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 two months in advance of retirement. 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 antisemitism 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 antisemitism in Britain and Europe. Not even when Stephen Hawking recently spoke out from Sacks’ 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 antisemitism in England has reached frightening heights.
When I served as rabbi at Oxford University from 1988 to 1999, there were serious challenges to Israel then, too, but there were rarely members of Parliament comparing the Israeli government to Nazi Germany like George Galloway. Jewish students were not afraid for their safety to wear a yarmulke on campus which 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 proposal for goods from Israel’s West Bank being 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, to defend 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 Israel-hatred in Britain I could no longer understand his unwillingness to combat the assault on the Jewish state.
Here lies the paradox of Sacks’ career as Chief Rabbi and how he will be remembered. 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 to the BBC to 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 Chief Rabbinate. 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 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 the spoken word. But what made him a leader was the moral conviction that slavery was an absolute evil that had to be defeated and 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.