Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks has joined the list of modern-day luminaries and thought leaders, including Pope Francis, by giving his first TED Talk.

Speaking to an audience in Vancouver on Monday, prolific author Sacks began by quoting Thomas Paine, saying: “These are the times that try men’s souls, and they’re trying ours now.”

TED is an online media organisation posting videos of short talks on hot topics ranging from cutting-edge science to the changing moral and political landscape. It gets billions of views.

Sacks, who won the prestigious $1 million Templeton Prize for “bringing spiritual insight into the public conversation,” spoke about increasing isolationism, with nationalist policies gathering support across Europe and America.

Addressing a growing sense of intolerance, he told the audience: “We need to renew those face-to-face encounters with the people not like us in order to realise that we can disagree strongly and still stay friends.”

Intolerance of others was, he argued, a product of people’s focus on themselves. “When we have too much of the ‘I’ and not enough of the ‘we,’ we find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone,” he said.

A solution could come from resuscitating the narrative that the West formed and prospered by welcoming those from foreign lands, he said.

“America was largely a nation of immigrants; it had to create its identity by telling a story. The trouble is now that we’ve stopped telling the story of who we are and why, even in America, and immigration rates are higher than ever.

“When you tell the story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the strangers. But when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger… We’ve got to get back to telling our story — who we are, where we came from, what are the ideals by which we live.”