Even his staunchest critics concede that British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has been an exceptionally articulate exponent of Jewish ideals to the broader non-Jewish public. At a time when the Anglican Church has declined into mindless political correctness and irrelevance, Sacks has emerged as the best-known and most serious religious thinker in England. Despite the deep-seated anti-semitism of England’s chattering classes, Professor (as he sometimes prefers to be called) Sacks’ polished and learned speeches and writings have found a wide and attentive audience for basic Torah ideas.
Yet Rabbi Sacks' very success as a media personality has now proven his undoing. In an interview with the Guardian, which is serializing his latest book, Sacks confessed that "things happen [in Israel] on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew." He characterized Israeli policy towards the Palestinians as "incompatible with the ideals of Judaism."
In part, Rabbi Sacks remarks can be understood as a simple failure of character. Journalist Douglas Davis no doubt captured part of the problem when he described the one-time star student at a posh London private school and Cambridge University scholarship student as having never "gotten over his cleverness, never quite conquered his need for attention, his ambition for recognition."
But the problem goes deeper, and can serve as a cautionary tale for all those who seek to defend an unpopular sub-community before a hostile public – e.g., those who attempt to defend the chareidi community in the general Israeli media. Here are a few lessons, such defenders can learn from the Sacks affair.
First, don’t try to sell your community by selling yourself. The attempt to do so inevitably renders one too eager to please and too quick to anticipate the point of view of a hostile audience. Dr. Sacks no doubt hoped to give himself credibility as a defender of Israel by demonstrating that he does not automatically support everything Israel does. Similarly, defenders of the chareidi community may believe that they will be more effective if they establish that they too are capable of criticizing their community.
That may be true. But then one better remember the second lesson from the Sacks affair: You will be held responsible not just for what you say or write, but for how it is used. In this regard, context is everything. Before writing in a secular journal about the phenomenon of yeshiva students who are not really learning, a chareidi journalist would have to take into account that most of the secular public believes that 80% or more of yeshiva students fall into this category and that only a small handful actually enjoy what they are doing. To the chareidi journalist, the phenomenom is worrisome, even though he knows it describes only a small percentage of yeshiva students, but if he writes about it for a secular audience, he will only end up confirming their preconceived notions about how widespread it is.
Rabbi Sacks seems to have completely forgotten this principle. He knew very well that he was speaking to the Guardian, the most consistently anti-Israel of the major British papers. The paper proclaimed loud and long the Israeli massacre of innocent civilians in Jenin, and has shown great sympathy for the desperation of Palestinian suicide bombers. Whatever he meant to say, his descriptions of daily discomfort as a Jew could only convey the impression that Israeli policy is, in his eyes, profoundly immoral.
At a time when anti-Israel sentiment is soaring in England and open expressions of anti-Semitism are once more fashionable, he provided succor to all those who have labored to undermine Israel’s international standing. The Guardian could not contain its glee with an interview sure to send "shockwaves through Israel and the world Jewish community." Others similarly delighted with the Chief Rabbi’s remarks included Jewish MK Gerald Kaufman, who recently traveled to Iraq to express his solidarity with Saddam Hussein, Rabbis for Human Rights, whose sympathy for Palestinian olive trees exceeds that for slain Jews, and a host of Reform clerics in their traditional pose of handwringing over the brutal Israeli occupation.
Israel’s situation today is tragic. It is tragic that we have been forced into a war against our will; it is tragic that 13 Jewish lives were lost in Jenin because of the IDF showed more concern for the lives of Palestinians than for those of its soldiers; it is tragic that Jews cannot walk anywhere in their Land unafraid. And it is tragic, as Golda Meir famously remarked, that Jewish boys are forced to kill in order that we can survive. But far from alleviating any of these tragedies, Rabbi Sacks remarks will only make them worse.
Its not just what you say, but how you say it and to whom.