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:


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.



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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.