Rabbi Sacks talks with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour
On Thursday 9th January, Rabbi Sacks appeared on one of CNN International’s flagship current affairs programmes – ‘Amanpour’ – hosted by world-renowned journalist Christiane Amanpour. During the conversation, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the legacy of Ariel Sharon, prospects for peace in the Middle East, the threat of Iran, his views on Pope Francis, and the extent of European antisemitism.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is the transcript of Christiane Amanpour’s full interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Some of the questions below were not broadcast.
AMANPOUR: Thank you for joining me here. Let me ask you first, you have now just stepped down within the last few months after nearly twenty-two years, if I’m not wrong, of being the Chief Rabbi here. What was the biggest challenge when you took the position back in 1991?
SACKS: Back in 1991 the biggest challenge was to get Jews committed to continuing their Jewish identity, to teaching their children about it. And historically we’ve been the people who predicated our being on education. We built the schools. And so my biggest priority was to get more Jews to go to Jewish day schools, learn and be just a little more knowledgeable than their parents.
AMANPOUR: When you first took on the Chief Rabbi job, you were losing ten Jews every day over the last forty years. Was that the biggest challenge for you as you took the job?
SACKS: It was huge. You know Anglo-Jewry had had a very distinguished past, but I didn’t see a community that was focused on its future, and we’d been in demographic decline for, as you say, forty years. And now thank goodness we’ve turned that around, we’re now growing as a community, and we have young Jews who know more and they’re more committed perhaps than would have been the case otherwise.
AMANPOUR: How did you do that? Now you famously wrote in one of your books, pamphlets, “there’s more joy than oy”, or “less oy more joy”. How did you turn the situation around? You had said there was a lot of out-marriage that contributed to let’s say diluting Jewish families, Jewish households, Jewish children.
SACKS: We’ve done the book of lamentations for many centuries. There’s been a lot of antisemitism. There’s a lot of negativity to Jewish identity. And if you think of yourself as the people who get hated by others you are not going to want to hand that on to your children. So I had to do what I could to get the community to be proud to be Jewish. It’s been around a long time: twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam. We’ve contributed, I think, hugely to human civilisation, and I wanted to get that pride and that joy. We did a lot of creative music in our synagogues, we just got people up, singing and dancing and feeling good about being Jewish.
AMANPOUR: Tell me about young Jews, because again I read that you wrote first of all in the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world and the world will need Jews. What is the battle that twenty-first centuries here in England and maybe throughout the diaspora confront and face?
SACKS: Well you know if you’ve got a very open society, the question is: why should I be anything in particular. Being Jewish is a very particular kind of identity. But I do feel that our great religious traditions in Judaism is the classic instance of this, have enormous gifts to offer in the twenty-first century. Very strong sense of community, very supportive families, a dedicated approach to education, we do well with our children, we are a community that believes in giving, we are great givers – charitably, and in other ways. So I think when you stay firm in an identity it helps you locate yourself in a world that sometimes otherwise can be seeming to change very fast and make people very anxious. I think when you’re rooted in a people that’s come through everything that fate and history can throw at it and has kept surviving and kept being strong, that’s a huge thing for young people to have with them.
AMANPOUR: You yourself have received many, much praise, many plaudits, for being able to be such a communicator, for reaching out not just within your faith but beyond your faith. You talk about the dignity of difference, you talk about Christianity, Islam. You’ve also though been under attack, haven’t you, from the very left and the very right of your own faith, whether it’s the very progressive, or the reformed Jews, or the very ultra-orthodox. You haven’t been able to bring them together. Describe to me the incredible factionalism in Judaism.
SACKS: Well you know Jews, two Jews, three opinions. If we don’t have anyone else to argue with we argue among ourselves. I remember doing a conversation with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz who’s very secular. And he said ‘I don’t think I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks about everything but then on most things I don’t agree with myself.’ So that’s a very Jewish thing.
The day I was appointed as Chief Rabbi, somebody wrote to me from Israel and said, “You haven’t even begun and already you’re criticised by the left and by the right, So, you must be doing something right”. So I was very relaxed about it. I think it just comes with the territory.
AMANPOUR: You also wrote that because of history, Jews have either had to, or faced the choice between assimilation or segregation. Do you think that is still the choice? Or is there a third choice as we go into the twenty-first century?
SACKS: I am in favour of integration without assimilation. I think that by being what we uniquely are, we contribute to humanity what only we can give. So I think that if you do want to contribute to humanity as a whole the best way of doing so is to be strong in your own historical traditions, and I think that is the third option. So I really don’t agree with those who say we have to segregate or we have to assimilate.
AMANPOUR: Because there is a big sort of existential, philosophical battle in Israel right now, where incredibly in one of the more recent polls 50% of Israeli Jews basically said their biggest threat is not from the outside, but it’s from the battle between secular and ultra-orthodox within Israel. Where do you see that going? How do you see that battle playing out? We see for instance the government has to decide whether the ultra-orthodox are going to join the military service, or whether they’re going to work in the professions rather than in bible school. Where do you see this playing out?
SACKS: Well you look at Israel, it’s a very small country, it has Jews from over a hundred different lands carrying with them the entire lexicon of Jewish experience over the past two thousand years. They come from everywhere, from extreme secular to extremely ultra-religious, and somehow or other they manage to live together. Now it’s true there are a lot of tensions, there are a lot of fissures and they’re serious. But I remember already twenty-five years ago the President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, saying he feared for the future of the country, and somehow it stays together. So I’m not worried about Israel. I think there are tensions, I think they’re painful, they’re unnecessary. But I think at the end of the day we do strongly feel we’re part of one people, and we will stay that way.
AMANPOUR: And we talk amidst a backdrop of yet another attempt to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. About ten years or more ago you gave an interview in which you said a lot of what goes on makes you feel uncomfortable as a Jew that some of the realities around occupation may not be compatible with your faith. What do you say now about that and where do you see the peace process going or not?
SACKS: I think what I feel and what most Jews feel about Israel is that here is a country that in sixty-five years has not known a single day where it has not faced the risk of war or terror. It’s surrounded by enemies that are quite hostile to its very existence. And here it is managing after sixty-five years to have created really a rebirth of Jewish national existence, created a democratic society with a free press, an independent judiciary. I think Israel overall makes me and certainly almost everyone I know feel very proud. And therefore the fact that within Israel, and Jewishly internationally there is an interactive debate as to what is the best way forward, I think that’s the strength of Israeli democracy that we can be self-critical. But at the same time love the people, love the country and love what it’s achieved.
AMANPOUR: Well, you’re out of being Chief Rabbi now. I just want to know what made you uncomfortable, and what makes you uncomfortable?
SACKS: When Israel was facing, you know 2002, suicide bombings on a daily basis. When my own brother was saying goodbye to his children on the school bus not knowing whether he might ever see them again… nobody wanted that to be the way that Jews lived. Having gone through a Holocaust, to live through that trauma, and everything that was involved in it was a terrifying thing, but in the end Israel came through it, and came through it I think with strength and with dignity. And Israelis never give up on the prospect of peace. If you tried and failed for sixty-five years, Christiane, not that you are remotely capable of being that old but I mean the fact is if you’ve tried and you’ve failed all those years you’d expect people to despair, but Israelis are pretty good at hope.
AMANPOUR: Do you worry that after all of this time and all that the Israelis have gone through, and all that the surrounding peoples have gone through, the very nature of democracy may be at risk? People are saying if there isn’t a peace process it will be a one state solution or it will be a very segregated solution.
SACKS: No, I really don’t believe that. I think we’ve got just too many tears in our history to make us indifferent to the suffering of others. And we know perfectly well that this is a chance – you know, it’s a millennial opportunity for Jews to create a good, fair, and just society, and at the same time protect yourself against a constant risk of terror, and I think Israel does a magnificent job of doing this, and “I am very pained when it is criticised around the world, because no country in the world faces those risks that severely.
AMANPOUR: Let’s move on a little bit to I guess antisemitism here and around the world. You’ve talked a bit about how there’s more joy now than there used to be, the height of antisemitism has sort of ebbed, and yet in Paris we see the government cracking down on what it’s calling ‘hate speech’, a comedian has used a sort of Nazi-like salute, there are antisemitic words being said, and this continues. What do you fear about that? Do you think that there is a resurgent worrying antisemitism, or do you think that this is something inevitable that is going to continue but is not threatening the Jewish people?
SACKS: Christiane, I am very worried about the return of antisemitism to Europe. We had a European Union report on this in November of last year and that showed that three-quarters of the Jews interviewed right throughout Europe were of the view that antisemitism has increased in the past few years. Two-thirds of them expressed personal concern. One quarter have experienced some form of anti-Semitic incident. 23% of are saying there are certain Jewish events we don’t go to for fear of being attacked. I mean that is serious. There are serious levels of antisemitism in a number of European countries, and for that to happen within living memory of the Holocaust is simply unthinkable, and I don’t believe anyone should take that lightly.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, we discovered today by going online that in a certain sphere of Amazon, the way it measures books and so-called bestsellers, Mein Kampf is one of the top-selling online books here in England amongst young people. Why?
SACKS: If you’re asking what is leading to this, I think we always know that antisemitism historically occurs in eras of great change where people are feeling very anxious and very threatened by technological, economic and industrial change. I think there are worries about the state of the European economy, levels of unemployment amongst young people, and people turn to somebody to blame. Now historically Jews have always been blamed. Even if there were no Jews in the country, Jews have always been blamed. It’s a demonic phenomenon that has been around in Europe for a thousand years and I think should concern the European political leadership very seriously. I don’t think that Europe could ever walk tall again if it allowed antisemitism to return after a mere thirteen years ago, on January the 27th 2000 every European Union sent a head of state or a foreign minister to Stockholm to commit themselves to a program of fighting antisemitism, and here we are thirteen years later with it having come back.
AMANPOUR: I was really stunned to see that actually online. The Pope, Pope Francis, has made it very clear that he is a friend of the Jewish people. I spoke to Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina who’s a very close friend of his and they wrote a book together, and he says the Pope, the church, the Vatican today is a friend of the Jews. What do you make of the new Pope?
SACKS: I think he is in many respects somebody who has broken new ground in his openness to Jews. He has often said – in his reply to the editor of La Republicca, for instance – things that no previous pope has said. He has not merely reaffirmed, as every pope has done since Vatican II, that god’s covenant with the Jews is still in force – which was itself a really epoch-making change within the Catholic Church – but he has spoken about the admiration and the debt of gratitude Christians must have for the way Jews kept faith with their covenant throughout the centuries. Now, this is a very fine man. And I think he is the most important new development in Jewish-Catholic relations we’ve had, at least since Pope John XXIII.
AMANPOUR: He has said that if there is an argument about what the Vatican did during WWII let us open the Vatican archives and look at it and know it once and for all. Do you welcome that?
SACKS: I think it would be very important. I think if there is suspicion, as there has been in some quarters, it’s important for that to be cleared. But I do think that the transformation of Jewish-Catholic relations has been one of the real signs of hope in my lifetime. It just shows that you can heal wounds that may have existed for centuries, and I am a firm admirer of the Catholic church and its leadership for having done so.
AMANPOUR: Let me move to Iran. Obviously a big bane of criticism and anxiety in Israel and in other parts of the world. Under President Ahmadinejad there was a distinctly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tone coming out of Iran. President Rouhani has made a big effort to be very different. Maybe just read what he, I don’t know whether you took notice of what he said but at the Jewish New Year he wrote a tweet and so did his Foreign Minister. Rouhani says “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a special Rosh Hashanah”, and there was a picture of Iranian Jews praying. I guess my question is are you aware of a different tone coming out of Iran? And what’s your reaction to that?
SACKS: I wish I was, but the Iranian policy preceded President Ahmadinejad, and it’s not clear who is in the end the key factor in deciding Iranian policy. And I think to make a distinction between Jews on the one hand and the state of Israel on other is not the kind of thing that fills me full of relaxation. I think Iran remains a threat. It remains a threat not just to Israel, but to the West, and I really don’t think they should be seen solely as an Israeli problem. It is a matter of grave concern to all of us.
AMANPOUR: You know we were talking about young Jews, here and around the world, and you have said that you think that they appreciate the message of inclusiveness, certainly the younger generation of Jews. And you wrote that they are not inspired by Judaism that speaks constantly of antisemitism, the Holocaust, the isolation of Israel, the politics of fear. So as you move to the United States, and you’ve probably noticed that there’s a little bit of tension between young Jews and the older generation of Jews over various issues. How do you think that this is going to play out and what do you mean by that statement?
SACKS: Well I think young Jews who are born a long time after the Holocaust, a long time after the critical events in Israel’s history, are looking for some positive message of spirituality, something that lifts, something that makes them feel that Judaism is, as I argued, the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. There’s something about Jews that makes us want to try and make the human situation better without losing our particular identity. I think it’s incredibly important that Jews have always believed that you don’t have to be Jewish to win salvation, and that’s a very important doctrine in an age in which religious conflict is very real and very dangerous.
So I’m looking forward to an engagement with young American Jews, looking at the positive messages of Jewish spirituality and of our ability to serve God with joy, which is what King David used to say in the Book of Psalms, his wife thought he’d lost a bit of dignity while he was dancing around bringing the Ark back into Jerusalem. But I’m more than happy to lose a bit of dignity to dance with young Jews and let the Jewish spirit sing.
AMANPOUR: And just to go back to what we were talking about, antisemitism. A few years ago Prince Harry was seen wearing a Nazi outfit and it was obviously widely criticised, at a fancy dress party I think, and he was sent to see you. What did you say to him?
SACKS: Prince Harry was absolutely beside himself with remorse and regret, because he just didn’t know. Now obviously, that says something about his education, and I did go to his school [Eton] to give the kids a lesson in what actually happened.
But the young princes are very special people. The Royal Family have been magnificent in their relations not only with the Jewish people, but with all the faith communities in a very multi-faith nation. I don’t think anyone does interfaith relations better than the Royals. And Harry is terrific.
AMANPOUR: And you advise his father, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.
SACKS: All the family have been just wonderful, and I think they’re a great gift to the nation, and they simply understand what it is to be strong in their faith while at the same time appreciating the very different faiths of others. I think the Royals are really role-models in that.
AMANPOUR: And just in case there’s some bad news from Israel, we’re hearing that the condition of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to deteriorate so Ariel Sharon has been on his deathbed for a long time since suffering a stroke many, many years ago. His condition appears to be deteriorating. Your thoughts as he appears to be coming to the end of his life?
SACKS: I knew Ariel Sharon towards the end. And he was one of those figures that – Israeli politics delivered quite often people who are military heroes, who became in late life people of peace, people willing to take very considerable risks for peace. Menachem Begin was one; Yitzhak Rabin was another – he lost his life for the cause of peace. Ariel Sharon pulling back from Gaza, a very controversial thing to do, was actually somebody who had had gone through this profound realisation that we need to find a new way in the Middle East. We need to make peace with the Palestinians. And he showed immense courage in doing so. And I think people from his kind of background, who make that kind of change, are to me real moral heroes – fighters for peace, who are willing to take risks for peace.
AMANPOUR: You know people will be very – there are a lot of people who take a different view of you calling him a moral hero because of what happened in Lebanon, because of what happened at Sabra and Shatila.
SACKS: We know perfectly well that Israelis, in unprecedented numbers, came out on the streets to protest – enormous crowd. And we know Israel instituted its own investigation of the events, and we know that they did not leave Ariel Sharon without some criticism, some real criticism.
But I am talking about the man I knew in the last years of his conscious and active life. That man was a very different man. And when people are able to make an enormous change, moving from being people of belief in military solutions to people who believe that military solutions may win the battle, but they don’t win the peace. For somebody to make that kind of move earns my kind of admiration.
I like the people who realise, ‘maybe the way I chose in the past was wrong.’ Not that many politicians make that kind of move. He did.
AMANPOUR: Rabbi Sacks, thank you very much indeed.