Why is the archbishop of Canterbury denying apartheid?

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada /  September 9, 2023

More than 35 years ago, leaders of the Church of England voted against divesting from apartheid South Africa.

One would think that today’s leaders of Britain’s official state religion would look back on that decision with shame and an earnest desire to learn from their grave errors.

But that does not appear to be the case as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the church’s top cleric, has made clear with his denial that Israel perpetrates apartheid against the Palestinian people.

At an event in London on Wednesday, Welby was asked if Israel is an apartheid state.

“I know it’s going to be an unpopular answer,” Welby said before asserting, “I don’t want to use the word apartheid because the apartheid regime in South Africa – and I knew Desmond Tutu and listened to him at length on this – the apartheid regime was built on a constitution that in the very fabric of the constitution, set up apartheid.”

“It remains a risk if the constitution changes to an apartheid constitution, then it obviously would become an apartheid state. But until that happens, I won’t use that word about Israel,” Welby added.

So as long as it doesn’t say it’s an apartheid state, Welby is happy to take Israel’s word for it.

Nonetheless, the cleric appears oblivious to the fact that Israel’s constitutional “basic law” was revised in 2018 to even more deeply entrench Jewish supremacy over indigenous Palestinians throughout historic Palestine – essentially confirming that it is an apartheid regime.

After denying apartheid, Welby did indulge in some light hand-wringing that Israel “is in a place of turmoil” and that “what’s happening in the settlements” is “unjust” and “against international law.”

But those mild statements could just as easily have come from a British government or European Union official. They hardly demonstrate the courage of a moral leader.

Tutu called it apartheid

It is particularly grotesque and reprehensible that Welby invoked his fellow churchman, the late, great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to shield Israel from being named as an apartheid state.

Tutu, who helped lead the struggle against South Africa’s racist regime as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, was among the first major international figures to consistently label Israel’s systematic persecution of the Palestinian people as apartheid.

“We have visited Israel/Palestine on a number of occasions and every time have been struck by the similarities with the South African apartheid regime,” Tutu wrote in 2011, for instance. “The separate roads and areas for Palestinians, the humiliation at roadblocks and checkpoints, the evictions and house demolitions.”

He added that “parts of East Jerusalem resemble what was District Six in Cape Town” – a century-old multiracial community that was destroyed by the apartheid regime in 1966 and declared a whites-only area.

Since Tutu wrote those words, major international and Israeli human rights groups, including B’TselemHuman Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have belatedly come to the same conclusion: Israel perpetrates apartheid against the Palestinian people as a whole – one of the most heinous crimes against humanity enumerated in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Official religion

The Church of England’s complicity with apartheid then and now should be shocking given how Welby and the church pose as fearless moral arbiters willing to speak truth to power.

But this can never be the role of an official church whose leader has to be approved by the British prime minister before being formally appointed by the king.

As a fixture of Britain’s ruling establishment, Welby amplified and tacitly endorsed the Israel lobby’s destructive smear campaign falsely labeling Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party he headed at the time as “anti-Semitic.”

former oil executive, one of Welby’s first acts after the government named him to lead the Church of England was to help rehabilitate Tony Blair, the former prime minister widely reviled for perpetrating, alongside US President George W. Bush, the criminal invasion of Iraq that ended and uprooted millions of lives.

It may be mere coincidence that the archbishop’s son Peter Welby was subsequently given “plum job” at Blair’s Faith Foundation.

The Church of England is moreover only now tentatively addressing its centuries-old wilful profiteering from the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans.

Grassroots activism

To be sure, many members of the Church of England’s dwindling rank and file do support justice in Palestine, as do many members of the UK Labour Party – despite the cowardice and betrayal of their erstwhile leaders.

Notably, in 2006, the Church of England’s legislative body did vote for limited divestment from companies that are directly complicit in Israel’s illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

In 2018, the Episcopal Church – the Anglican church in the United States – also decided to divest from several companies involved in the settlements.

It must be clear, however, that these modest steps forward have been the result not of courageous leadership from the top, but the hard work of grassroots activists within the churches challenging the complicity of political appointees like Welby.

But in general, Anglican churches have lagged behind other Christian communities in adopting divestment as a strategy to support justice in Palestine.

Last year, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA formally affirmed that Israel perpetrates the crime of apartheid and urged members to seek ways to bring it to an end.

And across the United States, grassroots members of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith groups are participating in the new Apartheid-Free Communities initiative, recently convened by the American Friends Service Committee.

Among its endorsers are several Episcopalian groups.

If the archbishop of Canterbury won’t listen to Palestinians or to major human rights groups, perhaps he will pay attention to members of his own Anglican communion.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)