The Will to Life

Speech to the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference

Rabbi Sacks delivered a keynote address at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC on 12th March 2013. In a speech entitled 'The Will To Life', Rabbi Sacks argued that "Judaism is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. And nowhere will you see the power of possibility more than in the State of Israel today."

Beloved friends, I’m actually only here to give you a change of accents; I just hope you don’t need simultaneous translation. But I’m here as part of an English delegation to give you the view from Europe. And the view from Europe is that AIPAC is something out of this world. It is just amazing.

Friends, it reminds me, if I can just you this story, lovely story about Yossi, an Israeli, who opened a falafel bar in Golders Green. Golders Green is the English Brooklyn. And Yossi’s falafel bar was one day visited by the tax inspector who was reading through his books and he was saying, "Mr. Yossi, this falafel of yours, this is a kind of Jewish takeaway; am I right?"

And Yossi, with a big smile, says, "Yes." The tax inspector says, "Mr. Yossi, I understand where you’ve written down as expenses rent, electricity, materials; but why have you written down under business expenses two trips to Miami and three trips to Tel Aviv?" And Yossi, with a big smile, said, "That’s easy; we deliver!"

Friends, AIPAC, you deliver. You deliver - a strong Israel and a strong Jewish people. May God bless you and may you continue to bless the people in the State of Israel.

Friends, I want to tell you how things are looking like in Europe today. When I was a child, there was one line in the Haggadah that I never understood. [Hebrew.] It was not one alone who stood against us. [Hebrew.] But in every generation they did so. And always as a child I used to say, that belongs to my parents’ generation; not to us; not to us born after the Holocaust. I grew up; in all my life I never experienced a single incident of anti-Semitism until 11 years ago.

Eleven years ago, our youngest daughter, who was studying at a British university, came home in tears. She had been at an anti-globalisation rally which quickly turned into a tirade first against America, then against Israel, then against Jews. And with tears in her eyes she said, Dad, they hate us. That is a terrible situation. But it’s reality in Europe today.

In the last two weeks there have been stories about the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France by 58 percent in a single year; in Belgium, 30 percent; in Denmark, doubled in the space of three years. In England - in France and Italy, English football supporters were attacked not because they were Jews but because they were supporting a football team many of whose supporters happened to be Jews. And I don’t know whether you read this - I’m sure you did - last Wednesday the Turkish President, Mr. Erdogan, called Zionism a “crime against humanity.”

I have to tell you that what we grew up with, “never again,” is beginning to sound like “ever again.” And at the heart of it is hostility to Israel. Of course, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But make no mistake what has happened.

In the Middle Ages Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th century and the 20th, they were hated because of their race. Today, when it’s no longer done to hate people for their religion or their race, today they are hated because of their State. The reason changes, but the hate stays the same. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.

And friends, I’ve come here to tell you that I believe the example of AIPAC must now inform Jewish communities around Europe, because we have to stand up and fight and we have to stand up and win. Friends, anti-Zionism is today rife throughout the world. All our students on campuses know about it. And what is our crime? What is Israel’s crime? It’s that we have chutzpah.

Let me tell you the chutzpah we have. After all, there are 56 Islamic states, there are 125 nations whose majority is Christian, and now Jews want a state of their own. How dare they? And it’s so big. Friends, you know how big Israel is?

There’s a lovely park in a little corner of South Africa. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. It’s a sort of wild game reserve where you can see lions and giraffes and elephants and hippopotamuses - or hippopotami, depending on whether or not they’ve had a classical education.


It is called the Kruger National Park.

Friends, Israel is the same size as Kruger National Park. How dare they want something that big? Don’t Jews by now know that their role in history is to be scattered, dispersed, homeless, and defenseless? And now they want a space where they can defend themselves. How dare they? Friends, we dare because we are human. We dare because to be denied the right to self-defense is to be treated as less than human. Mr. Erdogan, it is anti-Zionism that is a crime against humanity.


How much longer? How much longer must the Jewish people have to fight for the right to be? Let me tell you, friends, what is Israel. Elaine and I have just come back; just 10 days ago we were on a series of missions in Israel. And let us remind you what we saw, what you saw, what everyone sees but the world does not see.

We saw school after school and youth village after youth village where children-at-risk or children from dysfunctional or abusive families are taken and given the care that will give them hope and a future in life. We saw youth villages where Ethiopian children are given the means suddenly to make that leap across centuries and cultures and find their own excellence. We saw the power of love to transform lives.

We saw hospitals. I don’t know if you’ve been recently to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa. In Haifa, the Rambam Hospital is building the world’s largest underground hospital, proof against bombs, missiles, chemical and biological weapons, so that when Israel’s enemies decide to destroy lives, they will continue saving them.

We saw the new Bar-Ilan Medical Center in Safed, set up to bring the finest possible medical treatment. Who to? Only to Jews? No. To Muslims, to Christians, to Druze villages throughout the Galil, because to be a Jew in Israel means you care for every life; every life is sacred.

We saw the Laniado Hospital in the Netanya, a place I always visit because it moves me almost beyond words. Many of you know the Laniado Hospital was built by the Klausenburger Rebbe, a survivor of Auschwitz who during the Holocaust lost his wife and all 11 children. And there in the camps of death made an oath that if he should ever survive he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving life.

That is what I see in Israel. Every time I visit Israel I find among Israelis, secular or religious, an absolute unswerving dedication to Moshe Rabbenu’s great command Uvacharta Bachayim, “Choose life.” Israel is the sustained defiance of hatred and power in the name of life because we are the people who sanctify life.

Friends, in the last decade the equation has changed. Today the struggle against Israel is no longer just against Israel. Today what is at stake in Israel’s survival is the future of freedom itself. Because make no mistake, this will be the defining battle of the 21st century which will prevail: the will to power with its violence, terror, missiles, and bombs; or the will to life with its hospitals, schools, freedoms, and rights. Believe you me, I have the privilege of knowing.

See, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, moderate Muslims, and I tell you from my experience Israel is a source of inspiration not just to us but to them as well, because it tells every single person on the face of the earth that you don’t have - a nation doesn’t have to be large to be great. A nation doesn’t have to be rich in natural resources to prosper.

Israel has been surrounded by enemies and yet it has shown that even so you can still be a democracy, still have a free press, still have an independent judiciary. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a Palestinian can stand up on national television and criticize the government and the next day still be a free human being.

Israel is an inspiration to the world. And since we spend a certain amount of our time traveling around the world, we see this only too richly. I still have - because once upon a time Hong Kong had a little bit to do the - with the British Empire. We lost Hong Kong. We lost the Empire. Vos ken men ton? [Yiddish for “What can you do?] I’m not so pleased about you lot either; 1776, don’t think we’ve forgotten. But still.

And so it was one of my visits to Hong Kong after the handover, I went to see Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing appointment as head of Hong Kong. And I tell you this man, this Chinese appointment, was a lover of Jews and Judaism and Israel. He said to me, you know, your people and my people are very old people. You’ve been around 6,000 years; we’ve been around 5,000 years. Tell me, I always wanted to know, what did you do for the first thousand years before you had Kosher Chinese takeaways?


I said, Mr. Tung, you want to know what we did for the first thousand years? We complained about the food.


And Mr. Tung said to me, I want to go and visit Israel because I see that as the model of development for here. And he did go two or three months later and came back absolutely inspired. And I went straight to the Israeli ambassador in London and said, look how the world has changed. There was a time when Israel dreamed about being the Hong Kong of the Middle East; today Hong Kong dreams, halevai, we should be the Israel of the Far East.

Friends, we have people who do strange things in Britain. Three years ago, I don’t know if you read this in the papers, the British atheists paid a fortune for London buses to carry a logo saying “probably - ” puh-puh-puh “– there is no god.” Did you read about this? Actually all the London buses, “There’s probably no god.”

So I wrote about this. You know, that’s a very interesting word, “probably.” After all, how probable is it that the universe should exist? How probable is it that life should exist? How probable is it that out of all the 3 million life forms on the - on the planet Earth, only one, us, is capable of asking the question “why”? Nothing interesting is remotely probable.

And then I said, think about the Jewish people. How probably is it that one man, Abraham, who commanded no empire, ordered no army, performed no miracle, delivered no prophecy, should today without doubt be the most influential man who ever lived, who’s claimed as the spiritual ancestor by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and most of you in the room today?

How probable is it that this tiny people, the Jewish people, numbering less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the population of the world, should have outlived - as you just heard - the world’s greatest empires - the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans - every empire that ever stood up to destroy us, they are being consigned to history and still we stand and sing “Am Yisrael Chai”?


How likely is it that after 2,000 years of exile our people should have come back to our land and there in - having stood eyeball to eyeball in Auschwitz a mere three years earlier, eyeball to eyeball with the Angel of Death, in 1948 said, despite the worst crime of man against man, lo amut kiechyeh - I will not die but I will live? Israel is the greatest collective affirmation of life in the whole of Jewish history.

Friends, Judaism is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. And nowhere will you see the power of possibility more than in the State of Israel today. Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. Israel has taken an ancient language, the language of the Bible, and make it speak again. Israel has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. Israel has taken a shattered nation and make it live again.

Friends, let us not rest until Israel’s light shines throughout the world, the world’s great symbol of life and hope. Amen.

To watch the shorter clip extracted from this video, entitled 'The Power of Possibility', please click here.