The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, insensitively compared the risks of the climate crisis to the effects of the Nazis, demonstrating how antisemitism still isn’t taken seriously.
At the beginning of this week Laura Kuenssberg, the political editor of BBC News, tweeted “Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s here at COP too – tells me leaders will be ‘cursed’ if they don’t reach agreement in next fortnight, and suggests failure to act would be possibly more grave than leaders who ignored warnings about the Nazis in the 30s.” Within hours, Welby replied to this tweet with the following message: “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 speed of Welby’s response seemingly came from backlash from his comparison of the climate crisis to the Holocaust. When I first read the Twitter thread, my first thoughts were full of incomprehensible rage, followed by the question: “Why is this still happening?” I was not the only one who was upset by Welby’s analogy, which I discovered after scrolling through the replies of the thread. A couple replies resonated with me. @Londonlintin tweeted: “Apology not accepted. You of all people know better than to invoke that comparison”. Another account, @Guide2Elections, tweeted: “I live in a street built on a former Jewish graveyard, the bones from which were scattered and the headstones smashed. The local school was an SS station where slaves who were worked to death were unearthed in the basement. A lack of COP agreement is not comparable.” Honestly, I couldn’t agree more. An apology is not nearly enough considering the weight it holds, especially when it’s coming from a person of power.
As I outlined in a previous article, it’s beyond disrespectful to use the Holocaust as an anology to show how terrible an event is. People are so quick to say that something is “worse than the Holocaust” without actually thinking about the agony experienced by those affected or the trauma that Jews still face today. Consequently, Welby’s comparison is offensive to the Jewish community because it minimises what the Nazis did not even 100 years ago. Not only did Welby compare a political decision to a religious and racial genocide, but he stated that not reaching an agreement during COP26 would be “more grave”.
This statement is full of ignorance as Welby ignores the fact that the actions of the Nazis stemmed from hate for Jewish people (and other people, such as disabled or LGBTQ+ persons). The climate crisis will target anyone, regardless of race or religion. Furthermore, Welby is also ignoring the hate that Jews still deal with today, therefore undermining the centuries of hate that Jewish people have survived through.
While I understand that Welby’s comparison was made to emphasise the importance of the climate crisis, there was no need to compare it to one of the largest genocides in human history. Welby’s comment demonstrates a lack of sensitivity around the Holocaust that I often see mirrored in the world around me. More importantly, his comment has shown the way that antisemitism is not taken seriously, especially by political leaders.
It’s becoming more and more normalised for people to minimise the antisemitism that Jews face in our modern world, making it even difficult for Jewish people to speak up about the hate they experience. Antisemtiic hate crime has risen in the UK in recent years, rising from 535 incidents in 2013 to 1,813 incidents in 2019. I see this rise of antisemitism on our campus, and I see the way that Jewish students are afraid to speak out about the hate they face. The lives of Jews are at stake, and will continue to be a stake until world leaders acknowledge the danger behind their offensive words.
Welby’s words normalise hate against Jews, as seen through the comment section of Kuenssberg’s tweet. Many comments on Kuenssberg’s post ignore Welby’s comparison altogether, instead focussing on his use of the word “cursed” and his past employment with Enterprise Oil in London. While these may be important points to bring up, it’s horrifying to see how few people realise the danger of his analogy. In fact, some comments defend Welby, stating that the comparison is justified as the climate crisis could kill more people than the Holocaust. I think the willingness of the public to post such offensive replies show the impression of Welby’s words.
For these reasons, I agree that Welby’s apology should not be accepted. Words cannot be taken back once spoken, and a mere Twitter apology does very little to undo the damage that his words have done. We live in a world where people use the Holocaust as a simile whenever they want to express how horrible something is – personally, I am terrified that this antisemitic way of thinking has become so normalised that people feel comfortable posting it online. Welby is in a place of privilege and power – his words are listened to and respected, as seen by his 165,000 Twitter following. As a religious person himself, he should know the dangers that come from normalising spiteful ways of thinking – thousands of people are harmed by religious hate crimes every year. Welby has failed his responsibility as a leader to look after the safety of those who are most susceptible to hate.