An ominous shadow has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, leaving chaos and carnage in its wake. Mad men armed with Kalashnikovs and depraved convictions commit unspeakable acts, safe in the knowledge they are doing God’s work.
How the civilised world counters Islamic State and its evil ilk is the thorny thesis of Lord Sacks’ timely new page-turner, Not In God’s Name.
It’s a fight the former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth sees as the defining conflict of the 21st century.
The frontline might be Syria and Iraq but the battle is fought everywhere and targets everyone – especially Jews.
In Europe, radical Islam has spilt Jewish blood in Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen in recent months. For Lord Sacks, Jews are the canaries in the cage. “The hate begins with Jews but never ends with them,” he says. “That’s why Jews must never be left to fight anti-Semitism alone. If it’s not safe to be a Jew in Europe today, it’s not safe to be a European in Europe today. Anti-Semitism is a sign of something larger and even more dangerous.”
He adds: “There’s significant anti-Semitism across the continent in France, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, Hungary, Spain and elsewhere. The threat level is not the same in Britain. We could not have asked for more loyal friends than our recent prime ministers, who have stood unequivocally with the Jewish community. But the dangers remain clear to us all.”
Lord Sacks rejects claims that anger at Israel is the root cause of this anti-Semitism. “The problem is steeped in theological roots – an ancient sibling rivalry between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For 1,000 years, Jews were the most conspicuous non-Christian minority in Christian Europe. Today, Israel is the most conspicuous non-Muslim presence in an otherwise Muslim Middle East. Jews have long been a conspicuous minority. Old prejudices must be acknowledged and overcome. We need to sit down in a respectful way and work out a peaceful future for all the people and faiths in the region.
“Israel is not a key factor in what’s happening in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Libya. There’s an internal struggle within Islam between extremists and moderates – a dramatic split between those who are religious and respect democracy and engage with the world around them and those who want to impose their beliefs on others by force.
“These are two completely different strains of religiosity. It is essential we engage with young Muslims to make sure they are fully integrated into British society. They need to hear strong religious voices, ones that are not a radical or rejectionist.”
He adds: “The late Muslim leader, doctor Zaki Badawi, who was head of the Muslim College in London and a friend of mine, was a wonderful moderate Islamic leader. There are many young moderate Muslims who are just as forthright and courageous as Zaki, but none has yet achieved his status. When that happens it will make a crucial difference in this struggle.”
Extremist propaganda fills the vacuum left by an absence of moderate voices, particularly in Palestinian schools where state indoctrination of the young sees Jews turned into objects of disgust and pupils groomed for holy war rather than adult life.
Lord Sacks says: “Palestinian schools and media tell children non-believers are destined for hell. This has been the case for too long. The world must wake up and
realise that if children are taught to hate then all the military intervention in the world will not stop the spread of extremism. As a Jew, I wrestle with these issues every day. I hope Muslim leaders are doing the same.”
He speaks animatedly about Israel, having just retuned from one of his regular visits. “It is the only sound democracy in the region; a world technology leader full of creativity, idealism and exceptional energy. During my trip I met young Israelis who filled me with inspiration. Why the world can’t accept Israel’s achievements and contribution is deeply troubling to me. Those who can’t see the obvious good in Israel harm themselves, not just Israel.”
When Lord Sacks finally stepped down as Chief Rabbi in 2013, Prince Charles hailed him as a “light unto this nation”. How does he reflect on his 22 hectic years in the role?
“As Chief Rabbi, I was captain of a team, so there were naturally things I simply couldn’t say. Today, I can speak more freely and openly as an individual. I count those years in the Chief Rabbinate as an enormous privilege. And I am so impressed by the way Chief Rabbi [Ephraim] Mirvis has taken over the mantle and continued to lead Anglo-Jewry with great warmth and skill. “These days, I see my role as a teacher and, hopefully, someone who can inspire young people of all religions to engage in leadership to build a better future.”
• Not In God’s Name by Jonathan Sacks is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.