Bridging the Divides: A conversation with Yair Lapid
On Judaism and Zionism in the 21st century
On 22nd October 2015, Rabbi Sacks and Yair Lapid held a public conversation at Kinloss, Finchley Synagogue, sharing their journeys and bridging the divides. Moderated by Lord Kestenbaum, and with questions from the audience, this proved to be a thought-provoking and fascinating dialogue between two very different leaders of the Jewish people.
Good evening and welcome to Finchley Synagogue. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to what promises to be a fabulous event. In a moment I shall hand over to Lord Kestenbaum, a longstanding member of our community, who will be acting as this evening’s moderator for our conversation. My thanks to him and to our honoured guests, my teacher, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and member of Knesset, Yair Lapid, who agreed to take part in tonight’s public dialogue. There’s been a huge amount of excitement about it, and I know we’re all in for a very fascinating evening.
My thanks also goes to the teams of Rabbi Sacks and Mr. Lapid, as well as the volunteers and staff of Finchley Synagogue, for helping to put this evening together and as ever, for the CST for looking after us.
Just a couple of brief housekeeping points. First, tonight’s conversation is being recorded. Secondly, please make sure that everyone makes sure that their phones are on silent. And third, if you wish to tweet along, please use the hashtag #bridgingdivides, which is on screen above and behind me.
It is now my great pleasure to pass over to Lord Kestenbaum who will introduce this evening’s discussion and our honoured guests.
Lord Jonathan Kestenbaum:
I’m good. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Rabbi Lawrence. And it falls to me, as Rabbi Lawrence said, to say a couple of words of introduction and of context, and I’d like to put it to you like this, in a world that we consistently read, is so desperately short of leadership, of vision, we are joined tonight by two people who in different ways, in different worlds and in different language are leaders in the truest sense of the world, are men a vision in the most compelling way. And equally, in a world where we are used to say, there’s so much noise, you can’t hear yourself think, we’re joined this evening by two men, who, as they said to me just now, aim to produce a little less noise and more thought this evening, a bit more light, a little less heat. That’s our shared aim.
I think we are aim, I think the two guests this evening aim, not for a further recitation of political travails and packaged solutions, but rather, genuinely a conversation, a conversation between two people, which will shed light on what makes Yair Lapid and Lord Sacks the men that they are. What sits behind their vision, why do they lead, who do they lead and in which direction? And in doing so, I hope, ladies and gentlemen, we will piece together what makes these two remarkable Jewish leaders have so much in common and at what point do their paths diverge? I think that is the aim.
So if we said tonight that it’s less about political platforms, it will probably be more about journeys than about destinations. And I hope that both of you will be able to speak in a personal way as you possibly can. Leaving us, all of us in this room, with insights that we couldn’t glean from your remarkable speeches and broadcasts.
So if that’s what we aim to do, how do we go about doing it? Well, it will be a conversation, which I will do my very best to moderate. And then of course, time for some questions and interaction. To you, our conversationalists, and you may not need me to say this, but I will give you a gentle nudge with some gentle prompts. But in addition, and again, you may not need me to say this, please feel free to interrupt each other at any point that the mood takes you. Don’t be British, Yair.
So with that being said, just a word in terms of who we have this evening. Lord Sacks grew up just a few hundred yards from this room. He was born in the year that coincided with the birth of the State of Israel. He was the student of Christ College who became a Chief Rabbi. And his remarkable story is so well known. Today, Lord Sacks is a global religious leader, renowned philosopher, bestselling author, described by the Times itself as quote, “The moral voice of our world today.” He’s the professor of Judaic Thought at New York University, professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University, professor of Law, Ethics and Bible at King’s College. For so many people, we join hundreds of thousands of others to whom his weekly Covenant & Conversation is a must read. He’s one of the most sought after broadcasters in the world. His publications have left a lasting impact and most recently, I hope we’ll hear about it, Not in God’s Name, which tackles the rather thorny question of religious extremism. He’s here with Elaine, and he and Lady Sacks are the proud grandparents of an ever-growing group.
Ladies and gentlemen, Yair Lapid was born in Tel Aviv, I’m going to suggest 51 years ago. He is a son to two remarkable parents, an extraordinary father who we will hear more about this evening, Tommy, and a very wonderful mother, the author, Shulamit. Yair Lapid became a celebrity. He was the leading television personality, a renowned popular commentator, one of Israel’s most influential voices in a country of many voices. And then, and then, on the 8th of January 2012, Yair Lapid announced that he was leaving journalism and can you imagine, entering politics? The, whatever it is, ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’. It was an astonishing entry into the political world. And after founding Yesh Atid they contested the elections for the first time in January 2013 and won an unprecedented 19 seats, becoming the second largest party. He in turn became Finance Minister, member of the political Security Cabinet. And his voice, back to voices, was continually he heard above the hubbub of kinetic politics. He seemed to strike a chord with an unusually large segment of the country.
Yair Lapid too, is a prolific writer. We will say something in a moment or two about one of his most extraordinary books. He’s published 11 of them, twice winner of the Platinum Book Award, a civic activist, married to Lihi, who is not here this evening, I don’t think, but the very proud father of three children, Yoav, Lior and Yael. Ladies and gentlemen, our two conversationalists this evening.
Thank you. So a gentle prompt from me, Lord Sacks, to kick us off. I used the word ‘journey’ in my opening remarks. And I wonder if you wouldn’t mind kicking us off with a reflection on your own journey and in particular, those forks in the road, those moments where you all remember those scenes in that fantastic movie, Sliding Doors, where one moved this way or one moved that way. And it all might have been so different for you. I just wonder, Lord Sacks, was the bio I read tonight the one that you might have written for yourself when you were growing up in the streets, a hundred yards from here.
Well, Jonathan, as you probably know, though this may come as a disclosure to others, I am an accountant mon kai because my initial ambition in life was certainly not to be a Rabbi. And my journey began here in Kinloss, in cheder, where I learned about Judaism the way anyone learns about a religion. And it was really in the summer of ’67, my first year at university, I just, in early May, made my first trip to Israel with my late father, our one bonding trip where he told me, bless him, 60 years old at the time, “Jonathan, you lack a sense of the ridiculous.” He was another man in Israel. He became younger and he became, just inspired. And it was in the anxious weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, when Jews at Cambridge had never, ever been to the little synagogue in Thompson’s Lane, people like historian Simon Schama, when they all came in every day to daven Minchah, because we were so worried that we who were born after the Holocaust were about to witness, God forbid, a second Holocaust, Naza had threatened to drive Israel into the sea.
There was a palpable move. We didn’t realise in Cambridge that this was being replicated among young Jews all over the world, especially in the Soviet Union at the time, that was the moment of awakening of Russian Jewry. When the war was over so quickly and so, almost miraculously, I was left with this question. All of a sudden Judaism was not just what I learnt here in cheder, a religion like any other. I suddenly felt that we were bound in a sense of kinship and mutual responsibility, deeply implicated in the fate of people that I never met, thousands of miles away. What was it that made us a people? What was it that made Israel so central to our lives? And I hadn’t really felt this before. And so just to meet Rabbis, my writ was not great. So I went to America the next summer, instead of going to Israel, I met many Rabbis and I was told, I heard again and again, the names, Rabbi Soloveitchik and Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, you must meet them.
It was clear to me that Rabbi Soloveitchik was the great Jewish thinker of the time and Rabbi and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the great Jewish leader of the time. So I made my way to Boston to meet Rabbi Soloveitchik, to 77 Eastern Parkway to meet the Rebbe. I said, “I’ve come 3000 miles to meet these people.” Everyone collapsed with laughter said, “Forget it.” And that was the moment of ‘sliding doors.’ If I’d have forgot it, if I hadn’t had that akshonos, that obstinacy and that chutzpah, to keep going, I might never have met them, but I did meet Rabbi Soloveitchik. I did meet the Rebbe, I had long conversations with both. Rabbi Soloveitchik challenged me to think, the Lubavitcher Rebbe challenged me to lead. And in the end, those were the two meetings that changed my life and threw all my career plans into disarray.
Yair Lapid, Lord Sacks, unprompted, started with a reflection about his father. And I hope you don’t mind me starting at the same point. As far as you’re concerned, your transition from journalist to politician transfixed so many people, and yet reading a book that I commend to you all, your book about your father, Memories After My Death, what the papers called a tour de force. You wrote the autobiography of your father after his passing. And I hope you don’t mind me asking, has it been your father of blessed memory, whose still small voice was in your ear as you were making these twists and turns?
Yeah. Well, first of all, I want to thank you for asking the first question. Rabbi Sacks, because I was sitting here telling myself, there’s no way I’m going to beat my introduction, I should leave now. Yes. And my father is still this voice within me. And for me, he’s here now, very happy with this gathering, by the way. He loved England. We spent three years here as a foreign correspondent and he was a total Anglophile, in love with the language. And besides, when he was a child in the ghetto, they used to listen to Churchill’s speeches on the BBC, even though if they were captured doing so, they would probably taken to a concentration camp. And so this voice has been following me all my life as so many of us do with our parents.
But for me, the revolving doors question is more tangible, I guess, because my revolving door moment happened before I was born. I don’t know the day. I don’t know the month. It’s January, 1945. And my father is 14 years old almost, he’s in the Budapest ghetto. The Russians are approaching the city, so the Germans starts, the Hungarian Fascists, start taking the Jews out in death convoys. They’re leading them to the Danube River and they’re digging holes in the ice, and then they shoot them into the water. The Danube is red, this winter. One very early Monday morning, they come for my father and my grandmother. They were living at the time in a basement in the ghetto, approximately 600 people in a room half the size of this room, feeding mostly from the meat of dead horses.
They started marching them, and they knew they were sentenced to death. And at this one point, and this is my point, a Russian plane lowered over this convoy. And for a second, there was a tremble and everybody was running and screaming and the Germans were shooting the Schmeisser machine guns into the sky. And my grandmother looked around her and she saw a small public lavatory painted in green and she pushed my father into it. She said, “You have to pee now.” And it’s difficult. It’s difficult to pee when you’re 13 and some, and it’s cold and you know you’re going to die pretty soon and everybody’s shooting and shouting. But he was a good kid, so he did, he peed. She entered after him, she closed the door after them. And the convoy left without them.
And 15 minutes later, from the 600 people in this convoy, 598 were dead inside the freezing water off the Danube River. And my father stood there and he was free. They took off the yellow David Star from their coats and they could go anywhere. England, The Blitz was over. England was free. London was free. Paris was already liberated. And you know what? I flew once, Rabbi Lawrence mentioned Australia to us beforehand. And so I flew once from Melbourne to Perth. Five and a half hours of flying, you didn’t see a single person or a house or anything. So the world is vast, American, Middle East is open and there’s so many places. And for my father, the 13 year old kid, there’s no place on earth he can go to. So they went back to the ghetto, hoping only that the Russians will liberate the city before the next death convoy will take place.
Many years after this, in the late ’80s, I went with my father to Budapest and he was happy to be back. My father was a fat man by nature, not only physically. He was a happy, fat guy who wanted to eat life. So we were there for three days and he was as happy as you can be. And he ate whole restaurants. One day after one of the lunches, it was in plural, the lunches, we were strolling down the street and all of a sudden he stops and he looked at something and he starts crying. He says, “Yair, look, look, look. Yair, look. Yair, look.” And I’m looking, and there’s nothing there. It’s an empty street, except from a small public lavatory, painted the green. That is still there. I went to give a speech in the Hungarian Parliament last year. And I went to see if it’s still there. I’m the only person on earth, Rabbi, you should know, that is doing pilgrimage to public lavatories.
So when he relaxed bit, he told me, this is where my Zionism was born. This is where I realised I need to have a place to go to. And if I will not have a place to go to, my life has no meaning. And this is why the State of Israel was created. And this is why I was born and I live there and I’m dedicating my life to try to change it for the better, because we have no other place to go and enough with public lavatories for the Jewish people. So these are my revolving doors.
Those are your sliding doors. Lord Sacks, [crosstalk 00:18:37].
Yair Lapid spoke about, this is where my identity was forged. You, too, have written about that famous Greyhound journey. And yet, as you made that next transition from Chief Rabbi, and sparing your blushes, to the Times’ description, “The moral voice of our age,” did you find your own identity was evolving once again? What was the next round of influences, three decades later following the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Soloveitchik?
I think identity is a journey. I think Jewish identity is just that. Our history begins with these two journeys of Abraham from Ur Kasdim and Moshe Rabbeinu and his generation from Egypt. Exactly the opposite direction that you would expect them to go, because always the traffic, the human traffic is from low civilisations to high, from poor countries to rich. The centre of civilisation in Abraham’s day was Mesopotamia, but he leaves the high point of civilisation. In Moses’ day, it was the Egypt of the pharaohs, which he leaves. So for them, life was a journey. And I see my own identity very much in those terms.
My view, however, was this, I meditated for a long time, because I was once asked by Melvyn Bragg on television, “Why did God choose to reveal Himself to that people, in that place, at that time? He could have chosen any people, any place anytime?” It was a really good question. And I meditated about it for many years. I came up with the answer that, to my mind, what actually made monotheism possible was the invention of the alphabet. And the first alphabet appears in the Sinai desert near the turquoise mines of Serabit in the patriarchal period. It’s a kind of stripped down form of demotic hieroglyphics.
When you reduce the number of symbols you need to learn to 22, for the first time, you can contemplate a society of universal literacy. In other words, a society of equal dignity, where everyone has access to knowledge. And I said, That’s actually what the Torah means when it says mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh – ‘a kingdom of priests…’, because the word ‘priest’, until recently, meant somebody who could read and write. That’s why we have the word clerical. In English, the word hieroglyphics means priestly script. The script that only priests could read and write.
So it was that revolution in information technology that made Judaism a society of equals, where we each have direct access to God. No intermediaries, you go straight to the main man, where we’re all fundamentally equal, that was possible. And then I thought that was 33 centuries ago, but we are living through a very similar moment now. The invention of instantaneous, global communication, a world of Facebook, of Twitter, of the internet, of YouTube. And I thought to myself, the worst guys turn out to be the best at it. This is what Al-Qaeda are using. This is what ISIS are using. Why isn’t somebody using this global technology to create some form of global conversation? That’s when I decided, we had to move to engage with America, with South America, with, especially with Israel. And to see whether we couldn’t create a sort of new generation of young, global Jewish leaders who would see the picture steadily and see it whole, see what’s unique about Israel, but also how to connect that with kids on American campuses and kids feeling threatened in Europe and so on. So that’s really the moment-
How did you feel you changed, as a human being, as a Jew, as a leader? Were you the same man as you were during those 22 years as Chief Rabbi?
No, of course not. I had to keep schlapping, if somebody can work out… I am ver ordinaire, I do not travel well. But it’s completely changed life because it is wonderful going to places like Israel and the States, where the fact that you are once a chief rabbi and are now a lord, doesn’t mean anything at all. In fact, Americans can’t work this out at all. They take one look at my passport, which says Lord Jonathan Sacks, and they say, “How do you do Mr. Lord? Welcome to America.”
Yeah, Yair Lapid transitions. Again, I’m going to invoke your father of blessed memory, I only had the privilege of meeting him once, he made an astonishing impression on me. I’m going to say this for you, Tommy Lapid blessed memory was not a shy man. He gave you his opinion, and you once famously said that someone asked your dad, “Tell me, Tommy, why are you so blunt? And your son is such a nice guy.” And I thought about that in tracking your transition from being, sparing your blushes, the poster boy to entering into the fickle, hurley burley, the slings and arrows. What happened to the nice guy?
Hmm. Do, do you remember the answer he gave to this question?
“I had him, he didn’t have me.” Something like that.
He said, “When I was growing up, I didn’t have me. And when he grew up, he had him.” So he had the blunt father, he could afford being nice. Well, actually listen, you’re asking, in a different manner I guess, the same question you just asked Rabbi Sacks, is how does this change you?
In 2013, this is ridiculous but I’m going to tell it anyway because it’s funny to me, after the election was all there, the Jerusalem Post made the yearly list of the most influential Jews is in the world. And they chose me, from all people, as number one. So I was happy with myself. So I went home and I came in, my wife was in the kitchen and I said, “Lihi, you know, I was chosen the most influential Jew in the world.” She looked at me, she said, “Honey, you’re not even the most influential Jew in this house.”
So, yes, it changes you in many ways. I think, you know what, you told me I’m free to address Rabbi Sacks if I have any questions. I think the ability to change is a Jewish tradition. I don’t know enough to go to the halachah and say, “Here I see.” And I don’t have your perfect memory. But we are people with a capability to change, and the ability to embrace changes. I think this is part of what kept us alive when nations who were far more strong disappeared, the pharaohs of the world has disappeared. I know it has to do with intelligence, because maybe the supreme form of intelligence is the ability to adjust to an ever changing world.
It’s a Jewish trait that we are all trying to embrace. And I think this is a very difficult time, because what you are trying to do, and correct me if I’m wrong, is saying, it’s not only the Jews are capable of changing, Judaism needs to be changed every now and then, according to what is happening around us. And if you are losing this ability in favour of chadash haso min haTorah, by a Chatam Sofer then we are doing something that is becoming threatening to us.
Well, a European writer once said, “If things are going to stay the same, then things had better change.” I really take that very seriously because there’s a difference between shinui and chidush. I hate to invoke your late father’s political party, but chidush means renewal, which means that in a sense something’s very new, and in a sense something’s changed. I call that homeostatic change. Homeostatic temperature control will be continually changing, switching the air conditioning on or off to maintain an even temperature. An airliner on automatic pilot is making adjustments every microsecond to stay on course. So I think change takes place in Judaism, but always to stay true to the essential principles. And it’s when you don’t change that you find yourself drifting off course.
So that for instance, it’s interesting that currently the most thriving, or at least demographically growing part of the population of Israel, is the one that believes, and I’m not critic of this in any shape or form, that the most appropriate dress to wear in Israel is a streimel and a kapattah which, as we know, Moshe Rabbeinu wore throughout the desert years. And people forget that this was the way Jews said this is how we ought to be in 17th century Poland.
But I don’t think the Almighty brought us back to our land, Shivat Zion, after 20 centuries, just in order to recreate the shtetl of Eastern Europe. So I think sometimes it’s the failure to change, and the insistence I’m going to keep things exactly as they were, that actually gets you way off course. And it is that homeostatic change that says we’ve got to work out, like an aeroplane, what will keep us on the trajectory that God, and history, and Jewish destiny is summoning us to.
And that challenge that you put to Lord Sacks, to the religious community, to embrace change. Do you put this same challenge to the community that, in many ways, you represent to embrace change too, in terms of how they think of themselves as Jews, how they think of faith, how they think of religion?
Well, I think there is a challenge that comes first. And the first challenge is to be able, and to be capable, to understand the concept that says, “You’re not going to have it your way.” It’s not going to be a hundred percent the way you think it should be, and now I’m talking about this current day Israel. I think the biggest threat on us is people who are being religious. You can be religious only about religion, you can be religious about your political views in this country, understand you can be religious about your football team, and people are becoming more and more religious.
What happened in this ever changing reality that Lord Sacks was talking about, in this Facebook nation, people out live in bubbles. And in these bubbles, they get only the information that is suitable to what they thought on the first place. So they have created this world in which nothing contradicts or challenges their views. To me, this is way more threatening than people who are saying, “This is the only way you can believe in God.” Because at least when people are saying this, it’s a start of some sort of a conversation. I’m more worried with the people who doesn’t want to start the conversation, unless you proved at the doorstep, that you think exactly like them. And I think Lord Sack’s writing is, in many ways, challenging this way of thinking, this kind of world, and saying, “Are we sure this is where we want to be?”
Now in a country as small as Israel, with the amount of threats surrounding Israel, this way of thinking is way more dangerous than it is in other Western societies. So I would say the opening point of the discussion in this chut hashone – how do you call alov hashalaom in English?
The dignity of difference, I’m sorry, I read it in Hebrew. And the dignity of difference, Lord Sacks said, “Okay, so the discourse, the discussion, you want to have is the beginning of whatever it is we’re going to do.” And right now I think we are under the threat of losing the ability to discuss. And this is the first place we should go renewing our ability to discuss, this is what I’m trying to do with my party, this is why we have people who are religious and people are secular, people who are central right and people who are central left. People are saying, “Okay, we agree only on 80% of what you think.” And this is enough to create something.
Do you think, Lord Sacks, it goes beyond just an ability to discuss, do we have to take this past dialogue? Must Yair Lapid make demands in terms of Jewish behaviour and Jewish practise of his community in the way that he makes demands of your community to adjust?
Well, the truth is that I find it incredibly moving that young Israelis, young secular Tel Avivian Israelis, are really searching. They’re searching for spiritual meaning, for direction, for something more than just material affluence. And I speak throughout the world, my most in enthusiastic audience, anywhere in the world, is an audience of secular Israelis. And so much so that I formulated…
I’m one of them.
But I formulated this sentence that says that I believe that secular Israelis are the only people who really believe that secular Israelis are secular. Hey maminim bnei maminim, the believer’s children are believers, and the proof is that they ask of me something that very, very few of the members of the Anglo Jewish community asked of me in 22 years, you know what a secular Israeli wants of me? A bracha, “Give us a bracha.” And I think it’s tremendous. I suspect it’s like the great quantum physicist Neils Bohr who was visited by a friend who saw he had a horseshoe over his front door. And when he came in, he said, “Neils, you can’t possibly believe in that. Do you?” And Neils Bohr said, “No, of course I don’t believe in it. But the thing is, it works whether you believe in it or not.”
So somehow there is this core of deep belief among young sacred Israelis, I relate to a lot of young leadership groups in Israel, many of them secular, some of them are mixed, and I just find them just amazing people, amazing people. Very open, really engaged with tikkun olam, wanting to make the world a better place. I don’t think you would find a group of idealists, anywhere in the world, quite as creative and as grounded as that. But what they lack, and this is what makes me weep, is rabbis who will go out and speak in their language, and respect them, completely non-judgmentally, ask nothing of them, just simply that ability to meet, and to speak, and to listen.
And I’ve tried to do conversations to show people what it looks like, for instance, with Amos Oz or with his daughter, Fania, people very, very different views from mine. But when people see that there’s something that connect us, the Jewish love of words, the Jewish belief that we can change, this crazy belief of ours that we can actually make this world a better place, that we can be mekarev hage’ulah. I think this is beautiful and powerful. And I think we need lots of young secularists saying, “We demand a more engaged rabbinate that we can talk to.”
In terms of the dialogue that Lord Sacks speaks of, Yair Lapid, leaving aside secular Tel Aviv for a moment, reflect, if you will, on the connections between your children, Yoav, Yael, Lior, and their contemporaries, in a community like this, the same co-religionists you could say, but do you think that is also becoming endangered of being a conversation of the death?
I’m not sure I’m trying to teach them that Judaism… I was listening to the Rabbi and I was actually thinking about this in a weird way, because what you are saying, above everything else, was optimistic. This is an optimistic version of Judaism. This is a Judaism that says, “I can change the world, I can change my destiny. I can use my Judaism to make the world a better place.” And I was listening to you, and I thought to myself, “Yeah, this is we’ve lost in Israel in these last 20 years.” And this is the thing that I’m using in order to make sure my children feel their own Judaism, telling them it’s the religion of opportunity. It’s, of course, like every religion, and every religion, especially Judaism, is complex and have a lot into it, and there’s Beit Shammi and Beit Hillel on everything.
And Saul Bellow wrote once, “The Jews are passionate pessimists.” But Jews are also passionate optimists. So I’m telling my children, “Being a Jew doesn’t mean that you have to go to the synagogue and sing the song in the right tone. I would love you to do this with me on Rosh Hashanah, but it’s not mandatory. Being a Jew is to know that you can draught history, philosophy, and belief in order to improve the world that you live in.” And then they say, each in a different time, but they say, “But how exactly?” And this is the moment you won the war, because now they’re curious, and to arouse the curiosity of children is always the way. And if you tell them, “While doing it, you might be helped by someone really powerful, his name is not daddy, His name is God.” And then they’re becoming more intrigued and curious. And so this curiosity that leads to this optimism, to me, is the opening gate of Jewish life in the future.
Because I think we are under the threat that in a hundred years from now, I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, but I think it’s the threat, and tell me if I’m wrong, that you’re dealing with on a daily basis, that there will be no significant Jewish life that are not Orthodox outside of Israel, with their assimilation, with the kind of ideas, with this bubble for the culture. And I think we need optimism to fight this together.
No significant Jewish life outside of Israel other than Orthodox.
First of all, just subtly, if we can alter the vocabulary, because I always try and make a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief the world’s going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make the world better. So no Jew, knowing what we do of history, can be really an optimist, but no Jew worthy of the name ever gave up hope.
The most miserable Jew of the lot, at least as far as the English language is going, you want to call somebody a pessimist, you call them a Jeremiah. And yet Jeremiah was the one who said, “yesh tikvah le’archaritech.” He was a prophet of hope.
My great-grandfather, I’m a yored of four generations, I confess, because my great-grandfather z’l, built the first house in one of the first yishuvim in Israel in 1882. And it was this little malarial swamp on the Yarkon River, and so – he was actually religious, but all of them knew Tanach – so they saw this awful river, so they called it an emek archor, a valley of trouble. And they all remembered Hosea prophesying that, “One day I will turn this emek archor, this valley of trouble, into gate of hope.” And that is what they called the town, Petach Tikva, and he built the first house in that town.
I think we have to enlist all Jews, religious, non-religious, in Israel, in chutz l’aretz, because it is not only Jews who are facing danger right now. It is the whole world right now, facing the most horrendous challenges of a fundamentalist religious movement that is spreading like wildfire. That is devastating Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the other persuasion, throughout the Middle East, parts of Africa, parts of Asia. We have an Iran crying, “Death to America, death to Israel,” that will in 10 years time be a nuclear power.
We have to engage the world right now. I think today Jews have got to become opinion leaders, we cannot be opinion followers. And right now we need to deliver a message of hope to the world, especially to the dispossessed, especially to the oppressed. I call Judaism, the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope. And I think that is a narrative in which we can enlist, not only religious Jews, but the other Jews that we’re in such great danger of losing, because giving them no message and no mission.
Is Israel that message of hope that Lord Sacks speaks of?
Israel wants to be this message of hope. Israel, and I’m saying this with pain, is not the safe haven it was meant to be, because Israel right now is probably the most dangerous place to be a Jew in the Western world. Rabbi Sack, I’m not sure, do you call him Lord Sacks or Rabbi Sacks?
You can choose.
Sorry, I’ll explain. Because Jonathan is a Lord too, so he knows that given the choice between the House of Lords and the house of the Lord, the Lord being a Rabbi, I always chose the house of the Lord. In the house of the Lord, only the Rabbi gives a sermon, and in the House of Lords, everyone.
I see. So you’ll be the Lord, and he’ll be the Rabbi, and I’m good. So you mentioned Iran. By the way, always amazes me, you saying that the burning the flags of Israel now for 35 years, where do they get at all the flags? It’s probably there’s a factory of Israeli flags. But this is not where we were going, I guess.
Israel needs to be this house of hope. Israel was established as a result, it’s not established as a result of the Holocaust, it’s established as the result of Jewish history, but the conditions were made possible due to the Holocaust. And I think the Jewish people came out of the Holocaust with two very contradicting conclusions. The first conclusion is we need to survive. We used our second chance, there will be no third chance. We need to do everything in our power, we owe it to our past, we owe it to our future, we need to do everything in our power to survive, and we need to do it by ourselves. There’s no one to trust, the world will not come to the rescue. This will be the Israeli army, this will be the first Jewish army since king David that is capable of defending us from death and destruction. And this is the first reason.
The other conclusion was that it was that we need to be moral. We need to be moral people.
The only people we are looking up to, when looking back at the Holocaust, were the people who were capable of being moral when the circumstances are immoral. The Willy Brandts of the world, the righteous, the one who is saving Jews.
The problem is, these two conclusions often contradicts each other, on daily basis. A soldier stands in Gaza, somebody’s shooting at him from a kindergarten. Survival says shoot back, Jewish morals says there might be children inside. We were the children inside. There is no, of course, one single answer to this. There is just this spiritual, emotional, intellectual tension that lives within us. Our ability to maintain these two side by side, to me, is the hope for the future of Israel, because we don’t want to be a country like all countries. We don’t want to be. But ha’am hanivchar is not a privilege, it’s a duty, and we have to fulfil this duty. The way to fulfil this duty is to hold this contradiction on daily basis, opposite daily problems, and be able to, every day, again, to come out in the other side and saying, “I want this fight once more.”
It reminds me, there were two digital sensations this year, or in the last year or two. One of them was Lord Sacks’ video, which I think has gone absolutely viral, Why I Am A Jew, and the other was your Facebook post, I Am A Zionist. I strongly commend them both to you. But Lord Sacks, taking a line from your Why I Am A Jew, very much evokes something that Yair Lapid said. You wrote, “What happens to me does not define who I am. Ours is a people of faith, not fate. But what happens to me does not define who I am.” Does that strike a chord in terms of Yair saying we have to hold both these things in some kind of alignment?
A hundred percent. Judaism, which is built on the premise that the first and most fateful gift God gave us was freedom. Freedom to change, to choose. Viktor Frankl, even in Auschwitz; “They couldn’t take from us the freedom to choose how to respond.” That means that I don’t paint myself as a victim, even if I have been a victim, even if six million of my people became victims. We maintain our sense that we are the shapers of our future.
Now it seems to me that we are still living through many traumas that were natural, but have now become dysfunctional. One of them was Israel as a Shoah u’gevurah, the ‘Never Again’ place. Israel as am levadad yishkoar, the people destined to dwell alone. Now, I’ve said about that phrase, which so many Israelis have used as their definition of Jewish identity, we are the people ‘destined to live alone’, is actually the most dangerous form of Jewish identity there can be, because if you believe it, it’s going to happen. If you see the whole world as against us, I guarantee you, five years later the whole world will be against you. You have to then stop and say, okay, we have just lived through some of the worst events that ever happened to a people since homo sapiens first set foot on earth.
But hang on, let’s take a reality check. Today, we are actually living through a period that has never existed before in almost 4,000 years of Jewish history. Never before did we simultaneously have independence and sovereignty in the land and state of Israel, and freedom and equality in the diaspora. We never had this, not in the days of Shlomo HaMelech, not in any time whatsoever, not in the golden age of Spain. We never had those two things simultaneously. For heaven’s sake, let’s stop defining ourselves in terms of ‘the world hates us, we’re isolated, we’re living on the edge.’ Why not turn it around and say, ‘You know what? We won. We survived. We’re still free. We’re still a people of hope. Israel can still bring off miracles…’ Football… but you know…?
Yair Lapid, your response on your digital sensation was this. I’m sure you recognise it. “The State of Israel,” you wrote, “Was not founded so that anti-Semites could disappear. The State of Israel was founded so we could tell them to go to hell.” What did you mean?
Well, I’m not sure it needs interpretation. There is a joy in the ability, every now and then, to tell the world, “Well, I know this is what you think of us, but tough luck.” I wouldn’t make it international sport, as some of the Israeli politicians are doing, but we decided not to be political, so I won’t name names because everybody knows who I’m talking about. But part of the Jewish life for too long was the ability to make sure the people around us likes us. And every now and then we should be able to tell them, well, you know what, we have created our own country, and we are making our own rules, and this is the way we’re going to go about.
But I completely agree with Rabbi Sacks, that this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When everybody sits in Israel and says, “No, they are all anti-Semites, they all hate us.” No, they don’t. There are good people in the world. There are people who are willing to listen. It’s not a utopia, but Karl Popper taught us that utopia is not a good thing, or not a possible. And if it’s possible, it’s bad.
So, we are never going to be normal in the sense of… It always occurs to me when I’m in France, you go to Provence and you see Jean-Pierre going out with the baguette, and you understand that his grandfather was also Jean-Pierre and he left the house with the baguette, and his great-grandfather was also Jean-Pierre, and he also left home with the same baguette, in the morning. This has been going on for quite a long time now. In Israel, it is different. We have discussed this the other day. Israel has only two timeframes, 3,000 years ago and yesterday. Part of it is that we, every now and then, can speak in the behalf of Jewish history and the things that we have learned, and tell the world, well, tough luck. We’re going to do what we think is good for us, not what you think is good for us. But again, I agree with the rabbi. We shouldn’t push this game too far.
But Lord Sacks said that isolationism is not the necessary Jewish condition, and I have to ask you both about the cause of our generation, the boycott, divestment and sanction cause. I was so struck by that piece you wrote in The Guardian against the British artists who called for boycotting. You wrote, “As an Israeli politician who supports the creation of a political state, it has been a long time…” By the way, this was written by the nice guy…
… and yet I heard voices of your dad. “It’s a long time since I saw a letter so shallow, so lacking incoherence.” You got really annoyed.
Yes. I am annoyed because I love England and the English, and because I am the son of an anglophile. It’s a combination. I said today, I was interviewed today in the BBC, and I said, “If this is just sloppy journalism, how come the sloppiness always goes to the same side?” Yes, I think there is a deep anti-Semite motive hidden there somewhere, but above everything is the fact that they do not understand what is it that we are going through. They do not understand this contradiction between survival and morality. They do not understand what does it mean to be… and we didn’t discuss this. There’s another contradiction of being a Jewish and a democratic state. This is contradiction. I mean, if you are based on ethnicity and on a religion, how can you be fully democratic? And if you are a democracy, how can you say that people who are not Jewish are not allowed to enter? Again, there is no answer. There is just the ability to be inter-vined into this question on daily basis.
So yes, it angers me, and I think the Jewish community can do a lot about this, just in saying, from the comfort of your homes, you have a cell phone, and in this cell phone you have 500 people, and you can make these 500 people write a letter, make a phone call, email, be angry, and be out loud about this anger, because they are doing us injustice. I am, for one, very fed up with it.
What is it beyond the obvious sense of offence that so inflames you about these boycotters?
Well, the Union of Jewish Students, who have been absolutely terrific all the way through, asked me in the last year of my Chief Rabbinate… they felt quite threatened… would I address the annual conference of the National Union of Students? So I did, on the subject of academic freedom. There was a big row of very religious Muslim ladies sitting in the back row. I gave them a lecture and I said, “What is academic freedom? Academic freedom is based on the Roman law principle that justice requires audi alteram partem. There is justice if, and only if, you listen to the other side. What you are trying to do is prevent people listening to the other side, and no justice can ever emerge from that kind of closure.”
After I spoke, the first hand that went up was from one of these very religious Muslim women, and I thought, “Uh-oh, here it comes.” She said, “Chief Rabbi, I didn’t actually have a question to ask, I just wanted to say thank you for coming to talk to us.” In other words, when you actually challenge people, and you stand up to people on a matter of principle, you don’t ask special favours of a special pleading, you just ask are you willing to extend to your opponents what you ask your opponents to extend to you?
That is the principle. There are people who demand respect, but refuse to give it, there are people who demand freedom, but refuse to give it, and that kind of thing. Our three year old kids know, zeh lo fair [that’s not fair]. That is an elementary offence against the first moral principle that any of us ever learned. When you stand up to it and you confront it, the opposition fades away, and I’m serious that we have to keep fighting this because every time we stand up to it seriously, we win.
Good. I think that’s an apposite moment to take a pause from this framework and to do what we said right at the beginning, which is to take a few minutes, and one or two comments from the people here.
By the way, talking about digital sensation, I think Joanna and Dan and Shimon will testify to the fact that this event with 500 people sold out in 24 hours with no advertising. Everything went online, Facebook and the rest of it, so that’s a testament to the power of the digital age, and your own attraction to people.
So I feel we do have to open the floor. Here are the rules of engagement. Please keep your comments super brief, and it is obligatory that there is a question mark at the end of what you are about to say. So with that being said, we’ll take a group of three, and I’ll move across, I promise you. So there’s one, there’s two, and there’s three. Off you go.
Hi, I’m Darren. A few weeks ago Yair Lapid said that Israel should take in zero Syrian refugees, whereas at the same time Rabbi Sacks was on Newsnight and other programmes saying that Britain should do more. I wanted to ask Rabbi Sacks how many Syrian refugees should Israel take in?
Thank you. The gentleman behind you.
My name is Daniel. Rabbi Sacks, you write extensively about what Judaism has taught the world, especially influencing Christianity and Islam. What do you and Yair Lapid think Judaism can learn from Christianity and Islam, Mohammed and Jesus?
Hello. Do the two esteemed speakers think that Zionism and Judaism are interconnected, or two completely separate things?
What is your name?
Matt, thank you. Yair Lapid, Israel should take no Syrian refugees?
Well, there is something that needs to be added to the equation. It’s not a moral question for Israelis. I understand the moral stand you are taking here, but in order for Israel to take in Syrian refugees, unlike what happened here in Britain, we need to open the border with Syria. We cannot do this, because in this border, in which my son is a soldier now, there is ISIS, Hezbollah, what was left of the Syrian army, some Jews, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a fraction of Al-Qaeda.
So Israel was making a point of saying, we are not interfering, in no way, into the Syrian conflict. We are not even saying who do we want to win, we are not saying anything about what the Russians are doing there. For us, the one thing that is important is to make sure that the border stays closed. If we will open the border, then the answer to your question of how many refugees will come to Israel, the answer is all of them, because they can walk through.
So due to security reasons, and this is why I’ve said what I’ve said, due to security reason, Israel cannot get involved in the refugee crisis that is heartbreaking, that is happening in Syria. I mean, unlike what happened in England or Germany or other European countries, for us it is not a moral question, it is more than anything a security question that has no good answer. This is the reason why I said Israel cannot be involved in the refugee crisis in Syria, not because my heart doesn’t go out for them. Every sane person in the world, especially every Jew I hope, looks at them with horror about… What, more than a quarter of a million people died there, four million lost their homes. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy.
I want to add something, if we are going into semi-hardcore politics. You have to know that since the Israeli War of Independence, since 1948, after the war, all in all about 12,000 Palestinians died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a lot. Many, many of them were terrorists, but also some thousands of innocent people would die. As I was saying, terrible tragedy. But take 12,000 people, is two weeks in Syria. Actually in the same time, 12 million people died in inter-Muslim conflict within the Arab world, killing each other. So I’m not sure that, number-wise, we are the trouble of the region, unlike what some of the newspapers here are telling you.
Is that consistent with your interview on Newsnight, this dilemma between the moral imperative, the security imperative?
Well, I was asked this question directly. You probably didn’t see it here in Britain, but both on CNN television in the States, and American national public radio, they asked me directly, why isn’t Israel taking in Syrian refugees? I told them very bluntly, number one, Israel is always, when it’s allowed to be, the first on the line with humanitarian aid, wherever there is a crisis. Number two, Israeli hospitals are right now treating injured Syrians. Number three, Israel quietly, beneath the radar, is engaged in helping in Lebanon, in Jordan, with medical aid and so on, and it’s doing this the whole time. The reason that Syrians themselves do not want to become refugees in Israel is because such is the view of Israel in Syria, that they’re worried that if they take refuge in Israel, they will never be allowed back in Syria.
So I am absolutely categorical, there is a difference in kind, as Yair has explained, between the situation between Israel and Syria, and between any other country and Syria, certainly with Europe. Of course, in terms of Europe, I spoke very specifically about the rescue of 10,000 children, which constituted kinder transport. The government actually decided to double that number, but over the period of five years, and I think that was the appropriate kind of a response. What the international community really needs to do, however, since this is a microscopic solution to a very major problem, is create safe zones within Syria under international protection, with no-fly zones, so that those refugees can be housed where they are, in safety, and that is the way the world should be helping solve that problem.
Lord Sacks, on Daniel’s question, may I personalise it to you? You have written so eloquently about what Judaism can learn from other faiths. Daniel, forgive me, let me put it to you this way; what have you learned personally from other faiths?
I wanted to give a better answer than that, Jonathan. I’m sorry about that. You don’t mind do you, if I quote another Rabbi or two? So let me, in the case of Christianity, quote one of my ancestors, Rabbi Jacob Emden, the son of the Chabud Yair, one of the great Rabbis of the 17th century, who wrote a very interesting essay on the origins of Christianity. He asked the obvious question, why was it that Paul said Christians don’t need Brit Milah, and they don’t need to keep all 613 mitzvot? He says very simply, because what were Jesus and Paul doing? They were spreading sheva mitzvos bnei Noach, the seven Noahide Laws, and therefore, since they were dealing with Gentiles, they don’t have to keep Shabbos, and they don’t have to have a Brit Milah, and that’s exactly what they were doing.
They weren’t dissenting from Judaism, they were taking sheva mitzvos bnei Noach, exactly, incidentally, as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe did, to the Gentile world. He said that is why they focused on the ethical principles that are fundamental, and Jacob Emden said, “And in those respects they went further than we did.” They made higher ethical demands of their followers than we did. This is Jacob Emden in the 17th century.
When it comes to Islam, read The Guide for the Perplexed. The whole of The Guide of the Perplexed is Maimonides in conversation with, in dialogue with the Islamic Neoplatonists and Aristotelians, from whom he gets his whole philosophical standpoint. He disagrees with them, but they opened the doors, they made those connections, and they became absolutely fundamental.
What I also added, because Muslims don’t often know this, is that the first religious defence of free speech… I mean, in Judaism you never defended free speech because can you imagine anyone that tried to stop it? I mean, they’d be flattened immediately. But the first actual religious defence of free speech is made by the Islamic philosopher Avicenna in the 12th century. It then passes to the Maharal of Prague, who quotes the argument in the name of Avicenna. It then passes, 50 years later, to John Milton in his defence of free speech in the 17th century, in Areopagitica. It then passes, two centuries later, to the British secularist, John Stuart Mill in his essay on liberty.
That is what the world learned from Islam, that’s what we learned from Christianity, and eizeh hu chacham, ha lumed mikol adam, ‘Who is wise?’ Said Ben Zoma, ‘one who learns from everyone.’
You are right, that is a much better answer than the one I was thinking.
Yair Lapid, this remarkable question about Zionism and Judaism. Speak personally about that.
Well, somebody polled it a few years back in Israel, not exactly the same question as you, it was asking Israelis, ‘What are you first, an Israeli or a Jew?’ And everybody gave the same answer. Saying, “It’s the same for me, one comes with the other… etc.” and the pollster, a guy named Finkelstein, was smart about it. He said, “That’s nice. But now, what are you first? Israeli or a Jew?” And the vast majority of Israelis, including myself, said “a Jew”. Because I will still be a Jew even if I was not a Zionist, but I cannot become a Zionist if I’m not Jewish. It’s a Jewish movement. And it’s one of great heritage and traditions, but it doesn’t stand there by itself. So there’s a simple answer to a very complicated question. The answer is, “I’m first of all a Jew, and then everything else comes… Evolves from that”.
Thank you. Let’s take a couple more questions because time is against us. Did you want to come back?
I just wanted to give an answer because it’s not unimportant. I rarely get upset. I really do. But I did once. I spent two years in a dialogue with a very senior Iranian cleric. After two years, he said to me en passant [in passing], “By the way, why do you Jews actually need a land? You’re a religion, not a nation.”
And I got quite upset, I have to say. Because anyone who opens a Chumash will see that what Moshe Rabbeinu is commanding in the Torah is how to build a welfare state, how to create a just society, how to establish courts – It’s the architectonics for the construction of a society. And a society needs a land. And Jews have lived everywhere on earth. Everywhere you go that you think you’re getting away from all the other Jews, you walk straight into all the Jews who are trying to get away from all the other Jews.
So they’ve been everywhere on earth. But in 4000 years, there was never any other place on earth where Jews could build a society in accordance with their own fundamental beliefs than Eretz Israel. That is why Judaism and Zionism go hand in hand. They are totally inseparable. And Israel is where we build a Jewish society.
Could we take a couple of questions here, but I am concerned that time is against us. So I’m making my apologies already. So there’s one here and then the gentleman there, and then someone all the way at the back.
Hi, Caroline. Firstly, thank you very much to both of you for a fantastic evening. My question arises from something Rabbi Sacks said in relation to the right to be heard. To both of you, as people who no doubt speak frequently to hostile environments, how do we bridge the divide when we are met sometimes with such visceral hatred towards both Israel and Judaism? Sometimes even being invited to the table is just so difficult when everyone else seems to think that by shouting louder, they can drown us out.
Thank you. Just one or two back. And then, if you wouldn’t mind going all the way to the back of the room.
Thank you very much. Actually, my question follows the last point of Rabbi Sacks. It’s about religious plurality in Israel. Rabbi Sacks, how would you reconcile the halachic requirements from who is Jewish and who is not? And the fact that, as a Jewish state, Israel has to, I would argue, accommodate all Jews from around the world. And at the moment, it’s not. It doesn’t seem to be happening.
And the same question to Mr Lapid. Do you think Israel should abolish… It’s the same question. It’s the same point. Do you think Israel should abolish the Halachic guidance on who is Jewish and who is not? Because I heard you talking about religious party in Washington a few months ago. You said that Israel should recognise all streams. And what’s your stance on that? Thank you.
Yakov Ashkenazi, an Israeli student.
Lord Jonathan Kestenbaum:
Thank you. And finally…
Yair Lapid prophesied that there’ll be no Jews outside of Israel that aren’t Orthodox. I was wondering, Rabbi Lord Sacks, what your opinion on non-orthodox… The future of non-orthodox in the diaspora, please.
I wasn’t prophesying. I was asking a question, but…
Yair Lapid, I’m going to start with you, to Caroline, how to make the case. Just your personal experience of when you felt, “I’ve made the case. I’ve nailed it.”
Well, there are a few ground rules to remember. I know the feeling… Going into a room, feeling somebody’s shouting at you. And you look at him and he’s all reddish and full of righteousness. And he feels that he’s right and you are wrong. And in my case, he was also the Prime Minister.
Sorry, couldn’t help myself. I’m serious. So the thing I want you to remember is that you’re not fighting over him. You’re fighting for everyone who is between you and him. The thing is, we are the people who are very good at arguments. And when we are arguing with somebody, we are trying to win him. But this is a professional mistake because the majority of people are standing between you and the shouting guy. And they don’t know…
It’s like, they know in a vague way that there’s a conflict between China and Tibet. And they feel that Tibet is right and China is wrong. You ask them why, they don’t really know, but this is the way they feel. And, they feel this way because they grabbed one piece of information. And then, for a lifetime, they’re going to go their lives thinking, “I like the guys from Tibet more”. And usually it’s because the Dalai Lama is… I interviewed him once, a great guy.
So you are talking to them and if you make sense, and if you have one or two really good arguments, this is usually enough. They tend to be so bluntly anti-Semite and they represent something that, for the majority of people, is horrible because these are the people who will represent, who are speaking in the voice of fundamentalist Islam.
Fundamentalist Islam is not very likeable anywhere. So you’re just saying, “You know what, I don’t understand why is it that you have decided that you want to represent, in my country, the Jihad?”. And the minute he starts explaining to you that he’s not representing Jihad, you already won because now he’s playing defence and you are playing offence. So this is what you do. You just remember who is your target audience, so to speak. And these are the people in between you. And please, never feel guilty or unpleasant about defending something as noble as Israel’s rights to exist.
And Lord Sacks, when did you feel you’ve nailed the case? What was the moment? How did you do it?
One moment is fixed in my memory because, in 2003, we held National Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, in Edinburgh. And the service was about to begin at 7:30 in the evening. At six o’clock, I went live on the six o’clock news on Scottish radio and television. And I was expecting a question on, you know, mah nishtanana halylah hazeh… “Why is this year different from other years? Why Edinburgh? What’s the theme?”
The opening question, live on BBC news was, “Chief Rabbi, what do you have to say to the Muslim council of Great Britain that is boycotting this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day because it fails to take account of the ongoing genocide against the Palestinians in Israel?” Which was an interesting question…
So I replied, “The Holocaust began with the debasement of language, and you have just given us a prime example of that”. I’ve never seen an interviewer back off that fast. And that was the end of that. I’ve sat in a room in which every single person in the room was violently opposed to the state of Israel and the policies of Israel.
I’m not going to identify places, but this is what I said. I said, “May I ask you a very simple question? Can I take it, that uppermost in your mind, is the future for Palestinian children?”. They said, “Yes”. I said, “I agree with you. So do I. Now let’s work out a way that we can give those children a future.” And all of a sudden, the entire atmosphere dissipated and we had a serious conversation. Never ever allow your opponent to define the terms of the conversation or the mood of the moment.
You have to step back, become a bleak, turn around and join them on that side of the table. And you can do extraordinary things. I think we’ve been around long enough to do subtle. I wrote this book, “Not in God’s Name”, and Andrew Neil of The Spectator said to me, “Why don’t you actually name ISIS?” All I said, “Andrew, I’m doing subtle”. He said, “I’m a Scotsman, we don’t do subtle”. But I think the Jews, sometimes we have to do subtle and let other people lose their cool and never let us do likewise.
I will only add that you can sometimes also hold the gun while doing subtle.
Yeah, Lord Sacks, could you briefly take those last two questions together? And if I may paraphrase, in different ways, they were pressing you both on the Jewish character of the state of Israel. Address that, would you?
Well, I’m a great believer in Jewish pluralism. I think it’s enough that we have, right now in Israel, yehudah in Yerushalaim. The Tel Aviv kind of Israel versus the Jerusalem kind of Israel. We don’t need Bavel in Yerushalayim as well. We don’t need also to separate ourselves from the diaspora. For moral reasons, for emotional reasons, for practical reasons.
I mean, I was fighting within and outside of Israeli government, trying to make sure that other streams of Judaism, reform and conservative, will have equal rights within Israel. And Prime Minister was explaining to me, why is it impossible, politically, in current day Israel?
But then there was the Iranian deal. And who did we go to? To the same reform and conservatives in the United States, asking them for the help. I’m saying, if somebody is Jewish enough for me to call for the rescue when I’m in trouble, he should be Jewish enough for me when he’s doing his chatuna [wedding], and Bar Mitzvah and even conversion. So, I think it’s inevitable because we don’t want to lose the majority of the American Jewry and we don’t want to lose the reform conservative Jews in this country and other countries.
To go along with the example of the kappotah and the streimel Rabbi Sacks was using, Judaism should be able to change. Not all Jews, not all Jews at the same time. And we have to be able to be more respectful to the way people are looking at their own faith.
I think you’ve written books about that. Haven’t you?
Well, look, I’ll tell you the answer given by the later of Moshe Feinstein. The Gadol HaDor, who was asked early on in Operation Exodus, I think it was called, the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. And he was asked, “Are Ethiopian Jews Jewish ‘k’halachah‘ [legally]?” He gave the following answer, its printed in Igrot Mashe. He says, “I don’t know if they’re Jewish k’halachah. What I do know is, they’ve risked their lives to identify with the Jewish people, and if they have done so, we owe them a duty to rescue them, to bring them to Israel, and make them at home there.” And if Moshe Feinstein can say that, so can I.
I have to tell you that my late father alov hashalaom – We began with fathers, I’ll end with mine. In his eighties was no longer able to travel. He had a lot of operations. He couldn’t really walk. So he did the next best thing. He had my late mother, alev hashalaom, drive him up and down Golders Green Road. And he always used to say, “The bit by the station, that’s Tel Aviv, the other end, that’s Yerushalayim”, about which I say, it’s one Golders Green Road. It’s one Jewish people. And we’ve got to keep it that way.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m getting lots of terminal signs. So you will forgive me if I’m called upon to draw an evening to a close, and I’m going to do it in the following way. We started our evening talking about journeys, and I’m going to end the evening by putting something to you both personally, about your own journeys ahead of you.
Lord Sacks once wrote that Judaism is the only civilisation whose golden age is in the future. So I’m going to ask you both about your future golden ages. I started by talking about the young boy from Finchley, who last year, President Peres called the ambassador of our heritage to the entire world. I also spoke about the TV celebrity, who, whatever his wonderful wife thinks, was still voted the most influential Jew in the world. And yet, that was in the past. Lord Sacks, I know you hate doing this, but if we three would reconvene 10 years from now, what would the journey between now and then look like for you?
The journey between now and then would be discovering, as you will discover, Lord Kestenbaum, very soon, the delights of knowing that your grandchildren know better than you. So the truth is, that to stay young, always follow your grandchildren. Always understand what matters to them.
And of course, let us just repeat that wonderful remark that Shimon Peres says nowadays, when people say, “Mr. Peres, at 92, how come you stay so young? And he always says this. He says, “You got to sit down and count your achievements. And then you’ve got to sit down and count your dreams. If your achievements outnumber your dreams, you’re old. If your dreams still outnumber your achievements, you’re young.”
So for the next 10 years, I’m going to keep dreaming.
Very good. Yair Lapid, is Chaver Knesset Lapid’s golden age in the future?
Well… Let me put it this way, I think if we’ll meet here 10 years from now, I will be the same person, but there’ll be lots more security.
[Laughter and applause]
But, I know it will be difficult to believe, this is not important, that whatever is in my future in terms of the jobs I’m going to do.
The more important thing, I feel that I have a duty and the duty is – we will not be able to go into it now, but the thing is – I think for the survival of our people, we need to be able to do this one more historic, huge effort and separate from the Palestinians.
Because the situation as it is, is a threat to the Jewish identity of Israel. And my father didn’t come from the ghetto to live in a binational state, or even worse, in a country with Arab majority. He came from this public lavatory to live in the land of the Jews and in the free country of Jewish people. And in order to make sure this dream survives, we need this current generation of Israeli leadership to be able to lead. And leading is a tricky game because most people, when they think about leadership, they think about being opposite the enemy, but true leadership is the ability to stand to your own people. Tell them sometimes the things they don’t want to hear. Making sure they move in the direction that is right for them, even with all the agonies involved. So this is my dream for the next 10 years.
Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, there are many thanks to give: To the organisers who worked tirelessly, who filled a room of 700 people within 24 hours. To you, a wonderful audience, thank you for that. But above all, before you leave at the back of the room, on your behalf, I wanted to thank our conversationalists. We asked Yair Lapid and Lord Sacks, when we began the evening, for personal insights. They gave us more than we could possibly have asked for. They did it with humility, with insight, with terrific humour, but above all, with a soaring sense of vision. So ladies and gentlemen, on your behalf, I would like to thank two remarkable people, Lord Sacks and Yair Lapid.