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Justin Welby’s comments, on the eve of his enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral today, came during an interview with the Jewish News in which he also voiced opposition to Israel boycotts, revealed plans to visit the Jewish state this summer and praised the Chief Rabbi as “one of the most significant religious thinkers”.
The past few months since being named as Archbishop have been transformative for Welby, not just because of his elevation within the Church of England but because he learned for the first time – as a result of a Daily Telegraph investigation – of his family’s Jewish roots.
Chemist Dr Gerhard Weiler, a cousin of the Archbishop’s father Gavin, fled with his family after Hitler came to power, later being registered as an “enemy alien” in the UK.
The 57-year-old former bishop of Durham said he was “really, really pleased” to discover details of his Jewish ancestry, but added: “It’s quite sobering to think I had a bunch of second cousins that didn’t escape.”
The great-grandfather of the man who will be formally confirmed today as the leader of 80 million Anglicans worldwide, along with three of his brothers, headed to London more than four decades earlier. The father-of-five told the Jewish News: “Once we’ve moved in properly, we’re going to meet up with some cousins who I had no idea about. One of them is a rabbi who recently wrote to me. He’s one of the senior teachers at a Jewish college in London. We’ll try to meet up, or get them to Lambeth Palace to do something fun to celebrate. To discover you’ve got a family you didn’t know about is really exciting.”
He also revealed he hopes to visit the grave at Hoop Lane Cemetery in Golders Green of his great-grandmother Amalie, who lived in Hampstead until her death in 1914. The Cambridge-educated former oil executive comes to office just eight months after Anglican-Jewish relations were severely strained when the Church’s Synod voted to affirm support for a programme accused by the Board of Deputies of producing “very partisan activists” on the Middle East.
The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel takes participants to the region for around three months, but critics point out that only a fraction of that time is spent in Israel, before accompaniers return to give public talks about their experiences. The private member’s motion also expressed support for Israelis and Palestinians working for peace and for aid agencies in the region.
Welby said last summer’s vote – on which he abstained – had “clearly” damaged relations.
And in an unusual step he said: “On reflection, I’d have voted against. I wasn’t quite up to speed when I went into that vote. I think the situation in the holy land is so complicated that we always have to show we recognise this and I don’t think the motion adequately reflected reflected the complexity.”
He said he would have wanted something added to the text saying the Jewish state, like any other legitimate country, has the right to “live in security and peace within internationally-agreed borders and the people of the region have the right to justice, peace and security, whoever they are.”
While Welby said the situation caused by the Synod vote was “a concern and something we keep an eye on”, he stressed that he was not in a position to instruct the democratic Synod on how to vote.
Given that the EAPPI is not a CoE initiative, he added, it also wasn’t in the church’s “gift” to introduce a system of oversight of presentations made by returning participants, as urged by community leaders amid concern over the content of some talks.
But the 105th Archbishop wanted to “encourage” an “excellent” proposa, recently announced, for participants to spend a weekend with a Jewish family in Haifa.
The Archbishop – who said interfaith relations have always been “very important” to him – has gained vast experience in the field of reconciliation over the past decade, lecturing on the subject at the US State Department and undertaking work in Africa and elsewhere.
Asked whether he planned to voice his views on overcoming the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the 57-year-old said his reconciliation work had, in fact, taught him to speak out “extremely carefully… and only if I think I can make a significant difference.”
Welby said he was “very much looking forward” to making his first visit to Israelin his new role in June, when he will continue the series of meetings started by Dr Rowan Williams with Israel’s chief rabbies. “My wife and I went on honeymoon there and it’ll be her first time back since.”Archbishop Exclusive: 'My Cousin The Rabbi' by Justin Cohen