Archbishop Justin, you need some new Jewish friends

Archbishop Justin, you need some new Jewish friends December 7, 2019

“If we leave our echo-chambers and make a conscious effort to listen to people and ideas we disagree with it will help us understand where others are coming from in this election period, even though we may disagree vehemently.”

General Election statement from Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby & Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, November 2019

Dear Archbishop Justin,

May I offer you my warmest greetings in this time of Advent and as we approach the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. We live in difficult times when trust and reconciliation are in short supply. I think we can agree that Advent’s anticipation of renewed hope and Hanukkah’s rededication to a higher good, are greatly needed. I recognise that your own ministry has been dedicated to healing divisions and keeping diverse communities together, and I wish to offer these reflections and observations to you in the spirit of your work and to encourage its continuing success.

New Jewish friends

Having read with care your statements and interviews during this General Election, and having studied the Church of England’s recent report on Christian-Jewish relations past and present, I feel you are in need some new Jewish friends. By finding those new friends and seeking out their opinions, I believe you’ll gain a more rounded understanding of the uses and abuses of antisemitism in the 21st century and a deeper appreciation of the concerns of a growing number of Jews about the State of Israel and how it’s informing modern Jewish experience.

As things stand, I fear you’re relying too heavily on one Jewish voice, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and those most closely associated with his outlook at the Board of Deputies of British Jews and at the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ). While I realise the Chief Rabbi is a close colleague and he deserves your attention, I believe you would do well to cast your net a little further and hear from a more diverse range of opinions, especially before making interventions into a febrile political environment where narratives are contested and motivations ambivalent.

Let me explain why I say this and let me introduce you to some other Jewish voices I’d welcome that you heard.

For full disclosure, I should tell you that I am a British Jew committed to a Jewish Reform/Liberal religious outlook. My wife, Anne, is a busy Anglican Priest serving in the Diocese of Leeds. I grant you, our circumstances are unusual. But they also create for me a tremendous blessing. Few get to observe both the good and the bad of institutional Judaism and institutional Christianity. Rounded perspectives are hard to come by, so I count myself as fortunate and privileged to have insight into Judaism, Jewish identity, Christian belief and practice, and how Israel and antisemitism are shaping and challenging both faiths.

So, let me set out what’s troubling me about how you and the Church of England have been speaking about issues of great concern to me and to many other Jews.

The politics of antisemitism

 In Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ opinion piece published in The Times, he presented the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as unfit for government because of the party’s failure to deal with antisemitism. Rabbi Mirvis went as far as to say: “It can no longer claim to be the party of equality and anti-racism.” After repeating more specific allegations against the party and its leader, Rabbi Mirvis said (with I would suggest noteworthy disingenuousness): “It is not my place to tell anyone how to vote”, before going on to end his piece with a final apocalyptic peroration:

“What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

Archbishop Justin, you don’t need to be a professor of literary criticism to understand that Chief Rabbi Mirvis was telling us all not to vote Labour.

I wrote my response to the Chief Rabbi last week and in particular challenged him on his portrayal of “the overwhelming majority of British Jews” as “gripped by anxiety”. I also called out his deliberate muddling of Judaism and Zionism which then promotes the theory of a ‘new antisemitism’ which is used endlessly to attack supporters of Palestinian rights.

In my view, there was no need for you to make any comment on the Chief Rabbi’s misguided and highly partisan intervention at the mid-way point in the election. Along with the Archbishop of York, you had already issued wise words of guidance as we entered the campaign:

“As followers of Jesus Christ each of us is called to honour the gift of truth, both to speak it and to seek it.  We all have a responsibility to speak accurately, to challenge falsehoods when we hear them, and to be careful to separate facts from opinion.”

“If we leave our echo-chambers and make a conscious effort to listen to people and ideas we disagree with it will help us understand where others are coming from in this election period, even though we may disagree vehemently.”

But instead of following your own advice and taking a measured view of what was happening, you chose to enter the election fray with a new statement just hours after the publication of Rabbi’s comments:

“That the Chief Rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews. Everyone in our country is entitled to feel safe and secure. They should be able to live in accordance with their beliefs and freely express their culture and faith.”

“As a Church, we are very conscious of our own history of antisemitism. None of us can afford to be complacent. Voicing words that commit to a stand against antisemitism requires a corresponding effort in visible action.”

Even if it were not your intention, it was difficult for anyone to read your comments and not infer your endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s analysis and his call to reject the Labour Party. It felt like you were part of the Rabbi’s “echo chamber”, perpetuating a distortion for political motives and failing to “separate facts from opinion”. I wonder if it crossed your mind that the Rabbi’s encouraging of a perception of Jews as being a single bloc of political opinion which can be taken from one party and delivered to another, might not be good for our collective welfare? I fear it may even be an example of antisemitism in itself. After all, we are not all one thing, however much the Chief Rabbi would like it to be so.

I am not one who denies that there is antisemitism within the Labour Party, and on the left more broadly. Few, if any, do deny this. But I, along with many other Jews critical of the way Rabbi Mirvis and the Board of Deputies have behaved over the last few years, have profound concerns about how the debate has been framed and understood by the general public, the media and politicians.

There is a further question too. With all of this focus on the left, are we distracting ourselves from a much greater threat from the right which is harming not just Jews around the world but all religious and ethnic minorities.


While any antisemitism is too much antisemitism, the evidence of widespread Labour Party antisemitism as far exceeding that found in the population at large, has not be proved. In fact, the evidence all points against it. Drawing the data together and challenging the misleading  narrative which has been created, has been Jamie Stern-Weiner, the first of several Jewish voices I want to draw your attention to. His work with statistician Dr. Alan Maddison has allowed a small ghetto of truth to continue to exist in a world where spin and hyperbole have taken hold.

It’s not surprising that you Archbishop Justin, and so many others, have accepted without further investigation or query, the perception of large-scale antisemitism within Labour. Our media, both print and broadcast, have been woefully poor at questioning the integrity of the ‘facts’ or those who promote them. Thankfully, some people have. Another Jew you should be acquainted with is Justin Schlosberg of Birkbeck College, a senior lecturer in media studies who has painstakingly documented the bias across mainstream reporting on this issue.

Your close alignment with the Chief Rabbi and his election intervention will have been especially frustrating for many Jewish grassroots Labour supporters.

David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group, interviewed some of them in the last few days, including Dan, a kippah wearing, synagogue attending Jew, who told Rosenberg he decries the “destruction of the public services” and the Conservative’s “use of race-baiting to build a toxic core vote.” For Dan, Labour’s vision expresses “the Jewish ethical imperative: feed the hungry, care for the weak, shelter the homeless.”

The Church and antisemitism

While the Chief Rabbi was dominating the media news-cycle for 48 hours, I was reading the Church of England’s new report ‘God’s Unfailing Word’, described in the accompanying news release as a “teaching document” which calls for “repentance over the role of Christians in centuries of antisemitism.”

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, Chair of the Faith and Order Commission, which wrote the report, is quoted saying:

“Assumptions about Judaism and Jewish people, past and present, colour Christian approaches to preaching, teaching, evangelism, catechesis, worship, devotion and art, whether or not Christian communities are conscious of their Jewish neighbours, near and far; teasing out those assumptions and exploring them theologically is therefore a challenge that pertains to the whole Church.”

As a British Jew who’s spent plenty of time among Anglican congregations, I welcome the acknowledgement by the Church of England that there has been a “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism over many centuries. The report also makes clear that antisemitism in the Church of England is not just a matter of historical interest. I’m pleased to tell you that my wife, Anne, has done much to counter this through her own ministry and teaching.

It made me wonder though, does the Church of England have a bigger problem with antisemitism than the Labour Party? After all, I’ve seen and heard over the years how hymns, liturgy, scripture, and teaching can still create a ‘hostile environment’ for even the most sympathetic Jew who happens to be present. However, I’ve never felt the need to call for a boycott of the Church of England, or for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be condemned for a failure of leadership or held personally accountable for enabling a tradition of antisemitism. Instead, I welcome the efforts that have been made over the decades to address the problem and build reconciliation. I wonder why the same generosity of spirit has not been applied by the Chief Rabbi to the Labour Party considering the action it has taken in just a few months? Am I so wrong to think that a bigger political agenda could be at play?

Archbishop, one passage in the introduction to ‘God’s Unfailing Word’ caught my attention when thinking about your need for for more diverse Jewish friendships.

“With regard to both resisting stereotyping and thinking theologically, Christians have a responsibility to ensure that whatever they may say about Judaism is informed by continuing dialogue with Jewish people. It is important to listen carefully and with discernment to the range of voices of Jewish people themselves. (4)”

I then looked up the relevant additional note at the end of the report

“(4) Christians should have some awareness of the diversity within Judaism. This includes the various religious traditions within Judaism, e.g. Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, Hasidic, Masorti. Judaism is, however, a people as well as a religion, and there are many Jewish people who do not observe religious customs or subscribe to religious beliefs. While there are important questions that may be asked about how Judaism is defined, Christians need to attend to the answers given by Jewish people themselves.”

And of course, those “answers” will be different depending on which Jew you are talking to. The old adage “two Jews, three opinions” remains true. Judaism is monotheistic but Jews are far from monolithic.

The Board of Deputies own website is a helpful primer on how the UK Jewish community of approaching 300,000 divides up.

Around half of British Jews do not belong to a synagogue. Of the 150,000 that do, only about 40,000 belong to Rabbi Mirvis’ United Synagogue movement. A quarter of UK Jews describe themselves as ‘secular’. However, not belonging to a synagogue or being secular in outlook will not protect you from antisemitism, as Germany’s Jews learnt in the 1930s. These statistics are another reason to reach beyond Rabbi Mirvis and his circle of ‘Jewish Communal Leadership’ if you want the Church to grasp the full picture.

Vetting acceptable Jews

But what happens in reality when your local parish congregations reach out to find that “range of voices” across the Jewish community? My own experience of this has not been good.

When I was invited by Anne to give a talk to her parishes about my “Jewish journey to Palestinian solidarity” it wasn’t long before executive officers from the Board of Deputies were emailing and phoning your Bishops in the Leeds Diocese demanding the talk be cancelled or at least the Church’s association with it broken off.  I’m please to tell you, your colleagues held their ground and respected the judgement and integrity of their own parish priest (and her husband). But why should this ‘policing’ of ‘acceptable Jewish opinion’ take place at all? You may want to ask the Board of Deputies about this yourself. And are Christians so incapable of bringing to bear their own discernment and judgement that Jews must first be vetted and approved before they can speak in a church?

Unhelpful definition of antisemitism

On page 9 of ‘God’s Unfailing Word’ the authors introduce us to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, along with its illustrations. A document the Chief Rabbi described in The Times as “widely accepted.”

You’ll recall that your House of Bishops adopted the IHRA document in September 2018 just days after you had met the Chief Rabbi at his home. I wrote to you at the time to express my concern at the hasty way in which this decision took place without the usual careful debate that happens before significant adoptions of new policy by the Church of England.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism is weak, confusing and poorly composed. Meanwhile, the illustrations mix well-established expressions of hatred against Jews with criticism of the State of Israel and Zionism. And yet, it has been championed as the ‘gold standard’ in antisemitism guidance.

Time to introduce you to some more Jewish voices I’d welcome you becoming more acquainted with. Antony Lerman is Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna and Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at Southampton University. Lerman is an expert in modern European antisemitism and was the Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research from 2006 to 2009. Over the last few years he’s written extensively on why the IHRA is not fit for purpose.

It would have been helpful if your Bishops had been directed to even one of his articles before the vote was taken. Or perhaps they could have read the work of Brian Klug of Oxford University who’s written with wisdom and authority about the whole Labour/antisemitism saga.

Lerman and Klugg are not insubstantial figures, yet the Chief Rabbi, the Board and CCJ choose to ignore their work because it challenges their political position which insists on merging Judaism and Zionism in order to create a paradigm of Jewish identity that leaves little or no space for dissent by other Jews, or anyone else.

Adoption of the IHRA wording has become the default expression of Jewish solidarity and the only way to satisfactorily show commitment to fighting antisemitism, at least according to the Chief Rabbi. Considering the document’s shortcomings, you have to wonder why this has happened. It’s an inexplicable state of affairs, until you recognise that the IHRA document is being foisted on political parties, universities and religious institutions because its proponents see it as a way to close down an honest debate on Israel/Palestine. Whilst fans of the IHRA will insist this is not true, the evidence on the ground suggests otherwise.

And this is happening in the Church of England as well as on university campuses.

Even one of the original authors of the document, the American human rights lawyer Kenneth Stern (another Jew to get to know), is now deeply troubled by how the document is being applied, describing its use as “McCarthy-like”.

Again, Archbishop, your close friendship with the Chief Rabbi is preventing you from gaining a more holistic understanding of antisemitism and how it can be used and abused to support a political programme. This is a truly dispiriting situation that’s undermining education on antisemitism both inside and outside of the Church, and risks the word itself losing all meaning. That can’t be good for Jews. And it’s definitely not good for Palestinians.

The only Jewish voice?

At the end of ‘God’s Unfailing Word’ the only Jewish voice who is given space to respond is, of course, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Why just one representative from the widely diverse Jewish community the report has identified in its opening pages?

Why not a selection of Jewish responses?

A female voice?

A non-orthodox voice?

A secular Jewish voice?

Or even a non-Zionist Jewish voice?

This is after all intended to be a “teaching document” to aid debate and discussion. The Anglican Communion is the original ‘broad church’, holding together diverse theology and church practice. I know from following your own work how hard this can be. Your continuing effort to hold an extended Christian family together it to be admired and respected. In contrast, the formal leadership of the UK Jewish community prefers to disown the Jewish family members it finds difficult and dissident. But by giving only the Chief Rabbi the space to respond in a landmark report on Christian-Jewish relations, you are encouraging this culture and behaviour, when we would do better to learn from the Church’s example of inclusivity.

The Chief Rabbi uses his four page ‘Afterword’ firstly to thank you for your support over Israel, recalling your joint prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He then chooses to use three pages to voice his concern and displeasure about organised Christian evangelism towards Jews. I can understand how converting Jews may be a theologically interesting debate within Christianity, but I find it difficult to believe that more than a handful of Jews are brought to Christianity in this way in the UK each year. In other words, it’s a non-issue. But it also feels like a deliberate distraction from far more significant matters. Not least, the tension that’s created by placing the concerns of the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies at a higher level of priority than acting on calls from Anglicans to support Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

The fracturing of Jewish opinion

Speaking for myself, I am gripped by anxiety. But not for the reasons given by the Chief Rabbi. Not because of Jeremy Corbyn.

I tremble with anxiety when I think of the injustices committed against the Palestinian people in the name of ‘Jewish security’. I am anxious for those who continue to suffer. But anxious too about the calibre of our Jewish leadership and the damage they are doing to the ‘soul of Judaism’.

I see the real threats to Jews as being from the right not the left, because all the evidence tells me that’s where the real danger lies.

I am not alone in my thinking.

Look to North America and the biggest Jewish community outside of Israel. There you will see the rapid, generational fracturing of the old Jewish consensus on Israel. Archbishop Justin, the times are changing and new Jewish friendships could help guide you, and the Church of England, through the new terrain.

Take a look at the young Jews from If Not Now lobbying Jewish institutions and US political leaders demanding they re-think their views on Israel.

Take a look at the statement on Zionism published by Jewish Voice for Peace last year.

Come closer to home, and see that we have Na’amod – British Jews Against the Occupation, confronting the hypocrisy they see in our own  Jewish establishment.

Jewish attitudes and understanding are changing fast. The Chief Rabbi and his circle will not help you to see or respond to this.

These shifts are not only of Jewish interest. They should, and will, inform profound changes in both Jewish and Christian theological thinking. Archbishop, if you want Jewish-Christian relations to stay relevant and morally responsible, and if you want to gain a better understanding of antisemitism and how it relates to Israel/Palestine then please reach out to find some new Jewish friends.

Thank you for taking the time to read my concerns which I offer in the hope that they will be taken as helpful and constructive.

I wish you and your family a Christmas filled with joy, hope and peace.

Yours in friendship,

Robert Cohen


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