Lord Jonathan Sacks, retiring Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, said the toughest moment in his 22 years on the job came when responding to accusations leveled against Israel of perpetrating a ‘massacre’ in the Palestinian Authority controlled West Bank city of Jenin during the country’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, conducted at the height the second Palestinian Intifada. Sacks said that his team gathered its own intelligence on the matter to enable him to respond effectively.
In an retrospective interview with the UK’s Jewish News about his tenure as Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks said:
There is no question that the toughest moment actually came in 2002 with Jenin when people were accusing Israel of perpetrating a massacre against Palestinians – they were talking about 5000 people dead and it was a horrendous moment.
I had to make a calculated decision – I’m not the Israeli ambassador but is this just too serious to leave? I went on The Today Program and I told listeners that when the full facts emerge, two things will be known; the death toll will be nothing like this figure and there will emerge a disproportionate number of Israeli deaths because of the risks the army are taking to avoid any innocent casualties.
Four days later, at the Trafalgar Square rally, the facts became known for the first time – 52 Palestinians dead and 23 Israelis. People asked how did I know, and the answer was that the director of my office at the time, Syma Weinberg, phoned up Israeli soldiers in Jenin and she got the facts from them. We had the facts before anyone else and I was able to defend Israel on the BBC.
That was a very difficult moment, but a very important one because I thought, ‘G-d forbid, if we let that story run then we will never be able to bring it back round again’.
Named to The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 List of the top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life, Rabbi Sacks will stepping down from his position next week.