Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has written some sensible things in the past, particularly about the dangers of religious exclusivism and about the roots of sectarian violence in what he calls the fallacy of “altruistic evil.”
That makes his recent descent into vulgar Israeli propaganda all the more infuriating. It’s hard to believe that Rabbi Sacks — a member of the House of Lords and author of the highly-praised Not in God’s Name (where his case against religion-based bigotry was called “well put, and worth hearing” even by the UK’s left-leaning Independent) — doesn’t have access to the facts about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Yet the “whiteboard animation” he has just produced about “what lies beneath the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign” against Israel’s occupation, purporting to explain why “humanitarians…and all those who value a free society, must stand up against it,” is worse than a pastiche of lies. For anyone who takes it seriously — and many naïve readers probably will — it serves as an apologetic for exactly the sort of religious crimes Sacks has spent years claiming to abhor.
In less than 10 minutes, Sacks’ little video homily manages to endorse apartheid on religious grounds, to shred basic principles of international law in favor of religious violence, and to demonize an entire people — because they don’t happen to be Jews. Pretending to be the voice of sweet reason, Sacks’ animation is actually an insidious form of hate speech.
Take, for instance, his opening gambit, which is the ominous claim that any protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, or its systematic discrimination against all non-Jews under its control, is really “a prelude to its [Israel’s] elimination.” Such a claim makes sense only if “Israel” means Greater Israel — that is, a discriminatory regime that continues its illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since Rabbi Sacks implicitly endorses that definition, “Israel” is, by his own terms, an apartheid state — one that, in addition, imposes discriminatory rule precisely on the land recognized under international law as Palestinian territory. Which, in plain English, means that Rabbi Sacks endorses the effective elimination of Palestine. So much for his pretense of worry about Israel’s “elimination.”
And what about his indignation over the historical fact (he calls it “a vicious lie”) that “Israel is a colonial presence in the Middle East”? He rebuts this by saying that “[t]he Jewish connection with the land of Israel goes back roughly twice as long as the history of Christianity, three times as long as the history of Islam,” and that “Jews are the only nation in history ever to have established a nation state in the land.” Historically this is nonsense: whatever kingdom once existed under the rule of Aramaic-speaking Judeans well over 2,000 years ago was certainly not a “Jewish nation” in any modern sense (the concept of “nations,” let alone the existence of “nation states,” lay far in the future). But Rabbi Sacks’ position turns positively outrageous when he relies on religion to establish Israel’s “claim” to the entire land of Palestine. Surely he would deny that any latter-day adherents of ancient Canaanite religions could assert a superior claim to the same territory — in fact, he would regard that, rightly, as a form of fanaticism. How, then, can he defend Israel for using Judaism as a pretext for usurping the rights of the indigenous population? Isn’t that precisely the sort of religious-based violence the rabbi has always claimed to deplore?
Rabbi Sacks’ hypocrisy is on even clearer display when he laments that activists for Palestinian rights aren’t “demonstrating against the barbarism of ISIS” or “campaigning against the abuse of human rights by Hamas in Gaza.” Naturally, he cites no evidence that the organizers of the BDS campaign support ISIS or favor human rights abuses anywhere – there being no such evidence — but what is really breathtaking is his omission of any reference to the far more relevant “barbarism” and “abuse of human rights…in Gaza” committed by Israel. Has this human-rights champion already forgotten Operation Protective Edge, barely two years ago, during which Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza killed over 500 children and destroyed some 18,000 housing units, leaving over 100,000 people homeless? If he has, his memory is criminally short; if he hasn’t, then he is the one to be rebuked for selective application of humanitarian principles.
His conscience is so selective that Rabbi Sacks claims “Israel is…the only state whose very right to exist has been constantly challenged.” Really? One can only wonder where this man has been living. An overwhelming international consensus — repeatedly endorsed by every single Arab country and every single predominantly Muslim country in the world — clearly embraces Israel’s right to exist in peace and security within its internationally recognized borders. Once again, it is Israel — which rejects the consensus — that denies the right of a state, namely Palestine, to exist. And by taking up the cudgels for Israel on this issue, Rabbi Sacks denies that right too.
In fact, he denies more than that. By refusing either to listen to Palestinian voices or to acknowledge Palestinian rights, Rabbi Sacks effectively denies Palestinian humanity. That amounts to just the sort of hate speech — in the name of God — to which Rabbi Sacks has repeatedly declared himself an enemy.
It’s bad enough that his entire presentation never quotes a single Palestinian, or even pro-Palestinian source. It’s bad enough that he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the systematic Israeli violence — supported by the Israeli public — that continues to set the terms of every confrontation between Palestinians and the IDF. By suppressing the reality of Israel’s occupation — which is, after all, the subject of the BDS campaign — Rabbi Sacks leaves his readers to suppose that there is no occupation, that it has no victims, and that there are no Palestinians.
But there are, Rabbi Sacks. Palestinians exist; and in ignoring their existence you are abetting their victimization.
Like you, the people of Palestine yearn for life, for freedom, and for justice. But unlike you, they don’t have a powerful media platform from which to answer your demonization of them. And that is the measure of your moral failure. When a majority of Jewish respondents in a recent poll endorsed the on-the-spot assassination of any Palestinian who has attacked an Israeli, Palestinians needed you — a respected rabbi — to denounce Jewish support of state brutality as the outrage it was. Yet you were silent. As Israel gunned down children, attacked hospitals and medical personnel, systematically violated human rights, and enforced the dominance of one religious group over all others, Palestinians needed you to follow your own principles and to speak out against the evils you claim to detest.
Instead you turned a blind eye to Israeli brutality, and never acknowledged — let alone supported — the unarmed Palestinian resistance that has been growing for years all over the West Bank. You claimed to oppose religious violence, but in fact you gave it carte blanche whenever it enjoyed the support of the Jewish State. You treated the oppressors of Palestinians as if they were innocent victims. And now you’re denying the victims even the right to the nonviolent protest tactics once used against apartheid South Africa.
Hypocrisy is too mild a word for this. It’s literally a betrayal of everything you’ve claimed to stand for. Rabbi Sacks, I implore you: withdraw that vile piece of Israeli propaganda you’ve aimed at BDS, and try to become, once more, the clergyman you’ve always told us you mean to be.