Solidarity is a two-way street

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Chief Rabbi Mirvis and (C) Blake Ezra Photography Ltd 2018.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Chief Rabbi Mirvis and (C) Blake Ezra Photography Ltd 2018.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is now an enemy of the Jewish community here in Britain. How on earth did that happen?

It seems to me that his main crime was raising the issue of attacks on Christian communities in Israel. These attacks on Christians are serious, they are alarming, and they are on the rise.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the symbolic leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has as one of its provinces the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Within this province is the Diocese of Jerusalem which covers Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

If Justin Welby believes that there is cause for concern for those communities, it is his responsibility to raise them. He is the most qualified and appropriate person in Britain, and arguably the world, to raise these issues.

The President of the Board of Deputies, Marie Van Der Zyl, in response, recognised that attacks on Christians are demonstrably bad but that a reference the Archbishop made to the genocide of infants was troubling for the potential link to Christianity, Jews and the killing of innocents.

I appreciate that referencing Jews, Christianity and killing innocents causes our antisemitism alarms to trip as it is a well-trodden path of Christian antisemites.

As a longstanding friend to the Jewish community, Justin Welby would be aware of the harm that implication would cause. A man who comfortably sat with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and is a friend to our current Chief Rabbi Mirvis, would not have raised this issue lightly.

The Massacre of Innocents that the Archbishop is referring to appears in the Gospel of Matthew, as part of the context around the birth of Jesus.

The Judean King Herod, out of fear of the reported birth of the King of the Jews, decrees that all boys under two years old are to be killed.

The Archbishop writes in his piece for The Times:

“The first Christmas tells us of God coming into our world among ordinary lives of human struggle. In the foreground is a refugee family, against the backdrop of the genocide of infants. There’s not much in there about lullabies and cuddly farm animals.”

The opening chapters of the Gospel of Matthew read like an ode to the book of Exodus and the life of Moses. Of the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew is the one who tried to write in a way that Jewish readers would understand.

The story of a family fleeing the decree of a King who fears that a Jewish leader has been born, would be familiar to a Jewish audience, and to anyone who has seen the Prince of Egypt.

Putting Jesus in a Jewish context was one part of the purpose of the Book of Matthew.

There is a strain of academic thought that argues that the Massacre of Innocents was not a historical event. Josephus doesn’t mention it, neither does Nicolaus of Damascus.

Nevertheless, it forms a vital part of Christian theology and psychology. That Jesus was born at a time of great strife to bring peace to a world savaged by cruelty and sin is an important part of the Christmas narrative.

It’s not unreasonable for the Archbishop to reference this.

He is rightly concerned, as any sensible and feeling person should be, about the welfare of Christians in Israel.

Interfaith solidarity is essential to civil society here in the UK, and we as a community play a very proud part in that. When our friends in the Christian community hear our concerns about antisemitism, they are there for us. When we hear of their concerns for the welfare of Christians, we should be there for them. Solidarity is a two-way street.

Justin Welby has been a long-term friend of the community; he doesn’t deserve this absurd and bad-faith attack. He’s concerned about the welfare of Christians in Israel, and we should join him in that concern instead of attacking him for raising it.

About the Author
Josh Gaventa read Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at Kings College London.
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