A rare philosemitic Christian narrative

Anglican priest James Parkes devoted much of his life's work in defense of Jews.

james parkes 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
james parkes 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Scanning the books clamoring for attention in the book editor's closet at The Jerusalem Post, Haim Chertok, an occasional reviewer for the paper, noted a festschrift - a collection of commemorative essays marking the centenary of the birth of an Anglican priest, James Parkes. Chertok had read two books Parkes had written, including one about the unhappy history of the early church's relations with the Jews. The other, Whose Land?, examined the claims that Jews, Christians and Muslims had on the Holy Land and concluded that on historical grounds, the Jews had the strongest case. Chertok, who taught English at Ben-Gurion University, toyed with the notion of selecting a novel to read on the bus back to Beersheba but in the end his hand reached for the essays on Parkes. That casual choice in 1997 would decide the direction of Chertok's life for the next decade. The British cleric was a formidable champion of the Jews not because of some theological dictate but out of a sense of earthly justice. As a young man, he was aware that the Jews had been roughly handled by history. But his personal encounters with virulent anti-Semitism during trips to the Continent as an activist in the Student Christian Movement made him acutely aware that this troubling chapter of history was far from closed. In 1925, at age 28, Parkes chaired a conference of the World Student Christian Federation in Switzerland dedicated to the Jewish question. To Parkes' astonishment, the first speaker delivered a venomous anti-Jewish address that appeared to have the support of many in the large audience. Assuming his prerogative as chairman, Parkes announced that the conference would not proceed unless the speaker returned to the podium to apologize. After tumult lasting some 20 minutes, the speaker did return to say he had been misunderstood. It was Parkes' first head-to-head confrontation with anti-Semitism and it proved decisive. "Hitherto, it had been just one of the many contemporary problems of which I was aware," he would write. "This conference made me conscious of its violence and special quality." Says Chertok: "From this point on, Parkes felt drawn to defend the Jewish people for the rest of his days." Reading that festschrift, Chertok too felt he was being drawn into something he had not planned on. One of the essayists noted that 25 years had passed since Parkes' death and no biography of him had yet appeared. It struck Chertok that given the debt owed Parkes by the Jews it would be appropriate for a Jewish writer to take on the task. Although he himself had written four books as well as numerous articles published in American journals, he did not consider himself - a Torah-observant Jew - a natural candidate to write a biography of a Christian cleric. However, the thought kept nipping at his heels. It was a whimsical connection to the Channel island of Guernsey that finally enabled Chertok to persuade himself to take up the challenge. Chertok had visited Guernsey in 1995 on a genealogical hunt that proved a dead end - no historical evidence of a Jewish community on the island could be found. But he was enchanted by the island and made friends there. Parkes, it turned out, was born on Guernsey. It struck Chertok that doing Parkes' biography would provide him a legitimate excuse to return there to conduct research. That thought in 1997 was followed by three years of low-key probing of sources on Parkes. In 2000, Chertok received a three-month grant from the University of Southampton where Parkes' papers are housed. This set in motion five years of intensive research and writing that culminated in the publication last year of a 500-page biography of Parkes, He Also Spoke as a Jew [London: Vallentine Mitchell]. Chertok describes Parkes as "the most steadfast and effective defender of the Jewish people to emerge from Gentile ranks in the twentieth century," a century in which the attitude of the church towards the Jews underwent a remarkable transformation. But while the far-reaching change in the position of the Vatican took place following the Holocaust, Parkes had taken to the barricades on behalf of the Jews already in the 1920s. Says Chertok: "Parkes came to empathize with Jewish suffering to such an exquisite degree that he felt personally victimized by anti-Semitism." In all, Parkes would write 23 books and hundreds of articles, the great bulk on the subject of the Jews. Scholarly but eminently readable, the books won a wide readership. The title of Chertok's book comes from a speech Parkes gave in 1946 to a Jewish audience in New York. "I speak as a Christian but in a sense I also speak as a Jew." Both religions, Parkes said, were true. "Neither is simply an incomplete form of the other. Sinai and Calvary are two closely interlocked and complementary stages of a single divine plan." Parkes fought long and hard within his church against attempts to convert Jews. Says Chertok: "Parkes did not shrink from tossing overboard 19 centuries of Christian negatives about Jews and Judaism. Among Christian scholars and so-called 'philosemites,' he achieved unique success in internalizing Jewish modalities of thought and tradition. For a Jew to read Parkes on Jewish tradition or on the meaning of the State of Israel, which he visited seven times, is akin to at last being recognized and accepted for who he really is. After so much ignorance, distortion and well-intentioned palaver, it is inebriating." Chertok himself was acquainted with Christian thought from his studies at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution near his childhood home in the Bronx, where he grew up. After two years with the US Army in Japan in the 1960s, he became an anti-war activist and taught at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1976 he emigrated to Israel as part of a religious settlement group and ended up in an urban commune in Yeroham, where he remained for 22 years - even after the commune broke up. He has four children and lives now in Beersheba. Despite his deep admiration for Parkes, Chertok's book is not a hagiography. The Anglican priest was kind to the Jews but was often a pain to fellow Christians. "He was a difficult person in lots of ways," says Chertok. "He was a maverick. You keep hearing that 'he did not suffer fools.'" While serving in the First World War as an officer, Parkes was gassed in Flanders and suffered from its effects the rest of his life. Never a parish priest, he married late and had no children unless it be the children of Israel. A long-time Jewish friend of Parkes in England, Ruth Weyl, would confirm the genuineness of his affinity for Jews. "It has to do with Jewish suffering, his respect for Jewish openness and affirmation of life and for the questioning stance of Jews toward experience." Said Weyl: "James was one of the few Christians who did not make me feel uncomfortable with his philosemitism. He could get angry with Jews. As a Jew you could feel fine with that." Parkes' passionate defense of the Jews, says Chertok, derived from his Christian conscience. "His vocation as an Anglican priest was to make good for what Christians had done unjustly to the Jewish people over the centuries."