An open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop of Canterury Justin Welby. Image: Media Centre, Credit: Jacqui J. Sze

JVL Introduction

Labour Party and JVL member Andrew Hornung has responded to a recent Archbishop of Canterbury announcement about the climate crisis and the responsibiity of politicans to act decisively.

While welcoming his original statement, Hornung is more than a little surprised that the Archbishop should feel compelled to row back on aspects of it after criticism.

Here he explains why.


Dear Archbishop,

Last week, during COP26, you made an unusually sharp statement in the course of an interview, urging politicians to act decisively to prevent global catastrophe:

“People will speak of them in far stronger terms than we speak today of the politicians of the 30s, of the politicians who ignored what was happening in Nazi Germany, because this will kill people all around the world for generations, and we will have no means of averting it.

Asked if you were arguing that a failure to tackle the climate crisis would be worse than not stopping genocide, you said:

“It will allow a genocide on an infinitely greater scale. I’m not sure there’s grades of genocide, but there’s width of genocide, and this will be genocide indirectly, by negligence, recklessness, that will in the end come back to us or to our children and grandchildren.”

The Church (not only the Anglican Church, of course) is frequently – and rightly in my opinion – accused of being mealy-mouthed and too soft-spoken when it should be challenging the powerful. But here is a good example of plain speech, strong words and clear positioning.

I was delighted to see it.

Within a short time, however, your message was largely lost with more headline space being given to a subsequent tweet in which you apologised for likening the threat posed by the climate crisis to the Nazis. According to The Guardian you tweeted: “I unequivocally apologise for the words I used when trying to emphasise the gravity of the situation facing us at Cop26. It’s never right to make comparisons with the atrocities brought by the Nazis, and I’m sorry for the offence caused to Jews by these words.”

The first point I want to make is that this tweet has had the effect of deflecting from the welcome firmness and directness of the excellent statement you made in your interview. That, in itself, is deeply disappointing. And those who urged you to issue that tweet should consider the harm they do with such self-absorption.

I don’t know who suggested to you that Jews would be offended by your words. I’m a Jew and I’m the son of Jews who escaped from the abattoir of fascist Europe where their parents were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators and I’m the brother-in-law of concentration camp survivor. You do not offend me. On the contrary, I welcome the statement you made about the climate emergency.

In any event, life doesn’t stop with one atrocity: unfortunately, it proceeds to face – and hopefully prevent – others, some greater, some smaller, some more marked by a gruesome display of inhumanity, some proceeding legally or silently or with the broad consensus of the powerful and the ignorance of the masses, often unreported or attributed to natural causes.

Some, it seems, are so consumed with deep anguish at the one atrocity to which they are emotionally bound that other atrocities become insignificant. Perhaps this is understandble, but in my experience the vast mass of Holocaust survivors are not such people. Their dreadful experience stayed with them but did not consume them, did not make them unable to look at other atrocities, to feel pity for others. And that is so in spite of the work of some whose task it is to maintain that obsessive focus and deflect people from evaluating new challenges.

I said “You do not offend me” but in fact you did manage to – by your tweet not your interview. You seem to consider those who have complained to you – you do not say who they were – as the representatives of all Jews, or at least of all British Jews. As the head of an institution, you have frequent contact with organisations of other faiths. That’s inevitable and can certainly be fruitful. But it is necessary to remember firstly that these organisations are not necessarily congruent with the “communities” they claim to represent, and secondly that these “communities” are not homogenous. Indeed, it is likely that those who claim to speak for them are not the most progressive elements – sometimes more intent on preserving their privileged status as intermediaries.

Rabbi Mirvis, for example, without whose approval pressure could not have been brought on you to issue your apology, knows this. He hails from South Africa and therefore should know how false it is to speak of communities as if they were compact and homogenous. The Jewish community of South Africa can be proud of the fact that more than half the whites charged at the famous Treason Trial in 1956 were Jewish as were all whites initially accused in the Rivonia trial in 1963, although Jews accounted for only 2.5% of South Africa’s white population. Mirvis has said that his father, also a rabbi, preached against apartheid. But the official position of the “community” as expressed by its Board of Deputies at the time – indeed until 1985 – was a refusal to be critical of apartheid.

My own view is that very few Jews would have been offended by your remark. Your reference to the dreadful inaction of politicians in the 1930s would, I’m sure, have been seen as supportive and insightful. Almost everyone, Jew or non-Jew, reading the reports of your interview would see that you castigated the Nazis and the appeasers of Nazis and that you see the Holocaust as a crime of world-historic proportions.

What is the likely result of your “appeasement”, your tweeted regret at causing offence not to some Jews but to “Jews” tout court? One effect is to help cloud the important question of what is “offence” and how we should deal with it. Even if a large number of Jews had taken offence at your remark, it would not follow that you had given offence: people often misunderstand. It often happens that sections of a community are filled with feelings of fear and anger spread by community influencers, sometimes with the aid of foreign governments – the role of the Saudi and Iranian governments in the anti-Rushdie agitation serves as an example. This can be fear when there is no danger and there can be anger where there is no offence.

Another consequence of your tweet is to lend weight to claims of “Jewish exceptionalism”. Every event is both unique and contextual, that is, sharing aspects with other events. To evaluate and learn from events we need to have regard to both. In this sense no event – even those unprecedented in horror and scale – is completely isolated from others. You say: “It’s never right to make comparisons with the atrocities brought by the Nazis.” The essential comparison you made in your interview was between the failure of politicians in the 1930s and their failure today. Surely that in no sense diminishes the Holocaust?And weren’t you right to indicate that atrocities differ in their scale and in their visceral horror? This is not a zero-sum game where the acknowledgement of one atrocity puts the reality of another in the shade. What are the motives of those fighting to stay top of the Premier League of atrocities by diminishing the urgency of other events?

You may have intended your tweet as a message of comfort, a way of assuring the fearful or affronted that you wish them no harm. But this is short-sighted. British Jews today don’t imagine that the Anglican Church wishes them harm. But, as ever, the danger of appeasement is that it stimulates the appetite of those demanding concession. Today’s appeasement allows the official leaders of British Jewry to strengthen their hand in pursuing a war against critics in general and radical critics of Israel in particular.

Appeasement with Hitler’s Germany was an injury to German Jewry. To appease one party usually means to damn another. By accepting the notion that Jews are offended by what you said and by appeasing those who claim that – religious leaders among them no doubt – you encourage this sense of hurt and offence, you act against those who are the victims of the multiple witch-hunts organised by the Board of Deputies and the web of organisations promoting the delusion of existential threat to the Jewish community.

Your tweet does not appease “a community”: it appeases a tiny handful acting as community gatekeepers, who are regrettably capable of influencing broad swathes of the Jewish community by spreading undue fear and misinformation. Your tweet validates their claim to be protectors of their “community” and helps chill all critical discussion of their role. It conveys the impression that the minefield of traps and tropes sown by them is too dangerous to traverse and that it is better avoided for fear of giving offence and being referred to as an antisemite.

Comments (15)

  • Peter Kirker says:

    The archbishop’s supine retraction angered me more than I can say, but I was too lazy to put pen to paper. Andrew Hornung’s response is more powerful, more measured and more eloquent than anything I could have written; the more so for coming from a Jew. I think it will give the archbishop pause for thought.

  • An excellent article which says all that need to be said.

    The Holocaust is not unique as an act of genocide. There were features of it, such as the industrial scale of extermination which were unique but then all acts of genocide are unique.

    Further the Holocaust was not just a Jewish Holocaust. The Disabled and Roma were also victims ALTHOUGH leading Zionist historians e.g. Yehuda Bauer deny this.

    It is the attempt to make the Holocaust unique and with it Israel, which claims the Holocaust as its source of legitimation which is the source of the problem.

    I expect nothing from this right-wing Archbishop who has consistently failed to speak out about Zionism, the Palestinians still less make a distinction between Jews and Zionists

  • Eddie Dougall says:

    The essential point made in the open letter is central to much which is wrong in the way Jewish people are assumed to be one homogenous group.
    I’m not Jewish and hope I’m not being presumptive in believing, as I believe do JVL, that ‘it takes all sorts’, as with the makeup of any race/religion/political party etc. This is a thoughtful letter at which I hope the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t take umbridge and give it due consideration

  • Lesl Hartop says:

    Could JVL act as a facilitator to get Michael Rosen and the archbishop together, so that Michael Rosen could explain what is going on to him ?

  • Dr Paul says:

    I was recently asked if I thought that in the future there could be an atrocity that could be as destructive as Hitler’s Holocaust. My reply was that it depends upon conditions.

    I see the Holocaust as an integral, central aspect of the Second World War. Neither the Holocaust or the war of which it was an aspect arrived ex nihilo. The war was the outcome of the crisis of interwar Europe, itself the result of unresolved matters from the First World War and new factors emerging from that war, all of which were exacerbated by the world economic crisis that started in 1929. One of the political expressions of this crisis was the rise of extreme right-wing politics, often intrinsically combined with deep-running anti-Semitism. Such was the depth of the crisis that parties promoting these malignant political ideas received mass support, with a third of the German electorate voting for the Nazis. The crisis culminated in the Second World War, the explosion of Nazi Germany across Europe and the ever-accelerating implementation of destructive and then, as the war bogged down, genocidal actions against the Jews of Europe. Hitler’s Holocaust was one of the results of the culmination of the crisis of interwar Europe: looking back from today, the road to the biggest crime of the twentieth century can be clearly mapped.

    Humanity is facing a climate crisis, and there is the possibility that global warming, the cause of the climate crisis, may not be slowed down sufficiently and brought to a halt. If this is the case, the climate crisis will inevitably produce a massive social crisis on a global scale, probably by the end of the century. Flooding, drought, wild and unpredictable weather, food shortages and other disastrous conditions will affect millions upon millions of people: the interwar crisis of Europe brought the Nazis into power; what might the political expressions of a far deeper and far broader social crisis be?

    The words of the Archbishop — ‘It will allow a genocide on an infinitely greater scale’ — are not hyperbole, they describe what could well happen if the world experiences a severe climate crisis. He was not downplaying or trivialising Hitler’s Holocaust or insulting the memory of the millions who died in it or managed to survive; he was saying that we could see something even worse than the Holocaust, and, if things go badly, we indeed could.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    What a terrific critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s craven apology. I do hope the author has sent a hard copy recorded delivery to Lambeth Palace, and will then knock on the door insisting on a withdrawal of the apology. What about JVL looking for a discussion with the Archbishop – no harm will be done. He can only say ‘No’. And yes, I know he will, but he should be put under constant pressure.

  • The Archbishop has a lot to explain. Do you remember Robert Cohen’s Open Letter to the Archbishop and the Chief Rabbi called “Christian-Jewish dialogue must be more than taking tea and talking antisemitism”? It is a brilliant piece where he says that they have put interfaith politics before genuine interfaith dialogue, and tells them that: “as matters currently stand, both of you give the appearance of being morally compromised”.

  • Anthony Sperryn says:

    Welby has got it wrong AGAIN.

    He got it wrong with the anti-semitism noise before the 2019 General Election and stood with the enemies of Jeremy Corbyn, helping to sabotage the hope of many people for the future.

    In both cases he appears to have kow-towed before the chief rabbi, which indicates that his own mind is not clear on a lot of matters.

    Welby is establishment to the extent that anybody could be (he wouldn’t have been appointed had that not been so – the Church of England is too dependent on the City of London for its income) , even his colourful family background seems not unusual in those circles.

    However, his political judgement is lacking.

    It was, of course, unwise to mention the Nazis. Their actions were deliberate and willed. The climate change matter is one of stupidity, denial of facts and perverse economics, not a thought-out attack on the various groups in danger.

    There is some difference between saying “your holiday flight will kill 15 Pacific islanders” and “just cut down on the carbon emissions”, though the latter is just “bla-bla-bla” until firm, effective proposals are set out and implemented.

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    Well said, Andrew.

    I wholly agree with you.

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    What an excellent letter Andrew, that I applaud as a Jewish Christian. Sadly people like Rabbi Mirvis play on the guilt that so many Christians still carry for historical anti-Semitism. Whilst I am not an Anglican, I appreciate that this letter would give great support to those of that family, some of whom are Jewish, who appreciate that the state of Israel does not represent all Jews nor the core tenets of Torah Judaism, and are working within the Church for it to take a different stance on Israel.

  • Judith Kelman says:

    Excellent reply

  • Stephen Richards says:

    Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis preached to an AIPAC audience congratulating them on preventing Socialists like Bernie Sanders gaining power & at the same time attacking Jeremy Corbyn. A very dangerous platform.
    I am not a Jew, my father’s family are Catholic Irish Gypsies who speak of Porajmos (the Devouring) & resent the cultural appropriation of ‘THE’ holocaust & Auschwitz as though it were a special ‘Jewish’ event only.

  • John Noble says:

    All true, sadly, will we recover without catastrophe?

  • John Noble says:

    Having read all the responses the one that looks forward with cautious wisdom is written by Dr Paul, he escapes the present seeing forward to catastrophe.

  • John Bowley says:

    Unless he really is pushing a covert right-wing movement, Justin Welby, present Archbishop of Cantebury, is worse than useless. He seems as if unaware of so much within our country as a whole, which he actually has a direct responsibiliy to properly understand.

    Justin Welby has now created a lot of distracting publicity amongst serious attempts to try to reverse the disastrous adverse climate change.

    Hostile to making anything better establishment media is chortling over Justin Welby’s grovelling to the Jewish establishment, a tiny minority within our country as a whole and only one, Conservate and Zionist, narrow opinion among British Jews, as Andrew Hornung’s excellent letter explains.

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