The Archbishop of Canterbury and the two Chief Rabbis of Israel, Shlomo Amar and Yonah Metzger, signed a historic agreement on 5 September 2006. It contained a joint declaration that set out a framework for continual dialogue.
Dr Williams said: “This is a most significant step in developing mutual understanding and trust between the Anglican Communion and the Chief Rabbinate and worldwide Judaism.”
The signatories agreed on the need for a sense of urgency in the search for long-term peace, justice, and security in the Middle East in general, and in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in particular. This should include, they said, both the physical infrastructure, and the emotional and psychological relations of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim believers.
Dr Williams spoke of the need for “friendship and mutual confidence”, and “the ability to speak to one another candidly and lovingly”. The two Chief Rabbis emphasised the responsibility of religious leaders to do their utmost to ensure that “religion is not abused for violent ends”.
The text of the agreement mentions the “all too many times of violence and persecution by Christians of Jews”. Importantly, it celebrates the fact that: “The United Kingdom, encouraged by its Christian community, was involved in the origins of the State of Israel.” It continues:
“Among our profound concerns is the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain and the rest of Europe, in the Middle East and across the world . . . Where it is fostered by governments or political parties, we will openly oppose it . . . recognising that there have been times when the Church has been complicit in it.”
As a direct result of the Declaration, the first meeting of the Commission of Anglican and Jewish leaders took place in Jerusalem last month. Papers were considered in depth on the basis of mutual understandings of scripture, and common understanding of human life as a gift from God. All violence against other human beings was to be deplored as a defacing of the image of God in humanity.
Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chairman for interfaith relations of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel Council, who chaired the Commission jointly with the Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Revd Michael Jackson, defined as blasphemous the idea of divine sanction for suicide and homicide as a “religious” sacrifice. Bishop Jackson said: “Our understandings of the sources of the sanctity of human life lie in our shared scriptural heritage.”
The Commission called on all those in positions of influence to advance the cause of peaceful, co-operative, and just living. It expressed the hope that, in appreciating commonality and respecting differences, its work would encourage Jews and Anglicans around the world in mutual dialogue.
In a statement after the meeting, Chief Rabbi Cohen reiterated his concern about the attempted suicide bombings in London and Glasgow:
“Unfortunately, we continue to witness in Israel, Britain, and elsewhere, people who think they are serving God by killing people. Therefore, it is imperative for us — the Jewish people and the Anglican Church — to join forces to combat those religious leaders who purport to be speaking in the name of God, but who are actually preaching bloodshed and terror.
“As religious leaders, we should try to promote those things that unite us and avoid those which divide us. The earliest Jewish religious traditions, both biblical and Talmudic, state categorically that residing in the Holy Land is a mitzvah [religious injunction] which ‘equals in balance’ all the 613 mitzvot.
“Zionism is therefore not merely a relatively recent political movement, but a religious injunction incumbent on all Jews.
“Of course, the Palestinians have their cultural and religious rights. However, the religious rights of the Jewish people cannot be sacrificed. Although religion can be a source of tension, it may also prove to be the principal vehicle through which a solution may be found. We are meant to live together here, and to love and respect each other.
“The Commission of Anglican and Jewish leaders can therefore act as an effective channel for encouraging a positive way forward for all the peoples resident in the area.”
The true meaning of Zionism, as described here, has not always been understood by those in the Church of England. The Revd Dr James Parkes stated in his A History of the Jewish People (Penguin) as long ago as 1964:
“The roots of Zionism are to be found . . . everywhere and in every century of Jewish history. . . One thing has been constant [in Zionism], a determination to maintain roots in the ‘Promised Land’. Much of the modern discussions of Zionism would have been clearer if this had been realised. It was no case of ‘Jews returning to a land they had left two thousand years ago.’ As a people, they had never left it either physically or spiritually. . . All through the centuries Jews had tended to return to it.”
It would help further dialogue if the Commission of Anglican and Jewish leaders could clarify to Anglicans that the Jewish desire to live in the Holy Land has deep religious-spiritual roots. It is to the credit of Lambeth Palace that it has recognised this, and has worked hard, with its rabbinical counterparts in Israel, to implement the Declaration.
Dr Irene Lancaster FRSA is a former lecturer in the Department of Religions and Theology at Manchester University, and author of Deconstructing the Bible (Routledge, 2003).
The full text of the Declaration is at: www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/releases/060905.htm.