Jewish communities are a “gift” to the countries in which they live, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said.
“There is no question that a country with a large Jewish community will be a better country. It will flourish in almost any area you care to name,” the archbishop told a synagogue in London on Wednesday.
Addressing the irrationality of antisemitism, he asked why Jewish communities were “seen as a problem, not as a gift.”
The most senior bishop of the Anglican Church was in conversation with the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore at an interfaith event hosted by the Board of Deputies at the country’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks. The candles in the seven brass chandeliers were lit especially for the occasion, for which the archbishop wore a white kippah.
Board president Marie van der Zyl thanked Welby for the support he had shown the Jewish community during Jeremy Corbyn’s period of leadership of the Labour Party, telling those present: “Archbishop Welby stood with us at a very dark hour and we shall never forget it”.
When Sebag Montefiore, having recalled the often-brutal treatment of Jews in medieval times, asked when England had started to soften toward its attitude toward the Jewish people, the archbishop replied, “It will be a good thing when it happens.”
He added: “We’ll be able to tell when you don’t have to have security.”
Describing antisemitism as the “taproot of all racism”, he referred to his study of German churches after the Nazis’ rise to power: “You saw there that the moment you don’t push back against antisemitism, it becomes so engrained - and antisemitic laws or antisemitic attitudes become permissible, and everything becomes permissible.
“It’s a cancer of extraordinarily rapid growth, which you can’t deal with if you leave it for any time.”
The Anglican leader spoke with Simon Sebag Montefiore (Photo: Nicholas Posner)
Reflecting on his childhood, Welby recalled that after he had been sent to boarding school at the age of eight, he had become friendly with a Jewish boy called Myers: “My father heard about this. He said, ‘Don’t play with him. He’s Jewish.’
“I still remember, I must have been nine, thinking, ‘I am not going to obey that. He is my friend. So what if he is Jewish? I couldn’t care less.’” And we continued to play together. I just didn’t talk about it at home.
“From then on, I thought this was ridiculous. How can anyone live thinking that because someone comes from a particular group, that they are intrinsically bad or lesser or other?”
He was later to discover his father was Jewish. His mother, who was secretary to the Nobel Prize-winning Jewish scientist Sir Ernst Chain, and his grandmother “had no time at all for any racism”, he said.
Welby also discussed the coronation of King Charles, in particular the olive oil specially obtained from Jerusalem to anoint the new monarch. The ceremony of annointing, he reminded the audience, went back to the biblical kings and was “a Jewish idea”.
At one moment, the archbishop, who has been critical of the government’s migration policy, was applauded by some in the audience when he remarked that refugees were “people, not a category”.
Asked when England had started to soften toward its attitude toward the Jewish people, the archbishop replied: 'It will be a good thing when it happens' (Photo: Nicholas Posner)
Earlier in the day, The Times published a letter signed by Welby and other faith leaders that said the Illegal Migration Bill fell short “of our obligations to the most vulnerable” and called for an alternative approach.
Its signatories included the chief executives of the Reform and Liberal movements, Rabbis Josh Levy and Charley Baginsky.
Yesterday, the House of Lords voted to approve multiple changes to the controversial bill.
Elsewhere, King Charles received the Scottish Crown Jewels in Edinburgh at a ceremony attended by faith leaders. Rabbi Moshe Rubin, Scotland’s senior rabbi, was among the representatives who attended the hour-long service at St Giles’ Cathedral.