Understanding the Middle East

On Tuesday 23rd February 2016, Rabbi Sacks spoke in a debate in the House of Lords on understanding the Middle East.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Grade, for introducing this debate, to which I wish to add one observation. Democracy is not achieved merely by giving everyone the vote. Freedom is not achieved merely by removing a tyrant. They require a sustained effort of education and a balanced supply of information. Without these, democracy can descend into mob rule and from there to a new tyranny, exactly as Plato thought it would. The results of the Arab Spring, four years on, are tragic testimony to this truth.

Democratic freedom is sustained by media that take it as their task to present more than one side of a complex issue, and by universities that understand the importance of academic freedom, which means giving a respectful hearing to views different from your own.

Today, these values are being undermined. The internet and social media mean that people can go through life without encountering views with which they disagree. Some universities have allowed students effectively to ban the presentation of views with which they disagree. A soundbite culture makes it hard for people to understand the complexities of political conflict.

The human mind finds it hard to handle moral and political complexity and can easily avoid it by dividing the world into the good guys and the demons, and concluding that all you have to do to solve a problem is to first silence, then eliminate, the bad guys. Often in the past they were called the Jews. Today they are called the state of Israel. That is not good for the future of freedom in the Middle East. I would urge the government to do all it can to ensure that our institutions of education and information honour the principle that justice involves audi alteram partem, which means, let the other side be heard as well.