Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks has been given a high honor by the House of Lords in merry old England. According to an articles in the Jerusalem Post and Cross-Currents he has been given the status of life peer in that institution. Sir Jonathan Sacks is now Lord Jonathan Sacks - as was Lord Immanuel Jacobowitz - Rabbi Sacks predecessor as Chief Rabbi of England.

Rabbi Sacks is a star in the Jewish world. Anyone who has read any of his writings can plainly see both his brilliance and ease in conveying his ideas. He is a man who does not ‘talk down’ to people and yet a giant intellect in the shrinking world of Jewish thought. A world brought to its current status by a sort of unofficial anti-intellectualism. A view that focuses less on independent thinking and more on unquestioning fealty to a dogmatic and narrow view of the Orthodoxy. A view that has resulted in an almost robotic move to the right by almost all of the segments of it.

Rabbi Sacks is a refreshing island of independent thinking in the middle of what is becoming a desert of intellectual thought.

I would be remiss if I would not add that this honor comes at a time where anti- Semitic sentiment disguised as anti Zionism is on the increase on the European continent. That makes his appointment to the House of Lords even more remarkable. As was the warm and welcoming statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams – a man who I believe is not particularly known for his closeness to the Jewish people. Here is what he had to say:

"There are few intellectuals in this country with a firmer grasp of the moral and social challenges facing our nation or a greater capacity to articulate how we should be meeting them," he said. "The House of Lords will be greatly strengthened by his appointment."

Bearing all this in mind I should mention that a few weeks ago I had occasion to have a Shabbos meal together with an Orthodox Jew who was a British citizen. He was originally from Chicago and was visiting his elderly mother. He told me the following story.

When he first moved to England in the late 50s, he had occasion to be in a British court as a litigant in a dispute with a non Jew. I don’t recall the nature of the dispute. But during the course of the appearance before the British judge it came out that the Jewish litigant was mistreated by the non Jew. At some point in the litigation the Judge turned to the non Jewish litigant and said, “Is this the way we treat our guests?” I’m sure he thought he was the picture of propriety and fairness. But it did not escape the Jewish litigant – nor me - that Jews were not thought of as equals among their peers in England. They were not members of the group. They were merely guests – temporary visitors who would eventually leave.

I would suggest this attitude might be this traceable to the year 1290 when British anti-Semitism was so strong that the Jewish people were expelled. In was via a decree by Edward I. England in fact had no Jews - other than some who hid their Jewish identity - for a period of nearly 400 years. In 1656 Menashe Ben Israel petitioned Oliver Cromwell for their re-admittance. Needing Jewish financial assistance - he unofficially allowed us back in.

I believe that each of the European nations - England among them - see immigrants as outsiders – and apparently are never fully accepting of them – especially religious Jews who are least likely to completely assimilate.

All this might help explains a bit about why there is more anti-Semitism among Europeans than there is in the US. When taken to an extreme - it can also explain why Nazi Germany was so successful in promoting racial purity to its citizens. They took their ancestral heritage to a completely racial extent and valued it so much that they wanted destroy any possible tainting of their gene pool.

Contrast that with America. We pride ourselves as a nation of immigrants. This completely counters any national notion of racial superiority. Jews in America are not guests. We are considered equals among peers here and guaranteed freedom and equality by the constitution.

Today, Jews in England seem to be fully integrated into society. I am happy to see an honor bestowed upon a more than deserving individual. But I can't help wondering if the attitude expressed by that British judge is still a part of their mindset about their fellow Jewish citizens.

Updated: 7/16/09 1:02 PM CDT