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Jonathan Sacks interview: Europe's future at stake over hate

    Lord Sacks says he will never really understand Christianity, and Christians will never understand Judaism (Photo: Michael Donald)
    Lord Sacks says he will never really understand Christianity, and Christians will never understand Judaism (Photo: Michael Donald)

    Lord Sacks believes that British Jewry has been a "model community" in the fight against antisemitism and "seriously blessed" in its leadership.

    In response to the current level of threat, the emeritus Chief Rabbi felt that as "a community we have dealt with this very, very well".

    He also praised the Golders Green Together campaign , launched in opposition to next month's planned far-right rally on July 4, as an "excellent initiative" in involving people of other faiths.

    "The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews," he said. "Antisemitism concerns everyone."

    Lord Sacks, who spends much of his time now teaching in American universities, has been back in the UK in the past few days to launch his new book Not in God's Name - Confronting Religious Violence. Against the backdrop of the rise of militant fundamentalism that has brought terror to Europe and caused carnage in the Middle East, it calls for religious leaders to interpret sacred texts in a way that promotes co-existence rather than conflict.

    ‘Europe as a place of freedom and religious liberty is on the line’

    Lord Sacks said that British Jewry could "walk tall" in its record against antisemitism. "It will not lose this battle. Too much is at stake, not just for Jews but for Europe.

    "If there is one thing the leadership of Europe understands, it is that this is bigger than Jews - the future of Europe as a place of freedom, liberal democracy and religious liberty is on the line."

    If Europe was not safe for Jews, it was not safe for Europeans, he said. "We have to confront antisemitism, fight it, defeat it and refuse to be intimidated by it."

    In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron and his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had been "unequivocal" in standing side by side with the Jewish community, he said.

    The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism had been the first of its kind, he observed, while the Community Security Trust was "the greatest organisation of its kind in the Jewish world". Community organisations, including the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbinate, had been able to co-ordinate efforts against antisemitism in a way that few other Jewish communities had, he believed.

    Asked about grassroots criticism of community leaders in response to last summer's Gaza conflict, he said "that's what you do in a leadership position - you accept a lot of stick and you say 'OK, I didn't get the mood right', and the community leadership immediately rallied round and produced - what looked from a distance - a very impressive display".

    He also reiterated his calls to combat the boycott campaign against Israel . "The BDS movement is an attempt to close down debate. It has to be resisted," he said.

    The new book took him more than a decade to write and went through several drafts. On more than one occasion in the past he had thought of publishing it, only to return it to the drawer - "until last summer, when we began to see those horrendous barbarities by Isis, and I realised now is the time. So I took the manuscript out and rewrote it twice completely between last summer and when we sent it to the printers in March."

    Arguing that tensions between Judaism, Christianity and Islam are a form of sibling rivalry, the book suggests that a subtle reading of the early stories of family in the Bible shows that fraternal strife is not inevitable. "I am trying to say go back and read those key episodes in Genesis and they read differently if we listen to the narrative beneath the surface," he said. But he does not believe it necessary for children in Jewish schools to study other faiths. The Torah's approach was not interfaith dialogue, he said. "It is to say our common humanity precedes our religious differences. God makes the covenant with Noah and all humanity before He makes the covenant with Abraham."

    Rather than interfaith dialogue, social action was better, which was "typified most beautifully by Mitzvah Day, where Jews and Hindus, Christians and Muslims work together side by side".

    As for other learning about other faiths in Jewish schools, he said: "I recommend that we do this by seeing them as cultures rather than religious systems."

    "It's culturally important to know that Hindus celebrate Diwali and Muslims Eid and Christians Christmas. The theology is not necessary. I don't think we ever really understand any other faith but our own. I know I will never really understand Christianity, and Christians will never really understand Judaism."

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