Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has always wielded more clout than the size of his 280,000 strong flock would suggest, but now he has embarked on his most ambitious mission yet: to map out a way for different cultures to get along in a globalised world. He tells Jonathan Freedland why he is willing to talk to even pro-Taliban Imam Abu Hamza.

The chief rabbi is deeply, fiercely ambitious. Not personally, you understand, but for the human race. He sets his sights high; his goals are on an epic scale. His latest book, The Dignity of Difference, is typical, its aim summarised in the subtitle: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations.

“I’m issuing a call in a number of languages,” he declares, “and to a number of different constituencies, to say, ‘Guys, we have to begin to conceptualise our world in a different way if we are to survive the 21st century.'” The book seeks to offer nothing less than a new “mode of coexistence for the whole planet”.

Not bad for the spiritual leader of a community numbering no more than 280,000 (less if you count only the orthodox Jews his office formally represents). But that fact has never inhibited Jonathan Sacks. Through his broadcasts – he’s a Thought for the Day regular – and his regular newspaper columns, he has become a recognised voice in the national conversation. His easy gift with the soundbite, delivered in his trademark mellifluous tones, carrying their vague hint of the transatlantic, has made him a media favourite. When the conventional wisdom grew especially harsh on George Carey, it proclaimed Sacks as the pre-eminent religious leader in the land (a position he may have to cede now that Rowan Williams is heading for Canterbury). He has regular contact with Tony Blair and describes as one of his “loveliest friendships” his connection with Gordon Brown. The chancellor has apparently called Sacks into No 11 for several conversations on how the latest New Labour thinking “plays out in the Jewish sources”.

So the chief, as Jewish community activists tend to refer to him, is used to punching above his weight. That, and stellar academic credentials, have equipped him with the confidence to ask the big questions.

The latest challenge is to construct a way for different cultures to get along in a globalised world. The old mechanisms were fine in their day, says Sacks: the principles of religious tolerance or separation of church and state worked well inside the boundaries of a nation state. But we are no longer living in neatly defined, single societies; now we inhabit a world where “everything affects everything else”, whether it’s terror or economics. So now we need “a doctrine strong enough to allow different groups to live together without an overarching political structure.”

Sacks’ manoeuvre is to see the problem as the solution; to view difference not as a difficulty to be overcome, but as the very essence of life. He’s looked at the latest thinking in biology, which confirms how similar we all are – all life made up of the same four basic characters of genetic code – but also how essential difference is, with every ecosystem dependent on bio-diversity.

He’s gone back to his roots as a Cambridge economics undergraduate, including, in the new book, both a critique of the excesses of global capitalism and a moral defence of the free market. Sacks reminds himself of Ricardo’s rule that, when one man trades axe-heads with another who catches fish, they both benefit.

But biology and economics were not enough for Sacks. He wanted an argument that would persuade the three great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that difference is a virtue. Since orthodox religion is responsible for so much of the world’s bloodshed, with September 11 only the most obvious example, it was no good coming up with secular, rational arguments for diversity. He needed a proof that would come “from the heart of the whirlwind”. He went back to the sacred texts that the three major faiths share.

Sacks looked at the first 12 chapters of Genesis, before Isaac and Ishmael part: the symbolic moment when Judaism and Islam begin their separate journeys. “The key narrative is the Tower of Babel,” Sacks explains. “God splits up humanity into a multiplicity of cultures and a diversity of languages.” God’s message to Abraham is: “Be different, so as to teach humanity the dignity of difference.”

That may sound like a statement of the multicultural obvious, but the chief rabbi knows that, for the orthodox faiths, such talk marks a profound shift. Instead of the familiar notion of “one God, one truth, one way”, Sacks is claiming divine approval for human variety.

And he believes that even religious fundamentalists will have to take notice of this message – because it’s right there, within their own sacred texts. “Religious tolerance or pluralism have always been secular doctrines that could be dismissed as western or decadent by fundamentalists. This idea they cannot dismiss.”

But such talk will surely not fly with the most hardline Muslim clerics, those who endorse, for example, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombings against Israelis? Don’t be so sure, comes the answer. It turns out that Britain’s chief rabbi has had several secret meetings, previously undisclosed, with a variety of radical Muslims, including Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi-Amoli, one of Iran’s highest-ranking clerics. They met during a UN conference of religious leaders in 2000; the Iranian requested the meeting, the foreign office arranged it.

“We established within minutes a common language, because we take certain things very seriously: we take faith seriously, we take texts seriously. It’s a particular language that believers share.” A language, says Sacks, which most Muslims feel is not understood in the west.

That encounter, among others, gave him the confidence to believe it was possible to “speak across difference”. Now he is convinced that, if both sides to any conflict – whether a marriage dispute or a bloody war – truly listen to each other, they can, eventually, reach a resolution.

But aren’t there some differences too wide to bridge? Could Sacks “hear the voice of God” from the mouth of a Muslim extremist who approved of terrorist violence? Could he even bring himself to meet such a man?


Would he meet, say, Abu Hamza, the sheikh of Finsbury Park, a Taliban sympathiser who admits to sharing the views of Osama bin Laden?

“Yes.” In fact, Abu Hamza sent a message of support to the Jewish community of Finsbury Park, north London after its synagogue was recently desecrated. So a meeting with the sheikh is, says the chief rabbi, “a thought worth pursuing. I absolutely don’t rule it out.”

This is not, insists Sacks, “Pollyanna-ish optimism”, but a conviction born of experience. He believes that even the widest chasms – those that could end in a clash of civilisations – can be bridged, so long as each side gives the other a respectful hearing. The only impossibility is dialogue with people “who kill those with whom they disagree.” He could not sit down with a would-be suicide bomber: “In order to listen, I have to be alive.”

Hovering above our conversation, and much of the book, is, inevitably, the Middle East. So much of what he says – about the need for both sides to listen to the pain, and hear the narratives, of the other – applies directly to the conflict ofIsraelis and Palestinians. Yet that conflict appears, explicitly at least, only rarely in the book.

Which feeds directly into a critique often made of Sacks by the Jewish left: that he has failed to follow the bold lead set by his predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits. Despite his reputation as an ultra-conservative on social issues such as homosexuality, and as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite cleric, Jakobovits was renowned inside Israel and the wider Jewish world as a dove, advocating territorial compromise with the Palestinians long before it became fashionable. He infuriated many rightwing Jews with his stance against Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, but he never wavered.

Sacks has maintained no such position, so that even now – 11 years into a term that began when he was 43 and could run until he is 65 – many Jews admit that they can’t quite pin down his views on this most urgent of questions. One observer, who has followed his career closely, says the chief rabbi has a knack for wrapping his pronouncements up in parable, quotation or ambiguous language, balancing his statements with qualifications, so that “both left and right end up feeling he is on their side”. It is a handy skill in a politician but, to his critics, this eagerness to please has been Sacks’ key failing, on communal issues as well as Israel: he has worked too hard at keeping all wings of Britain’s factional Jewish community on board, and not hard enough at setting a lead.

So what are his views of the current Israeli situation? What does he make of the ancient Jewish command, quoted in his book: “Do not ill-treat a stranger [ie a non-Israelite] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”? How can that square with Israel’s 35-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?

“You cannot ignore a command that is repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books: ‘You were exiled in order to know what it feels like to be an exile.’ I regard that as one of the core projects of a state that is true to Judaic principle. And therefore I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic, because it is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long- run with our deepest ideals.”

That statement will be incendiary in some Jewish and Israeli circles, and he is reluctant to go further, to specify which Israeli actions might be incompatible with those “deepest ideals” of Judaism. He wants, instead, to put the other side, to explain how the Israeli peace camp is repeatedly “checkmated” by Palestinian terror: every time Israeli liberals preach compromise, Palestinians kill more innocents. He wants to stress how Israel made the “cognitive leap” towards compromise when former prime minister Ehud Barak offered major concessions two years ago, and how “there has been no parallel cognitive leap” on the Palestinian side. And he does all this fluently and with passion, his language always accessible – proving why it is that Jewish communal leaders now regard Sacks as Israel’s best defender in Britain.

Still, when pressed, he will admit the anguish Israel’s own conduct causes him. “There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” He was “profoundly shocked” by reports of smiling Israeli soldiers posing for a photograph with the corpse of a slain Palestinian. “There is no question that this kind of prolonged conflict, together with the absence of hope, generates hatreds and insensitivities that in the long run are corrupting to a culture.”

Would he join those rabbis who have described the occupation as morally corrupting? He answers by telling how, in 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day war, he had a rare argument with his late father. “I was convinced that Israel had to give back all the land for the sake of peace. My father, bless him, was convinced that Israel’s neighbours would never make peace. Thirty five years later, I think we were both right.”

Would it not help if he was less roundabout on this topic? No, he says, people listen to “a still, small voice” more readily than a loud one. Besides, in desperate times, a prophet is called on to give a message of hope: Jews feel so beleaguered by the current Middle Eastern situation, he says, it is his job to encourage, not scold.

He’s more direct on Iraq. He would support military action on three conditions: if there was a clear objective and endgame, a broad coalition of support, and very strict safeguards against civilian casualties. Was the new archbishop of Canterbury wrong to speak out against a war? “That’s what is called the dignity of difference,” says Sacks, his eyes screwed up in a benign smile.

This ran in the Guardian on August 27, 2002