Issues facing World Jewry: Interview for The Jewish Broadcasting Service

JFNA’s General Assembly in Washington DC

During the Jewish Federation of North America’s 2014 General Assembly, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by Rabbi Mark S. Golub for The Jewish Broadcasting Service. The programme included Mark and Rabbi Sacks discussing the state of Judaism and his perspectives on issues facing world Jewry including the rise of antisemitism and Israel-Diaspora relations.

Mark Golub: I’m Mark Golub, and here at the 2014 General Assembly I want you to know there are a lot of wonderful people here, a lot of people who are making extraordinary contributions to Jewish life. I have the thrill right now to sit with somebody I have watched for the last eight years. That’s the length I’ve been aware of his work, and I have thrilled to it in so many ways. In some ways, this man is making more of a contribution to Jewish life worldwide than any other single individual. Again, there are many people here and throughout the Jewish world who are doing wonderful things, but not as doing more than this man right here, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who you’ve seen many, many times on JBS Shalom TV. What a wonderful opportunity and thrill for me to sit with you. Thank you so much.

Rabbi Sacks: Mark, I regard it as an honour. I have to remember, when you say all those nice things, that a wise man once said, “Compliments are fine, so long as you don’t inhale.”

Mark Golub: Beautiful! You’re here, you’re speaking a number of times at the GA. And I wanted to ask you simply to talk a little bit about, from your perspective, what you consider to be, let’s say the one or two most serious problems confronting world Jewry. You and I spoke before we went on camera. I’ve heard you speak, we saw you speak with Rabbi Soloveitchik here and back in New York. And I’ve heard you other times as well. But you’re the first one I heard made sure we here in America, American Jews, understood the extent to which antisemitism in Western Europe was going to be a serious, serious problem. Now, you were for many, many years, 12, 13 years…? How many years were you the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain?

Rabbi Sacks: 22.

Mark Golub: 22. I’m off by 10! By 22… 22 years. You saw an evolution of Jewish life in England and in Western Europe. Jonathan, give me a sense right now of what you feel American Jewry, and really you’re talking now to non-Jews here as well, a large audience in America… What do you need us to know about the antisemitism that is endemic at the moment in Western Europe?

Rabbi Sacks: Well, I think it’s very important to understand: it’s a new phenomenon. This is not the old antisemitism. We were hated in the Middle Ages because of our religion. We were hated in the 19th and early 20th century because of our race. We are now hated because of our nation state. So, the new antisemitism is essentially anti-Zionism. And it is bringing together some very problematic elements. There’s some radical Islamists, there’s some far-left people. But in general, what happens is: when the world is going through difficult problems people look for somebody to blame.

That’s not the Jewish way. We say, “Ashamnu bagadnu”, and ‘Listen, we’re the problem. Let us put it right.’ We don’t blame other people for our problems. But historically people, when they’ve gone through real change, real turbulence, and the world is going through turbulence at the moment, they’ve looked for somebody to blame. They blame the Jews. Now they blame Israel. That’s the shape of the new antisemitism. I think because it is a global phenomenon, conveyed by the internet, conveyed by YouTube, it has to have a global response.

Mark Golub: To what extent, Jonathan, is it driven in Western Europe by Islamic fundamentalism?

Rabbi Sacks: I think that’s a significant dimension of it. That is certainly not the Muslim world as a whole. There are relatively few. But their techniques are extraordinary. They’ve understood, just a few people and a few scary incidents. One person saying, “Death to the Jews,” in a march, and they traumatise everyone who picks up on it. So, quantitatively, it’s not huge, but its potential impact is very dangerous.

Mark Golub: Right. It’s important for you to explain that to us more. When you say quantitatively, it is not that significant. If I were living in London, or in the outskirts of London, or wherever throughout Great Britain. As a Jew, would I be frightened?

Rabbi Sacks: I hope not. But let me give you an example. The first time I really picked up on this was after 9/11. A guy who’d been a radical Islamist, his name is Ed Hussein, and I think he’s currently in the States. He was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is a radical Islamist group. He did teshuvah. He became a peacemaker. But he wrote a book called The Islamist. And in it he describes how half a dozen radical Islamists were able to intimidate an entire university. And that’s when I realised that there was very subtle work going on here.

So, a few people can make an impact that’s vast. The thing we really need to do is to explain to the British public, the European public, the global public, that antisemitism isn’t just about Jews, or just about Israel. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler. It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Stalin. And it will not be Jews alone who suffer under radical Islam. All our Western freedoms are at stake.

Now, if we can get that message through throughout the West, we will find that we don’t have to fight this phenomenon alone. We may be leading the fight. But I said many years ago, ‘Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone. The victim cannot cure the crime.’

Mark Golub: When you talk to colleagues in France, is it worse than it is in Great Britain? Is there something you share with your colleagues in France?

Rabbi Sacks: We’ve been working together as a rabbinate across Europe for over half a century, and that’s good, close constant cooperation. So, it is less extreme in Britain than most other places in Europe. There are a lot of French Jews who are leaving France to live in Britain. We have new French Jewish communities growing up throughout London. So I think in Britain, the situation is still well under control. But the French, the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the Hungarians, the Greeks. I mean, this is a big phenomenon. It’s different in every country, but it’s serious in every country.

Mark Golub: What we understand is it is not sanctioned by any European government. Sometimes you hear American Jews say, “We wish European governments took a harder stand on prosecuting any antisemitic incidents.” How do you feel the British government is handling this? Are you satisfied? Are there things that make you concerned?

Rabbi Sacks: I think the British government has been absolutely exemplary. I was privileged to have, as Chief Rabbi, a very close friendship with the three Prime Ministers who’ve been through this period since antisemitism became real and important around 14 years ago. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and David Cameron have all got up in public, on the record: ‘The Jewish community will never have to fight antisemitism alone.’ It’s been led from the top, from the Prime Ministers, and all the way down the tiers of government and the parliamentarians. They have been leading the campaign. So I think Britain’s been exemplary. I think I have to salute Angela Merkel in Germany, who has also been outstanding. Elsewhere, I’m afraid the reactions of governments has been the tiniest bit muffled. But antisemitism has not gone politically mainstream in very many European countries.

Mark Golub: What about Great Britain and its relationship to Israel? And also, there seems to be a move within Great Britain to aid the Palestinians in establishing a sense of statehood. I’m curious whether you feel, at the moment, the British government in that regard, is on the right track.

Rabbi Sacks: Look, let’s be blunt here. The British have always felt for the underdog. They will always back David against Goliath. Now for many years, the early years of the State, everyone saw Israel as a David surrounded by these huge and very aggressive neighbours. And so they were instinctively pro-Israel since ‘67, ‘73, ‘82, since the Palestinians have effectively presented their cause, they see the Palestinians as David and Israel as the Goliath. Now we have to tell them that life is more complicated than that, but there’s nothing antisemitic about that. Do understand. There is a little edge of antisemitism in some of the extreme anti-Israel politicians, but they are very few, the most tiny minority and all the three Prime Ministers that I mentioned, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron were all rock-solid in their support for Israel.

Mark Golub: Okay. So let’s switch gears at the moment. I want to talk to you now about Judaism. I say this because I don’t want to embarrass you, but I’ve told you off-camera as well. I don’t think there’s anybody doing a better job at exciting the typical Jew who doesn’t yet understand the genius, the beauty, the grandeur of the Jewish tradition. Your writing, your speaking, has brought so many people in to a greater embrace of the Jewish tradition. You were the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain for 22 years. You represented the Orthodox movements in England. Correct?

Rabbi Sacks: Mm [nodding].

Mark Golub: I feel, and you have to tell me if I’m being over-romantic here, that you are embracing what you write and teach. You’re embracing Jews wherever they fall in the spectrum of observance. There’s questions as to, institutionally, how do you feel about Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism. But your approach to Jewishness is about also embracing Jews no matter where they fall on the spectrum, and then attempt to bring them in. Am I reading you properly?

Rabbi Sacks: 100%. We are one family. We have some of the biggest arguments within the family, now why is that? Because if you have a really serious argument with a friend, you may lose a friend. You have a serious argument with a member of the family, he or she is still a member of the family and you still care about one another, value one another, and love one another. I believe every single Jew is precious. I learned that from a very great Rabbi indeed, who had a huge personal impact on me, who actually sent me on the course to becoming a Rabbi. That was Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom I met as a young man age 20.

Mark Golub: Oh! In what circumstance?

Rabbi Sacks: I came in 1968, with a Greyhound bus ticket, to meet as many Rabbis as I could meet. I never really thought the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but I was meeting all these Rabbis and they were saying, “Listen, if you’re going around meeting Rabbis, there’s one you’ve got to meet.” That’s the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It’s a long story, and we’ll talk about it when we have enough time.

Mark Golub: Fair enough.

Rabbi Sacks: But he challenged me to go and become a Rabbi and train Rabbis, which I did. The fact is, that for him, every Jew is precious. I asked myself now why did this man do something that nobody had ever really done before? He invented outreach. I never really worked out how, after all these thousands of years, no Jew ever did outreach before. I suddenly had a thought. This man lived through the Holocaust. He was a Chassid, so he believed in what we call ‘Tikkun Olam’, ‘repairing the world’. How do you repair a world in which there was a Holocaust? I suddenly thought: if Hitler searched out every Jew in hate, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was going to search out every Jew in love. And that’s my philosophy. You know, we’re not going to agree on everything. But we love one another because every Jew is precious.

I did another thing in Britain, I think that was not unimportant. I worry sometimes that we get antisemitism because non-Jews just don’t know what Jews believe, what they do, what they get up to. So, for those 22 years, I did, as far as I could with the BBC, with the national press, through radio and television, to invite the whole of Britain to share our thoughts, our Shabbos table, what we did in our schools. I used to make television programmes. We were constantly inviting the non-Jews, saying, ‘Look. Here’s what we do. If you enjoy it, please come and share it with us. And if you don’t, nisht gefehrlech [Yiddish], don’t worry because we don’t try and convert anyone.’ I think embracing the non-Jewish public helped us embrace the Jewish public.

Mark Golub: Lovely. Lovely. In America, there are many Jews who are Shomer Mitzvot and Shomer Shabbat, they’re committed profoundly to Jewish observance and the Jewish tradition. There are more Jews in America who are not, who are somehow, if you plot it on a graph, they observe less, and the majority of American Jews still are unaffiliated, and are in some ways searching, Jonathan, for their Jewish connection. Many Jews have an instinctive feel there’s something important about Jewish life, but they can’t articulate it for themselves.

And in America, I don’t know if it’s the same in Great Britain, we tend to put a lot of energy into educating children before they become Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, even though they are emotionally and intellectually not nearly ready for the grand ideas that are the power of the Jewish tradition and we don’t find them to talk to them as younger adults. What I want you to speak about for a moment, is how you feel the Jewish world needs to relate to a Jew who would say to you, “Rabbi Sacks. I don’t believe in God. Rabbi Sacks, I’m not a particularly observant Jew, and yet I want to somehow be part of this Jewish community and Jewish people.” What would you answer that Jew?

Rabbi Sacks: I’ve done television programmes where I sat in conversation with some of the most famous Jewish atheists in Britain. Just so that the general public, forget just only Jews, everyone should be able to see that a Rabbi and a Jewish atheist could be friends, can speak respectfully to one another, and can love one another. I did that in Israel with people like Amos Oz as well. We developed these beautiful, beautiful friendships. Because obviously a Jewish atheist is going to feel a Rabbi is going to look down on me. So what happens when they meet a Rabbi who looks up to them, who says, “You have something that I don’t have. You’re Jewish, you don’t even believe in God, so you’re doing more out of purity of motive than I do, because I believe there’s somebody out there telling me and you’re just doing it because you feel it.” I love the Jewish atheists, and I love the secular Jews, and I say every Jewish expression is precious.

I realised when I became Chief Rabbi in 1991, we were losing Jews. They were disengaging. I realised within 20 years we won’t have a Jewish community. I posed this big question. Jewish continuity. Will we have Jewish grandchildren? I said to the community, “Look. We don’t know how to do it. You come up with your ideas as to how to strengthen your identity your way, and we’ll back you. We’ll give you the money and the resources and we’ll back you.” We started that in 1993. The end result is, 20 years later, we have so much healthier a Jewish community. Just to give you one tiny example. When I began in 1993, we had 25% of Jewish kids at Jewish day school. 20 years later, 2013, 70%.

Mark Golub: Amazing. How would that happen?

Rabbi Sacks: Well, it is a long story. Of course, one great advantage that we had that actually you can’t have in America, is we got the government to pay for the schools. To do that, we made four Prime Ministers, the ones I’ve mentioned, plus John Major was the first I worked with. John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron became the biggest fans of Jewish day schools you’ll ever meet.

But there was a cultural Renaissance. You mentioned our little YouTube video. There’s been a musical Renaissance. And we know perfectly well there’s no one single way people are going to identify. We have something called the Community Security Trust [CST] that deals with security of Jewish premises. They’re security guards. We have 4,000 volunteers to stand on security duty at every event. Now, it’s all very well for the Jews who like to come into shul, but there are certain Jews who don’t like to come in to shul, so they volunteer for CST. They stand outside of shul, keeping guard. We’ve turned standing outside shul into a mitzvah as well, so they can identify that way. We have to multiply the ways people engage with Judaism and the Jewish community. I think you can do that in the States as well.

Mark Golub: That’s lovely. I want to share something of my own perspective and I want you to react. What a kick for me to be able to do this with you. JBS has no doctrinal, it has no ideological perspective, except we are for all things Jewish and we support the State of Israel and understand it is going through very difficult times, and the extent to which American Jewry in America itself can support Israel, marvellous. Within that spectrum, Jews can take a left position or right position. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular. It doesn’t matter. I argue the following and I want your reaction.

I believe that there is something in the Jewish tradition which says the following: The tradition is committed to the notion of an existing, real, living God. But it allows each individual Jew to go on a quest, a personal search of their own. I personally find, while I am critical of no-one as an individual. Philosophically, I have problems with two groups. I have problems with somebody who tells me that they know for sure, they know for sure, Jonathan, there is no God. I find it almost incomprehensible that someone could look at this Universe and be sure there is no God. That would be the atheist. But Jonathan, I’m also sometimes frightened by the individual who tells me he is sure there is. Because again, if you look at the Universe, there are questions that can be asked, and I’m not only talking about Jews. Show me somebody who is absolutely sure that there is a God, no question at all. 100% of the time, they’ll do terrible things to you in that God’s name.

My sense is that in the Jewish tradition, there has been an extraordinary respect for the middle position, what we tend to call it agnosticism. You’re not sure, but you live as if you’re sure. Knowing, in a Maimonidean imagery, lightning strikes only periodically, and you live in between the moments of lightning. The question is, how do you live your life, not whether you’re sure or not, and that most human beings spend a lifetime working out for themselves their relationship to God. That is what I try to present here on JBS. You can either agree with me, disagree, change it. But I’d love to hear your reaction.

Rabbi Sacks: Well you know, I’ve had several public discussions, some of them on television, with Britain’s leading atheist called Richard Dawkins. I got Richard to read a letter he wrote to his daughter when she was 10 years old. He’d said, “Never believe in anything without hard evidence.” He read this and we changed the subject. Ten minutes later I said, “Richard, by the way, tell me. Are you an optimist?” He said, “Of course I’m an optimist!” I said, “Richard, where’s the evidence?” Even a Richard Dawkins will believe things for which there is no evidence.

I think anyone who is sure there is no God is simply foreclosing the argument. It’s like when somebody in the Middle Ages believed there is no America or there is no route to India. It’s crazy. Or, as I once said, belief in God is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise. I said to Richard, “You know your trouble, Richard? You’re tone deaf.” He said to me, “Yes. It’s right. I am tone deaf, but there is no music.” But we remained friends

I think to be sure there is no God is just a crazy way of failing to realise that the human spirit seeks that which is beyond the far horizon. On the other side, to be sure there is a God, I have no problem with. I am sure there is a God. The real problem is the people who are sure they know what God wants better than God Himself knows. Now that I have a problem with.

Mark Golub: I understand.

Rabbi Sacks: Does belief in God close our mind or open our mind? That’s the real issue. I find some people from that belief closes their mind. I find believing in God… I try to put it this way. I say there are some people who believe the message of monotheism is ‘one God, one truth, one way’. I said “I believe the real message of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.”

God didn’t just create life, he created three million different life forms. God didn’t only teach us how to speak, he created the 6,000 languages being spoken today. The real beauty is to see the image of God in someone who is not in my image. Can we see a trace of God in the face of a stranger? If we can, then God has opened our minds rather than closed them.

Mark Golub: Yashar Ko’ach, you’ve helped us hear the music, Jonathan Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks: Thank you.

Mark Golub: By the way, what do you think of the fact that we’re doing Jewish television? I heard you speak at the GA about the importance of getting the message out. I’m wondering whether you feel that there is value to there being, in America now, and I’m hoping, Jonathan, one day you can be on JBS in Great Britain as well. What do you think about using television as an educational tool?

Rabbi Sacks: I love television. I love it. I did a lot of it when I was Chief Rabbi. I believe that Judaism came into existence with a revolution in information technology. The first major revolution was writing, which began in Mesopotamia, then moved to Egypt. Writing was discovered independently, invented independently, seven times. But those early writing systems were basically pictograms, ideograms, which meant you had to learn a lot of symbols, which meant only a small proportion of humanity could read or write.

The second revolution in information technology was the alphabet. The first alphabet was ancient Semitic. That’s why it’s called an alphabet. Aleph Bet. That’s why it’s called the alphabet. For the first time, that opened knowledge to everyone.

Ever since then, I believe that every time a new form of communication technology emerges, of which television is the most powerful, and now we’ve got all the computer internet technologies. Every time there’s a new technology, God knocks at our door and says, “Use it to make people aware of who they are and who I am, and make people aware of the beauty of being Jewish and the beauty of the world that surrounds us.” So, I think you’re doing a great job. It’s a lovely concept. And yes, let’s take it across the world.

Mark Golub: I’m a huge fan of yours. I love you very much. You go from strength to strength-

Rabbi Sacks: Thank you.

Mark Golub: Kol Tuvbehatzlachah. I want you in studio one day. Fair enough?

Rabbi Sacks: You’ve got a deal.

Mark Golub: Thank you.

Rabbi Sacks: Mark, thank you.

Mark Golub: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.