‘Hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews’

By Suzi Brozman

Photo by Blake Ezra

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, global religious leader, philosopher, prolific author and esteemed moral voice, will be in Atlanta next week.

He will offer a public lecture (fully booked) at Young Israel of Toco Hills on Feb. 11, then will spend time downtown at the international convention of BBYO, where more than 3,500 high school students, parents, staffers and educators will interact with him. Before his trip, he spoke by phone with the Atlanta Jewish Times about world Jewry, global anti-Semitism and more.

Why is it important for you to address young people?

Sacks: When I was young, I traveled around the States. I met a huge number of rabbis, including Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Lubovitcher rebbe. I had no intention of being a rabbi, but they inspired me to engage in Jewish thinking. I made a vow to try to do the same with people of the age I was then. Young Jews are really hungry to think through their Jewish identity. In the U.S. we should be very proud to have such young people in our midst, engaging in thinking about our people, our future.

Do you see youngsters as less engaged than in the past? If so, why?

Sacks: The first utterance of a young child is “Why?” What we’re dealing with here, after the first 50 years of the state of Israel, is Israel and the Palestinians engaged in political conflict. You can think your way through this, but it’s harder to think your way through two incommensurate worlds. The failure of Western media to understand Israel’s point of view doesn’t help. We only want impartiality.

What about the sudden growth of anti-Semitism?

Sacks: You don’t solve problems by making them seem simple. It’s a principle in Roman law. Justice means to hear the other side. That is not happening right now … not because we are Jews, but because we are human, and we care about justice. These are not easy issues — when all you do is see an image without context, people are going to jump to the wrong conclusions. Justice is being fair to both sides.

One thing I did as chief rabbi was to make friends with Christians, Muslims, secular … all sorts of friends. We have to resist paranoia, to avoid rushing to judgment. We have enemies, but we tend to forget we have friends — good, loyal friends. We would have more if we reached out.

You have potential friends. You go and turn them into real and actual friends. See the commentary on Pirke Avot — who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend. A sworn enemy you cannot turn into a friend. You have to defend yourself against a sworn enemy.

You write a lot about the Holocaust. Are we about to relive that dangerous time?

Sacks: Anti-Semitism is not the same today as in 1933. The difference is Israel. Then we had no place to go. Today we have one place — when you go there, they have to take you in. We are no longer a homeless, powerless people, so this time we can stand and fight.

But we are talking about an age of terror. What are our enemies aiming at? They’re aiming at terrorizing. The killings in Paris, the killings in Denmark, aim to intimidate. If we are fraught with terror, we are handing them a victory. What can we do? We can start by reading Psalm 23 daily, we say to the religious. To the nonreligious, we teach young children the song “Life is a very narrow bridge; the main thing is never to be afraid.”

The Charlie Hebdo attack was a turning point, the moment it became clear to all of Europe that an attack on Jews is ultimately an attack on everyone. It is on the West, the “Big Satan.” It is the biggest challenge we face — hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. We have to face this thread together. We have to conquer the fear. Faith conquers fear.

Do you think today’s people have as much faith as in the past?

Sacks: We’ve had a huge crisis of faith. We saw it in the 17th century with Spinoza. Exile had gone on too long. The Jews in Spain had experienced their golden age, but they saw it turn to dust. They became atheists — look at Spinoza, Karl Marx, Freud. They felt they’d kept their bargain with G-d, but G-d hadn’t kept his bargain with them. Many people felt they were being persecuted in the name of G-d. I won’t criticize a Jew for losing faith; in fact, having faith is a miracle. Having meaning in life is so important. … Faith makes marriages, creates communities.

Judaism is a faith which is good for the mind. It encourages you to ask questions and engage in argument. It is good for the body. It teaches you how not to give in to instinct. We are the people whose name means the one who wrestles with faith and prevails.

Why are people beginning to doubt, to deny the Holocaust?

Sacks: Read Galbraith’s “The Great Crash.” Written about the crash of 1929, it was only published 25 years later. People asked him if there could be another crash. He said no, we still remember it. But as soon as they forgot, it happened again, in 2008. That’s why we have to remember it, so it won’t happen again.

It may not be about Jews this time. Mostly Christians and Muslims are dying now. The essence of why we must remember is that it was a crime against humanity. Humanity is going through a period of turbulence; lie when the pilot says please fasten your seat belts. People get afraid. The politics of fear is bad news. I wrote “The Politics of Hope” 20 years ago … the antidote to the politics of fear.

What’s next for you?

Sacks: My next book is due out in time for Yayikra: “Covenant and Conversation: Vayikra.” It’s the most difficult of the books to understand today — sanctity, kedusha, holiness, purity, sacrifice.

To read more of Rabbi Sacks’ thinking, check out his website, RabbiSacks.org, where you can subscribe to his weekly parsha commentary. You also can follow him on Twitter (@RabbiSacks).