by Avi Davis
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is almost certainly one of the leading religious figures in the world today.
As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, he commands attention -not only for his former illustrious position, but equally for his erudition in Jewish law, his undoubted grasp of the dynamics of the political world and for his vast store of secular knowledge which embraces the disciplines of philosophy, literature, psychology and sociology.
He is beyond question one of the most worldly Jewish leaders to emerge since the polymath Maimonides took up a pen in the 12th Century and he is deeply admired for it.
I have read a number of Rabbi Sacks’ books including To Heal A Fractured World, The Dignity of Difference and Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning- all of which have fascinated me with their insights into the modern world and its challenges for both Jews and non-Jews alike.
Most impressive to me has been his understanding that the fate of Israel and the Jewish people is tied inextricably to the fate of western civilization. In book after book, article after article, he propounds this same point – our futures are bound together and those who attack Israel and the Jewish people are in fact attacking the very idea of civilization itself.
So I greeted with some anticipation Rabbi Sacks’ essay in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Review titled The Return of Anti Semitism which sought to address the recrudescence of antisemitism in the 21st century.
As usual I learned a great deal from this essay. Among Rabbi Sacks’ many insights are that antisemitism is only contingently, even accidentally, about Jews. Jews die from it, but they are not its only victims. The elimination throughout the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia of hundreds of Christian communities is an incontrovertible extension of antisemitism. Thus he can assert: “ The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”
Traditional Christian antisemitism, from the time of the Crusades onward objectified the Jews as having “mysteriously yet actively sought the harm of others”. They were suspected of being actively involved in destroying the foundations of civilization.
Why, then, such a focus on the Jews? Sacks posits that it always amounts to a peoples’ sense sense of their humiliation. Societies which have suffered military defeat, widespread plague or the onset of the collapse of self confidence learn to externalize their pain by focusing on an explanation which provides clear and simple answers for it. Thus:
“By turning the question “What did we do wrong?” into “Who did this to us?”, it restores some measure of self-respect and provides a course of action. In psychiatry, the clinical terms for this process are splitting and projection; it allows people to define themselves as victims.”
This of course goes a long way to explaining what happened to the Muslim world after careening into its rapid decline in the 17th Century.
So far, so good. It is when we reach the end of the essay that we might find ourselves startled by an awkward conclusion. In pointing out how imbedded hatred destroys civilizations the author makes an impassioned plea for amity:
“Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of love, not of hate…… All of us—Jews, Christians and Muslims, brothers and sisters in Abraham’s family—must choose another way.”
The implication in this final paragraph (although not implicit in the essay itself) is that both Judaism and Christianity, in their purest form, exist on the same moral plain as Islam – as if they all profess the same fundamental values.
Is it political correctness which impels Sacks to make such a lachrymose and nonsensical statement?
For surely this thoroughly erudite and omnivorous scholar knows that Islam, from its very founding was not a religion of love or of peace; that Islam did not acquire its anti- Jewish animus only in recent times but it was implicit in the religion from from its very inception. Muhammed set the example for what was to become a long tradition of Islamic antisemitism. The oldest extant biography of Mohammed, that by Ibn Ishaq in the 8th Century, is replete with the Prophet’s evident hatred of Jews. He had individual Jews asssasinated if he felt they had either insulted or disobeyed him; When Muhammed gave the command to “kill any Jew who falls in to your power,” one of his followers, Ibn Mas’ud, assassinated Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant. The Jewish tribe the Banu Qurayza consisting of between 600 and 800 men was exterminated while the Banu’l Nadir were attacked and dispossessed of their wealth.
Besides these specific acts of atrocity perpetrated against Jews in the 1400 years since Muhammed began his ministry, one can see how Jew hatred gained its foundation in the Koran, the hadith and in the sira (the earliest Muslim biographies of Muhammed) to the point where the existence of a virulent antisemitic thread in Muslim scholarship becomes undeniable.
This was conclusively summed up in 1996 by Sheikh Muhammed Sayyid Tantawi who became (and remains) the Grand Imam of Al- Azhar University in Cairo:
” The Quran describes the Jews with their own degenerate set of characteristics ie: killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting his word by putting it in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously , refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do and other characteristics caused by their deep seated lasciviousness….only a minority of the Jews keep their word….all Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims. the bad ones do not.”
There could be no more poignant an example of Islamic Jew hatred emanating from the heart of Islamic scholarship today than this.
Isn’t it time then for our religious leaders to take off their rose colored glasses and begin to comment on this world for how it really is? While Jonathan Sacks has provided us with a very accurate analysis of why antisemitism emerges and how it wreaks damage on the societies where it gains its firmest foothold, it is counterproductive for him to keep pretending that the scourge is a phenomenon that only becomes evident in broken, humiliated civilizations.
Antisemitism should be recognized as dangerously inherent within Islam itself – infecting the societies that revolve around it – and that without a total reformation of the precepts and tenets of Islam it is likely to continue to exist not just as a cancer eating away at the core of the Muslim world but as a contagion which will eventually envelop humanity.
Shying away from this reality and pretending that Islam seeks only peace and exhibits love lends it just more cover for its continued propagation of the oldest of the world’s hatreds and enables it to attract even more adherents to its destructive force.