I recently reviewed Rabbi Sir Joathan Sacks’s new book, Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, for the Guardian Saturday ‘Review’ section (here). If this is the best we can expect from our religious thinkers, start worrying. There’s something about his style which reminds me of the ‘Great Communicator’ – no, not Him, Ronald Reagan – but Sacks’s soundbites rapidly crumble to dust. Reagan’s little homilies at least convinced a hell of a lot of people for a hell of a lot of the time.
Any writer who tells me that Natan Sharansky ‘is a living symbol of the Jewish people through time’ has a problem. This is the former Soviet ‘prisoner of conscience’ and ‘prisoner of Zion’, human rights icon and great chess player, who seems to think human rights are really only for Jews, that Bush was a teddy-bear and that extreme nationalism, Serbian-style, mixed with democracy, looks like apple-pie.
Sacks likes to give the impression that he’s in touch with everything modern in the world, every new idea, every new technological and medical development, but at the same time appears incredibly remote from it all. Working it all into a book addressed to a wider public looks like a good move. But as a self-confessed fundamentalist, for him it’s all a means to an end that is deeply opposed to anything modern.
He’s in thrall to fashionable ideas and received wisdoms, subjecting them to little or no critical scrutiny. ‘The nation state hardly exists’ – so pre-financial meltdown. The failure of all non-Orthodox forms of Jewish identification has led to ‘the tortured psychology known as Jewish self-hatred’ – no, it’s just a tortured political insult. ‘Multiculturalism . . . argues that nothing transcends our particularity’ – try finding that in any textbook.
There’s a terrible contradiction at the heart of this book: a boastfulness about Judaism, about the uniqueness of the Jewish other, and what the Jewish ‘other’ gave and can give to the world; and yet denial of the narrative of the Palestinian ‘other’. The propagandistic telling of the Zionist story is shameful, as if Sacks contracted the writing of it out to the Israel embassy.
Sacks praises the prophets. Like all great strikers – Jimmy Greaves, Alan Shearer – they led from the front. When did Sacks do that? When was the last time he spoke truth to power?
At the Board of Deputies’ pro-war rally in Trafalgar Square during the Gaza war, Sacks gave a speech full of the kind of platitudes liberally scattered throughout Future Tense, again sounding like an Israeli Foreign Ministry press release. When I took a look at it on his website, I had to rapidly reach for the retching bucket: it’s set out in the form of a poem . . .