Interfaith, 70 years on...

The JC essay

By Maurice Ostro, March 16, 2012

Seventy years ago this week, the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) was formally established. Against the horrendous backdrop of the Shoah, on March 20 1942, Chief Rabbi Hertz and Archbishop William Temple met in a spirit of solidarity and friendship. It was at this landmark meeting that the decision to form the CCJ was taken. The aims of the newly established Council included "to check and combat religious and racial intolerance," as well as "to promote mutual understanding and goodwill between Christians and Jews in all sections of the community".

Looking back, it was remarkable that it was set up then because of the horrors taking place in continental Europe; the mass murder of six million Jews including all my father's close family. Indeed, it was in 1942 when the CCJ was founded, that my father, his brother and parents were taken by train to Treblinka, a story recounted in the Chief Rabbi's recent book The Great Partnership.

In Britain, too, Christian-Jewish relations have had a chequered history. From the Middle Ages, the Church was a major source of antisemitism. The infamous blood libel, alleging that Jews killed gentiles in a religious ritual and drank their blood, originated in England. The blood libel at Norwich in 1144 was the first recorded blood libel. The climate of hostility, fermented by the Church, culminated in the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. While the relationship between the Church and the Jewish community at this time was characterised by persecution and hostility, it has undergone a volte-face in recent times - for the better. To borrow the words of the Ethics of the Fathers, strangers have become friends.

The work of the CCJ has paved the way for a number of other interfaith organisations and initiatives. Whereas interfaith was once a marginal pursuit, it has now become mainstream. We now have an InterFaith Week every autumn, the former prime minister, Tony Blair, has set up a foundation dedicated to enhancing interfaith relations and there are debates in parliament on the subject as well as university departments dedicated to it. It is estimated that there are 302 interfaith groups in the UK, some of which, such as the CCJ, are bilateral, with others focused on the Abrahamic faiths or multi-lateral. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, joined me in supporting the creation of the Faiths Forum for London, an umbrella organisation for London's many faith groups. As well as a plethora of organisations in the UK, there are also international interfaith bodies, such as the International Council of Christians and Jews, the World Congress of Faiths and the Parliament of the World's Religions.

This proliferation of interfaith activity has not convinced everyone in the Jewish community. There remain a number of sceptics who think that it avoids the "big" controversial issues or only involves the moderate mainstream, thereby morphing into banal encounters over "samosas and bagels" or platitudinous dialogue.

Authentic interfaith relations are a necessity. For every Jew in the world, there are 100 Muslims and almost 200 Christians

Therefore, according to these people, the encounters rarely make a difference and are not a priority for a community that needs to concentrate its efforts on essential areas like education and welfare provision. I do not see it in this way. Having a relationship with people from other faith groups is crucial in promoting understanding and demolishing the barriers which breed suspicion, intolerance and possibly hostility. Interfaith dialogue may be imperfect but, as the respected Muslim British leader, the late Zaki Badawi, would say: "We talk or we fight." Without it, the bonds of social cohesion, which foster neighbourliness and enhance social stability, would be a lot weaker.

The race-relations leader, Trevor Phillips, now chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, warned in 2005 that the UK was "sleepwalking into segregation" and there is worrying social data on this. A well-publicised MORI survey in 2011 showed that 35 per cent of people had either no or almost no friends or acquaintances of a different faith. Of course there is a balance to be struck between what the American sociologist Robert Putnam calls "bonding capital" and "bridging capital" but it is very important that people interact, personally and professionally, across the boundaries of faith.

These interfaith relationships can seem mundane but they strengthen social cohesion and can open channels of communication for occasions when they are really needed (such as the combating of antisemitism from sections of the Muslim community in Leicester). It is notable that the July 7 bombings in London in 2005 were not followed by widespread public unrest, partly because of good interfaith relations.

In addition to general criticism of interfaith, the CCJ faces some particular criticisms centring on the charge that our agenda belongs to yesterday and is not suitable for the challenges of today. I couldn't disagree more - although the growth in some of the minority faith communities, particularly the Muslim and Hindu communities, does require some re-allocation of the Jewish community's resources on interfaith.

Some believe that the CCJ should become a three-way, Abrahamic organisation, bringing Islam under its umbrella. Yet this ignores the fact that interfaith relationships, like human relationships, work best in a bilateral context, where sensitive issues and other matters of mutual concern can be aired openly and honestly. There are specific issues that concern the Jewish and Christian communities, which are of no interest to the other faith communities. Christianity's roots stem from Judaism and there is certainly theological common ground.

Furthermore, the two communities have a history in this country, both negative and positive, which informs the relationship. As one bishop remarked to me once: "Today, our two communities are like old friends but just because we are old friends it doesn't mean we should neglect each other." From a Jewish community perspective, it is imperative to maintain positive relations with the majority. Britain is still a Christian country, through the establishment of the Church of England, but also through demography. The 2001 census showed that more than 70 per cent of British people identify as Christians. Therefore, the CCJ has always placed an emphasis on its dozens of branches all over the country creating those vital grass-roots relationships. Indeed, it was precisely the good relationships between the Jews and their Christian neighbours that my father's family enjoyed in Poland that enabled him to be saved from the Holocaust.

T here is a clear, important agenda for the CCJ to focus on. First, drawing on its roots, the CCJ is concerned to combat antisemitism and all forms of prejudice. It is particularly exercised in rare manifestations of antisemitism from Christian figures, as in the case of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson (the Vatican mistakenly lifted the excommunication of him in 2009). The CCJ seeks to raise awareness of the Holocaust and is a partner in the Holocaust Memorial Day activities every year. At the same time, in the opposite direction, we need to also be sensitive to any outbreak of prejudice against Christians from the Jewish community. One of the CCJ presidents, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, speaks of deepening the relationship by understanding what causes each other pain.

A second area for the CCJ to involve itself in is to combat proselytising groups, such as "Jews for Jesus". The CCJ is a non-missionary organisation, and excludes from its network anyone who seeks to subvert this principle. It supported the decision by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, to renounce, in 1992, the patronage of the missionary Church's Ministry Among Jewish People, which he had inherited on taking office. Proselytising activity remains a particular concern on British campuses.

The third area for the CCJ to be involved with is Israel. The CCJ cannot act directly as a peacemaker but it can educate each community about the others' claims and concerns. We take delegations of clergy to Israel every year. On the other side, how many in the Jewish community understand something about the Christian communities in Israel and their concerns? Certainly much of the CCJ's work in this area is carried out diplomatically and behind-the-scenes. It has been instrumental in raising objections to instances of church groups demonising Israel or pursuing one-sided agendas, as was the case with the Anglican Peace and Justice Network in 2005 and the Methodist Church in 2010.

The fourth significant area of the CCJ's agenda is a positive ethical approach, shared by our two traditions. The phrase "Judeo-Christian" tradition is sometimes used as a catch-all term, and there are clear overlapping values and ethical teachings, on subjects ranging from family and community to business, environmental and medical ethics. This is why the CCJ has instigated a series of seminars in the past three years, based in the City of London, and focused on contemporary ethical questions. This ethics-based agenda would fit into the category of "side by side", as described by the Chief Rabbi, rather than "face to face" (which is more theological in its concerns). Our two communities share an ethical heritage and face common challenges, including an aggressive secularism and rampant consumer culture.

I ronically, both Christians and Jews share something else; the lack of connectedness between denominations within our faiths. One by-product of our leadership meetings and the CCJ's system of "joint presidency" has been for intra-faith relations between different denominations within our respective faiths. Many Christian participants in the CCJ's activities report that they rarely meet Christians of other denominations. Indeed, it was worth all the criticism I received to have welcomed the leaders of the principal Jewish religious movements, each now having equal status as Presidents of the CCJ, which is exceptional in a community where the denominations all-too-rarely share platforms.

Since I became involved with the CCJ, I have come to appreciate how many friends and admirers we have in the Christian communities. In their different ways, the Methodist Margaret Thatcher, the Anglican/ Catholic Tony Blair and the Presbyterian Gordon Brown all admired Jewish values and the resourcefulness of the Jewish community. One senior Christian banker remarked to me last year, after a seminar on business ethics: "I love Jewish stories - so practical and wise".

Paul Johnson, the distinguished Christian writer (author of A History of the Jews) wrote: "For the Jewish impact on humanity has been protean. In antiquity they were the great innovators in religion and morals… But then came an astonishing second burst of creativity. Breaking out of the ghettos, they once more transformed human thinking, this time in the secular sphere. Much of the mental furniture of the modern world too is of Jewish fabrication." However good relationships between leading Christians and Jews are today, they require nurturing and and we ignore them at our peril.

Authentic interfaith relations, where we acknowledge the differences and celebrate the commonalities, are not a luxury but a necessity for the Jewish community. For every Jew in the world, there are 100 Muslims and almost 200 Christians, so we need to deploy our energies smartly and strategically. Maintaining good relations between the Christian and Jewish communities in the UK is an important part of that. Of course, as well as a defensive agenda of combating antisemitism and proselytising, we need a positive proactive agenda, based on shared ethics.

As a community, in a wider inter-faith context, we also need to be clear about the limitations in respect of those with whom we engage in dialogue. For example, we can't engage with those who deny our right to be. As the CCJ marks its 70th birthday, it can draw inspiration from the past, and look to the future with confidence. It now finds itself in a multi-faith country, with a range of interfaith organisations for whom it was a pioneer and continues to have an important role in enhancing relations between ourselves and our Christian friends.

Maurice Ostro is a CCJ vice-chair

Last updated: 10:03am, March 19 2012