Chief Rabbi attacks Church of England for its Israel protest

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The Independent Online

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has delivered an uncharacteristically stinging attack on the Church of England over its decision to disinvest in companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian land.

Writing for today's Jewish Chronicle, Sir Jonathan describes as "ill-judged" the General Synod's decision last week to back disinvestment from a US company that makes giant bulldozers used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes. The timing of the vote could "not have been more inappropriate", he said.

"For years, I have called on religious groups in Britain to send a message of friendship and co-existence to conflict zones throughout the world, instead of importing those conflicts into Britain itself," Sir Jonathan writes.

"The effect of the Synod vote will be the opposite. The Church has chosen to take a stand on the politics of the Middle East over which it has no influence, knowing that it will have the most adverse repercussions on a situation over which it has enormous influence, namely Jewish-Christian relations in Britain." The policy, he adds, will "reduce the Church's ability to act as a force for peace between Israel and the Palestinians".

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has faced a torrent of criticism from Anglicans and Jews alike over his backing for disinvestment. His predecessor as Archbishop, George Carey, described the Synod's decision as a "one-eyed strategy to rebuke one side and forget the traumas of ordinary Israelis who live in fear of suicide bombers and those whose policy it is to destroy all Jews". Canon Andrew White, the Church's chief negotiator in the Middle East, described the motion as "more sanctimonious claptrap", which made him despair of the Church.

Dr Williams sought to dampen the row in a carefully crafted letter to Sir Jonathan late last week saying the Synod had not intended to create a policy of disinvestment, but merely to express "disquiet". He said: "It is unfortunate that this has arisen at a time when anti-Semitism is a growing menace and when the state of Israel faces challenges."

In a letter to Lambeth Palace on Monday, Sir Jonathan thanked Dr Williams for the clarification. His emollient tone was typical of a man who shies away from public wars. But the Chief Rabbi's strength of feeling is evidently far greater than he revealed to Dr Williams, with whom he has a good relationship.

"The Church could have chosen, instead of penalising Israel, to invest in the Palestinian economy," he writes. "That would have helped the Palestinians. It would have had the support of most Israelis and most Jews. If there was one candle of hope above all others after the Holocaust it was that Jews and Christians at last learned to speak to one another after some 17 centuries of hostility... We must not let that candle be extinguished."

Israel had risked civil war to make unilateral territorial concessions in Gaza and faced threats from two enemies, Iran and Hamas, vowing to eliminate it, he said. "It needs support, not vilification."

At a meeting convened on Tuesday by Sir Jonathan, Jewish leaders started formulating a response to the General Synod's decision. The Jewish Board of Deputies is also undertaking an investigation into attitudes within the Church of England. Jewish Chronicle managing editor Jeff Barak said the Church of England, and Dr Williams in particular, deserved no less than a "severe tongue-lashing".

Lambeth Palace said yesterday that Sir Jonathan's comments were directed at the Church of England, not Dr Williams. Dr Williams was en route to Brazil and unable to respond.

The war of words

'The Church's policy will have adverse repercussions for Jewish-Christian relations... it will reduce its ability to act as a force for peace between Israel and Palestine'

Sir Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi

'It is unfortunate that this has arisen at a time when anti-Semitism is a growing menace and when the state of Israel faces challenges'

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury