Monday, 11 July 2011

Why Britain's Chief Rabbi got it wrong

How Jonathan Sacks fails to see the ethical logic of his own analysis

Israel's liberal daily newspaper, Haaretz, this week reported comments by  Britain's Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, in which he urged Israel's policy makers to improve their public diplomacy by better understanding the mindset of Israel's deepest enemies.
“First seek to understand and only then seek to be understood. Israel is convinced of the rightness of its cause because it thinks in terms of its own modes of thinking. Almost nobody has worked out what is the point of view of the people we’re opposed to. How do they think? It’s not just a question of how Palestinians or Iranians think. How do perfectly decent human right activists think?”
Sir Jonathan goes on to criticize Israel's government officials and pro-Israel advocates for failing to put Israel's case effectively to the world and relying on ill-thought out 'hasbara', which Sacks describes as 'marketing' and others call simply propaganda. Haaretz reports him as saying:
Entering one’s enemies mindset requires enormous power of empathy and humility, Sacks added. To help Israeli leaders achieve that goal, he advocates the creation of an institute of advance studies that would engage in in-depth analysis of these issues.
Now, let me be the first to say that Jonathan Sacks is one of Britain's greatest and most highly respected religious teachers. He is an effective communicator on radio and television and a passionate and persuasive writer on Judaism. In fact, over the years, his books have been a great influence on my own appreciation of Judaism. If I'm recommending an insight in to Judaism to non-Jewish friends I'll often point them in the direction of 'Radical Then, Radical Now', 'The Dignity of Difference', or 'To Heal a Fractured World'. So I hesitate to tackle the Chief Rabbi on questions of ethics when I think of him as one of my own teachers.

However, such 'chutzpah' has a long tradition in Jewish in life. Genesis has hardly got going before Abraham argues with God. Jacob wrestles with the angel  just a few chapters later. And even Moses fails to reach the Promised Land for picking too many fights with the Almighty. So forgive me Jonathan but I feel like I'm in good Jewish company.

Like so many figures in the British Jewish establishment, the State of Israel has become a magnet that cannot be resisted and which sends the Jewish moral compass into spasm. I fear that the Chief Rabbi fails to see the ethical implications of his own recommendations.

Sacks calls for a deeper analysis of why certain groups of people, including 'Palestinians and human rights activists' fail to appreciate the justice of the Jewish narrative on Israel. In other words they fail to accept the mainstream Zionist version of Jewish history and its relationship to Judaism and anti-Semitism. In Sacks' understanding, anti-Semitism has 'mutated into anti-Zionism' and what's required is an investigation into its new genetic make-up which is to be found somewhere in the hearts and souls of 'our enemies'. Like so many Zionists before him, Sacks sees anti-Semitism as an eternal element in the fabric of the cosmos that can never truly be overcome.

Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are certainly linked but not in the way Sacks thinks. If we take the Chief Rabbi's advice and delve more deeply into the mindset of Israel's 'enemies' we will quickly discover that the hostility that can slide into hatred of a People is founded not on some cosmic mutation but on personal experience, family history and the harsh reality of what Israel calls 'facts on the ground'.

And this is why the logic of Sacks' approach may take him, and most Jews, to an unexpected place.

What happens when you bring to bear 'enormous empathy and humility' to the story of Israel-Palestine?

It is not just better arguments to present to the world in Israel's defense.

In 'Radical Then, Radical Now', Jonathan Sacks tells his readers that the greatest moral principle in the Torah is that "You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger - you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt". This commandment, Sacks tells us appears 36 times in the Torah.

In truly understanding the mind of 'the other', 'the stranger' in your midst (and let's leave aside for the moment that the Palestinians see the Israelis as the real strangers in the land) you are forced to confront not just them but yourself as well.

As a result of these efforts, if they are undertaken with true empathy and humility, perceptions shift, paradigms shatter, and national narratives must be re-written.

So let's follow Lord Sacks' advice and attempt to enter the mindset of the 'enemy'. But not for the purpose of providing better 'hasbara'. Let's do it because that's what Judaism and justice really look like.  

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