IT WAS during the bleakest days of the Second World War, in 1942, when knowledge grew of Nazi persecution and the annihilation of entire Jewish communities in occupied Europe, that my predecessor Archbishop William Temple, and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz, founded the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) in the UK.
Publicly launched on 1 October 1942, the establishing of the Council was an act of moral and practical defiance against Nazism and the genocidal evil of anti-Semitism. It provided a rallying cry for people of faith to work together against a creed that sought to separate, divide, and destroy societies where Christians and Jews lived together freely as equals.
Once established, CCJ was able to advocate for the need to do more for the plight of Jews in Europe. From 1954, it worked to foster co-operation between communities as the task of post-war reconstruction began, promoting its founding values of raising religious literacy and understanding, working together for the common good, and challenging prejudice.
Earlier this year, I was privileged to pray with my dear friend and fellow CCJ president, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, at the Western Wall. Like our predecessors, we both serve as presidents of CCJ, alongside four Christian and four Jewish leaders who reflect the diversity of both our faiths. This moving moment of prayer together reminded me that much has changed in Christian-Jewish relations since 1942.
WE MUST not become complacent, however: anti-Semitism remains virulent in our society. As it is a virus, it is ready to latch on to a whole range of issues with its twisted logic of hatred. This is the reason that we need to be constantly reminded of the Shoah, a responsibility that CCJ takes very seriously. For more than a decade, visits to Yad Vashem, the International Holocaust Education Centre, have been arranged for Christian clergy.
Since its formation, CCJ has hosted conversations around themes of common interest, but has also facilitated discussions on contentious issues where there is disagreement both between and within our faith communities. The Council’s ability to convene and gather people from disparate backgrounds ensures that safe spaces can be created to discuss subjects that others shy away from.
One particular situation that seems able to inflame latent toxicity is the conflicted state of the Middle East, where legitimate criticisms of policies of the Israeli government need to be carefully distinguished from attacks on the very existence of the State of Israel.
Strongly committed both to the secure and peaceful existence of Israel, and to the need to find a just and permanent settlement for the Palestinian people, CCJ’s part has been to encourage and facilitate dialogue. One effective way of doing this has been to organise study tours for religious and community leaders of all faiths, to enable them to hear the variety of voices in the Holy Land. I know it is through listening to people, and developing relationships, that we begin to understand one another’s perspective. I was able to do just that on my own 12-day visit to the Holy Land in May this year (News, 5 May, 12 May).
Interreligious encounter is not just about dialogue: it also involves education, awareness of the common good, and a commitment to shared social action. The outworking of this practical focus is shown in CCJ’s campaign “Still an Issue”, which emphasised the need for all communities to take responsibility for anti-Semitism in our society. Also, CCJ’s initiative “If Not Now, When” educated and encouraged Jewish communities to pray and reflect and demonstrate support for the historic but diminishing Christian communities of the Middle East. It is projects such as these that bring hope.
CHRISTIANS and Jews have enriched our society. One striking example of this recently was a CCJ-run “Freedom Seder”, in which the age-old symbols of the Passover meal were presented afresh as an inspiration in the struggle against the modern scourge of human trafficking. It is because our two religions share such deep biblical convictions about the irreplaceable worth of each human being made in the image and likeness of God that we can speak with such conviction against anything that would degrade or enslave our fellow men and women.
I rejoice that the Council of Christians and Jews remains dynamic in the 21st century. Its distinctive voice is needed as much as ever as we face fresh challenges and opportunities together. After 75 years, we affirm the words of Psalm 133: “How good it is to dwell together.”