Shaping debate on religion in public life.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Palestine, and Israel

7 Nov 2023

Since the publication of this article, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has addressed the General Synod of the Church of England. In his address, he has offered a more robust and powerful balance than his previous engagements with the situation, at least as mediated in the press. The link to the synod address by Archbishop Justin is here

William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, is famous for his support for the Jews and his patronage in the establishment of the Council of Christians and Jews in Britain when the Jews were facing the horrors of the Holocaust. A forthcoming special issue on his legacy for interreligious engagement in Britain after the Coronavirus pandemic will be published by the Journal of Church and State towards the end of November this year. In one contribution to the journal, we learn that Temple was not a pacifist; for him, Christianity does not stand for non-violence, but rather the sanctification of violence exerted for a just cause. Although this might make him sound like a supporter of ‘Israel’s right to defend itself’ in the face of the surprise and unprecedented attack by Hamas on 7 October, William Temple was not in fact a supporter of the Zionist project in Palestine, despite his stand with the Jews in Europe. In his Some Lambeth Letters, he notes: 

I do not think it is practical to think of Palestine as a Jewish State. The Arab population is too big, and too fanatical. I incline to the suggestion that Palestine should be governed by a Commission of the United Nations […] as being a Holy Land for different religions, which between them cover a great multitude of Nations, and that we should try to develop a Jewish State elsewhere, perhaps in Cyrenaica.

His views on Arabs and indeed on Islam were shaped by the long dead scholarship and the prejudices of the time and should not bother us too much here. However, the main point here is that Temple understood that you cannot evacuate or transfer native populations and expect peace and harmony even if you are dealing with the just cause of finding a haven for the Jewish people facing the atrocities of the Holocaust. It would be a mistake to think that Temple was an exception in his opposition to the Zionist project at the time. The recent publication of Nigel Biggar, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, based on archival research, suggests how various British politicians at the time believed that the Balfour Declaration was a historical mistake. Jews deserved a haven, but the mistake was not to give proper consideration to the natives of Palestine and so the fate of the Palestinian Arabs became one of the most tragic consequences of the Declaration. Biggar seems to agree with that assessment himself. We are still living through the impact of this Nakba, tragedy, today as we witness the deadly cycle of repression and reprisal. 

As we witnessed the killing of 1400 Israelis and more than 9000 Palestinians (and still counting) most of them civilians and half of them children, and as we hear of populations being urged to move from the north to the south of Gaza (against international law as a recent letter of UK Lawyers made clear), we are reminded of the entanglement of the 1948 Nakba with the aftermath of the Holocaust, which we do not seem to be able or willing to face boldly and honestly today. The recent publication, The Holocaust and the Nakba, by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg reflected on this entanglement.  When Golda Meir visited Arab Haifa on May 6, 1948, a few days after its conquest and the flight and then expulsion of the city’s Arab population, she reported to the Jewish Agency Executive that “there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e. in Europe during World War II].”

In 1948, such imagery spilled into the public domain, and although they were generally ignored, at the time there were Jewish calls for self-critical engagement with that history, too. Martin Buber wrote in May 1948: 

“Fifty years ago. When I joined the Zionist movement for the rebirth of Israel, my heart was whole. Today it is torn. The war being waged for a political structure risk becoming a war of national survival at any moment…I cannot even be joyful in anticipating victory, for I fear lest the significance of Jewish victory be the downfall of Zionism”

As David Neuhaus noted, ‘his was a voice of anguish raised as he saw the genesis of Israeli militarism leading to the dearth of ‘Zionist humanism’. His anguish deepened as the Israeli authorities refused to take seriously the Palestinian refugees and instituted military rule on the Arabs who did not flee from the territory that became the state of Israel, allowing for the massive expropriation of Arab property after 1948. Neuhaus adds that in 1954, he was able to lucidly state, 

“I believe our principal error was that when we first came here, we did not endeavor to gain the Arabs’ trust in political and economic matters. Thus, we gave cause to be regarded as aliens, as outsiders, who were not interested in befriending the Arabs. To a large measure, our subsequent difficulties are a consequence of this initial failure”

With hindsight, by the 1930s, it was already clear that the future first prime minister of Israel Ben Gurion’s “nationalist” Zionism, counting on the support of the colonial powers and mustering military strength, had prevailed over other forms of so-called “humanist” or “cultural” Zionism, like that of Buber. (David Neuhaus, ‘A Catholic perspective on the people, land and the state of Israel’, in Gavin D’Costa et al. (eds.), Contemporary Catholic Approaches to the People, State and Land of Israel (2022), p. 176). 

Today, a great many of those living in Gaza are refugees from 1948; now they have become refugees twice over as they have been asked to move again. As the Palestinian Authority sits stagnant and corrupt with little political clout to make any difference, together with Western support for Israel’s offensive, the current ultra-right-wing Israeli government is recklessly indifferent to the implications of its actions because of their assumption that no one globally will do much if anything to challenge them. On October 9th William Hague suggested that Israel has fallen into the trap of Hamas’ attack with massive force; this massive reaction was described in the resignation letter of the director of the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights as genocidal. 

Various commentators on the economic siege of Gaza have argued that Israel’s problem lies less with aggressive neighbours than with a failure to tackle the underlying issues around Gaza’s stability, economically and politically. The former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd once described Gaza back in 2004 as ‘the most miserable place of human habitation I have ever visited’. Yet, the sympathy given for Israel after the 7 October, never matched a similar sympathy for Palestine, ignoring the scores of women and children killed under occupation. This gives the impression of one rule for the favoured side. The language of ‘pure unadulterated evil’ that Biden used might remind us of George W Bush’s past language about the ‘war on terror’. The Israeli defence minister described all those beyond the border with Gaza as ‘human animals’, which by subliminal implication means all Palestinians. 

Unlike William Temple, the Church in the West seems to be helplessly complacent in facing these tragedies head on today. The local churches in the Holy Land and the wider international community have rightly condemned Hamas’ surprise attack which sent shock waves across the world. But, with the exception of the Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa’s powerful letter to the faithful published on Thursday 24.10.2023, we have not seen a clear expression of the pain and the tragedy of the Palestinian people.

Local Palestinian Christians have issued statements of frustration, criticizing the current successor of William Temple, Archbishop Justin Welby. It is important to hear their voice; for they have a point. The coverage of his recent visit to Jerusalem in the Israeli press suggested no reference or interest in the justice desperately needed for Palestine. One month before this war raged, Justin Welby talked about reconciliation, implying dialogue during his address at St. Martin’s in the Fields on 6 September. But, this would not work for William Temple or for us today. In this situation, dialogue, as an agent of reconciliation, could be in danger of becoming a factor in a pseudo dialogue – an abstraction. If there is to be reconciliation, it will necessitate a radical acknowledgment of tragedy even if you don’t want to assume simplistic innocence on one side or the other. Despite his various statements for caution, Welby does not seem willing to spell out the tragedy on the Palestinian side, even when everyone knows that the imbalance of relationships between the occupier and the occupied in this instance is enormous. 

When he was interviewed in Jerusalem by the BBC at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, Welby claimed that you cannot dictate to Israel what it needs to do in response to what is undoubtedly an atrocity. In doing so, he failed to provide a clear moral stand. In John 18:10-11 the Apostle Peter is described using his sword to defend Jesus at the time of Jesus’ arrest. Jesus does not condemn Peter for doing so, but reminds him how violence breeds violence. It is shameful that Welby was unable to take a stand, at least to warn Israel of what the UK Lawyers’ open letter called ‘collective punishment’ and clearly contravening international law. It might be that Welby believes that you cannot declare one side to be completely innocent and the other side completely guilty. But, nonetheless, he failed to see how the horror of violence against the children of Gaza and the whole population is heinous not simply because of questions of innocence and guilt, but because they are human and helpless victims. In many ways William Hague understood better than the archbishop when he made his remark about the trap that Hamas had set, whereas Welby simply expressed the British government position. There is here a human story of pain and suffering and helplessness. The huge imbalance of power between the parties requires the sort of moral stand that Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, once called for in one of his Christmas sermons after visiting Bethlehem, namely that ‘the poorest deserve the best’

Whilst condemning Hamas’ attack, the General Secretary of the UN was right when he said that Hamas’s action did not emerge out of a vacuum. For the Christian, light might be shed on the conflict by reflecting on the New Testament narrative. Scholarship on the execution of Jesus of Nazareth under the Romans reflects a context in which the Judeans and the Romans in first century Palestine were concerned that there would be an explosion of violence that would be destructive for all. The leaders found Jesus to be the perfect scapegoat for the occasion; they eliminated one common enemy. To take a neutral position in the face of that story meant to stand with Pontius Pilate; it should not be the position of Christian leadership today, or else one risks losing one’s credibility. William Temple’s emphasis on community and public religious engagement was indeed intensified during the Second World War; it was his famous Christianity and the Social Order of 1942 as a set of proposals for the reconstruction of Britain after the war that became the blueprint for the welfare state. Palestinian Christianity is crying out in its search for prophets in the current situation. They did not find any prophetic word coming from Welby, whilst the West seems to be more comfortable with Pilate’s refusal to stand with justice. 

Can we still see hope? Times of crisis and tragedy like this can be moments where there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of current politics and sufficient awareness of the need to build and make available greater resources for the creation of free citizens in Palestine with full duties and responsibilities, and sufficient hope in what can be achieved by the wider institutions of Europe and America, to engage creatively with the possibility that this moment gives to the peoples of the Holy Land. In 2002, I helped organise a conference for Young Theologians in Jerusalem, which included South Africans. They noted even then that the conditions of Palestinians were not tantamount to apartheid; they were worse. Palestine deserves prophets like Desmond Tutu or William Temple who can call a spade a spade and stand for truth at the heart of the social and political order, whilst always looking towards reconciliation without a blind eye to the tragedies. A lasting political system in any healthy society is one that pursues the building of virtue and the pursuit of justice and wisdom not least in line with the Hebrew tradition. This cannot happen without acknowledging the tragedies of Palestine today. 

Dr. Yazid Said is Senior Lecturer in Islam at Liverpool Hope University and a Trustee of the William Temple Foundation. He is a Palestinian-born Anglican priest and an Israeli citizen. He studied Classical Arabic and English Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Christian theology at the University of Cambridge. After being ordained an Anglican priest, he completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge (2010) on the medieval Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). He is the author ofGhazali’s Politics in Context(Routledge 2012), which was re-launched in paperback in 2017. He is the co-editor ofThe Future of Interfaith Dialogue: Muslim-Christian Encounters through A Common Word(Cambridge University Press, 2018). 

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