Rabbi Jonathan Sacks draws overflow audience at Book Festival talk

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

BY ROBERT A. COHN , Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth and a prolific author with a huge global following, drew an overflow audience at Monday evening’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival event. 

Long lines stretched to outside the doors of the Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building. Rows of extra seats were brought in, but even this failed to accommodate all who had come to hear Sacks talk on his recent 25th published book, “Not in God’s Name:  Confronting Religious Violence” (Schocken Books, $28.95), which largely focuses on what he described as an ominous “third wave of anti-Semitism” on a worldwide scale. A number of people who came to the event were turned away after the room reached its maximum attendance capacity of 500.  

Sacks, 67, served as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth of Nations from 1991 – 2013 during the administrations of four British prime ministers from John Major through David Cameron. He has the title “Lord” because he serves as a member of the British House of Lords, the first rabbi to be accorded such an honor.  

Turning to the sobering subject of his most recent book and talk, Sacks said he wanted to focus on “one of the world’s oldest hatreds:  anti-Semitism.”  

Noting that he had grown up in Great Britain and had “never (experienced) one instance of anti-Semitism,” he said in 2002, his daughter attended an international Anti-Globalism Conference, where speaker after speaker attacked first the United States, then the State of Israel and then the Jews. “My daughter said, ‘Dad they hate us.’ My daughter’s tearful comments reminded me of a quote by the British novelist Rebecca West that Jews have an ‘un-surprisable soul’ when it comes to anti-Semitism.  Well, my daughter showed me that I am still surprisable.”  

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Sacks said that “anti-Semitism is not really a belief.  It is more of a set of contradictions and a kind of virus.” “Jews have been hated by anti-Semites because some of us were Communists or hated because some of us were capitalists,” he said. “We have been hated for being clannish and keeping to ourselves or for trying to push into places where we are not welcome.  Adolf Hitler denounced us on ‘racial’ grounds and Joseph Stalin called us ‘rootless cosmopolitans.’ ”  

Sacks stressed his belief that “anti-Semitism is best understood as a virus which afflicts the body politic.”

“Much as viruses are resisted in humans by our immune systems, they can mutate so that our immune systems no longer can resist them,” he said.  “So it is with anti-Semitism, which has gone through three major stages, mutating each time after the initial cause was discredited.” He explained that during the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism was religious in nature; Jews were hated by the majority Christian populations in Europe.  

The second wave, brought on by Nazi anti-Semitism, based hatred of Jews on a pseudo-science of “race, based on a distorted view of ‘social Darwinism.’ ”  

The third wave of anti-Semitism, he said, masks itself under the umbrella of human rights. “The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was designed to prevent another wave of religious or racial hatred against Jews or others from happening again, [but it] has been taken over by those who profess to support human rights, which they insist are being violated by the State of Israel.” He noted the infamous 2001 U.N. Conference on Racism was “a relentless series of resolutions singling out Israel for racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Who were the new Jews?  The Palestinians.  Who are the new Nazis: the Israelis. Amos Oz, the acclaimed Israeli novelist, says that the old Nazi anti-Semites used to shout, ‘Jews to Palestine,’ and the new anti-Semites shout, ‘Jews Out of Palestine.’  

They don’t want Jews to be here.  They don’t want us to be there.  They don’t want us to be.” 

Looking towards ways to combat anti-Semitism more effectively than in the past, Sacks said, “We can’t fight this battle against anti-Semitism alone. There are 2.4 billion Christians in the world; 1.6 billion Muslims and only 13 million Jews.  The victim cannot cure the crime.  We need others from other faiths to help mobilize in the fight against Judeophobia, against anti-Semitism.”  Sacks said that the rise of Islamic State, or ISIS and the systematic murders of Christians in the Middle East, offers an opportunity for Jews to partner with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs to oppose hatred and foster interfaith respect and cooperation. 

The event marked the first visit to St. Louis by Sacks and his wife, Elaine. He expressed “deep appreciation” to the large crowd and to the sponsors of the Jewish Book Festival event, which included the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and Washington University’s Danforth Center on Religion &  Politics, along with Chabad of St. Louis and the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. Former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth attended the event and he was also greeted by a sustained round of applause.  Following Sacks’ remarks, he was interviewed on stage by Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation and political science professor at Washington University.   

 Michael Oberlander, who with his wife were sponsors of the event, noted that while the Jewish community was overjoyed to welcome Sacks and his wife, “we have a heavy heart because of the wave of violence in Israel,” he said, including a wave of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians, which have resulted in numerous deaths and scores of wounded victims.  

“We will pray in our synagogues and temples for peace to be restored in Jerusalem and throughout Israel,” Oberlander added.