Britain’s former chief rabbi behind Pence’s biblical Knesset address

Britain’s former chief rabbi behind Pence’s biblical Knesset address

Jonathan Sacks ‘instrumental’ in drafting of speech from US vice president that contained many phrases previously used by major Jewish thinker

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Courtesy Core18)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Courtesy Core18)

Former British chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks helped US Vice President Mike Pence write his Monday address to the Knesset, the highlight of his two-day trip to Israel, White House officials told The Times of Israel Tuesday.

Officials said Sacks, who retains the title of emeritus chief rabbi and is an active speaker and writer, played a major role in the drafting of the speech, which was laden with both statements of policy and biblical references.

“Rabbi Sacks was an instrumental part of crafting the vice president’s speech,” a source with knowledge of the speech-writing process said. “Rabbi Sacks provided input and editorial suggestions on various drafts throughout the writing process.”

In his address, Pence pledged the US would relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the “end of next year,” called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table for peace talks, and vowed Washington would withdraw from the “disaster” Iran nuclear deal unless it was “fixed.”

The speech earned numerous standing ovations from Knesset members most of the way across the political spectrum, but saw Arab lawmakers ejected from the plenary after they launched a protest over Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6. The trip by Pence, who left Israel on Tuesday afternoon, was the first by a major figure from the US since President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem announcement.

But beyond political messaging, the vice president, a devout Evangelical Christian, also included numerous religious references, framing recent developments in the Middle East in the context of biblical prophecy and highlighting the Jewish people’s connection to Israel.

Some in the press said the address was closer to a sermon, while others lauded it for being forcefully pro-Israel.

Americans are “fierce advocates of the Jewish people’s aspiration to return to the land of your forefathers to claim your own new birth of freedom in your beloved homeland,” Pence said, adding that “the people of the United States have always held a special affection and admiration for the people of the Book.”

“Descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are coming together in an unprecedented way,” he said at one point, alluding to growing covert cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab nations.

He also elicited thunderous approval from Knesset members when he recited the Shehecheyanu blessing of thanksgiving in Hebrew.

US Vice President Mike Pence gives a speech at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Ariel Schalit)

Sacks, who spent 22 years as chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has authored 25 books, most recently “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.” An ardent proponent of interfaith cooperation, Sacks has advised several British prime ministers, including John Major and David Cameron. Since retiring as British chief rabbi in 2013, he has taught at American and British universities.

Several passages in Pence’s speech bore a clear resemblance to Sacks’s own public speeches and published works.

The vice president, for example, said that “it was the faith of the Jewish people that gathered the scattered fragments of a people and made them whole again; that took the language of the Bible and the landscape of the Psalms and made them live again.”

In the audio CD “Israel – Home of Hope,” released in 2008 to mark the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary, Sacks said: “Israel has achieved great things. It has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. It’s taken an ancient language, the Hebrew of the Bible, and made it speak again. It’s taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. Israel has taken a tattered, shattered nation and made it live again.”

Speaking of the Jewish people’s roots in Israel, Pence said: “Nearly 4,000 years ago, a man left his home in Ur of the Chaldeans to travel here, to Israel. He ruled no empire, he wore no crown, he commanded no armies, he performed no miracles, delivered no prophecies, yet to him was promised ‘descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.”

The passage almost verbatim quotes Sacks’s 2001 “Radical Then, Radical Now,” where he described Abraham as someone who “ruled no empire, commanded no great army, performed no miracles and proclaimed no prophecy.”

US Vice President Mike Pence visits Jerusalem’s Western Wall on January 23, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

And Pence spoke of Jewish history as “the story of an exodus, a journey from persecution to freedom, a story that shows the power of faith and the promise of hope,” themes, and phrases, that regularly appear across Sacks’s prolific writing.

A White House official said that Pence met with Sacks for some 90 minutes in New York in November “explicitly to discuss themes and structure for the speech” and that the rabbi was consulted throughout the entire speech-drafting process.

Sacks’s office confirmed the meeting and Sacks’s influence on the speech, telling The Times of Israel that he met with Pence at the request of the vice president and that the two had “a very good meeting.”

The White House official said that the vice president, who is known for maintaining hard-line evangelical positions, had sought out Sacks’s input and saw him as a “hugely critical element in crafting the speech.”

“Rabbi Sacks has advised prime ministers and presidents for years. The vice president thought it was critical to have his counsel for a speech of this magnitude,” the official said.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks on the power of religious texts to shape lives at The Center for Jewish History in New York, April 5, 2016. (courtesy)

In October 2017, shortly before meeting with Pence, Sacks publicly inveighed against a “politics of anger” that he said was corroding the fabric of US society.

“The politics of anger that’s emerged in our time is full of danger,” Sacks said while accepting the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award at the conservative institute’s annual gala.

Sacks noted the rise of the far right and the far left in Europe and what he said was an increasingly shrill atmosphere at universities that inhibits speech.

In what appeared to be an allusion to the election of Trump, Sacks described a “populism” in which “the belief that a strong leader can solve everything, and that is the road that leads to tyranny.”

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