do believe that all of us have to reach out to others. I believe that Christians right now are being massacred in, well, they’ve been completely eliminated in Afghanistan. They’ve been, I mean, there were about one and a half million Christians in Iraq […] years ago today, four hundred thousand and falling. Today, virtually every Christian, who can escape from Syria has escaped from Syria. 5 million Coptic Christians living in fear in Egypt. So, you know, I think we have to be aware that this is bigger than the Jews. This really is big, and it’s an important fight. And it’s a fight in which yes, we have enemies, but we also have friends and they’re good friends and we need to make more. So I think Britain, British Jewry still has a future, the others I’m not going to pass judgment about, but you’re right to raise the question, it’s an important one.

Audience Member:

That was my question, what is the future for Jews in Europe? How can we support the Jews in Europe who are in trouble? We in the Diaspora.

Rabbi Sacks:

Chevrah, listen we know what we’ve got to do. We have to make sure that we are strong, I tell you something, you know, I tell you, every empire tried to destroy us and they failed. And yet three times our people went […] into Exile. You know when? Once in the time of Joseph and his brothers, that’s the one we’ll remember on Pesach. The second time into Babylon. The third time after the Roman Conquest. Why?


The answer is very simple. It’s the same reason in all three cases. Joseph and his brothers couldn’t live in peace together. In the days of the first Temple, after a mere three Israelite Kings, Saul, David, and Solomon, the kingdom split in two and it was your Abraham Lincoln not our Winston Churchill who said “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” And then in the days of Rome, do you know what they were doing while Vespasian and Titus were besieging Rome? The Jews inside Rome were busy fighting one another with the enemy outside. Read Josephus, it’s one of the scariest things you’ll ever read. So it turns out that there is only one people that could ever endanger the future of the Jewish people, and that is the Jewish people. Friends, we have to stay strong together. Don’t let it be Jews who stand up and criticise Israel to the world. Don’t let it be Jews in Europe leading the fight against shechitah and brit milah. Don’t let it be Jews. Believe you me, I’m going to let you into a secret, we have enough enemies already without [being enemies] ourselves. I tell you this, if the Jewish people […], for heaven’s sake, if the Jews agree, Hakadosh Baruch Hu would give up in despair, he only ever chose us because he loves a good argument. So let’s not agree, let’s carry on arguing, let’s have […] the four different children in the Haggadah, let’s carry on having thousands of different interpretations that we , but we stand together, Jews in chutz la’aretz with the Jews in Israel, Jews in America with the Jews of Europe. There is no nation that could ever hold sway against a Jewish people that was united. And so therefore, let this be our moment, just as it was in Egypt, when Jews realised we have a common enemy, they become, bnei am bnei Yisrael rav ve’atzum mimenu. It was when they realised that Pharaoh was an enemy that they united as a people for the first time. Now we have a new enemy, let us be united and I assure you, no power on earth will ever triumph over us.

Rabbi Levine:

Rabbi Sacks. I think many of us in this room would wish that they could listen to you unendingly.

Rabbi Sacks:
Great word

Rabbi Levine:

But sadly, I know that you have other places to be. We want to thank you for this extraordinary evening and we invite everyone to refreshments out in the lobby. Thank you to one and all.