Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave an impassioned “State of the Jewish World Address” at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, DC on Monday. Speaking to an audience filled with AJC chapters from across the nation and a disproportionate amount of French press (H.E. Laurent Fabius, France’s minister of foreign affairs, was speaking next), the former Chief Rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth outlined what he saw as the three main threats to the Jewish people today.
First was the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, including the recent leaflets in eastern Ukraine instructing Jews to register, or be deported. (He was hardly alone in drawing this conclusion: the Anti-Defamation League released a poll today finding pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes across more than 100 countries, while the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights recently surveyed nearly 6,000 self-identified European Jews and found that many “face insults, discrimination, harassment and physical violence that may keep them from living their lives openly as Jews” and three-quarters believe anti-Semitism is getting worse.)
Yet anti-Semitism, Rabbi Sacks said, goes beyond the Jews; it is a “dislike of the unlike.” He reminded his audience that Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust, and that the main victims of terror and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East today have been Christians. By saying Jews have a duty to stand with other groups who face prejudice, he echoed Voltaire’s defense of freedom of speech: while I may not agree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.
“The truth is, the different is what makes us human. A Europe with no room for Jews has no room for humanity,” Rabbi Sacks said. “It is our shared humanity that is at stake.”
He also condemned the “sustained, relentless, ruthless campaign to delegitimize Israel.” After facing economic crisis, today the Jewish state is in a moral crisis: its critics have succeeded in dividing Jewish opinion on Israel, he said. However, while anti-Israel sentiment may be the new anti-Semitism, Rabbi Sacks clarified that this did not mean he thought Jews should uncritically support Israel. “We say the Lord is our shepherd—but no Jew was ever a sheep,” he said.
Third was the inability of Jews to speak together. Rabbi Sacks stressed the need to overcome differences and work together as a global people, comparing the Jewish people to a family—“dysfunctional at times, but a family.” He concluded by saying that, throughout history, the Jews never saw themselves as victims; never lost hope; and never internalized the world’s disdain. And that on its own was worth celebrating.
“We have to have less oy,” he said, “and more joy.”