So the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is Jewish. I can’t say it comes as any surprise to me. Who isn’t Jewish? I stopped watching Who Do You Think You Are? once it became apparent that every episode was going to end with some scion of an ancient Roman Catholic dynasty weeping buckets outside Auschwitz over the fate of his great-aunt Yetta. Funny, this hankering for a rogue gene. I’m the same. I’d love it if a researcher found me a Cossack for a grandad.
Not a conspicuously Jewish name, Justin Welby, I grant you, but changing names has always gone with the territory. Paulette Goddard isn’t a particularly Jewish name either. Nor Judy Holliday. Considering the iron grip Jews are said to have exerted on Hollywood, it’s a mystery that Emanuel Goldenberg should have gone to the trouble of calling himself Edward G Robinson. But conspiracists love to have it both ways. You’re damned if you try to fit in and you’re damned if you don’t. Soon we’ll be reading about the Jewish conspiracy to take over the Church of England.
Weiler to Welby
If we are going to be strict about these things, our soon-to-be Archbishop is not, of course, Jewish. Matrilineally speaking, he doesn’t have the necessary. A father whose father was Jewish, but whose mother and wife weren’t, won’t cut the mustard halachically – ie, in a manner that will satisfy Jewish law. But a family history is still a family history and Justin Welby’s, at least on his father’s side, appears to be plentifully stocked with Jewish effort, energy and tribulation. His grandfather, Bernard Weiler, was born a Jew in Germany but moved to London where he became an ostrich-feather merchant. Ostrich feathers, being a mark of high living, were among the casualties of the First World War. So (as much for anti-German as for anti‑Jew reasons) was the name Weiler. The family, now fallen on hard times, became Welby. Bernard Welby’s son, Gavin – Justin’s father – added a Bramhall James to his moniker and set about reinventing himself as a dashing, well-connected English socialite in post-Prohibition Manhattan. What followed has, in the Archbishop’s words, “the making of a good story”, but we can follow it only sketchily here. Suffice it to say, he stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for Coventry East, dated a Kennedy, married Winston Churchill’s private secretary, and after that marriage was dissolved stepped out with Vanessa Redgrave, who found him “a sweet, darling man” but whose views on Israel he was unable to sweeten or civilise, supposing he ever saw the necessity to try.
We can never say what makes a person decide to dodge and weave; it might simply be in his nature to enjoy the life of a chameleon. But Gavin Bramhall James Welby’s trajectory has much in common with that of many who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they cannot succeed unless they conceal their origins. And since a little originating Jewish blood was all it took to finish you in many places when he was being who he wasn’t, it isn’t difficult to understand why he kept the secrets he did, even from his son. Whereof one need not speak, thereof one might as well keep silent. It isn’t cowardice to keep your head down.
A few years ago, in the course of making a documentary about Jesus and the crimes committed in his name, I filmed in Belmonte in north-eastern Portugal where there survives a small Jewish community – no more than a couple of hundred souls – which dates back to the late 15th century when Jews fleeing from the Inquisition sought shelter in the Serra da Estrela, the country’s highest mountain range. What kind of Judaism they were able to practise for so many hundreds of years, in full view of a Christian population that drank in Jew-hatred with its communion wine, was one of the questions we were there to ask. Along with how they felt about their secret being out at last.
I proved a bad interrogator of these “hidden Jews”, as they are called, partly because I wasn’t sure I was doing them any favours by further bringing their history to light. They had lived all this time as Catholics, going to church and openly following the rituals of that faith, while practising a subterranean version of their real religion which over the years had become more and more approximate – not unlike, it occurred to me, my own. It had made them schizophrenic, but at least they had survived. One interviewee confused me by saying that Catholic kids at school had baited him sometimes, and called him “Jew”. How could this be if the Jews were living secretly? Had the Christian population of Belmonte always smelt a rat? Did it too operate on a dual track, both knowing and not knowing? Is the Jew an ever-fluctuating secret for Jews and non-Jews like?
In the graveyard of Belmonte, I saw the evidence of the lie the Jews had been forced to live, their graves marked with Christian symbolism. But there were signs too of a new, if fragile, openness, for on some of the headstones you could see only the barest outline of where a cross had been and now, in its place, a Star of David. Taken all in all, I decided there was good in the confusion, Jews and Catholics lying side by side, mixing metaphors, enjoying the high sky and the beautiful mountain scenery together, instead of in icy hugger-mugger cemeteries of their own. You can have too much separation.
In which spirit I welcome the Archbishop’s Jewish antecedents. Let everyone have a bit of overt Jew in them, I say. It beats having to call oneself Bramhall James. And we might, as a consequence, hear a little less about Jews bringing Jew-hatred on themselves, whether in Tel Aviv, Hollywood, Gaza or the ostrich-feather business. Though I wouldn’t bank on it.
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