Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a leading critic of anti-Semitism on the world stage, is set to speak at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has become one of the most visible and prolific critics of anti-Semitism on the world stage today.
The former chief rabbi of Great Britain was a constant presence on CNN in the aftermath of January’s terrorist attacks in Paris; he recently spoke about religion and violence on PBS; and penned a long history of anti-Semitism in The Wall Street Journal last month.
But even as he sounds the warning on Islamic extremism and the threat to Jews and democratic freedoms, he has a different message for his own people:
“Anti-Semitism is something we have to fight, but it isn’t something we have to live,” the Orthodox rabbi said in a recent telephone interview in advance of his appearance on March 16 at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station for its Beit Midrash community forum.
“The single most important challenge for Jewry in the 21st century is to recover the joy of being Jewish, the joy of Jewish living,” he stressed. “That, rather than anti-Semitism, should be our focus.”
He noted that Purim, celebrated this week, was “the first festival of anti-Semitism, the first time somebody decreed the elimination of the Jewish people.”
But do we respond with fear? he asked rhetorically. “No, we respond to it with joy,” with a festive holiday that commemorates Esther’s courage to stand up for the Jews and save them from Haman’s fatal decree. “We let our faith conquer fear.”
But Sacks, 66, also believes that faith can help conquer extremism.
In 2002, when he came to New York in the aftermath of 9/11, he said, he realized something had irrevocably changed.
“I began to realize that if religion is part of the problem, then religion must be part of the solution,” said the author of more than 25 books, including his latest, Leviticus: The Book of Holiness. “I’ve been warning about this for the last 13 years. I could see it coming.”
For Sacks, who is spending a semester in New York teaching at New York University and Yeshiva University, it’s important to name the problem in order to confront it.
Asked about the recent controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s reluctance to call the fight against religious extremism a battle in part against Islamic radicalism, Sacks said:
“You can never solve a problem without being entirely explicit and clear as to what the problem is,” he said. “We have to stand alongside moderate Muslims and we have to stand in defense of Islamic values, which categorically forbid the murder of the innocent, suicide bombing, the beheading of hostages and the crucifying of Christians.”
Sacks said the faiths of the world must unite. “We have to stand together in defense of one another; we need to defend the right of Christians anywhere in the world to live without fear. But we need Christians to stand up for the right of Jews to live without fear anywhere in the world; ditto with Muslims.”
He said the situation in Europe is very difficult for Jews today but he warned against conflating “mild anti-Semitic attitudes” and a real danger to life, which is “what we saw in Paris and Copenhagen.”
“Those who hate Jews, hate freedom, and any defeat for Jews is a defeat for freedom,” he said.
The rabbi also believes that in order for faiths to stand together, “we have to bracket Israel out of the conversation. Israel is something else altogether.
“We must avoid importing conflict from the Middle East into Europe.” On the contrary, he added, “we should be exporting coexistence from Europe to the Middle East.”
Despite the rise in anti-Semitism, he rejected the notion that European Jewry is facing a situation similar to the years just prior to World War II.
“Israel is the crucial difference between anti-Semitism today and anti-Semitism in 1933,” he said. “Because of Israel, Jews finally have a home in the sense given by the poet Robert Frost: ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.’
“That means that Israel has made it safer to be a Jew anywhere in the world, including France and Denmark.”
He also asserted that while anti-Semitic attitudes persist in Great Britain, British Jewry “feels a great deal safer than do most on mainland Europe.”
He attributed that sense of security in part to the extensive security apparatus that works within the Jewish community, with some 55 professionals and 4,000 volunteers working in tandem with the police.
Sacks strongly rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appeal to European Jews, made repeatedly in the wake of the recent attacks, for them to “come home.”
He concurred with the chief rabbis of France and Denmark, whose rejection of that appeal, he said, “was both dignified and correct.”
“Intimidating Jews into leaving Europe is precisely what the anti-Semites want, and that is why we will not give it to them.”
Limited tickets for the March 16 event with Rabbi Sacks at Kohelet Yeshiva High School are available at koheletyeshiva.org/rabbisacks.
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