LONDON – Britain’s recently installed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has rebuked the Church of Scotland for a report it issued last year that was highly critical of Israel.
In his inaugural address to the Church’s General Assembly in Edinburgh, delivered on Thursday, Mirvis referred to the Church & Society Council of the Kirk report as “putting a strain on Jewish-Christian relations in Scotland,” adding that it was “harmful and hurtful” to relations between the two faith communities.
The controversial report, titled “The Inheritance of Abraham: A Report on the Promised Land,” was published in April 2013 and included a section discussing what it termed “Jewish claims to the ‘Land of Israel.’” The report said that “there has been a widespread assumption by many Christians, as well as many Jewish people, that the Bible supports an essentially Jewish State of Israel. This raises an increasing number of difficulties and current Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians have sharpened this questioning.” The report added that “promises about the Land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally.”
The representative body of Scottish Jewry, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, sharply criticized the report, describing it as “an outrage to everything that interfaith dialogue stands for,” and said that it “reads like an Inquisition-era polemic against Jews and Judaism.
“The arrogance of telling the Jewish people how to interpret Jewish texts and Jewish theology is breathtaking,” it added.
The church responded to criticism by saying that “the Church has never and is not now denying Israel’s right to exist; on the contrary, it is questioning the policies that continue to keep peace a dream in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This report is against the injustices leveled against the Palestinian people and how land is shared. It is also a reflection of the use or misuse of scripture to claim divine right to land by any group.”
In response to criticism, the church replaced the original version with a slightly modified one, stating that criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians “should not be misunderstood as questioning the right of the State of Israel to exist.”
It was against this background that Mirvis opened his address, stating he wanted to “make a stand” and see to it that “the facts are clear.” Having referred to the previous “close and harmonious relationship” enjoyed by the two faiths, he said there was “an urgent need for more meaningful and productive dialogue and cooperation between faiths in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.”
Mirvis added that he considered it essential that faith leaders should prioritize dialogue and encourage this from the grassroots up, at all levels of faith communities.
“We thrive on genuine friendships, a desire to understand each other, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.
This fabric must be woven over time to ensure that our relationships are strong and robust so that we can be confident that together we can withstand the challenges that come our way,” he said, referring to the difficulties caused by the Scottish Church’s report.
Unfortunately, he told Church leaders, last year’s report to the General Assembly had put a strain on Jewish- Christian relations in Scotland.
“We need to confront these issues together and not sweep them under the carpet. For a real and meaningful relationship we need to internalize how the other views itself. We need to know the facts before we make a stand. For this, sincere and serious dialogue is required. The door of the Jewish community is always open to you,” he said.
Britain’s chief rabbi then explained what he classified as “the clear inextricable links between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
“According to our tradition, the Jewish people’s association with the Land of Israel is as old as time itself. It dates back to the creation of the world.” he said.
Mirvis continued, saying that “the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel is deep and it is eternal.
It goes to the very fiber of our being as a faith community and as a nation. It defines who we are. No events in history can shake this. Let there be no mistaking the fact that to be Jewish is to be a lover of Israel and to appreciate the strong and unbreakable bond between the Jewish People and its Land.”
In a message to those in the Church of Scotland and others, he said that “there is no legitimate theological narrative or theological interpretation that can deny this fundamental and essential link,” adding that “through all the 2,000 years of our often bitter exile, we have yearned for the Holy Land and longed to return to her. Israel for the Jewish people is not an idea or a place of the heart. It is a physical reality, where the Jewish people live and breathe.”
But he added he was confident both sides could ‘overcome these challenges and use the opportunity to gain a better understanding of each other and to work more closely together.”
The chief rabbi issued a challenge.
“In respect to matters pertaining to the Middle East, [the challenge] is, while working together, what can we do collectively and separately that will advance the cause of peace by building confidence, respect and understanding, while avoiding the spread of suspicion, mistrust and fear.”