LONDON - Synagogue leaders in North London breathed a sigh of relief Saturday night after a Selichot service featuring an address by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks progressed without interruption despite threats of demonstrations and protests.
Rightist elements of the Anglo Jewish community had been outraged by Sacks' criticism of Israeli policy in the West Bank during an interview with The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland last week, with some calling for Sacks' resignation from the post he has held for the past 11 years. (David Landau: Will the chief rabbi stick to the moral high ground?)
Tensions ran high at the Golders Green synagogue, where Sacks spoke to a packed house for 20 minutes on the traditional themes of compassion and forgiveness, yet made no explicit reference to the controversy that has been raging within British Jewry following Tuesday's publication of the interview.
The congregation which gathered to hear his pre-Selichot address (the Selichot prayers are traditionally recited from midnight on the Saturday evening prior to the Jewish New Year) debated whether Sacks had displayed disloyalty to Israel or simple misjudgment in his comments to The Guardian, a paper regarded by many in the Jewish community as virulently anti-Israel.
His outspoken critics, who were not in evidence at the tightly-managed event, were thought to have been dissuaded from their planned protest after intervention by Sacks' office. "What protest?" was the seemingly innocent response of Sacks' staff and synagogue officials Saturday evening, despite confirmation Friday from Anglo Jewry's representative body, the Board of Deputies, that a demonstration had been anticipated.
Britain's national Jewish paper, the Jewish Chronicle, carried Friday both strong criticism of Sacks, including calls for his resignation, and equally strong support for him.
A spokesperson for Sacks released a statement saying it was "absurd" to construe the chief rabbi's comments as critical of Israel, but rather described the interview as an expression of "passionate support."
The statement echoed the sentiment expressed by Sacks on Thursday in a letter to Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Lau, in which he said his views in The Guardian had been misrepresented. Sacks also distanced himself from what he described as the "sensationalist headline" given to the interview: "Israel set on tragic path, says chief rabbi."
In interview published Tuesday, Sacks described Israel's current situation as "nothing less than tragic, because it is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with [Judaism's] deepest ideals." (Click here for The Guardian interview.)
When questioned about Israel's conduct, Sacks admitted, "There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew." He added that he was "profoundly shocked" by reports of smiling IDF soldiers posing for a photograph with the corpse of a Palestinian.
"There is no question," he continued, "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."
Speaking to Ha'aretz on Friday, some British-born rabbis in Israel widely came out in support of their beleaguered colleague, praising his courage for following in the paths of Jewish leaders in history who have spoken out against Israel's misdeeds.
Until the publication of the interview, Sacks had avoided explicit criticism of Israel and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, something that added to the hype surrounding his comments this week.
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