An establishment bigot
Tony Greenstein does not mourn the death of rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks (March 8 1948 - November 7 2020)
Of one thing you can be certain. When the press sings in unison you can be certain that what they say is wrong. And, sure enough, they fell over themselves to sing the praises of Saint Sacks. (It is most unfortunate that the Jewish religion does not have saints, though it does have tzadiks - righteous persons).
Jonathan Sacks was described on the NPR website as a “towering intellect of Judaism”,1 which probably says more about the state of modern Judaism than it does about him. The Times spoke of the “charismatic chief rabbi, who was an eloquent, powerful advocate for the importance of all faiths” and “made his listeners feel clever” (November 8), while The New York Times explained how “In writings and media appearances, he took a universalist view of religion in a multicultural world - a stance that could get him in hot water with conservatives.”2
The Church Times described how Sacks was
prodigiously talented in two areas that only rarely come together. He had a trained and sharply honed philosophical mind, and he combined this with superb powers of storytelling and popular communication ... There was a particular bond with George Carey, because of their shared support for Arsenal ...3
Carey, it should be remembered, covered up child abuse in the Church of England, leading to him being banned from officiating at services. He was also a fellow Islamophobe.
We can get a flavour of Sacks’ political orientation from the fact that in 2018 he helped Mike Pence, the US vice-president, write a speech to be delivered in the Knesset, in which he announced the date of Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Sacks thus demonstrated that, when it comes to the occupied territories, of which Jerusalem is a part, he was signed up to a Greater Israel. Pence saw Sacks’ contribution as a “hugely critical element in crafting the speech”. Pence himself is an evangelical Christian and a reactionary on all social issues - from gay rights and abortion to demanding that public funds for HIV/Aids be redirected to “conversion therapy” for LGBT people. Sacks had no problem in working with such a vile creature.
However, he was anything but righteous. He was a pretentious windbag, who wrote over 20 books without saying anything worthwhile. Sacks flattered to deceive and created an aura of profundity. He was also apparently a ‘philosopher’.
You can best judge his verbal and written output by the stance he took on the various questions that confronted him and the choices he made. Catholic theologians produced millions of words, yet that did not prevent the Vatican threatening to torture Galileo if he did not recant his bizarre ideas about the planets revolving round the sun!
Jonathan Sacks was a homophobe, an anti-gay bigot. When the home office put out for consultation its proposals on gay marriage, the Beth Din - a Jewish religious court, which Sacks presided over - urged the government to reject any proposals to legalise gay marriage. The Beth Din declared: “Our understanding of marriage from time immemorial has been that of a union between a man and a woman. Any attempt to redefine this sacred institution would be to undermine the concept of marriage.”4
It has not in fact been an institution “from time immemorial”. Marriage, as we know it now, is of recent origin and has changed fundamentally over time, as has the family itself. It is a common fault to read back from today into “time immemorial”.
The Guardian, before it was ‘Freedlandised’ - and before the Labour ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign was underway - was somewhat more critical of Sacks. In an editorial it wrote:
Lord Sacks’ mellifluous voice may have charmed millions. But he was unable convincingly to explain why the dignity of difference does not also mean the dignity of diversity (August 25 2013).
In 1992 Sacks excluded the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Helpline from a communal charity walkabout in Hyde Park, which he had organised. According to a spokesman for his office, the helpline “presented an alternative lifestyle which we don’t accept. We know that some people feel that they are inclined that way, but we draw the line at institutionalising it.”5
According to Wikipedia, Sacks is “paradoxically one of the most universalising voices within contemporary Judaism”.6 It is said that Humpty Dumpty remarked that words mean what you want them to mean - the only question being who is the master. But to Sacks words lost any independent existence: they were merely weapons of war.
Universalism means that ideas, ethics and behaviour towards others have universal application. But Sacks’ Zionism stood for the complete opposite - what is good for the Jews is its first question. Zionism is dedicated to creating and sustaining a Jewish state that is as ethnically pure as possible
Sacks was a vehement Zionist and opposed to anything remotely approaching a universalist outlook. He used his academic background in philosophy in order to legitimise Jewish chauvinism and particularism. His academic learning was employed to defend Jewish exceptionalism, muddying it with a commitment to interfaith ‘dialogue’.
When it comes to bourgeois philosophy, terms such as ‘universalism’ mean anything you want them to mean. What his flatterers meant was that he spoke the language of ‘interfaith’, whilst subscribing to the idea that only the Jewish religion enables an acquaintanceship with god. The getting together of Christians and Jewish religious leaders to pat each other on the back - what is called ‘interfaith dialogue’ - in practice meant Christian clerics giving unstinting support to Israeli ethnic cleansing and its barbaric occupation.
It says a lot about the intellectual poverty of the organised, synagogue-going British Jewish community that someone like Sacks was treated with veneration. He was an intellectual fraud posing as someone with deep insight into the human condition.
When it came to the victims of Zionism, the Palestinians, Sacks was anything but a universalist. He held his arms out to the most murderous and racist settlers of all. Sacks was a bigot, who dressed up his prejudices in flowery language, sophistry and semantics. What mattered was not how many philosophy books he wrote, but how he interpreted them.
When in his 2002 book The dignity of difference Sacks wrote, “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims ... God is the god of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity”, he sparked a backlash amongst the ultra-orthodox. What was his reaction? Did he stand his ground? No, he amended his book so that it read: “As Jews, we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures and faiths finding their own relationship with God.”
Sacks’ hypocrisy was on full display when he took advantage of the media chorus, fawning tabloid headlines and vacuous pundits, to launch a vicious personal attack on Jeremy Corbyn. In a New Statesman interview, if you can call it that, Sacks accusing Corbyn of having made the most racist speech since Enoch Powell and his “rivers of blood” in 1968. Here was the “deep thinker” playing to a gallery of sycophants and reactionary press clowns, offering a cheap quote in return for even cheaper applause. Sacks demonstrated not only his own hypocrisy, but his willingness to indulge in cheap demagogy.
Corbyn, you will remember, accused two Zionist thugs - Jonathan Hoffman and Richard Millett, who have a history of disrupting meetings that they disagree with - of failing to understand “British irony”. Corbyn’s comparison was with the Palestinian ambassador, Manuel Hassassian, whose meeting they had tried to disrupt. Corbyn’s accusation was made against two particularly obnoxious Zionists, although the media tripe treated ‘Zionist’ as equalling ‘Jew’. The contrast was between two individuals, who were born in Britain, but who lacked any sense of irony, with the Palestinian ambassador who was not born in Britain. It was the exact opposite of Powellism.
If Sacks had possessed any integrity, still less irony, he might have kept his rabbinical trap firmly shut. However, people like him tend towards verbal incontinence. When asked to name his favourite book for 2017, Sacks volunteered Douglas Murray’s Strange death of Europe! It is a book that not only praises Enoch Powell, but it is the bible of the far-right identitarian movement with its ‘replacement theory’, which argues that mass Muslim immigration is part of a conspiracy to replace and eradicate white European identity.
Below is one of Murray’s tributes to his hero, Enoch Powell:
... among the things most striking when reading [Powell’s] speech - and the reactions to it - today are the portions for which he was lambasted that now seem almost understated … if anyone had suggested to Powell in 1968 that he should use his Birmingham speech to predict that within the lifespan of most people listening those who identified as ‘white British’ would be in a minority in their capital city, he would have dismissed such an advisor as a maniac … even the most famous prophet of immigration doom in fact underestimated and understated the case (my emphasis).7
To criticise Corbyn, the opponent of white supremacy and apartheid, for being a latter-day Enoch Powell, when his own views dovetailed with racists like Douglas Murray was the height of hypocrisy.
Indeed the full-blown version of identitarianism has Jews as the masterminds of this immigration - financed, of course, by the ubiquitous George Soros. So not only was Sacks signing up to a racist far-right ideology, but he was giving sustenance to the very anti-Semitism that he accused Corbyn of!
What is also clear is that Sacks himself did not understand British (or any other) form of irony.
Martin Heidegger was a far greater philosopher than Sacks, whose legacy consists of a few pious homilies. Nonetheless, for all his erudition, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Some might suggest that there is a dichotomy between a philosophy that critiques society and our place in it, and a philosophy which ends up in Nazi dictatorship and biological racism. The same is equally true with Sacks. For all his fine, measured words, he lent his weight to the sanitising of bigotry and racism.
Jonathan Sacks, with his affected profundity and learning, was an establishment courier, flattering those with privilege and power, but having nothing to say to the dispossessed. He was a man with little in the way of original thought. He simply repackaged the mundane.
Israel and Zionism
Jonathan Sacks in a speech at a Solidarity Rally for Israel on July 23 2006 - during Israel’s attack on Lebanon, including its slaughter of its civilian population - said:
Today we stand in solidarity with Israel, and rarely have I felt so proud of Anglo-Jewry as I have done these past few days. Especially of our young people. Last week 1,300 of them, from youth groups right across the religious spectrum, went out to Israel. Every one of them, or their families, might have said, ‘No, not now. It is too dangerous.’ Yet almost none of them did. I want to say to every one of those young people: Kol hakavod [‘All the honour’]. You make us proud … And today I want a message to go forth from us to Israel to say: Israel, you make us proud …
Israel’s bombing of Lebanon’s civilian population, including western Beirut, made Sacks proud. To compound just how deceitful and treacherous he was, he proclaimed how he “wept” for the people of Lebanon, even as the Israel he supported was bombing them! He was “proud” of the murderers, yet expressed sympathy with the murdered.
This is the Israel which committed the Qana massacre in Lebanon 10 years earlier, killing over 100 of the 800 refugees who had gathered there. Sacks said:
Does any of us, God forbid, take satisfaction at the devastation of Lebanon? Is that who we are? Let me be clear and unambiguous. We weep not just for Israel, but for the people of Lebanon also …
But, of course, all this ‘devastation’ was justified:
And if we, if Israel, if Europe, if America do not take a stand against terror, if we ignore it, as the world ignored it for so long, then it will leave a stain on the human future that no tears, no regrets, will ever remove.
Presumably it did not occur to this great philosopher and scholar that the terror the world was ignoring was that committed by Israel. However, Hezbollah ensured that Israel was driven out of Lebanon in 2006 - its first defeat at the hands of an Arab army since 1948. Israel has since, together with the United States, branded Hezbollah a ‘terrorist’ group rather than a national liberation movement.
During Israel’s ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ in Gaza in November 2012, in which 174 Palestinians were killed and many hundreds wounded by Israeli bombing, Sacks was asked by presenter Evan Davis, after giving his usual homilies on Thought for the day, if he had “any thoughts on what’s going on over in Israel and Gaza at the moment”. Sacks sighed and said: “I think it’s got to do with Iran actually.” Copresenter Sarah Montague quickly whispered, “We’re live.” Sacks immediately reverted to his normal pious tone offering a “continued prayer for peace, not only in Gaza, but the whole region”.8
Sacks was brought up in the tradition of the ‘left’ Zionists of ‘shooting and crying’. You weep, not for your victims, but because they forced you to kill them.
Every June Israeli Jews celebrate Jerusalem Day, marking the 1967 war, when the city was captured. As part of the celebrations, thousands of settlers take part in the ‘March of the Flags’. This march passes through Arab east Jerusalem, with young settlers chanting slogans such as “Death to the Arabs!”, whilst banging on the shuttered Arab shops - all under the gaze of the Israeli police.
In 2017 Sacks extended a “personal invitation” to diaspora Jews to join him on a trip to Israel, which included “leading” the March of the Flags and “dancing with our brave IDF soldiers” in the far-right settler enclave inside Hebron.
Ha’aretz correspondent Bradley Burston asked: “Rabbi Sacks, why are you cheerleading for anti-Palestinian provocateurs?”9 Burston never received a reply. Burston described it as “an annual, gender-segregated, extreme-right, pro-occupation religious carnival of hatred, marking the anniversary of Israel’s capture of Jerusalem by humiliating the city’s Palestinian Muslims”, in which marchers have
vandalised shops in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter, chanted ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘The (Jewish) temple will be built, the [Al Aqsa] mosque will be burned down’, shattered windows and door locks, and poured glue into the locks of shops forced to close for fear of further damage.10
Ha’aretz’s Anna Roiser pleaded with Sacks not to attend, saying:
... one of the world’s most respected rabbis sends a message of normalisation and acceptance of the occupation by the mainstream Jewish community. Many Jews in the diaspora work hard to emphasise that being Jewish is not synonymous with supporting the Israeli government, and that supporting Israel’s right to exist is not synonymous with supporting the occupation. Rabbi Sacks’ actions risk undermining these messages.11
Sacks ignored all such entreaties.
In a video taken of the march several youths spoke to Electronic Intifada’s Charlotte Silver. One said that they had come to celebrate the “liberation of Jerusalem from the Palestinians”, while others chimed in with “May their memory be erased.” “May they all die today, all together,” another interjected. A child asserted repeatedly that Jerusalem had been “liberated” from “the donkeys”.12
The curse calling for someone’s name or memory to be erased was traditionally used for enemies of the Jews as hated as Adolf Hitler or Haman the evil. Its use by Jewish youths against Palestinians indicates the level of genocidal hatred with which they are brought up.
Members of a fascist anti-miscegenation group shouted: “Arab beware - my sister is not abandoned goods.” They also chanted: “Girls of Israel, for the nation of Israel.” Israeli women are seen as the exclusive property of Israeli Jewish men. As in Nazi Germany, where Rassenchande (‘racial pollution’) meant Jewish men having sexual relations with non-Jewish German women (not the other way around), there were no equivalent slogans telling Arab women to beware of mixing with Jewish men.13
None of this prevented The Guardian’s Jenni Frazer describing Sacks as
a much admired figure in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world ... Sacks won high praise and was generally acknowledged as one of the most brilliant intellects of his generation. He was particularly lauded for his ability to explain Jewish philosophy to the wider community, which he did with great frequency on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the day, lecturing in moral philosophy at Middlesex Polytechnic, or as a visiting professor at Essex University.
To end, let me recall the death of Hugo Gryn in 1996. Gryn was a rabbi for 32 years at the West London synagogue - one of the largest Reform congregations in Europe. He was also an Auschwitz survivor - his family arrived there in 1944 when he was 14. His 10-year-old brother was gassed on arrival. He and his mother survived, but his father died a few days after liberation.
However, as chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, Sacks refused to attend the funeral. A massive row erupted after The Jewish Chronicle published a leaked letter, which Sacks had written.14 This described Gryn as part of a “false grouping”, which was “among those who destroy the faith”. Sacks’ subsequent decision to attend a memorial service for Gryn did not appease communal anger.
As for Sacks himself, I know it is not the done thing to speak ill of the dead. But that is no reason to lie about them either.