Throughout the 1930s some very misguided rabbis worldwide told their flocks to keep their heads down and not oppose Hitler. In Britain, my country, some Englishmen even sought to have Hitler as an ally. Today Jews and Britons everywhere face a host of shared enemies, many of them violent. Lone wolves have murdered Jews in Brussels and Toulouse recently, whole packs are straining at the leash throughout the Middle East, a fusilier was hacked to death outside Woolwich barracks, and over 500 British-born Jihadis are actively involved in the fighting in Syria and Iraq. They boast they will bring Jihad to the UK, when they return. We must speak out against them all, at every opportunity, and tell them directly “Stop fighting!”
Britain had a great Chief Rabbi from 1913 to 1946. He spoke up vociferously against Hitler and in favor of Zionism at all times, even when colleagues and lay leaders told him “We Jews should keep a low profile.” Joseph Hertz is mostly known today for his Hertz Chumash, a broad-minded commentary on the Pentateuch. During WWII, he thanked Churchill with most fitting encouragement:
But for your wisdom and courage there would have been a Vichy England lying prostrate before an all-powerful Satanism that spelled … death to Israel.
Hertz understood that we have to combat evil at every opportunity.
Another Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, until last year Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of the British Commonwealth, is usually a mighty communicator for Good. He is a member of our Upper House of Parliament, and highly influential. Our last premier, Gordon Brown, recently described him as “the greatest scholar I know, the greatest philosopher, the greatest writer, one of the greatest thinkers in the world.” His influence even extends to the USA and to Israel. He currently has two professorships in Judaic Thought at New York universities, and he corresponded with Yitzhak Rabin.
Sacks recently spoken on the BBC on the current situation in the Middle East. Over the last three years, 200,000 men, women and children have been slaughtered there in the most horrendous conditions, including torture, debilitating gassing, and even cannibalism. This very week, al Baghadi, leader of the al Qaeda offshoot ISIS, has proclaimed himself Caliph, and is surging through Iraq, killing thousands as he does so, with young British Jihadis among his ranks. What was the Rabbi’s message under these circumstances?
Lord Sacks chose to take a historical perspective. He equated current blood-letting between Sunnis and Shias with internecine Jewish conflicts, which he blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. He chose not to mention the brutal mass-murders currently soiling these lands.
Rabbi Sacks’s conclusion was, “When conflicts within a faith cost lives within that faith, religion must cease to be the pursuit of power and become again what it was meant to be: God’s call to compassion for the powerless.”
For all his good intentions, this Buddhist call for compassion is too weak a message for today. It reminds us of Gandhi’s worse call for Jewish non-resistance during the Holocaust. Sacks’s inaccurate equation of the current dispute between Muslims with an ancient dispute between Jews also enables the Jihadis to wrongly claim that any criticism of them by Jews is hypocritical. What Sacks should be saying is “Stop fighting! Stop torturing! Stop killing! And if you don’t, Allah and the World will make you pay for your crimes.”
Dr. George Wilkes, Director of the Religion in War Project, Edinburgh University, was taken aback by the statement. “Rabbi Sacks sounds an important note in promoting conciliation,” he told me. “But his comparison with Jews in Roman Palestine is shocking, because it focuses attention away from current atrocities.”
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, author of “Beyond the Pulpit” and rabbi to the Persian Jewish Center of Manhattan, New York, also found fault in the Jewish Muslim equation. “To compare religious conflicts that took place two thousand years ago to those happening today is not only misleading but dangerous in implying an equivalence, particularly when Jews and Israelis are being demonized around the world, I am staggered at the inappropriateness of his words.”
As excuse for their crimes, Jihadis often misquote the Quranic verse, “Kill them wherever you find them.” I say instead “Speak out against evil, wherever you find it.”
Lord Sacks’s final word should have been direct, clear, categorical and forceful, and addressed to the murderers on all sides in the region, and the prospective followers of the Caliph in the UK: “You’re breaking the supreme law! Thou shalt not murder! Stop fighting!”