Paul Kelemen expresses the disappointment so many of us feel when a Jewish leader, like Lord Sacks, former Chief Rabbi for 22 years till 2013, makes the BBC’s ‘Thought for the Day’ slot an opportunity for narrow, special pleading for the politics of neo-conservatism, and Jewish self-interest as he perceives it, rather than as a call for the univeralism embedded at the heart of Judaism as we know it.

Jonathan Sacks. Photo: TED

Lord Sacks and the right kind of antisemitism

Paul Kelemen, 23 April 2018 [updated 22.13]


On a day when news programmes devoted extensive coverage to how the British government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy towards immigrants impacted on Britain’s black population, Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi for 22 years until 2013, gave the ‘Thought for the Day’ homily on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (20th April).   Surely, he would refer to this egregious example of state racism given the historical experience of how the bureaucracy of the modern state has been wielded against Jews.  He did not.  And if he believes there to be a serious threat of antisemitism, should he not be reaching out to other groups affected by racism?  He did not.

‘What is the point of being a religious leader’, Sacks asked, rhetorically, in 2016, ‘ if you don’t say something that’s difficult for the people who follow you? You know, you’ve got to challenge them and be challenged by them.’  It is a heroic posture but one that Sacks has rarely adopted and then only to retreat at the first murmur of disapproval by conservatives in the Jewish community.  In 2002, he rapidly distanced himself from an interview with the Guardian, in which he had expressed disapproval of Israel’s continuing its occupation of the Palestinian land it seized in 1967.  The newspaper had reported him saying that the country is adopting a stance “incompatible” with the deepest ideals of Judaism, and that the current conflict with the Palestinians is “corrupting” Israeli culture’.  Although he did not mention that the occupation was harming principally the Palestinians, his mild criticism of its affects on Israelis was greeted with outrage by most of the communal leadership.  Sacks quickly fell into line. From then on, he assiduously applied himself to reconciling ‘the deepest ideals of Judaism’ with whatever apologetics are required by the Israeli state. Thus the suitably retuned Sacks, addressing Radio 4 listeners last week, would  not even think that the shooting of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers, just a few days earlier,  at the Gaza border,  merited mention much less that it might be incompatible with Judaism.  There is a long history of religious leaders turning a blind eye to the most blatant injustices and justifying all manner of barbarities perpetrated in the name of their faith (and state), but Sacks’ ideological itinerary is nonetheless illustrative of a particular realignment, namely the rallying of a section of the Jewish intelligentsia, in both Europe and the US, to the politics of neo-conservativism.

An early impulse that would eventually lead him in this direction can be seen in Sacks’ response to Israel’s 1967 expansion into are what are now known as the Occupied Territories. Israel’s military conquest was, Sacks explained in an October 2015 interview, something of a religious revelation for him.  After studying economics and philosophy, it made him turn, he explained, to the study of Judaism. ‘I think all Jews around the world felt — there was a real possibility, God forbid, of a second Holocaust. Then, of course, the war happened with this astonishing speed. And there was a sense of exhilaration.’ The Marxist Isaac Deutscher, who identified with the universalism of the non-Jewish Jew, rather than with the narrow nationalism of Zionists, viewed it differently. ‘It was only with disgust that I could watch on television the scenes from Israel in those days; the displays of the conquerors pride and brutality; the outbursts of chauvinism; and the wild celebrations of the inglorious triumph, all contrasting sharply with the pictures of Arab suffering…I looked at the medieval figures of the rabbis and khassidim jumping with joy at the Wailing Wall; and I felt how the ghosts of Talmudic obscurantism – and I know these only too well – crowded in on the country, and how the reactionary atmosphere had grown dense and stifling’.

Sacks, in 2002, had also questioned the wisdom of Israel clinging to the Occupied Territories but with the Western powers’ more aggressive imperial politics post-9/11 and a succession of far right governments in Israel,  he shrugged off his liberal moment. Since then, Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians particularly in East Jerusalem has accelerated.  In 2017, Sacks sent a ‘personal invitation’ to Jews living abroad to join him on the March of the Flags which celebrates Israel’s reunification of the city with a triumphalist procession that passes through the city’s Muslim quarter. Sacks’ participation is eerily reminiscent of Ian Paisley’s sectarian Orange marches through the Catholic areas of Belfast.  Commenting on the 2016 Jerusalem march, Haaretz’s Bradley Burston, described it as ‘an annual, gender-segregated extreme right, pro-occupation religious carnival of hatred, marking the anniversary of Israel’s capture of Jerusalem by humiliating the city’s Palestinian Muslim marchers’. He added: ‘We knew what was coming from previous years, in which marchers vandalised shops in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, chanted “Death to the Arabs” and “the (Jewish) Temple will be built, the (Al Aqsa) Mosque will be Burned Down”…’.

The former Chief Rabbi, and now just plain Lord Sacks, apparently wanted a touch of street credibility to impress Israel’s political class, though he generally opts for more decorous ways to promote the settler’s right wing politics. When Trump announced in December that the US would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem, Sacks welcomed it, declaring: ‘Unlike other guardians of the city, from the Romans to the Crusaders to Jordan between 1949 and 1967, Israel has protected the holy sites of all three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and guaranteed access to them. Today, Jerusalem remains one of the few places in the Middle East, where Jews, Christians and Muslims are able to pray in freedom, security and peace’.  Even viewed from the narrow angle of the freedom to worship  (thus, setting aside the house demolitions and restrictions on residence rights, on work permits, on family reunification, etc. by which Israel pursues the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population), Sacks’ statement is untrue.  Due to a combination of travel restriction on residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and because Israel denies access to the Al Aqsa Mosque to Palestinians, under 45 years old,  the vast majority of them are blocked from worshiping in Jerusalem.

Sacks’ misty eyed portrayal of Israel as the protector of the Holy Lands’ three faiths was badly timed.  Less than three months later, as pilgrims from across from the world gathered to begin Lent,  the three Christian churches that run the site of East Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre closed its gates.  The action successfully drew international attention to Israeli plans to pressure the church, though increasing its taxes, into selling land and to expropriate land that it has sold to private, generally, Palestinian buyers.

By this time Sacks was letting it be known that he had a hand in crafting US Vice President, Mike Pence’s speech to the Israeli Knesset in January, staged to display the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Sacks’ talk on antisemitism on the Today programme made no mention of Trump. But just a few days earlier, James Comey, the former director of the FBI, a position not normally associated with highlighting racism, declared Trump to be morally unfit to be president, and cited Trump drawing a moral equivalence between anti-racists and the neo-Nazis who attacked them in Charlottesville.  Sacks’ silence on this suggests that for him, as for other Zionist leaders, there are not only the ‘wrong kind of Jews’, there is also a right kind of antisemitism.