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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Jeremy Corbyn's won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.