The chief rabbi who would not fight Israel’s enemies

No Holds Barred: Though Moses is a member of the Egyptian establishment, he speaks truth to power and allies himself with his people even though it means being rejected.

July 15, 2013 22:32
UK rabbi Jonathan Sacks 521

UK rabbi Jonathan Sacks 521 . (photo credit: JONATHAN SACKS)

Jonathan Sacks delivered what may be his final address as chief rabbi at a dinner last month honoring his career of 22 years in office. Lord Sacks warned world Jewry about the two threats to its continued existence.

To the Left, he cited the growing assimilation of the youth who no longer see any reason to raise Jewish families. To the Right, the growing extremism and isolationism of the Orthodox. “The two fastest growing elements in the Jewish world are those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”

He posed the following question to his audience: “If there is anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism in the future, who is going to fight it? The Jews who abandon Judaism? Or the Jews who abandon the world? Neither.”

The question was perplexing because amid the tremendous public triumphs of Sacks’ tenure, which he achieved as a global spokesman for Judaism, the one goal that was not achieved was the combating of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe. Not even when Stephen Hawking recently spoke out from Sacks’s alma mater, Cambridge University, endorsing the BDS movement against Israel – pulling out of a high-profile academic conference in Jerusalem – did Sacks make any statement of disapproval. As an ambassador of Judaism, Sacks has had few equals. But under his watch anti-Semitism in England has reached frightening heights.

When I served as rabbi at Oxford University from 1988 to 1999, there were serious challenges to Israel, too, but there were rarely members of Parliament comparing the Israeli government to Nazi Germany, as George Galloway has.

Jewish students were not afraid to wear a yarmulke on campus, whereas now this has become the norm at some UK universities.

Under Rabbi Sacks we have seen an arrest warrant issued against former Israeli foreign minister and current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Under Rabbi Sacks we have seen British governmental proposals for goods from Israel’s West Bank to be labeled as having been grown by Jewish settlers. And of course there was the infamous vote at Oxford University in February to ban Israeli academics, that thankfully failed. That it occurred at all is astonishing.

Lord Sacks was only nominally involved with many of these cases, refraining, for reasons best known to him, from defending Israel against vicious attack. Elsewhere I have written that part of this may stem from problems with the office itself. A chief rabbi is a member of the establishment and establishment figures tend not to make waves.

When I lived in the UK Rabbi Sacks was my hero. I was awed by his writings, and remain so. But after I departed the UK and witnessed the growing tide of Israelhatred in Britain I could no longer understand his unwillingness to combat the assault on the Jewish state.

Here lies the paradox of Sacks’ career and legacy as chief rabbi. On the one hand, he’s risen as one of the most respected apologists for Judaism in our time. A gifted communicator in both the written and spoken word, Sacks combines scholarship with a thoroughly modern understanding of current events and social currents. On the other hand, he will be remembered ultimately as having failed to defend his community against growing assault, especially in the two areas where he was most respected and successful: media and academia.

That Sacks did not take the BBC to task and say – definitively – that the portrayal of Israel in the British media is for the most part foul, inaccurate and deeply biased will forever remain one of the great omissions of his tenure. That he did not speak out at his alma mater, Cambridge, and other leading British Universities, of Israel’s deep humanity, commitment to human rights, and condemn its neighbors who have constantly sought its destruction, will taint his legacy.

The central quality of leadership is not eloquence but moral courage, a preparedness to be hated in the pursuit of what’s right. Moses was a stutterer who leaned on his brother Aaron as his spokesman. But what made him a leader was witnessing an Egyptian taskmaster savagely beating a Jew. Though Moses is a member of the Egyptian establishment, he speaks truth to power and allies himself with his people even though it means being rejected by the Egyptian hierarchy forever.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have had a squeaky and high-pitched voice. His speeches were captivating in writing and remain among the most eloquent ever written. But the same was not true of his spoken words. But what made him a leader was the moral conviction that slavery was an absolute evil that had to be defeated, and that the Union was an unalloyed good that had to be defended.

Winston Churchill was dismissed as a drunk and a crank by the British for sounding the alarm against Hitler. But his steadfastness in combating evil, amid being despised for it, is what saved Western civilization.

No doubt the only reason the Oxford Student Union even voted to boycott Israeli academics is because it does not fear the reaction from respected Jewish academic colleagues. Indeed, many of its members believe that their Jewish counterparts condemn Israel as strongly as they do.

Jonathan Sacks will be remembered as one of the finest spokesman for Judaism that the office of chief rabbi ever produced, but also as a prime example of a leader who personally prospered in his tenure as rabbi while his community and constituency regressed in their national standing.

The next chief rabbi should take heed.

The author is founder of This World: The Values Network, which is working to launch The National Institute of Jewish Values to promote universal Jewish teachings in the American media. He has recently published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.

Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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