Making the Case for My People

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, tells Daniel Johnson why he now considers anti-Semitism a serious threat, but remains hopeful about the future of the Jews in Israel and the diaspora

Faith Features Israel Judaism

Daniel Johnson: Your new book, Future Tense, seems to me to be your tour de force. You’ve written some very important books before, but this one brings it all together. 

Jonathan Sacks: It brings it all together in terms of practical politics, really, because I haven’t written all the big theology yet. This is a kind of reader in leadership of the Jewish people for the next little while and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

DJ: The central argument of the book is the split between particularism and universalism. You say Judaism is not mere optimism, but it is a religion of hope. But, nevertheless, it’s quite a severe critique of the predicament in which the Jewish people find themselves today. Why, at this particular time, does the Jewish people, in a sense, doubt its own identity?

JS: Around September 1999, we got a request from the Professor of Medieval History at Boston University, Richard Landes. He is an expert in Millenarian movements, of which there were a lot in the Middle Ages: the Ranters, the Hessites, the Levellers. He had discovered in the course of his research that every millennium was preceded by a wave of philo-Semitism and succeeded by a wave of anti-Semitism. He could see, from what he’d read about the Anglo-Jewish community, that we were basking in the sunlight of philo-Semitism, and he was very anxious to tell me that all that was about to change. How it would change, he didn’t know. But that it would change, of that he was certain. His best theory, and it was purely speculative, was that in September 1999, people were still worried by Y2K, the Millennium Bug, the bug that wasn’t. According to the theory, come 1 January 2000, all the world’s computers would crash, there would be chaos and, somehow or other, people would blame the Jews.

January 2000 came and went. The world continued revolving on its customary axis, there was no Millennium Bug and I said to Elaine, my wife: “Landes got it wrong.” 

Then came 29 September 2000, the collapse of the Middle East peace process, followed by then United Nations conference on racism in Durban, which was the launch pad for a new kind of Israel-based anti-Semitism. Then, came 9/11. Within days, large parts of Asia and the Middle East were saying that this was done by Israel, by Mossad. And I said to Elaine: “Landes got it right.”

We had thought that Israel was on a trajectory for peace, that Jews in the diaspora were so well integrated that the biggest problem we faced was assimilation and out-marriage. And all of a sudden we were faced by a whole series of very disturbing phenomena. 

I was caught up in all of those: this book is written from the front line, because I’ve been involved in anti-Semitism, the defence of Israel, the internal Jewish conversation and so on. I began to realise something I should have known, which is: if someone has experienced trauma at an early point in their life, then much later in their life it’s very easy to regress to that trauma. In a certain metaphorical sense that’s what happened to Jews in the last eight years: we began to hear more and more this key phrase that I analyse in the book, “a people that dwells alone”. And Jews began to feel themselves isolated and embattled, with the return of anti-Semitism, the international delegitimisation of Israel and so on. 

What struck me is that this is so profoundly dysfunctional, and it doesn’t answer to reality. In 1933, Jews really were alone, and there was no state of Israel, and that was the trauma of all traumas. Today, Jews are not in that situation. We have achieved equality and dignity in the diaspora, there is a state of Israel, we do have enemies but we also have friends and we should not ignore the latter. 

DJ: One of the most telling points you make is that Jews have lost many things all through their history, but the one thing they have never lost is an argument. Jews are good at argument. But you feel that Jews are losing the argument at the moment on the international stage, both at the micro and the macro level. 

JS: I believe that Israel is losing the argument because, in some senses, it never really tried to make it. We are in a situation, not only in the Middle East or in the Jewish world, but in Western civilisation generally, of that great W.B. Yeats couplet [in “The Second Coming”], “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” 

There are potential spokespeople for Israel who have enormous articulacy and street-cred, like Amos Oz for instance, who are able to speak in a language with which the average Guardian reader and BBC viewer can sympathise. Somehow, there was never a co-ordinated attempt to make that argument. It is almost as if it is written into the psyche of the state of Israel, this feeling that we came into existence because of the Holocaust, because the world was against us, because when we cried for help, no one listened, no one responded — that there is almost no purpose in arguing the case because every time we do, we lose. Hence Israel has depended and relied on, more than anything else in recent years, the US. So I spent the years from late 2000 to about 2004 visiting Israel to try and persuade people that it really must make the argument. In the end, I failed. 

DJ: Are you worried that Barack Obama — to whom you pay generous tribute in the book, for whom so many Jews voted, and with whom Jews in the wider world identify and look to for leadership — is less viscerally sympathetic to Israel? And that, particularly for example in his Cairo speech, he has to some extent bought into this different narrative about Israel: that Israel really is a product of the Holocaust? Because in your book you very clearly set out the reasons why Israel’s roots lie right back in Biblical times.

JS: I tell this story about my late great-grandfather who went to settle in Israel in 1871 and I could have told the story about my great-great-grandfather who settled there in 1852, but didn’t take his family with him. Our connection goes back a very long way. 

But I don’t actually analyse the politics of the US in those somewhat narrative or psychotherapeutic terms. It just seemed to me all along that, like whoever said, “Nations don’t have principles, they have interests,” the negative impact on America of Iraq in particular — on its standing in the world, on the self-image of America on Americans — did suggest that America would move into its old default option that it falls back into when it gets its fingers burnt in international politics. This default option is isolationism and actually isolationism is never an option in a global culture. But some move back from principle to interests struck me as inevitable, whoever became the next President of the United States. 

That is why I was so concerned about the failure of Israel, and of those who care about Israel, to make the argument in Europe. Relying on a single friend seemed to me just too hazardous a political strategy in the long run and Europe was just too important to lose. 

DJ: Do you feel then that now that there is a US President who is still friendly to Israel but also firmly pushing for a two-state solution, that Israel needs to make some major gesture? The top priority of Barack Obama and European leaders, naturally enough, is to solve the Middle East problem, to end the jihad, to end the clash of civilisations. But isn’t there a danger that Israel gets a bit lost in all this? 

JS: There are two issues here. The first issue is that Israel has consistently found that gestures backfire. The peace process, culminating in that extraordinary offer by Ehud Barak at Taba in 2001 of 100 per cent of Gaza, 97 per cent of the West Bank, plus border adjustments, plus East Jerusalem as the capital [of a Palestinian state], led directly to the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada and that terrifying wave of suicide bombings throughout 2001 and 2002. The Lebanon withdrawal led to Hizbollah and the Katyushas. The Gaza withdrawal led to Hamas and the Kassam rockets. So every major gesture that Israel has made has been interpreted by the other side as a gesture of weakness, as a victory for terror, and has led to more terror. 

The real issue is: is there a leadership among the Palestinians capable of committing itself to the de jure legitimacy of the state of Israel within any boundaries whatsoever? The entire debate on peace or not, two-state solution or not, has focused on Israel. We’ve never really listened to the voices among the Palestinians. 

There is an assumption that there are modern Palestinians and extreme Palestinians, Palestinian Authority Palestinians and Hamas Palestinians. The normal Western assumption is that the same spectrum of views can be found within the Palestinians as can be found within the Israelis. But has there been a single credible Palestinian leader who has ever conceded the right of Israel to exist within any boundaries whatsoever? Whether they are the pre-1967 Six-Day War boundaries, the ’49 Armistice boundaries, the ’47 Partition boundaries, the 1937 Peel Commission boundaries? One may not leave that question off the table until it is answered, because it is the critical variable in all of this. The Israeli public has made clear through its voting record and every conceivable form of public opinion poll, that were genuine peace and a genuine two-state solution on the table, they would make the most momentous sacrifices in order to reach peace. 

The settlement issue was not the issue over which the Camp David and Taba negotiations fell, as everyone who has written about those negotiations has made clear. It was made clear by Bill Clinton and [his chief negotiator] Dennis Ross. There had been controversies over exactly what was said by Ehud Barak, so I took the opportunity when it presented itself to have a long conversation with Ross, and a short but very pointed conversation with Bill Clinton, because I just wanted to hear it from them. Clinton used this extraordinary phrase: “Ehud Barak offered more than I thought he would, and more than I thought he should.”

DJ: And these offers have been repeated since, have they not? I mean [Ehud] Olmert again made a similar sort of gesture.

JS: Whether it’s Shimon Peres or Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert, sometimes the most hawkish — I mean, not sometimes, but always — politicians, when they become Prime Minister and when there is a genuine possibility of peace on the table, have all become statesmen, all educated the Israeli public towards the need for sacrifices for the sake of peace. No one expected Ariel Sharon to be the Ariel Sharon of the Gaza withdrawal. No one expected Olmert to be the kite flyer of various very audacious peace proposals.

So we are focusing on one-half of this equation, which is by far the less difficult half and almost no attention is paid to the other side. That is very problematic to me. To my mind, this distorts so much of Western thinking about the particular drama that is being enacted in the Middle East.

DJ: You talk in the book about the delegitimisation of Israel, but this is about more than just Israel — the way in which the language of human rights has been hijacked and turned into a weapon to be used against Israel. Can you say how this has happened and why this is such a tragic development given the extraordinary role that the Jewish people have played throughout history in the emergence of human rights, the very ideas of freedom and toleration, and now these very concepts are being turned against you? 

JS: A major American Christian theologian has written a book on how human rights came directly from the Bible. That is a point which I’ve made in several of my books. The book which Thomas Hobbes, Milton and especially John Locke are in dialogue with is the Hebrew Bible. It is quoted 657 times alone in Leviathan. This was a very religious Hebraic concept of human rights — extremely Hebraic in fact. The least Hebraic was the one Jewish guy, Baruch Spinoza, who was a little bit of a mixed-up kid, the descendant of marranos, who were Christian in public and Jews in private, and it kind of made him the first Jewish intellectual, of whom there were many, who just wanted to see a world without Judaism and Christianity, because religion was the source of our problems. Mind you, we used to have a better class of atheist in those days. 

So the concept of human rights emerges out of this biblical culture in the 17th century — this huge encounter in the wake of the Reformation, and especially Calvinism, which had such implications for Scotland, England, and especially for the Pilgrim Fathers. 

Out of the concept of obligation came the idea that people have rights. Out of the concept of human dignity — that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God — came this feeling that each one of us has a non-negotiable dignity, which is really the basis of human rights. What always struck me as wacky and counter-implausible is that great line of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Just think how self-evident that would be to Plato and Aristotle: they would have thought he was mad. All men are created equal? What about the gold, the silver and the bronze? What about Aristotle and those who are born to rule and those who are born to be ruled? You couldn’t have a concept of human rights without the Bible. But we have now reached a stage where rights have been severed from their living connection with responsibilities. The whole human rights discourse which was rooted in a religious world view has now become a kind of rival to, and opponent of, every religious world view. 

As I wrote in the book, it is not easy to get people to hate. It goes against their moral sense, which as Adam Smith told us, comes with being human. Therefore you have always to legitimate hatred by seeking legitimisation in the most prestigious authority within the culture at any given moment. In the Middle Ages, that was religion, so you had religious anti-Judaism. In 19th century post-Enlightenment Europe, religion no longer functioned as a source of authority. The glittering, pristine authority lay with science. Hence, the adoption of two pseudo sciences, social Darwinism and the so-called scientific study of race, [leading to] racial anti-Semitism. In the post-Second World War world, after Hiroshima, science no longer had pristine authority. In the post-Holocaust world, that ultimate authority goes to human rights. Therefore, anti-Semitism had to be justified in the language of human rights or it couldn’t be justified at all. The ease with which that entire post-Holocaust structure was infiltrated or captured is extraordinary, because no civilisation has ever tried so systematically to create this immune system of “Never Again”. It was defeated in one, simple step. If you believe in human rights, if you believe in everything the Holocaust taught us, then the worst things in the world are racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity — the five cardinal sins of which Israel was accused at the 2001 Durban Conference. 

The argument is very simple: if you live after the Holocaust, the worst thing in the world is to be a Nazi. That is why Israel is the worst thing in the world, because they are Nazis. It’s a blasphemy. But sometimes the big lie, if repeated often enough, does win. And we have to realise that some very, very big lies in history have had very distinguished intellectual fellow travellers.

DJ: In the book you ask some very fundamental questions. Is there still such a thing as a Jewish people? What do we now still have in common with them? You quote some distinguished commentators who doubt this, who fear that this ancient covenant has now broken apart and that people are being tempted either by secularism, by assimilation, by the very understandable feeling that after the Holocaust, after so much suffering and persecution, perhaps it’s better not to be Jewish at all, perhaps this is too big a burden to pass on to your children. You say this is very much the attitude in America of the post-Holocaust generation, to which, in a sense, we both belong.

JS: I’m speculating there because nobody’s said this, but I’m making that inference, yes.

DJ: It’s clearly a problem because the statistics and the demography back this up. But then on the other hand there is the opposite danger of retreating back into the ghetto, of the most successful Jewish communities being perhaps the most Orthodox, but who are not engaging with the wider world — or in many cases they aren’t. So that makes you a rather rare figure, because in a sense you are engaging with the wider world, but you’re not turning your back on the heritage of the nation. In a country where the Court of Appeal takes it upon itself to tell Jews who is a Jew and who isn’t a Jew, we have a problem, don’t we? You need to know this yourselves if those around you are arrogating to themselves that right. 

JS: Yes. Those are such fundamental questions that I really had to write a book to answer them and the answer comes along three dimensions.

The first was my attempt over a whole series of books — Radical Then, Radical Now, and The Dignity of Difference, To Heal a Fractured World — to create a paradigm shift that is contained in those four words: the dignity of difference. In those words, I tried to reframe Jewish identity by universalising particularity. We are not all the same, and precisely because we are not all the same, we each have a unique contribution to give to the common good. We build together the common good of Britain as a country in To Heal a Fractured World and The Dignity of Difference. It is a human project. So I tried to use that paradigm shift to break through this thing between the particularists, who turn inward to preserve their identity but lose any real influence on society, and the universalists, who save the world but who don’t have Jewish grandchildren.

Number two is something I’ve set out in a chapter called “The Jewish Conversation”. We are not all of the same opinion. I had a public conversation with Amos Oz in Israel, and he began with this wonderful remark: “I’m not sure that I agree with Rabbi Sacks on everything, but then on most things I don’t agree with myself!” 

He used this to produce the classic and unique Jewish heritage of what we call “argument for the sake of Heaven” — I don’t know of any other religious literature, including the religious literatures of the holy texts of Christianity and Islam, where human beings argue with God, where God argues with human beings, where He wrestles with them, and we wrestle with Him. There is, as far as I know, no counterpart to those dialogues of Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Job. 

So the Jewish people is not a race, and it is not, very simply, a religion — it is a conversation. It was [Scottish-born philosopher] Alasdair MacIntyre who said most beautifully that a tradition, when in working order, represents continuities of conflict. I loved that. So the Jewish conversation is real, but hasn’t really been done. One of the things I’ve done in the last few years is to have public conversations with secular Jews such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, George Steiner and Stephen Pinker. I try, as far as possible, not to talk about Jewish unity, being “one”, because manifestly we are not — we have religious differences and there’s this huge split between religious Jews and secular Jews. But there is a Jewish conversation, in which each of us has a voice. The Jewish conversation is scored for many voices. There was a wonderful Rabbi called the Marharsha — Rabbi Shmuel Edeles, in the 16th to 17th century — who when told that every line of the Bible has 70 interpretations, said, “No — 600,000 interpretations.” That is a kind of archetypal number, the number of adult male Jews who left Egypt, meaning that every Jew has his or her own unique interpretation of the Bible, and that is the Bible. We always believed in the written Torah and the oral Torah. The oral Torah is that conversation that has never ceased in 33 centuries. 

The third dimension was a new narrative. As I said, I believe that in politics and certainly within religion part of leadership is to be able to tell a narrative that explains a generation to itself. I learnt this from the Harvard educationalist and psychologist Howard Gardner, hence my definition of Judaism, and the pun in the book’s title is that it’s the civilisation whose Golden Age is in the future, Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of human kind. How do I exemplify this? Through Israel. I mention that my great-grandfather built the first house in the town which today is the sixth largest in Israel: Petach Tikva, the “Gateway of Hope” — a phrase from the prophet Hosea. The Jews I’ve had the privilege of knowing, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, did not look back. They looked forward. They built lives for themselves. They built a country together and they defended it against all enemies. They sustained a free press and independent judiciary, they wove together Jews from virtually every country under the sun — the last time I looked it was 103 countries speaking 82 languages. Israel is the home of hope. We’ve always played that role, at least in Western civilisation, of the alternative voice, the counter-voice. 

We are living in a century in which the major crises are: the environment; asylum seekers; the growing inequality between First- and Third-World economics; maintaining democracies in parts of the world that never had a tradition of it. And there is Israel — the very first settlers of my great-grandfather’s generation, before the word “Zionism” was coined, their first act was to reforest the land. Second, Israel was made out of asylum seekers — mostly Jewish, but not all by any means — and the only other country to be made wholly out of asylum seekers was the US. Third, Israel, with no natural resources, turned a Third-World economy into one at the cutting edge of information technology, nano-technology, medical science and agricultural science. It showed you can make the transition. Fourth, most of the Jews who went to Israel came from places in which democracy was totally unknown. But there was never an argument over whether or not the state would be a democracy — it was taken for granted. There wasn’t ever a question that women would have the vote. They weren’t given the vote in England until 1918. Yes, they asked some rabbis, and most of the rabbis said no, but luckily not too many people listen to rabbis too much of the time, otherwise we might be in more problems than we are now.

DJ: You write that after 9/11, your children told you that for the first time they’d actually experienced anti-Semitism. You yourself had not really suffered this in your younger days, but that now, in middle age, you’ve been forced to acknowledge that it is out there, in a new mutation, even in a country such as Britain where you’d always felt safe. You write that so much of Jewish history is about people losing battles. How do you avoid despair?

JS: Losing battles is good for the soul. I went to two Christian schools where, had there been any anti-Semitism floating around, my antennae are sensitive enough to pick it up. I did not experience one instance of anti-Semitism throughout my school and university years. I was taught by some remarkable people, from Roger Scruton to the late Bernard Williams, which was an extraordinary privilege. I never experienced any anti-Semitism: to the contrary, I experienced a lot of respect. To me, that was a lesson that I will never cease to be grateful for, and it’s made me very easily able to have quite deep friendships with Christian and non-Christian leaders in Britain and beyond. 

It’s also the single greatest heritage of Britain that it must never lose. Britain was not always perfect. No country ever is, but the Jews who came here loved this country above all for its tolerance. I officiated a couple of weeks ago at the stone-setting of a former president of the United Synagogue, George Gee, and it says on his gravestone: “A proud Englishman and a proud Jew.” That was the English heritage from Sir Moses Montefiore all the way through to the present. And we must never lose it. 

Now, is Britain an anti-Semitic country? Absolutely not. In the 1930s or in the 19th century, the really shaping influence was national culture, so you could ask, is Britain anti-Semitic? Is France? Is Germany? Today we don’t have national cultures, we have a multichannel, global culture. The neighbours of the 7/7 suicide bombers had no idea that they’d been radicalised. We are in an age where ten terrorists in Mumbai can monopolise the attention of the world for a week. In today’s information-saturated culture, the most precious commodity is to be able to command people’s attention. It’s the terrorists who have understood this, and not the good guys. 

Britain must think very carefully, and Europe must think very carefully, if there’s to be a future for liberal democracy. Americans are beginning to think about this likewise.

One of the shaping moments for me was the way Isaiah Berlin quoted Joseph Schumpeter at the end of his 1957 lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty: “To acknowledge the relative validity of one’s convictions, but to stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man and a barbarian.” On that [the Harvard political philosopher] Michael Sandel and I asked the same question — if your convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? 

That is why I’m convinced that we must find a religious, rather than relativistic basis, for liberal democracy, and for the market economy and for the most neglected of all: for the institutions of civil society, family, community, morality and so on. We have to find a religious base for them which does not stand on relativised foundations, and that was the weakness of Isaiah Berlin’s argument. That was Karl Popper’s view — why should we have a free society because we don’t actually know what’s true? Now even John Stuart Mill didn’t say that, and they were writing in the tradition of Mill! Even Mill was convinced that there was a truth out there that we could find through experimentation: he was not a relativist. 

So this is what I fear for. In America, they say a liberal is someone who can’t take his own side in an argument. I sometimes feel that Britain is like that. We love the guys who lose in the semi-finals. But there are some battles where you can’t lose in the semi-finals — you have to win. And we have to win this one. And that means we have to take a stand, not with buzzwords like freedom and democracy, but with buzzwords like human dignity, sanctity of life, the integrity of the individual, the nature of societal freedoms such as that my freedom is not bought at the cost of yours.  

The danger to Britain and Europe today, to come back to your original question, is the danger that was first set out by J.L. Talmon in his book Totalitarian Democracy, and quoted by Hayek in his Constitution of Liberty, where he contrasted two different kinds of liberalism: the British liberalism that went with the grain of institutions and traditions and the Continental tradition which was abstract and atomised (basically the distinction first and best made by Edmund Burke). That is the danger: we have incorporated a main, Continental European version of human rights into British law. We see from the recent Appeal Court ruling on JFS [the Jews’ Free School], this highly atomised concept of the rights of the individual without any respect for the traditions and values that sustain individuals as members of a community: that is the great danger that will eventually lead, God forbid, to Europe’s loss of its own freedom and its own heritage.