A free society is a moral achievement

Rabbi Sacks receives The Bradley Prize

On 15 June 2016 at a ceremony in Washington DC, Rabbi Sacks was awarded one of The Bradley Prizes by The Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Prizes are awarded each year to four individuals in recognition of their work; together with Rabbi Sacks the other recipients were: social scientist and author Charles Murray; historian and author Andrew Roberts; and humanitarian and actor Gary Sinise. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it. The ceremony was hosted by George Will, one of America's leading political commentators, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the prize itself was presented by Michael Grebe, President of The Bradley Foundation.

Beloved friends,

I am touched, moved and humbled by this award from a great institution dedicated to a noble cause. I am also mindful of the fact that you have given me precisely eight minutes in which to express those thanks. It reminds me of the occasion when George Bernard Shaw was invited to give a talk about English literature. “How long do I have?” he asked. “8 minutes,” came back the reply. “How am I supposed to say everything I know about English literature in 8 minutes?” asked Shaw. To which the reply came back: “Speak very slowly.”

So, speaking very slowly, my mind goes back to the first time I set foot in Washington. It was the summer of 1968. I was a student, travelling around America on a Greyhound bus. I arrived at dawn on a cloudless day, and for the next three hours I walked around the Mall, awed by the great monuments to Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson. What fascinated me was that each came with its own texts. The Lincoln Memorial had the Gettysburg Address on one side, and on the other, the Second Inaugural. And so with the others. I suddenly realised that American memorials are not just to be seen but also to be read.

It’s the exact opposite in London. Go to Parliament Square and you will see that the memorial to David Lloyd George has just three words: "David Lloyd George." Benjamin Disraeli gets two: "Benjamin" and "Disraeli". As for Churchill, he gets just one: "Churchill".

Why the difference? Because England is a traditional society, where things are there because they’re there. Whereas the United States is that rare phenomenon: a covenant society. Covenant societies represent conscious new beginnings. They are founded on an idea, dedicated to a proposition. They have a story, and they make sure no one forgets the story, which is why they inscribe it on monuments and teach it to their children.

The reason this resonated with me is that the first-ever covenant society was Israel of the Bible. Actually, it’s the same story. Israel’s story is about the exodus from Egypt and from a tyrannical Pharaoh, a journey that took them through the Red Sea. For Egypt, read England, for Pharaoh, George III, and for the Red Sea, the Atlantic, and you have the American story. Which makes your generosity tonight in honouring two Brits, Professor Andrew Roberts and myself, even greater. I’m glad you’ve moved from freedom from the British to freedom with the British. So thank you yet again.

But what has concerned me these past few years is the sense that we’re beginning to forget the story, believing instead that freedom is the default option in politics, that it just happens, that it’s the norm, not a rare exception, that it delivers rights without responsibilities, and that once won, it lasts forever. These are all mistaken beliefs, doubly dangerous now that the threat to freedom is greater than at any other time in my lifetime.

The events currently shaking the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe may seem far away, but in a global age, nothing is far away. And if the West allows the future to be shaped by Russia or China, ISIS, or Iran, it will not be democratic, and it will not be free.

Yet the danger is not primarily external. It never is. It comes from within, and it happens when we forget the story. The liberty we enjoy now was born in the seventeenth century through minds like those of Milton, Locke, and Spinoza. What they understood was the fundamental truth that a free society is a moral achievement.

They contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with license, the freedom to do what we want. They knew that freedom needs strong institutions, bigger than the individual but smaller than the state: marriages, families, communities and voluntary groups where we learn the art of association that Tocqueville memorably called the apprenticeship of liberty.

Today, as Charles Murray has so powerfully documented in Coming Apart, many of those institutions are in disarray, especially among the groups that need them most. When there is nothing between the individual and the state, in hard times you get the politics of anger; which we’re seeing in Europe in the rise of the far right and far left, the far right seeking a return to a golden age that never was, the far left pursuing a utopian future that will never be. If I’m not mistaken, there is something of the politics of anger even in America today.

One danger signal is the return of antisemitism within living memory of the Holocaust. I say this not because I’m Jewish, but because the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.

Today the enemies of freedom primarily focus their attacks on two targets, the United States and Israel: the United States because it’s the supreme embodiment of freedom in the modern world, Israel because it’s the most successful experiment in freedom in the Middle East. We see this in the BDS anti-Israel campaign on university campuses. Ostensibly it’s about human rights, but in fact, it is about denying the first rule of justice: Audi alteram partem, “hear the other side.” What the campaigners are doing is ensuring that the case for Israel cannot be heard, and that is only the beginning.

Today in universities there is an attempt to create “safe spaces,” that is, places that exclude the voices with which we disagree. Freedom is not safe space. It is where we take the risk of making space for the people not like us. That takes moral courage. Liberty demands no less.

This unique freedom is the contribution of the Judeo-Christian heritage to the West. It was built on truths that, begging Thomas Jefferson’s forgiveness, are not self-evident: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed; that society is formed by social covenant and sustained by the collective responsibility of “we, the people”. Freedom of this kind never emerged elsewhere. It was achieved only through struggle and pain, and we forget this at our peril.

Moses knew this. Even before the Israelites left Egypt he had already commanded them to teach the story to their children every year until the end of time; not just tell it but relive it, eating the unleavened bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery, so that they would never forget what the loss of freedom tastes like. Memory is the guardian of liberty.

What I saw, on that dawn walk in Washington forty-eight years ago was something of that faith, engraved in stone on the memorials of America’s heroes of liberty: a story handed on from generation to generation, never finally finished, never without its risks and failures, but a dream capable of inspiring us still with its vision of a world where human dignity does not depend on colour, class or creed, where each us has a place of honour because we have learned to honour those not like us.

Today, as large swathes of the world descend into a Hobbesian state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short, where the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, we must stand together, Christian and Jew, America and Israel, defenders of liberty of all faiths and none, to teach the story to our children, of how freedom was won against seemingly impossible odds and how it needs to be fought for in every generation. We need to renew the covenant that brought freedom to people fleeing from oppression, reminding ourselves of the monumental truth written in the lines of Jewish and American history: that no force on earth can defeat those for whom freedom is engraved on their hearts.

In that ongoing story, the Bradley Foundation plays a vital role. I salute you and thank you. May all you do be blessed.