As I recently learned of the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at the legacy that he now leaves behind, or at least some of the things that I will personally remember him for.
Sacks was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in September 1991 and remained in office for 22yrs. In his inauguration address he called for “a Decade of Renewal” which would include “a profound contribution to British society and an unequivocal attachment to Israel.”
In 2007, just before Gordon Brown took office, Jonathan Sack’s daughter, Gila Sacks, was one of 11 ‘special advisers’ appointed as an aide to Gordon Brown. Formerly a director of strategy for a Jewish charity called UJIA (United Jewish Israel Appeal), Gila was appointed as a member of Brown’s ‘council of economic advisers’. According to it’s website, one of the key objectives of the UJIA is to build “meaningful connections between the UK Jewish community and the people of Israel”. It claims that “Generation after generation of UK Jewry have benefitted from UJIA programmes that nurture lifelong connections to Israel”.
Brown and Rabbi Sacks are said to have been very good friends and so, it was no surprise that, in 2009, Jonathan Sacks was awarded a life peerage. The fact is, Sacks has very close ties to the establishment. In fact, the well-wishers at his tribute dinner, shortly before he stepped down as Chief Rabbi, included David Cameron, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Prince Charles.
These tributes from the ruling elite might shock many people with any appreciation of the character and history of the man. For example, in September 2008 Sacks was listed as number 30 in the Telegraph’s Top 100 right wingers and he held some rather extreme views. Lord Rabbi Sacks did not support LGBT+ rights for example. and had close ties with Mike Pence, another anti-LGBT nut job. In fact Sacks shared many of the same values and as David Rosenberg pointed out in his article, Rabbi Sacks is known to be extremely exclusionary. Rosenberg tells us that Sacks once blocked a Jewish Lesbian and Gay group from taking part in a march at Hyde Park and that he had also spoken out against same sex marriages. In fact, in 2012 a group of prominent British Jews criticised Sacks for opposing civil marriage for gays and lesbian couples.
Peter Beinart wrote a scathing exposé on Sack’s hypocrisy in ‘The Forward’. Beinart, a Jewish American Journalist, political commentator and somewhat of a Sacks devotee, wrote about how he felt that Sacks had “abdicated his moral responsibility”. In Beinart’s eyes, Sacks’ failure to speak out against Israeli and American government abuses and his decision to remain silent over certain actions taken by either Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump’s was completely immoral. He points out that Sacks’ is highly influential both in the UK and in the USA and that his voice carries “unique weight”. For Beinart, Sacks’ decision to remain silent would “constitutes a unique failure”. Beinart explains how, on the one hand, Sacks preaches that “God will not hear your prayers if you fail to hear the cries of those around you” and talks of how “leaders, have to take a stand against the corrosive power of hate” and how “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing” and yet he chooses to say nothing while Trump’s administration tortures refugees in the US and preaches hate towards Muslims and while the Israeli government bulldozes Palestinian villages and forcibly removes Palestinians people and takes their land.
Beinart asked “Why does Rabbi Sacks’ silence not violate his own understanding of Judaism?” It’s not like he hasn’t been outspoken about other political issues in the past. He reminds us that, in 2002, Sacks supported the invasion of Iraq and, in 2011, Sacks supported Tory proposals to tax single people at a higher rate than married couples. He also reminds us of Sacks’ anti-BDS propaganda video and the fact that he helped write the US Vice President’s speech to the Knesset, in celebration of the fact that the United States had decided to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
So, clearly, Sacks was selective about the political issues he wanted to talk about and he clearly chose to remain silent on topics that might shine a negative light on the Israeli government or on their allies. However, Beinart goes further and points out that Sacks was also partial to twisting facts and making false statements to protect Israel. He explains how Sacks claimed that Israel was the only country in the Middle East where a Palestinian could freely criticize the government on national television. Beinart points out that Israel controls the West Bank and does not permit access to any outsiders. This allows Israel to act with impunity and arrest/detain anyone it wants to, at any time, and for as long as it wants to.
Beinart also observes that whenever Sacks talks about “the rise of far right” he almost inevitable always offers a comparison to left wing movements. In other words, he tries to imply that there is some sort of moral equivalence between the two (much like Trump would do). In fact, Beinart points out that Sacks had even taken to championing freedom of speech for some groups while effectively denying it to those he did not approve of. For example, he would condemns terms such as “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions” because he saw them as tools employed by black, Latino, female and LGBT University students – people who he considers to be complicit in some sort of totalitarian agenda.
Beinart did however make an interesting observation that Sacks hadn’t always been silent over Israeli controversies. In fact, Sacks had made a few critical remarks in the past but they triggered a rather fierce backlash from the Orthodox right. Sacks had apparently outraged a certain section of the Jewish community when he remarked that conflict with the Palestinians was “corrupting” Israeli culture and that the countries position was “incompatible” with the Jewish faith. For this, he was attacked by the president of Britain’s Zionist Federation and The Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Jerusalem Post even demanded his resignation at the time. This was a wakeup call for Sacks. Sacks subsequently retracted his statements and even tried to suggest that his views had been misrepresented. Beinart believes that this is the real reason why Sacks would no longer challenge his religious base and why he was then prepared to compromise his values.
In his blog, David Rosenberg explains the reason why he would never accept Sacks as his Chief Rabbi and doesn’t mince his words. Rosenberg considered Sacks an untrustworthy, divisive and hateful figure. He explains how Sacks refused to attend the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a much-loved and admired communal figure and reformist who served at the West London synagogue for 32 years – one of the largest Reform congregations in Europe. David tells us that Rabbi Gryn was an Auschwitz survivor from Berehevo (then in Czechoslovakia, today in Ukraine) and that he was just 14yrs old when he arrived at Auschwitz with his family. He tells us the harrowing story of how Gryn’s 10-year-old brother was gassed to death on arrival and how his father, who became so weak and ill, died a few days after liberation. Only Hugo and his mother survived Auschwitz but this mattered not one jot to Chief Rabbi Sacks because Sacks saw Rabbi Gryn as part of a “false grouping” seeking to “destroy the faith”. David believes that this was a deliberate and hateful action by Rabbi Sacks and not at all what you might expect from a Rabbi who claims to promote “unity” within the Jewish community.
However, nothing screams more loudly that Rabbi Sacks is a proud fascist than his decision to lead the ‘March of the Flags’ on Jerusalem Day (24th May 2017), where he happily danced with, what he referred to as, “our brave IDF soldiers,” in a settler enclave inside Hebron.
According to Haaretz’s correspondent Bradley Burston, the March of the Israeli flags is “an annual, gender-segregated extreme-right, pro-occupation religious carnival of hatred” that marks the capture of Jerusalem and the humiliation the city’s Palestinian Muslims. Every year, participants vandalize shops in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, chant “Death to Arabs” and threaten to burn down the Al Aqsa Mosque. They regularly shatter windows, smash door locks or even pour glue into the locks of Palestinian shops.
Sack’s was also a virulent propagandist for Israel and even produced videos attacking the BDS movement, promoting Zionism and justifying colonial land theft.
However, the mask would slip on the odd, rare, occasion. During Radio 4 interview in 2012, Sacks, who hadn’t realised that his microphone had been switched on, accidentally revealed that he blamed Iran for Israel’s attack on Gaza. The shocked and stumbling co-presenters quickly mumbled to warn him “we’re live on air”, which then prompted him to suddenly change his response to a message of striving for peace in the region.
Lord Rabbi Sacks also had close ties to the Trump administration. David Rosenberg pointed out in his blog that Sacks even helped to write the speech that Mike Pence delivered in the Knesset when they made the decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Like Sacks, Pence does not believe in LGBTQ+ rights and would much rather see public funds diverted away from HIV/Aids sufferers and redirected toward “conversion therapy” for LGBT people. The Haaretz Newspaper gave a highly critical assessment of the speech at the time, which it referred to as “bizarre”. In their assessment was that the Pence speech was theologically impudent and, worst still, implied some sort of Jewish subservience because it “internalizes Christian supercessionism” for the sake of political expediency.
Sacks was very much politically aligned to the right. Not only did he nurture ties and assist the Trump administration, he was also actively involved in fundraising for the UK Tory Party. In fact, he helped raise £300,000 for Tim Montgomerie to establish the “Renewing One Nation” group within the Conservative Party. This was a research team set up to shadow Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit. In his book ‘The Home We Build Together’ (2007), Sacks argues that “Multiculturalism has run its course, and it is time to move on”. He argues that multiculturalism has made society “more abrasive, fractured and intolerant”. Instead, he argued, that we needed to strive for “a national culture” and claims that society had experienced a collapse in moral consensus, a decline in “traditional class identity” and a shift towards ‘individualism’, which he said was responsible for a decline in ‘civility’ and “an increase in political violence”.
Confusingly though, he would then suggests that, in his opinion, society had shifted from “classical liberalism” to “neo-Marxism spliced with postmodernism” and claimed that society was now far more focused on “oppressed groups”, as opposed to “individual rights” and that this had resulted in more “identity politics” and something he referred to as “the politics of competitive victimhood”.
In an article in the Times, in 2011, Sacks actually blamed multiculturalism for a decline in moral values. He argued that political correctness moved society away from thoughtfulness and towards “thought-control”. Ironically, he actually believed that the way to defend a ‘Liberal Democracy’ and to protect ‘civil society institutions’ was to stop people from campaigning and to prevent them from boycotting or banning things and even to stop them protesting. Later, in an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, Sacks would attempt to explain his argument by suggesting that society should be viewed as “a country house” rather than a hotel (where, presumably, guests must abide by house rules).
In my personal opinion, given everything I’ve now read on the man, it seems that Sacks was either a propagandist for Israel and for the political right, at best, or a dangerous racist, homophobe and colonialist, at worst. Either way, he was a weak and self-indulgent man and certainly not someone who deserves to be eulogised in any way.