Archbishop Welby: a Friend of Israel?

The archbishop actually has Jewish roots. He is coming to Israel on Sunday. Will he turn the tide against the Jew-bashers in the Anglican Church?

Richard Mather


Justin Welby has been Archbishop of Canterbury for less than six months and he has already made the important gesture of visiting the Middle East. Hopefully, it is the start of a much-needed reappraisal of the Anglican Church's attitude towards the Jewish state.

Starting Sunday, Archbishop Welby will spend five days touring Israel, Jordan and Egypt, including trips to the Western Wall, the Church of the Resurrection, the Temple Mount and Yad Vashem. He is also meeting with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, patriarchs and church leaders.

His first official trip to Israel coincides with the discovery that he has Jewish ancestry, a fact that was hidden from him until recently. His father’s family were German Jewish immigrants who moved to England to escape anti-Semitism in the late 19th century. The new archbishop says he is "really pleased" to discover that he has a Jewish family, including a cousin who is a rabbi in London.

Archbishop Welby's visit is highly symbolic. It is a sign that he is willing to embrace Christianity’s (and his own) Jewish roots, which is particularly important at a time when many in the Church – especially on the Left – are distancing themselves from the biblical concept of the Jews as the people destined to reside in the land of Israel.

So is the new Archbishop an ally of Israel? Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, thinks so. Israel and the Jewish people, he says, have nothing to fear. Meanwhile, Ed Kessler, executive director of the Woolf Institute, says Welby is “genuinely sensitive to Jews and Judaism” and “open to Israel as a Jewish state.” And according to a report in The Jewish News, Archbishop Welby is opposed to boycotts of Israel.

This is welcome news. But Archbishop Welby still has an uphill task when it comes to moderating the intemperate (and sometimes blatantly anti-Semitic) language and behavior of some of his clergy in the Church of England, many of whom have embraced an unpleasant ideology called Christian Palestinianism, which denies any historical or theological connection between the biblical Israel, the Jewish people and the modern State of Israel.

Indeed, it is a sad fact that the Kulturkampf ("culture war") being waged against the Jewish state is spearheaded by several notable Anglicans. Retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu, for example, actively supports the boycott and divestment movement and has repeatedly called Israel an “apartheid” state. On a Christmas visit to Jerusalem in 1989, Tutu said “a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.” He echoed these comments in 2002, when he spoke of “the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” Enraged by Tutu's anti-Israel posturing, US attorney Alan Dershowitz has described the retired bishop as a “racist and a bigot.”

Another Anglican bigot is Naim Ateek, former canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and author of a tract called Justice, and only Justice, a Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Ateek believes there is "a great need to de-Zionize" sections of the Bible, which he considers "exclusivist." Ateek is also fond of portraying Jesus as “a Palestinian living under an occupation.” In his 2001 Easter sermon he unashamedly spoke of “crucified Palestinians,” the “Israeli crucifixion system” and Palestine as “one huge Golgotha”. Obviously, he was drawing on the old canard of Jews as Christ-killers.

In 1989, Ateek founded the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (which has spawned sister organizations in countries including the UK and the US). Sabeel promotes the idea that Zionism is based on a false interpretation of the Bible and that it stands for injustice. Critics of Sabeel claim that the organization regularly engages in anti-Israel propaganda and seeks to delegitimize the right of the Jewish state to exist. The Anti-Defamation League accuses the organization of “generating hostility towards Israel” citing “its use of theologically charged accusations.”

In the UK, the most notorious (and vile) Anglican anti-Zionist is Dr Stephen Sizer, incumbent of an Anglican parish in Surrey. According to Sizer, there is “no evidence that the apostles [of Jesus] believed that the Jewish people still had a divine right to the land, or that Jewish possession of the land would be important, let alone that Jerusalem would remain a central aspect of God’s purposes for the world.” In short, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel “have been made irrelevant to God’s redemptive purposes.”

Sizer is a regular contributor to Islamic media outlets, including Iran’s atrocious Press TV. He has been photographed with Arafat and with Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, the daughter of the Ayatollah. He has met with – and publicly defended – Raed Salah, a Hamas fundraiser who accuses the Jews of making Passover bread with the blood of Christian children. (There are numerous photos of Sizer and Salah enjoying each other’s company.)

Some members of the Jewish community regard Sizer as a proponent of Christian anti-Semitism. British journalist Melanie Phillips has condemned him in her writings, while British Jewish historian Geoffrey Alderman has criticized Sizer for hiding his prejudice behind an "academic guise." Sizer's views have also angered many in the Christian community. The Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, who is Bishop of Manchester and Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, has referred to Sizer's behavior as "disgraceful and unbecoming for a clergyman." And Simon McIlwaine, the founder of Anglican Friends of Israel, has called for Sizer to be defrocked.

Despite some dissenting voices, there has been a systematic campaign inside the Church to demonize and isolate Israel. Several years ago, the synod or governing body of the Church of England voted to disinvest church funds from some companies which supply goods and services to Israel. The main target of the plan was Caterpillar Inc, which sells earth-moving vehicles to the Israel Defense Forces. (The IDF uses many Caterpillar machines such as bulldozers and excavators mainly for engineering, earthworks and building projects.)

More insidious is the Church's relationship with the Ecumenical Accompaniers Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI's main function is to “bring international Christian volunteers to the West Bank to experience life under occupation.” EAPPI has focused exclusively on the existence of Israel as the fundamental cause of conflict in the Middle East. It ignores Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians and supports the right-to-return policy, which would effectively end Israel as a Jewish country.

But such concerns did not prevent the Church of England throwing its weight behind the EAPPI in an important debate last July. The Church's governing body voted by a significant majority to support the nefarious aims of EAPPI. A closer look at the voting figures shows that clergy voted 4 to 1 in favor, while the laity voted 3 to 1. Even the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who abstained from the vote, expressed his “respect and gratitude for the immense courage and dedication of the volunteers.”

He added: “There are some people, in their uncritical assumption that the government of Israel can do no wrong, who are clearly going to be very irritated by information being disseminated of the kind that EAPPI does.”

Did he not realize that the "information" disseminated by the EAPPI is little more than Palestinian propaganda?

But what is particularly interesting is the fact that Welby, before he became archbishop, also abstained from the vote – but now wishes he had voted against it. In a recent interview with The Jewish News, Archbishop Welby said: “On reflection, I'd have voted against. I wasn't quite up to speed when I went into that vote. I think the situation in the Holy Land is so complicated that we always have to show we recognize this and I don't think the motion adequately reflected the complexity.” He also told the publication that he should have used the debate to emphasize Israel's right to “live in security and peace.”

It is slightly alarming Welby “wasn't quite up to speed” on such an important issue, but at least he has been brave enough to renounce his earlier position. Indeed, his new position has upset some of his colleagues. Dr John Dinnen, the Anglican synod member who proposed the motion, said he was “sad” that Archbishop Welby “now feels he should have voted against my private member's measure.”

Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, did little to halt political Jew-bashing in the Anglican Church. Can the new archbishop do any better? Can Archbishop Welby succeed in portraying the State of Israel in a better light? It is true that he is not in a position to instruct the synod on how to vote in future debates. But his positive attitude towards Israel and the Jewish people may have a sobering effect on the Palestinianists within the Anglican community.

Furthermore, Archbishop Welby's trip to the Middle East is a good opportunity to speak out on behalf of those Christians who are persecuted by their Muslim neighbors. So far, the Church of England and EAPPI have done little to express solidarity with Christians who are being harassed and driven out by Muslim fanatics in the so-called Palestinian territories, as well as in Iraq and Egypt.

Take the Christian village of Taybeh in Judea and Samaria, for example. The residents of Taybeh live in constant fear of Muslim gangs from the surrounding villages. In September 2005, hundreds of Muslims attacked the village, torching property and desecrating a statue of the Virgin Mary. In May 2012, a massacre was narrowly prevented after Palestinian Authority policemen drove out a gang of Muslim men who were intent on causing trouble.

Of course, the plight of Christians in Muslim areas is rarely reported because it is not newsworthy and it does not fit the prevailing anti-Israel narrative. But Archbishop Welby has a massive worldwide audience who might sit up and take notice if he publicly highlighted the recurring problem of Muslim violence against Christians in the Holy Land.

Archbishop Welby has only been in office for a very short time. But during this period he has criticized the UK government's austerity measures and he has visited the new pope in an effort to bridge the gap between Anglicans and Catholics. Now would be a good time to repair the damage done to Anglican-Jewish relations and condemn Islamic violence. And if he can make the case for Israel and turn the tide of anti-Zionist opinion within his own ranks, so much the better.