Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, told a local audience last week that, over the course of the past 2,000 years, there have been four major mutations in the virus known as anti-Semitism.
The first mutation came during the centuries immediately after the birth of Christianity, when Jews were blamed for killing Jesus. Then, the Middle Age brought about a period riddled with words such as expulsion, inquisition, ghetto and pogrom, as Jews were blamed for a host of things, including the plague. In 1879, a term was coined to describe all the hatred directed at Jews: "anti-Semitism."
"We are living through the fourth mutation," said the rabbi.
More than 200 people filled an auditorium at Lower Merion Synagogue on the morning of May 21 and listened as the British rabbi, who is the author of more than a dozen books, recounted the history of hate, as well as presented a diagnosis on the future of Judaism in England and across Europe. His visit was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia and the synagogue.
Sacks explained that the current mutation of this centuries-old hatred has taken the form of political anti-Semitism, where, in a world with 82 Christian nations and 57 Islamic states, one Jewish country "is deemed to be one too many."
He then described the changes he's seen since he became chief rabbi in September 1991, including attacks on European synagogues, an increase in Holocaust denial and the threats of boycotts of various sorts toward Israel — all designed to isolate Israel.
Still, Some Bright Spots
But, in spite of all this, Sacks painted a rather optimistic picture about the current battle against anti-Semitism, especially as its being waged in Britain. He pointed out strides made in recent years, such as the mandatory teaching of the Holocaust in British curriculum, and noted that since Jan. 27, 2001, there has been a Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, and since 2006, an International Holocaust Remembrance Day — and no matter what rumors and untruths are spread via the Internet, it "will never be canceled."
Sacks said that the Jewish community has many allies from various religious groups in England, and stressed that Jews also have friends worldwide. He highlighted the work of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who publically declared that Jews will never have to fight anti-Semitism alone, and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has given money so schools may send students to Poland to learn about Auschwitz.
Sacks also talked of the work of an interdepartment, multipolitical party committee that's been set up in the United Kingdom to monitor anti-Semitism. All of these actions show that "Britain cares very much about the fight against anti-Semitism."
However, more political allies are needed to spread the fight against hate across Europe, as "Jews cannot fight anti-Semitism alone." The battle got off to a slow start, Sacks said, but European politicians are finally taking anti-Semitism seriously, though more work needs to be done to fight against Islamic extremism on college campuses.
The best way to combat anti-Semitism, he added, is to wear Jewish identity with pride and to never be intimidated by prejudice against Jews.
"Anti-Semitism is serious," and it does happen, attested the rabbi. "But it does not define us as Jews."