OPINION: Welby ceasefire call highlights cognitive disconnect between Jews and Christians on Gaza

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OPINION: Welby ceasefire call highlights cognitive disconnect between Jews and Christians on Gaza

Christians approach the justice issues of Israel-Hamas conflict with their heads and hearts while Jews feel it in their gut, says the former headteacher of JCoSS

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

It’s little surprise that Archbishop Justin’s recent comments on Israel and Gaza have provoked some consternation.  The comments on his tweets fall into two predictable camps: those who regard him as naïve, biased or actively hostile to Israel (and by extension to Judaism), and those who dismiss his call for a ceasefire as ‘too little too late’. 

Being denounced on social media is an occupational hazard of leadership. More striking – and more heart-breaking – is the wider and deeper struggle of Jews and Christians to understand each other on this issue at all.

Jewish friends ask me, ‘Why are my Christian friends silent, when they were so supportive after previous antisemitic attacks… is it that they sympathise with Jews when they suffer but not when they have power?’

Christian friends ask me, ‘What’s happened to my Jewish friend?  We’re usually see eye to eye on everything, so why can’t she see how all this looks?’

Two observations may make the Archbishop’s comments, and the reactions or silence of Christians, a little more understandable.

First, while both Judaism and Christianity are ‘religions’, this blurs an important difference of emphasis: while Christianity is a ‘faith’ bound together by a set of beliefs and a worldview, Judaism is also an ethnic group, a ‘people’ bound together by a commitment to clan and land at least as much as to theology.

Patrick Moriarty

Jews are traumatised by the grief over the brutal massacre and abduction of members of their extended family, perpetrated in the land of God’s promise, the only place on earth where they are not a minority.

While of course they understand this deep anguish, to Christians neither tribe nor territory have religious significance. Indeed, much of the New Testament is preoccupied with saying that they don’t, and presenting this as God’s expansive, universal liberation. Having been raised on that narrative, many Christians struggle to appreciate the boundaried nature of Judaism.

This failure of understanding can be traced through 2000 years of antisemitism, but it hurts most at a time like this. A key part of contemporary dialogue therefore focuses on reconnecting Christianity to its historic and ongoing relationship with Judaism.

The Archbishop explicitly denounced Hamas terrorism, affirmed Israel’s right to self-defence, and denied any moral equation between the two kinds of killing. He is sincere. If it doesn’t sound full-throated enough, remember that Christianity’s categories aren’t configured in the ways that Jews might expect.

Jewish friends ask me, ‘Why are my Christian friends silent, when they were so supportive after previous antisemitic attacks… is it that they sympathise with Jews when they suffer but not when they have power?’

Second, for all that Christianity distorts and misappropriates its Jewish heritage, the one part it cherishes is the prophets – the strident righteousness of Amos and Isaiah, promising peace and championing justice. However selectively and partially Christians read those texts, they nevertheless know they are Judaism’s gift to the world. If Israel then appears lukewarm about pleas for humanitarian mercy, Christians are disoriented, to say the least.

‘It was Judaism that taught us about limits to vengeance, about care for the vulnerable, about compassion,’ they say, looking in horror and bewilderment as Gaza is laid waste. They absolutely know the barbarity perpetrated by Hamas but, having been allied to power for 1,700 years, they don’t feel it the way Jews do.

Hence their consternation: ‘Why isn’t Israel living its own values?’ The trouble is, Christians approach the justice issues of this conflict with their heads and hearts, while Jews – whose history means there are profoundly different stakes – are feeling it in their guts.

Archbishop Justin’s remarks may seem – may indeed be – politically naïve or factually under-informed. They won’t convey the intuitive empathy towards land and family that a Jewish audience is attuned to. But they come not from partisan hostility but from a heart deeply shaped by a Christian worldview, and his friendship towards the Jewish community remains as solid and genuine as ever.

  • Patrick Moriarty is a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews, an Anglican Priest and former headteacher of JCoSS
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