In England, a prominent politician with a reputation as an anti-Semite is defeated in a re-election bid.
In France, three policemen shout anti-Semitic slogans and make the Nazi salute in a bar.
In the United States, a leading spokesman for European Jewry brings a cautionary message about the “current state of anti-Semitism” on the European continent.
“It’s absolutely not a monolith,” said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, describing the lack of uniformity of European sentiment about Jews. He will discuss the subject next week during a series of speeches in the tri-state area and in Philadelphia under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League.
The two recent news items from England and France reflect, in part, the political climate in Europe.
Rabbi Sacks, in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, said relations between Jews and the non-Jewish majority populations are not uniform, and not uniformly hostile, throughout Europe, especially in England and France. The two countries have gained the reputations in recent years as hotbeds of anti-Semitism because of their growing Muslim communities, which have grown increasingly vocal.
In his ADL speeches, titled “Why People of Faith Hate,” Rabbi Sacks will offer an insider’s perspective on European anti-Semitism.
“We have to be extremely sophisticated in our analysis of the phenomenon,” he said.
In England, the rabbi said, he generally finds a climate of goodwill in Christian circles; reports of widespread Muslim anti-Semitism, he said, are exaggerated. Most examples of anti-Semitic remarks, often in the guise of “anti-Zionist” comments, he said, come from universities. “It’s not something you see on the streets.
“In Europe, the growing intolerance” towards Judaism and other religious beliefs “tends to have a secular basis,” he said, citing recent books that question a belief in God. “It’s the secular-religious divide that is very abrasive.
“Is anti-Zionism in and of itself anti-Semitism?” Rabbi Sacks asked. “Ask a Jew that and he or she will answer ‘yes.’ Ask an anti-Semite that and he or she will answer ‘yes.’ Ask the average British person on the street” — many Britons are critical of Israeli policies — “and they won’t know what you’re talking about. They don’t see any connection between the two at all.”
In England, Rabbi Sacks said, “the allies [of the Jewish community] are the vast majority of the British public, including moderate Muslims.” This excludes, according to Rabbi Sacks, “radical” Muslims who do not accept Israel’s existence. “I’m not willing to talk to people who would deny my right to be. I don’t waste my time with the extremists.”
One example of the British rejecting expressions of extremism: Ken Livingstone, the outspoken mayor of London who had earned the reputation as a frequent critic of Israel, lost his race for re-election earlier this month to a Conservative candidate.
Anti-Semitism is more pronounced in France, where large numbers of Jews and Muslims, mostly from northern Africa, live side-by-side in the suburbs of major cities, Rabbi Sacks said.
The anti-Semitic policemen who shouted racist slogans in the bar were suspended from their jobs. Public displays of anti-Semitism and government criticism of Israel have become less frequent since President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had a record of close ties with the French Jewish community, assumed office earlier this year,
Rabbi Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1995 and was recently named England’s most influential Jew by The Jewish Chronicle in London, said he will urge his ADL audience to “recruit allies” among members of the non-Jewish community. “Extend the hands of friendship across the faiths. Jews can not fight anti-Semitism on their own.”
Rabbi Sacks said he has established a close working relationship with leaders of Great Britain’s Christian and Muslim communities during his nearly two decades as chief rabbi. “I’ve made outreach to moderate Muslims. I do find a lot of support from the leaders of [other] faiths.”
Although his religious opinions (especially in his 2003 book, “The Dignity of Difference,” which stated that no single religious faith “has a monopoly on spiritual truth”) and his political remarks (he said in a newspaper interview that certain policies of the Israeli government are immoral) have drawn criticism from parts of the Jewish community for, respectively, diminishing the theological aspect of Jewish distinctiveness and breaking ranks with Israel, Rabbi Sacks said he has not found a growing mood of intolerance in the Jewish community.
But, he said, he has tempered some of his public statements to reflect the dominant feelings in the Jewish community. According to news reports, he changed some of the controversial passages in subsequent printings of “The Dignity of Difference.”
The rabbi declined to elaborate on the book.
“When you’re trying to lead a community,” he said, “you have to go at the speed the community is prepared to go.
“I slowed down,” Rabbi Sacks said.