Christians and Jews united

That the UK should have led the way in promoting Jewish-Christian relations was ironic, given the troubled history of Jewish existence in the country.

Christians praying in Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Travelujah)
Christians praying in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Travelujah)
This month we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Council of Christians and Jews, the oldest national interfaith organization in the UK. The organization has had a profound effect on Jewish-Christian relations, both in the UK and internationally.
While CCJ may be a relatively small organization, its anniversary was recognized by Her Majesty The Queen, its patron, who recently attended a function in London to celebrate the occasion.
The organization seeks to develop understanding and mutual respect between the Christian and Jewish communities.
Key challenges addressed include anti-Semitism, proselytizing, the politics of Israel and the Middle East and advocating a shared ethical agenda. The phrase “Judeo-Christian heritage” is commonly used and it was no surprise to me, at the launch of National Marriage Week at the British Parliament last month, to find myself in the company of leading, committed Christians.
The foundation of CCJ in March 1942, at the height of the Holocaust, was not able to alter the tragic fate of millions of Jews, but it was an important show of solidarity from the Christian community in the darkest of hours for our people. Archbishop William Temple and Chief Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz were the driving force behind CCJ. At a meeting held on March 20, 1942, to form the Council, it was agreed that “the Nazi attack on Jewry has revealed that anti-Semitism is part of a general and comprehensive attack on Christianity and Judaism and on the ethical principles common to both religions, which form the basis of the free national life of Great Britain.”
It is a chilling thought that another meeting had taken place just two months earlier, with polar opposite aims. On January 20, 1942, Nazi leaders met at Wannsee to determine the “final solution to the Jewish question.”
Certainly, the meeting to establish CCJ in March 1942 offered a glimmer of hope to our beleaguered people at this tragic phase in our history.
That the UK should have led the way in promoting Jewish-Christian relations was ironic, given the troubled history of Jewish existence in the country. The pernicious blood libel, still perpetrated in some countries of the Middle East, has its roots in Britain, with the first recorded incident taking place in Norwich in 1144. This was followed by persecution, riots and the massacre at York in 1190. In 1275 a new law was passed requiring Jews to wear a yellow patch of cloth. This mirrored the 1215 anti-Semitic decree of Pope Innocent III’s Fourth Lateran Council requiring Jews living in Christian lands to wear a badge on their clothing.
The historians Max Wurmbrand and Cecil Roth have written that “the result of the introduction of the badge was to mark the Jews apart from other men as a different and inferior race, liable at all times to insult or attack.” This has haunting echoes of a similar edict by the Nazis in the 1930s.
The climate of medieval anti-Semitism in the UK led to the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and resettlement did not come until the mid-17th century.
England was the first country to expel its Jews, ahead of France (1306) and Spain (1492).
The establishment of CCJ aimed to reverse the prevailing tide of history. It also had a deep-seated influence through acting as a catalyst for Christian- Jewish forums in the Commonwealth and other countries. The International CCJ now has 38 constituent organizations, including Ireland. During my tenure as chief rabbi, I remember receiving a visit from Jim Tunney, the lord mayor of Dublin, on his first day in office. It was tradition for the new lord mayor to pay courtesy calls to the Catholic and Protestant archbishops and the chief rabbi.
We welcomed him at our home in Dublin, and my wife offered him some delicious cheesecake. Later, when he hosted a reception to welcome participants in the biennial Colloquium of the International CCJ at Mansion House, he told the assembled guests, “To enhance interfaith dialogue, you don’t need conferences, you need cheesecake!” Extending a hand of friendship and offering hospitality can often pave the way to a willingness to listen, learn and enrich relationships.
The formation of CCJ in the UK in 1942 laid the terrain of the institutional framework for improved relations worldwide, which have inspired some milestone events in the post-war period.
These have included the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which exonerated Jews for the charge of deicide, and papal visits to Israel in 2000 and 2009.
Moreover, as the first national interfaith organization, CCJ was a trailblazer for interfaith activity, both bilateral, Abrahamic and multilateral. There are now over 300 interfaith organizations in the UK.
We need the support of Christian friends in combating widespread anti- Semitism and anti-Zionism. When I interviewed Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, at our synagogue, he said that he had been ashamed by the moves of some fringe Anglican groups to call for disinvestment from Israel. When tensions broke out with the Methodist Church in the UK over their stance on Israel, we arranged for local Methodist ministers to visit us in synagogue for a Shabbat, together with many other communities.
This led to greater friendship and unity.
As well as a “shield” rationale for Christian-Jewish relations, there is also a proactive agenda of “arrow” issues.
The shared ethical agenda concentrates on issues such as the family and community, as well as thwarting the aggressive secularism promoted by figures such as Richard Dawkins in the UK and some similar voices in America.
CCJ’s 70th birthday reminds us of the need for solidarity, friendship and camaraderie between Jewish and Christian communities. The nature and quality of our relationships with other faiths will be crucial to our future.
On CCJ’s anniversary, let us be inspired by the teaching in Pirkei Avot: “Who is great? One who turns an enemy into a friend.”
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is senior rabbi of Finchley Synagogue in London, and a former chief rabbi of Ireland.