Chief Rabbi on Israel, anti-Semitism and... Steve Jobs

"It was a joke. Maybe it wasn't a very good joke."

This week's issue of the New Statesman (on the newsstands from tomorrow and available here) features an interview with Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. We covered a range of topics (some that made it into the final cut and some that didn't) including the Occupy movement, the impact of the internet, the Israeli/Palestinian peace process and anti-Semitism. Here's brief taste:

Israel

Asked how the Israeli /Palestinian problem should be resolved, Sacks says:

A two-state solution. [Religious leaders] can shape an environment conducive to peace and we certainly have a role to play in protecting each other's access to holy places, but beyond that, politics should be left to politicians.

A leading Palestinian negotiator said Israeli settlement-building and a two-state solution are "mutually exclusive". Do you agree?
All I know, having spoken first to Tony Blair, then to Dennis Ross, then to Bill Clinton himself, is that the talks that Clinton convened at Camp David in 2000 and early 2001 came very, very close to agreement. At the end, many of the Palestinian delegation wanted to accept Ehud Barak's proposed offer. So I have never despaired of a two-state solution.

 

Anti-Semitism

In his 2009 book Future Tense: a Vision for Jews and Judaism, Sacks described anti-Zionism as a "mutant form" of anti-Semitism. Asked to expand on that view, he says:

Anti-Semitism always mutates because the immune system of the body politics develops an immunity. So a virus must mutate. The new anti-Semitism takes the form of focusing on Jews as a nation rather than Jews as individuals, focuses on Israel rather than Diaspora communities and focuses on the language of human rights rather than the language of race or, in the Middle Ages, on the language of theology.

In the book you appear to imply that the virus of anti-Semitism has penetrated the United Nations . . .
In terms of the condemnation of Israel by the Security Council, Israel has been condemned out of all proportions to all other states put together. That's a documented phenomenon.

 

That Steve Jobs quote

Over the weekend, Sacks was quoted in a number of papers including the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail saying: "The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTunes, i, i, i ... When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i', you don't do terribly well."

But Sacks says now that his words were misinterpreted and that he thinks that Jobs is a "genius":

It was a joke! I said 'iPad, iPhone, i, i, i...' Maybe it wasn't a very good joke

On the impact of the web more generally, Sacks said that while the "good vastly outweighs the bad":

the internet through email lists and blogs is, unfortunately, the best disseminator of paranoia we have yet created, and it does tend to segregate people into sects of the like-minded.

 

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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