Echoes of the Holocaust in Church’s Debate over Israel

by Rafael Medoff

A fierce debate over Israel has erupted within the Church of England: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, supports divesting from some companies that do business with Israel, while his predecessor, George Carey, says the church’s recent vote in favor of divestiture makes him feel “ashamed to be Anglican.” Their sharply diverging views are reminiscent of the starkly different attitudes exhibited by church leaders during the Holocaust.

Cosmo Lang, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928-1941, contended that “the Jews themselves” were to blame for the “excesses of the Nazis.” But his successor, William Temple, was an outspoken advocate for the Jewish victims of Hitler.

In a series of public speeches, articles, and letters to the British press during 1942-1943, Temple expressed both his “burning indignation” at the Nazi mass murders and his strong disappointment at the response of the Allies. The Jews were “caught between the hammer of the enemy’s brutality and the anvil of democracy’s indifference,” he said. “In comparison with the monstrous evil confronting us the reasons for hesitation usually advanced by officials have an air of irrelevance.” The archbishop did not hesitate to take unpopular positions, such as urging England and its allies to grant asylum “to any Jews who are able to escape the clutches of the Nazis.”

In an especially stirring speech before the House of Lords in March 1943, Temple urged the Allies to take “immediate measures on the largest and most generous scale” to aid the Jews. The archbishop disputed the British government’s claim that public opinion would oppose taking in refugees; he insisted that “by skillful use of the wireless,” the government could easily rally public support for helping those who “were being delivered to almost certain death.” The time had come to take action, he proclaimed: “We at this moment have upon us a tremendous responsibility. We stand at the bar of history, of humanity, and of God.”

The archbishop’s words were soon heard in the halls of power. British and American officials alike were concerned to see a prominent and influential religious leader at the head of a growing wave of public criticism over the Allies’ indifference to Hitler’s Jewish victims. In early 1943, British officials began formulating plans for an Allied conference on refugees. An internal Foreign Office memorandum explaining the need to respond to the “intense public interest” in the refugee problem singled out the Archbishop of Canterbury as one of those who had been “agitating the public conscience.”

The British government suggested holding the conference in Washington. But State Department official Breckinridge Long moved quickly to block that proposal, because –as he wrote in his diary– “to talk here would put us in a bad position with Canterbury giving publicity in the press and all the pressure which would be coming from the locally organized groups in this country.”

Ultimately the conference was held in Bermuda, far from the eyes of the international media and pressure groups. There, amidst the Easter lilies, U.S. and British officials conferred at length and decided there was little they could do to help the Jews. The disappointing results of the Bermuda conference triggered more criticism of the Allies’ refugee policy in the Jewish community, the press, and Congress.

That criticism included a series of full-page newspaper advertisements in U.S. newspapers and magazines, sponsored by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson group), under the headline, ” ‘We All Stand Before the Bar of History, Humanity, and God’.” For the first time, millions of Americans learned that the head of the Church of England was urging Allied action to rescue Jews. Eventually the tide of public opinion would help prod the Roosevelt administration to take some belated and limited action to aid Jewish refugees near the end of the war.

Today, we may look back and wonder how different history might have been if other church leaders, in America and England, had followed Archbishop Temple’s lead. Or if his predecessor, Cosmo Lang, had spoken out for rescue of Jewish refugees in the 1930s, before the Nazi persecutions turned to mass murder.

Similarly, one wonders how history, humanity, and God –to borrow Rev. Temple’s memorable phrase– will judge those church leaders who today are siding with the enemies of Israel.

[Published in the Jerusalem Post on February 21, 2006]

February 2006