The former chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, has deplored the absence of leadership in public life and called for “a new Abraham Lincoln to step forward”.
Lord Sacks was the launch speaker for an all-day event at JW3 under the banner of “Exploring Belief”, the second religion and media festival.
In a wide-ranging address, and then in conversation with the ITV broadcaster Julie Etchingham, Lord Sacks said that society today “has lost the concept of public service”. Once, he said, people believed it was their “moral duty” to work for the public good, but he hoped that “someone like that would emerge once again”.
Lord Sacks identified two key moments in which he felt society had changed — the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and the fatwa imposed against the author Salman Rushdie, both of which had taken place in 1989. People had failed to see their significance at the time, he said, “because they were not reading the religious map, they failed to hear the religious music”.
Both such events, he said, showed people that “religion was a global phenomenon, while governments were only national phenomena”.
With “the shining exception of the BBC”, Lord Sacks said, he did not feel that the media “covers religion as well as it might; and he agreed with a member of the audience who suggested that there were many “good news” religious stories which did not receive enough publicity.
To general laughter, the former chief rabbi recalled a meeting he had had in Jerusalem two years ago which amply illustrated his belief that religion had something to say in almost every public sphere. It was a meeting requested, he said, by members of the strictly Orthodox Eda Haredit movement.
At first, Lord Sacks did not understand what they wanted to discuss. But they told him that they had been hired by a hi-tech company to help devise an ethics code for self-driving vehicles.
“They loved it”, Lord Sacks declared, “they loved the idea that there was a possible solution in the Torah for such a modern-day problem”.
The rabbis had been asked to visualise a situation where a self-driving car was going to skid on ice and hit one of two cyclists, one with a helmet, one without. Such discussions were meat and drink to the Eda Haredit, he suggested.
Lord Sacks, though generally upbeat and hopeful that religious literacy could improve in the media, nevertheless was unhappy about what he called “public shaming” in social media. “We have moved into a form of vigilante justice”, he said, “once you have been nailed you have no chance to state your case. It is the return of the mob”.
A wonderful start to #ExploringBelief Religion in the Media Festival 2019 with Lord @rabbisacks and @julieetchitv discussing the way religion has shaped our modern landscape pic.twitter.com/ivpdVB249O
— JW3 (@JW3London) April 30, 2019
In the wake of the most recent attacks on places of worship in Pittsburgh, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and San Diego, the former chief rabbi said that high levels of security at religious centres, not just Jewish ones, “would become the norm, since it has become apparent that people are not prepared to hold back from desecration”.
In all those places, he said, terrorists had attacked “soft targets” and it was incumbent on everyone not to present such targets and to question risks.
The all-day event, jointly hosted by the Religion Media Centre and JW3, was attended by religious representatives and humanists. James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education, who is responsible for religious programming, was one of the highlight speakers, while one of the best attended panels was that on reporting religion, with broadcast presenters from the BBC and CNN.
A special media prize was announced, launched by the Understanding Unbelief programme, to honour the work of journalists and programme makers in exploring the nature and diversity of unbelief, including atheism, agnosticism and related phenomena, throughout the world.