The Jewish community’s two most senior rabbis have publicly disagreed over the record of the Archbishop of Canterbury in speaking out against anti-Semitism, in the wake of controversial comments from outgoing Board of Deputies’ president Jonathan Arkush.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis stridently defended Archbishop Justin Welby after Arkush said the head of the Anglican Church hadn’t done enough to speak out against anti-Semitism.
However, in a statement on Friday, Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner sided with Arkush, arguing that Welby’s “silence” on anti-Semitism of late had been “surprising”.
In a rare and spectacular slap-down of the Jewish community’s elected leader, Mirvis earlier said Welby was in fact “an outstanding and genuine friend of the Jewish people”.
Jonathan Arkush told Jewish News: “I have never said and never would say that the ABC is not a strong and sincere friend of the Jewish people and I’m sure his office was not intending to suggest otherwise. My statement in the Telegraph interview was very specific, and referred only to the EnoughIsEnough protest against the antisemitism in the Labour Party. I affirm that nothing I said could or should be taken to detract from my admiration for Archbishop Justin’s record of support for the Jewish people and his defence of Israel.”
It followed Arkush’s comments in an interview with The Telegraph a day before he was due to stand down as Board president, in which he criticised Welby for not speaking with “a stronger, clearer voice” on anti-Semitism – specifically in relation to the recent Enough Is Enough protest against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Those comments drew an angry response from Mirvis, who said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury is unquestionably an outstanding and genuine friend of the Jewish people. He has consistently and passionately spoken out against anti-Semitism and for that he deserves the fulsome gratitude and appreciation of our entire community.”
A bewildered Lambeth Palace spokeswoman refuted Arkush’s claims, saying Welby “has always been committed to combatting anti-Semitism wherever it exists and his public record on the issue reflects this”.
However Janner-Klausner backed Arkush, saying: “Precisely because the Archbishop has been such a friend and ally, his silence has been a surprise. Because he has spoken out in the past, the absence of comment has been felt.”
Noting that Welby had been “outspoken and brave” in the past, she said: “At a time when serious questions are being asked about how comfortable we feel in the Jewish community, you look for support for minorities from the established church.”
She added: “The Church has in the past been praised as the defender of other religions, just as Prince Charles calls himself the defender of faiths, but as the head of the established church of the land, we’ve not seen him defend faiths, plural.”
Welby, who has twice visited Yad Vashem in five years, has spoken out against anti-Semitism at Holocaust Memorial Day and urged internet companies to do more to tackle the online scourge. He has worked with Mirvis in opposing Assisted Dying legislation, fighting religious extremism and supporting programmes designed to help refugees.
In September 2016, Arkush praised an article slamming theological anti-Semitism written by Welby, saying the church leader’s intervention was “powerful and timely”.
Arkush added: “We need to fight back against this new anti-Semitism. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s leadership is a very helpful place to start.”
In the article, Welby said Christian anti-Semitism was “a shameful truth,” adding: “The fact that anti-Semitism has infected the body of the Church is something of which we as Christians must be deeply repentant.”
Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko, Director of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury is a trusted friend and supporter of the Jewish community and a consistently strong and leading voice in challenging antisemitism in contemporary Britain. As President of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) Archbishop Welby supports CCJ’s work in building bridges between Christians and Jews throughout the UK through our national programmes. Archbishop Welby is particularly supportive of CCJ’s Holocaust education programme for Christian clergy and Holocaust commemoration.”