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The NS Interview: Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi

"Blogs are the best disseminators of paranoia yet created"

In 2009, you published a book called Future Tense: a Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture. Why "tense"?
Because there are tensions in the Jewish community. People are feeling and sensing a return of anti-Semitism - even in Europe, which, seventy years after the Holocaust, is a very scary thing. I think they are feeling that Israel is very isolated and doesn't always get what they see as fair treatment in the European media.

Do you think Israel gets a fair treatment in the media?
I honestly can't answer that question because I don't watch television, but I'm reporting on their feelings and I accept those feelings . . . What I wanted to do in Future Tense is to say, "Let that not be our definition of what it is to be a Jew." We once defined ourselves as a people loved by God. Let's not define ourselves as a people hated by Gentiles.

You've described anti-Zionism as a "mutant form" of anti-Semitism. What does that mean?
Anti-Semitism always mutates, because the body politic develops an immunity. 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.

How do you draw a line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism?
Criticism of Israel in terms of policy of a given government is clearly part of the normal cut and thrust of democratic debate . . . It begins to get anti-Semitic when people deny that Israel has a right to exist and when that is given some kind of theological or mythological dimension. It replicates some of the classic themes of anti-Semitism - the blood libel and The Protocol of the Elders of Zion are bestsellers in some parts
of the world.

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

Are Islamophobia and anti-Semitism two sides of the same coin?
I don't know. Islamophobia is a complex phenomenon.

How should the Israeli/Palestinian problem be resolved?
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.

Do you have sympathy with the people camped outside St Paul's Cathedral?
If the whole system has no ethical dimension, it's going to give rise to problems that the system itself cannot solve. The market economy is very good at wealth creation but not perfect at all about wealth distribution.

So, the protesters should be allowed to stay?
I wouldn't comment at all about the protesters outside St Paul's. I would continue to insist that there are ethical imperatives that have to shape the way we conduct a market economy.

Has the internet coarsened public life?
Yes and no. The internet has made serious education possible in ways that were never possible before, so I tend to think that the good vastly outweighs the bad. [But] 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.

Do you vote?
I do, but even my wife doesn't know how I vote.

Is there anything you would life to forget?
Everything. I only look forward.

Is there a plan?
Yes. God has written a script; it's just that He only lets us watch it episode by episode.

Are we all doomed?
Afraid not. There's always hope. You can lose everything else in the world, but Jews never lose hope.

Defining Moments

1948 Born Jonathan Henry Sacks in London
1981 PhD from King's College London
1991 Becomes Chief Rabbi, the sixth since the role was formalised in 1845
1995 Wins Jerusalem Prize for contribution to the Jewish diaspora
2001 Gains doctorate of divinity, conferred by the Archbishop of Canterbury
2005 Knighted in Queen's Birthday Honours List

Jonathan Sacks will speak in the Ebor Lecture series on Wednesday 30 November

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

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood