A Vision for Global Jewish Peoplehood

In June 2012, Rabbi Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi at the time, was asked to deliver a video message for the Hillel Foundation’s Global Leaders’ Forum which took place that summer in Jerusalem. In the message, the Chief Rabbi answers questions from the students on issues such as the role a global Jewish peoplehood can play in the future of the Jewish world, the ability of technology and the internet to advance this role, and how is this relevant to students in particular.

Greetings and blessings to all of you taking part in this great Hillel Global Leaders Forum. I’m so sorry I can’t be with you in person, but here is a little lesson in globalisation. Thanks to the miracles of technology, I hope I can be with you and share a little of the excitement that you’re about to experience.

My congratulations to all of you, this is an extraordinary gathering. I gather you have people here from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, and Uruguay. So may all of you together bring inspiration to one another. My congratulations to every one of you, especially, of course, to Hillel President Wayne Firestone and to the lay leaders from all the various countries. And I wish you brachah v’hatzlachah b’chol ma’aseh yadeichem, blessing and success in all you do.

You’ve asked me to share with you a few thoughts about globalisation. So let’s just go through the questions you asked me.

Question One: what role can you imagine global Jewish peoplehood playing in the future of the Jewish world and of the world at large?

Well, you know, globalisation is the buzzword of the 21st century and for everyone else, it’s the newest of the new, but for us, it’s the oldest of the old. Think about this: for 2000 years, Jews were scattered around the world. There’s hardly a country they weren’t present in, they were scattered everywhere. And yet in all that time, they saw themselves and were seen by others as one people – the world’s first global people. And therefore for us, this is something we know all about. We may be a tiny part of the population of the world, one fifth of 1% of the population of the world. But if we act globally, we can do what we have always done, had an impact on the world, out of all, proportion to our numbers.

Let me give you a couple of examples where I saw global Jewish peoplehood in action. In 1999, I went with a camera crew from the BBC to Kosovo at the very end of the NATO action there. The Kosovo and Albanian refugees were just coming back, and the commander of the NATO forces General Sir Michael Jackson was there and he said to me this – he said, “Your people, the Jewish people, have done the single most important thing that can be done now to signal that things have returned to normal.”

He explained to me that was making sure the schools opened on time because when kids who had been refugees for all that time were able to go back to school and there is the school opening on the first day of term that is a sign, to everyone, that peace has returned and things are back to normal.

And he turned to me and he said, and it’s to the Jewish people, we have to thank for that. The Jewish community of Pristina are currently opening and running all of Pristina’s schools. That’s what I heard from the commander of NATO forces, General Sir Michael Jackson.

I made a few inquiries. How many Jews actually are there in Pristina? The answer came back, “15.” Now go figure, this tiny little handful of Jews was running the school system in Kosovo. How come? Well, because you know, the Almighty invented this very Jewish thing called the mobile phone. You get on the phone, you get in touch with the Joint, you get in touch with World Jewish Relief, you get in touch with ORT, you get in touch with Israel, and sooner or later you’ve got the entire Jewish people coming together to make sure the schools in Pristina open on time.

Or, let me give you another example. The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. I don’t know if you know about this. In 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Rwanda, a Jewish lady in New York, Anne Heyman, was watching the television, seeing a documentary about the plight of the orphan children left behind after eight hundred thousand Tutsis and their friends were murdered in a mere hundred days in 1994.

And, as she tells the story, she was watching this television programme and saying, hang on, I’m Jewish. We have to do something about this. So she remembered that there’s a Jewish youth village for orphans in Israel called Yemin Orde, whose director is somebody called Chaim Perry. So Anne gets on the phone to Chaim Peri. Chaim, We have to do something for these Rwandan children. Then she gets in touch with Reuven Feuerstein in Jerusalem, the world’s greatest expert in dealing with severely damaged children, and so on and so forth. She makes phone call after phone call and little by little, the Joint in America and Israelis, Ethiopians, children of Holocaust survivors, and the rest, come together and build the most beautiful youth village on the Yemin Orde model in Rwanda called the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village for 750 Rwandan orphans, teaching them leadership skills, computer skills, how to grow avocados and all the rest.

Here is how a tiny, tiny people can have an impact on the world. And the world needs that impact. Go figure, for every Jew today, there are 100 Muslims, 183 Christians, and still we have an impact way beyond our numbers. If we satisfy the following three conditions, number one, we act globally, number two, we are inspired by the highest Jewish ideals and number three, we follow the essential mandate of Judaism, be true to your faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That is the answer to Question One – What can we do globally?

Question Two: How can global exchange, especially in this digital age, advance or challenge this vision?

I think global exchange is vital. For Jews to have that impact we have to feel connected to and with other Jews across the world. And that is an old Jewish custom, you know, apart from when we’re saying the Amidah, Jews never stand still.

Jewish life begins with two great journeys. The journey of Abraham from Mesopotamia, the journey of Moses and the Children of Israel from Egypt. To be a Jew, is to be on a journey, to be a Jew is not to stand still.

And so there were great exchanges throughout history. You know, in the days of the Talmud, Jews in Babylon would come to Israel to study, Jews in Israel would go to Babylon to study. In the days of the Chassidic movement, people would travel to different towns to study with this Rabbi or that Rabbi, likewise, with the Yeshivas of Eastern Europe, they would go from one to the other. And the truth is that there’s inspiration to be found in every Jewish community in the world.

From American Jewry we can learn what it is for Jews to have a strong public presence. In Anglo Jewry, (well, I’m slightly biased on that subject and you wouldn’t expect me to be otherwise), you can discover how to transform a community. In 20 years, in Anglo Jewry, we have taken a community where 25% of Jewish children went to Jewish day schools to one where 70% of Jewish children go to Jewish day schools. We’re a small community and therefore it’s easier to transform small communities than big ones. From French Jewry, you’ll learn how to combat antisemitism.

From Italian Jewry you’ll meet Jews who have known enlightenment and equality for longer than any other Ashkenazi Jewry in the world. From German Jewry, you’ll learn what it is to cope with a huge influx of Jews from elsewhere, Russian Jewish immigrants. From South African and Australian Jewry you’ll see what it is to have two communities that are very strong, very traditional, have incredible Jewish Day Schools and a very strong commitment to Zionism and so on. From Polish Jewry you’ll understand what it is to reconstruct a community that had been almost entirely obliterated in the Holocaust. From Sephardi Jewry, you’ll learn things that I only wish our Ashkenazim had – sense of tolerance and sense of dignity, a sense of slowness at least so much in the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim. And of course the oriental Sephardim have an absolute passionate faith, which I deeply envy. Every Jewry has something to teach every other Jewry as Ben Zoma said in the Talmudic Age, eizeh hu chacham, halomed mikol ha’adam. Who is wise, one who learns from everyone.

So I would encourage that global exchange because it will increase your understanding of the different ways Jews do things in different places, and it will build connections between us.

[Question] Number three: How, in particular, is this vision relevant to college students? Well, I think it is for three reasons.

Number one, college is the time when you have the most of the world’s greatest untapped resource of renewable energy. What do I mean, solar energy? No. Wind turbines? No. The greatest untapped resource of renewable energy is altruism. Challenge students to do something great for the sake of others and they will rise to that challenge. That is why this vision is so compelling to university students.

Number two, college is usually the first time most young Jews have had real responsibilities of leadership. I began as a Jewish leader because I was the head of the Jewish Society at the university where I was studying. That was my first real induction into leadership. Leaders are not born, they are made, and they are made when people have the opportunity and the responsibility to lead and that is what Jewish student life offers young Jews.

And thirdly, this vision is so sharply at odds with the vision, most university Jewish students, at least the ones I know have been getting from the Jewish community, which consists of the following. Number one, antisemitism is on the rise. Number two, Israel is isolated. Number three, ergo, the world hates us. Frankly, I think that is the world’s most negative message and it can do nothing good whatsoever for Jewish identity in the future. That narrative, that tear-laden, self-pitying narrative is the wrong narrative. Yes, there’s antisemitism. Yes, Israel is isolated, but we are not going to conquer those things without going out and making friends, without going out and inspiring young Jews. So I don’t say “be complacent.” I do say “be vigilant.” But let the message that goes out to university students be challenging, be positive and be have with it, the real scope for leadership. So that is my answer to Question Three – Why does this speak to university students?

And finally, well, what’s your fourth question? Let’s have a look…

[Question Four] As boundaries that used to separate or isolate communities, cities, states, and countries become increasingly porous, what are the implications of this for Jewish particularism?

Well, let me be blunt: Jewish particularism is something that we have to play, re-score, in a different key in the 21st century. I will be very blunt with you. We know ata birchatanu mikol ha’amim. You chose us from all other nations. To be a Jew is to be chosen. But you go out and simply say that and no more today, and you will be thought guilty of racism, of ethnicity, of goodness knows what. How do we deliver a compelling message of chosenness in the 21st Century? I wrestled with that question for years. And I came up with a paradigm shifting phrase. I called it “the dignity of difference”.

Jews were different. That’s why Jews were hated. Antisemitism is dislike of the unlike. We were different so we were hated. As Haman says in the book of Esther, “yeshno am echad m’foozar umeforrar bein ha’ammim… v’dateihem shonot mikol am” (Esther 3:8), [meaning] “they’re different from anyone else.” So we were hated because we were different.

“Ah,” you’ll say, “Everyone is different.” Well, yes, everyone is different, but Jews were the only people who consistently over time insisted on the right to be different, the duty to be different, the dignity of difference. They were the only people who over the centuries refuse to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the majority faith. We are the paradigm case of difference, but everyone is different. Therefore Jews were given this message to show every people in the world that being different is something glorious and not something to be ashamed of. We were charged with the mission of teaching the world the dignity of difference.

Now, that is how you universalise particularism. It was a radical message. And I wasn’t sure that it would work. And therefore I road-tested it for two years. Each year, my wife and I give a reception for the leaders of the National Union of Students. They’re not Jews. They come from all sorts of different faiths and ethnicities. They are not Jewish, but they come and they study with me and we give them a reception. For two years, I gave them a shiur on the dignity of difference. And I watched the impact it had on Hindu students, Sikh students, Africa, Black African students, students from the Caribbean. And at the end of this year, I saw them all walk a little taller. I could even see them thinking, “Hang on, we always knew we were different, but we thought that was a bad thing. And now Chief Rabbi is telling us it’s a good thing.” And, I suddenly realised, this is a message that works not only with Jews, but with everyone. It is the way of universalising particularity. Not losing particularity, but universalising it.

And therefore I coined a sentence, which the non-Jewish students at London University so liked that they have made a little plaque and put it on the front wall as you come into the building of the Student University Union headquarters in London University. And it says, “By being what only we are, we contribute what only we can give.”

That is a very beautiful idea. And it’s the idea we need in this global age, because this global age is throwing together more different ethnicities and religious communities than people have ever had to cope with before. We are going to have to live with difference and Jews are better qualified than in the world to deliver that message.

And therefore, that is my message. This globalising world has to stress our commonalities: we’re each in the image of God. But it has to value our differences as well. We are each in an image different from everyone else. As the Rabbi said, “When human beings mint many coins in one mould, they all come out alike, God makes everyone in the same mould, in His image, yet we all come out different.” That is the message the world needs to hear in the 21st Century.

And that is the message we should be delivering to ourselves, and for others.

So let me wish you, every success. Let me urge that you go out and transform the world, and do so out of a deep Jewish commitment. And therefore, when you go out to the world, daven every day, learn a little Torah every day, and then go out and change the world. Do your bit to make the world that is a little closer to the world that ought to be. That way you will bring blessing to the world and pride to the Jewish people.

Go out there and inspire. And may God be with you, blessing everything you do.