Israel Resource Review 27th August, 2002


The Interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Guardian
Jonathan Freedland

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has always wielded more clout than the size of his 280,000 strong flock would suggest, but now he has embarked on his most ambitious mission yet: to map out a way for different cultures to get along in a globalised world. He tells Jonathan Freedland why he is willing to talk to even pro-Taliban Imam Abu Hamza.

The chief rabbi is deeply, fiercely ambitious. Not personally, you understand, but for the human race. He sets his sights high; his goals are on an epic scale. His latest book, The Dignity of Difference, is typical, its aim summarised in the subtitle: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations.

"I'm issuing a call in a number of languages," he declares, "and to a number of different constituencies, to say, 'Guys, we have to begin to conceptualise our world in a different way if we are to survive the 21st century.'" The book seeks to offer nothing less than a new "mode of coexistence for the whole planet".

Not bad for the spiritual leader of a community numbering no more than 280,000 (less if you count only the orthodox Jews his office formally represents). But that fact has never inhibited Jonathan Sacks. Through his broadcasts - he's a Thought for the Day regular - and his regular newspaper columns, he has become a recognised voice in the national conversation. His easy gift with the soundbite, delivered in his trademark mellifluous tones, carrying their vague hint of the transatlantic, has made him a media favourite. When the conventional wisdom grew especially harsh on George Carey, it proclaimed Sacks as the pre-eminent religious leader in the land (a position he may have to cede now that Rowan Williams is heading for Canterbury). He has regular contact with Tony Blair and describes as one of his "loveliest friendships" his connection with Gordon Brown. The chancellor has apparently called Sacks into No 11 for several conversations on how the latest New Labour thinking "plays out in the Jewish sources".

So the chief, as Jewish community activists tend to refer to him, is used to punching above his weight. That, and stellar academic credentials, have equipped him with the confidence to ask the big questions.

The latest challenge is to construct a way for different cultures to get along in a globalised world. The old mechanisms were fine in their day, says Sacks: the principles of religious tolerance or separation of church and state worked well inside the boundaries of a nation state. But we are no longer living in neatly defined, single societies; now we inhabit a world where "everything affects everything else", whether it's terror or economics. So now we need "a doctrine strong enough to allow different groups to live together without an overarching political structure."

Sacks' manoeuvre is to see the problem as the solution; to view difference not as a difficulty to be overcome, but as the very essence of life. He's looked at the latest thinking in biology, which confirms how similar we all are - all life made up of the same four basic characters of genetic code - but also how essential difference is, with every ecosystem dependent on bio-diversity.

He's gone back to his roots as a Cambridge economics undergraduate, including, in the new book, both a critique of the excesses of global capitalism and a moral defence of the free market. Sacks reminds himself of Ricardo's rule that, when one man trades axe-heads with another who catches fish, they both benefit.

But biology and economics were not enough for Sacks. He wanted an argument that would persuade the three great Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - that difference is a virtue. Since orthodox religion is responsible for so much of the world's bloodshed, with September 11 only the most obvious example, it was no good coming up with secular, rational arguments for diversity. He needed a proof that would come "from the heart of the whirlwind". He went back to the sacred texts that the three major faiths share.

Sacks looked at the first 12 chapters of Genesis, before Isaac and Ishmael part: the symbolic moment when Judaism and Islam begin their separate journeys. "The key narrative is the Tower of Babel," Sacks explains. "God splits up humanity into a multiplicity of cultures and a diversity of languages." God's message to Abraham is: "Be different, so as to teach humanity the dignity of difference."

That may sound like a statement of the multicultural obvious, but the chief rabbi knows that, for the orthodox faiths, such talk marks a profound shift. Instead of the familiar notion of "one God, one truth, one way", Sacks is claiming divine approval for human variety.

And he believes that even religious fundamentalists will have to take notice of this message - because it's right there, within their own sacred texts. "Religious tolerance or pluralism have always been secular doctrines that could be dismissed as western or decadent by fundamentalists. This idea they cannot dismiss."

But such talk will surely not fly with the most hardline Muslim clerics, those who endorse, for example, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombings against Israelis? Don't be so sure, comes the answer. It turns out that Britain's chief rabbi has had several secret meetings, previously undisclosed, with a variety of radical Muslims, including Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi-Amoli, one of Iran's highest-ranking clerics. They met during a UN conference of religious leaders in 2000; the Iranian requested the meeting, the foreign office arranged it.

"We established within minutes a common language, because we take certain things very seriously: we take faith seriously, we take texts seriously. It's a particular language that believers share." A language, says Sacks, which most Muslims feel is not understood in the west.

That encounter, among others, gave him the confidence to believe it was possible to "speak across difference". Now he is convinced that, if both sides to any conflict - whether a marriage dispute or a bloody war - truly listen to each other, they can, eventually, reach a resolution.

But aren't there some differences too wide to bridge? Could Sacks "hear the voice of God" from the mouth of a Muslim extremist who approved of terrorist violence? Could he even bring himself to meet such a man?


Would he meet, say, Abu Hamza, the sheikh of Finsbury Park, a Taliban sympathiser who admits to sharing the views of Osama bin Laden?

"Yes." In fact, Abu Hamza sent a message of support to the Jewish community of Finsbury Park, north London after its synagogue was recently desecrated. So a meeting with the sheikh is, says the chief rabbi, "a thought worth pursuing. I absolutely don't rule it out."

This is not, insists Sacks, "Pollyanna-ish optimism", but a conviction born of experience. He believes that even the widest chasms - those that could end in a clash of civilisations - can be bridged, so long as each side gives the other a respectful hearing. The only impossibility is dialogue with people "who kill those with whom they disagree." He could not sit down with a would-be suicide bomber: "In order to listen, I have to be alive."

Hovering above our conversation, and much of the book, is, inevitably, the Middle East. So much of what he says - about the need for both sides to listen to the pain, and hear the narratives, of the other - applies directly to the conflict ofIsraelis and Palestinians. Yet that conflict appears, explicitly at least, only rarely in the book.

Which feeds directly into a critique often made of Sacks by the Jewish left: that he has failed to follow the bold lead set by his predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits. Despite his reputation as an ultra-conservative on social issues such as homosexuality, and as Margaret Thatcher's favourite cleric, Jakobovits was renowned inside Israel and the wider Jewish world as a dove, advocating territorial compromise with the Palestinians long before it became fashionable. He infuriated many rightwing Jews with his stance against Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, but he never wavered.

Sacks has maintained no such position, so that even now - 11 years into a term that began when he was 43 and could run until he is 65 - many Jews admit that they can't quite pin down his views on this most urgent of questions. One observer, who has followed his career closely, says the chief rabbi has a knack for wrapping his pronouncements up in parable, quotation or ambiguous language, balancing his statements with qualifications, so that "both left and right end up feeling he is on their side". It is a handy skill in a politician but, to his critics, this eagerness to please has been Sacks' key failing, on communal issues as well as Israel: he has worked too hard at keeping all wings of Britain's factional Jewish community on board, and not hard enough at setting a lead.

So what are his views of the current Israeli situation? What does he make of the ancient Jewish command, quoted in his book: "Do not ill-treat a stranger [ie a non-Israelite] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"? How can that square with Israel's 35-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?

"You cannot ignore a command that is repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books: 'You were exiled in order to know what it feels like to be an exile.' I regard that as one of the core projects of a state that is true to Judaic principle. And therefore I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic, because it is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long- run with our deepest ideals."

That statement will be incendiary in some Jewish and Israeli circles, and he is reluctant to go further, to specify which Israeli actions might be incompatible with those "deepest ideals" of Judaism. He wants, instead, to put the other side, to explain how the Israeli peace camp is repeatedly "checkmated" by Palestinian terror: every time Israeli liberals preach compromise, Palestinians kill more innocents. He wants to stress how Israel made the "cognitive leap" towards compromise when former prime minister Ehud Barak offered major concessions two years ago, and how "there has been no parallel cognitive leap" on the Palestinian side. And he does all this fluently and with passion, his language always accessible - proving why it is that Jewish communal leaders now regard Sacks as Israel's best defender in Britain.

Still, when pressed, he will admit the anguish Israel's own conduct causes him. "There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew." He was "profoundly shocked" by reports of smiling Israeli soldiers posing for a photograph with the corpse of a slain Palestinian. "There is no question that this kind of prolonged conflict, together with the absence of hope, generates hatreds and insensitivities that in the long run are corrupting to a culture."

Would he join those rabbis who have described the occupation as morally corrupting? He answers by telling how, in 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day war, he had a rare argument with his late father. "I was convinced that Israel had to give back all the land for the sake of peace. My father, bless him, was convinced that Israel's neighbours would never make peace. Thirty five years later, I think we were both right."

Would it not help if he was less roundabout on this topic? No, he says, people listen to "a still, small voice" more readily than a loud one. Besides, in desperate times, a prophet is called on to give a message of hope: Jews feel so beleaguered by the current Middle Eastern situation, he says, it is his job to encourage, not scold.

He's more direct on Iraq. He would support military action on three conditions: if there was a clear objective and endgame, a broad coalition of support, and very strict safeguards against civilian casualties. Was the new archbishop of Canterbury wrong to speak out against a war? "That's what is called the dignity of difference," says Sacks, his eyes screwed up in a benign smile.

This ran in the Guardian on August 27, 2002

Printer friendly version of this article

Return to Contents

US Tax Money Funding Palestinian Propaganda, Critics Charge
Julie Staht Jerusalem Bureau Chief

Jerusalem ( - U.S. tax money is underwriting a Palestinian anti-Israel lobbying and propaganda campaign, according to an independent analyst and researcher in Israel.

A Palestinian non-governmental organization called the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) has received more than $1 million in American tax money to help pay for a program entitled "Civil Society Empowerment."

The money, which is funneled to the group through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helps pay for a program that teaches Palestinians how to lobby, raise money for political causes, and win favorable media coverage and support.

According to its official description, PASSIA is a non-profit, independent Palestinian institution, "not affiliated with any government, political party or organization."

But in the context of the Middle East conflict, some critics said a group does not need to be affiliated with a political organization to promote a view that is detrimental to Israel's cause.

According to PASSIA, the group "seeks to present the question of Palestine in its national, Arab and international contexts through academic research, dialogue and publication." But others are concerned the organization is a front for Palestinian Authority propaganda.

The Palestinian Spin

David Bedein, director of the Israel Resource News Agency, has studied the work of PASSIA and said he's found Palestinian Authority officials to be effective manipulators of the media.

Bedein said PA officials have been able to "repackage" PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and "market" a terrorist group as something positive. "Every time terrorists attack, [they] give the impression that the PA had nothing to do with it," said Bedein, who described the practice as "stacking the deck," against Israel in the public relations war.

He said he was surprised to learn that an agency of the U.S. government was financing the PASSIA public relations effort, as was U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.)

"While it is my hope that the Palestinians will someday be able to develop a democratic society, I am deeply concerned about U.S. funding for . . . PASSIA," Engel said. "I find it very peculiar that PASSIA is teaching lobbying to a population that doesn't even have a working legislature."

While semantics play a part in describing the work of PASSIA, Engel said if U.S. tax dollars are being used "to train Palestinians in their campaign against Israel around the world," then the funding to PASSIA should stop immediately.

On the other hand, if the group focused entirely on promoting good governance and democracy within the Palestinian community, Engel said, "my concerns would be allayed."

Repeated attempts by to interview PASSIA officials over the course of more than a week were unsuccessful.

U.S. Defends PASSIA Programs

The Palestinian Civil Society Empowerment program has been supported by USAID's West Bank and Gaza Missions and the U.S. Embassy since its inception in 1997.

The USAID/West Bank and Gaza office in Tel Aviv defended PASSIA's work as a non-profit, non-governmental organization promoting "democracy, good governance, rule of law, reform, reconciliation and communication amongst religious groups in Jerusalem, dialogue, and the peace process."

The Democracy and Governance Office of USAID here has provided $1.2 million to PASSIA since March 31, 1997, USAID spokeswoman Gina Benevento stated in a Wednesday e-mail response to an inquiry by

According to Benevento, a cooperative agreement between USAID and PASSIA allocates those funds for two primary activities: training seminars for mid-career Palestinian professionals and a project that "will provide a forum to examine the experience of other countries in the transition to democracy, particularly as it impacts on the establishment, legitimization, and empowerment of a rule of law."

She said that USAID attends meetings and seminars supported with its funds and receives reports on and regularly audits organizations receiving its monies.

"There is oversight, but not censorship," said Benevento. "If an individual instructor, as in this case, chooses to bring in an example from his own experience, grounded in the American context, USAID is not going to expunge that from the record."

She noted that USAID funds cannot be used to lobby the U.S. Congress, and said the program is designed for Palestinians "to advocate and lobby in the Palestinian domestic context in a generic sense. The course did not focus on particular issues, but on general skills."

But some of the program's curriculum has dealt with specific projects, including fundraising to support the case for what many consider terrorist attacks aimed at Israeli civilians.

How To Raise Money for Terrorism Propaganda

According to PASSIA's 2001 Annual Report, the program is designed "to assist in the human resource and institutional development of nascent Palestinian infrastructure."

The program offers periodic seminars conducted by professionals geared toward Palestinian civil society practitioners, government personnel and others, covering topics such as media and communication skills, leadership skills, project management, fundraising, advocacy and lobbying.

In a course on fundraising, presented in Ramallah in May 2001, participants were given an assignment to write a paper estimating a budget and creating a fundraising concept for a specific project, the annual report said.

"The project you are currently working on deals with the publication of English-Arabic language booklets on the Al-Aqsa Intifadah for dissemination inside Palestine as well as select organizations in Europe and the U.S. You are in charge of fundraising," reads a portion of the assignment.

The goal of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah, as described in October 2000 by the terrorist group Hamas, is "expelling the occupation from our land."

"We stress that Al-Aqsa intifadah was not launched for the achievement of minor demands. It was launched with the aim of expelling the occupation from our land and holy sites and attaining our full rights," read part of a Hamas statement on the 2000 Sharm el-Sheikh accord, published by BBC News.

"We are determined, so are all the Palestinian forces, to maintain the intifadah until its objectives are achieved, in God's will," the Hamas statement said.

In another course on advocacy and lobbying in the Civil Society Empowerment Series, also presented in Ramallah last year, David Nasser used examples from his work at the Arab-American Institute explaining how the AAI had worked to lobby the U.S. Congress.

In other publications, not related to the Civil Society Empowerment program, PASSIA advocates the Palestinian position of two capitals in the city of Jerusalem, the evacuation of Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and the right of return for some five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants to territory within Israeli borders.

While the issue of Jerusalem and settlements are both debated within Israeli society, even the most liberal Israeli politicians reject the right of return for Palestinian refugees. They argue that if Israel absorbed an Arab population comparable to its Jewish population, within a few years the Jewish state would cease to exist.

Legal v. Appropriate Use of U.S. Tax Dollars

While questions are being raised about whether it's appropriate to use U.S. taxpayers' money for such activities, some PASSIA critics concede the practice may not be illegal.

Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said he is "not happy" about PASSIA using American money to teach lobbying skills.

"It's an inappropriate use of American money to take it to a foreign entity [and teach them how to lobby us]," Neumann said, adding, "it's not a violation of that use."

Neumann noted that there are many programs - such as basic education or education in democracy - that the U.S. could fund, and he questioned why the money is being used to teach lobbying skills.

"The target is America," Neumann said. "Americans should take a careful look [at the appropriations] and reconsider the allocation."

Others were more vocal on the question. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he was "outraged" that USAID money is funding PASSIA.

"The U.S. is giving money to an organization, to a man who refused publicly to condemn the murders of Jews," Klein said. "He is not worthy of U.S. money."

Klein was referring to PASSIA Director Dr. Mahdi F. Abdul Hadi and an incident involving the two men several years ago.

After addressing a group of about 35 a.m.erican Jewish leaders at a hotel in eastern Jerusalem, Klein said Hadi asked the crowd to stand and observe a moment of silence for 29 Arab victims who had been gunned down by an Israeli Jewish doctor in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron a few days earlier.

According to Klein, the Jewish leaders, including himself, stood at attention in silence. Klein said he then asked Hadi to publicly condemn the murder of Israelis, but said Hadi refused to do so and stormed out.

Printer friendly version of this article

Return to Contents

Go to the Israel Resource Review homepage

The Israel Resource Review is brought to you by the Israel Resource, a media firm based at the Bet Agron Press Center in Jerusalem, and the Gaza Media Center under the juristdiction of the Palestine Authority.
You can contact us on