Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Unlikely warrior against 'Coca-Cola culture'

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Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and leader of Britain's Jews, makes an unlikely anti-globalisation campaigner.

But working in his official residence in St John's Wood, north London, on Wednesday morning he was preoccupied with the danger posed by the advance of what he calls the "Coca-Cola, MTV" culture.

Dr Sacks, who marks his 10th anniversary as Chief Rabbi at the weekend, has spent much of the summer writing a book, provisionally called The Dignity of Difference and, although he will not be found joining the protesters on the streets in the near future, its contents should find favour with veterans of Genoa and the May Day demonstrations in London. The book will reflect his view that as well as having a pernicious effect on wages, encouraging child labour and destabilising economies, globalisation threatens to wipe out small, local cultures.

It is a threat he sees having a particular resonance for Jews as it carries with it a danger of eroding tolerance for minority communities.

Dr Sacks believes defending that tolerance is crucial at a time when the Israel-Palestinian conflict is worsening daily and anti-Semitism is on the rise outside Britain. The British Jewish community, he says, is ideally placed to lead that defence.

Taking a break from writing to speak to The Independent, he said: "To be a Jew is to care about racism, to be willing to fight it not only on our behalf but on anyone's behalf. Our Union of Jewish Students, despite the political situation, has been in the front line, in the past academic year, of the fight on campus against Islamaphobia.

"When Jews fight racism they don't fight it for Jews alone, they fight it for anyone who is the victim."

Dr Sacks describes globalisation as a "universalist culture" as powerful as Greek and Roman civilisations, Islam and Christianity, but the first to have no ideology or state or religious backing.

"[It] is as devastating of local cultures as any of its predecessors. It's a globalisation brought about by the market, by international corporations and the global economy and it's another leviathan which is causing great economic inequalities and instabilities, and threatening to replace all local cultures with a kind of Coca-Cola MTV substitute," he says.

"Every time, a universalist culture has demanded a price in human suffering. I think the single most important thing the Jews have had to tell the world is that we need the courage to be different and the tolerance to make space for difference. When I share that message with the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, it's a meaningful message and I think it's the only message sophisticated enough to take us through the 21st century."

With Israel attracting condemnation for its conduct in the occupied territories his words could seem hopelessly idealistic. He accepts there has been a collapse of trust since the peace process came apart last autumn.

"I believe the vast majority of the community for the previous seven years have supported the peace process, some enthusiastically, some reluctantly, but nevertheless with genuine majority support.

"For that to collapse into violence has been deeply shocking. It has been traumatic for us. It has been doubly traumatic in that the existence of the state of Israel as a state is being called into question."

Despite attacks on Jews in Britain shortly after the breakdown of the peace process, Dr Sacks is confident the country will not see a rise in anti-Semitism. However, he remains concerned at the implications of riots between Asians and white youths in northern England and hardening attitudes towards asylum-seekers.

"I am bothered about racism in so far as it has become a tension in British society today as it has periodically, but Britain is not an anti-Semitic country. It is one of the great examples of generosity of spirit throughout the past 300 years and it is a country to whom Jews feel deeply attached and for which they feel deeply grateful."

The potential for a visit this autumn by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who has praised Hitler and called Jews "bloodsuckers", is a grave concern to Dr Sacks. He chooses his words with care but the impression remains that he has deep misgivings at the impact of the visit when the Middle East is already straining Jewish-Muslim relations in Britain.

"He has been guilty of very inflammatory rhetoric in the past and we cannot see how it [a visit] will improve race relations in this country," he said.

If it were not for the situation in the Middle East, he said, British Jewry would be "on a high" as the "decade of renewal" he promised when becoming Chief Rabbi had exceeded all his expectations.

He said there had been a "genuine creative flowering in the community" over the past decade. It had been marked by an unprecedented growth in the number of Jewish day schools, especially primary schools, a "phenomenal" growth in adult education, and an improvement in the professionalism of welfare organisations.