Bishop George Bell was a hero who saved Jewish children. It is time his reputation was restored

In recent weeks we examined Joseph, who died and was buried in Shechem, where he had originally been thrown into the pit by his brothers. Shechem was in the heart of Israel — the Promised Land.

Joseph's tomb in Shechem (also known as Nablus) is one of the three most sacred sites for the Jewish people.

But after Joseph's death the narrative changes and the spotlight is on a new Pharaoh 'who knew not Joseph'. 'Knew not' doesn't mean that Pharaoh didn't know Joseph. It means that Pharaoh and all he stands for utterly refuses to acknowledge the help and assistance given by Joseph and the Jewish people to the Egyptians during their time of famine. It means that Pharaoh resents Joseph's considerable skills as psychologist and economist – areas in which the Jewish people were also to excel in the millennia to come.


And when Moses then arises to lead the Jewish people (most unwillingly, as we have seen, which is why G-d tells him that He will always be with them and comfort them wherever they are and in all situations), the Egyptians no longer make any secret of wishing the Jews dead – but (like the Nazis who will follow in their wake) first the Egyptians turn them into slaves and then, according to rabbinic teaching, they bury the Jewish children alive in the bricks used to build their huge metropolitan edifices known as pyramids.

This type of behaviour becomes so ingrained that it gets to the point where Pharaoh is no longer even capable of escaping the rut of his own making.

The Bible calls this syndrome 'the hardening of one's heart'.

Unfortunately, this syndrome continues to be very much in evidence today.

Exactly ten years ago I knew that I would have to return from Haifa to the UK. G-d knows I didn't want to return. Israel was my home – I was Israeli – and I dreamed, felt and thought as an Israeli. I was involved in all sorts of academic, musical, educational and political enterprises – and one day I thought I might even get to grips with the weather.

But it was not to be, and a friend (who had an amazingly disparate library for an Israeli) gave me some novels by Susan Howatch. These novels were about the Church of England – based in the precincts of Salisbury Cathedral, and they had wonderful titles like Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers and the last one was called Absolute Truths.

But when I opened the Starbridge series in balmy Haifa during that fateful week of January 2008, I was hooked. For the books were littered with sayings by the greatest Anglican of the 20th century, Bishop George Bell. And I knew at once that here was an Anglican clergyman on a par with the Buddhist Dalai Lama who had persuaded me many years earlier to help promote the plight of the Burmese people, based on my own experience as the child of Holocaust survivors.

It's not that I agreed with Bishop Bell on everything – especially not on the German people. For hadn't the German people, the best educated in Europe at the time, voted for Hitler en masse (well after he had written Mein Kampf) Hadn't the mass of Germans stood by on the whole when their Jewish population (who had lived in Germany for 2,000 years, were well established in the country, and had never exceeded 1 per cent of the population) became the butt of German ire, confusion and hate, and this especially in the intellectual classes, the clever young graduates with the PhDs who littered the ranks of the SS and the mass murderers?

No, I certainly didn't agree with Bishop Bell on his benevolent view of the German people, but what shone through was that this man, against all the odds, had nagged and nagged well before war had broken out and insisted to the CofE that Jewish children should be brought into this country as a priority, and the CofE had resisted. Because Bishop Bell knew his Bible and he knew that Pharaoh, like Hitler, had said (Exodus 1:9), 'Behold, the people, the children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than us'.

Pharaoh/Hitler knew that this was a lie. The Jewish people in Germany as everywhere else were tiny and weaker than other peoples.

Currently the Jewish people comprise 0.2 per cent of the world population and around 0.3 per cent in the UK, just to give you some statistics.

But like all tyrants and people stuck in a rut, Pharaoh was, or had become, jealous. The Jews were a tiny people who had nothing but belief in the one G-d with whom they had a mutual and equal relationship – a covenant.

But people who are into power often have their minds closed and don't understand covenants. They are not people who live with the past and the future. They live in the present and simply react.

So, despite (or because of) all their academic brilliance, the German people wanted to destroy the people of covenant. And Bishop Bell was perhaps the only person in the English Church at the time who fully understood this and acted, time and time again. In this trait he resembled Winston Churchill, who against all the odds, refused time and time again to appease.

And what has happened in our own day to Bishop Bell, the most righteous gentile who has ever graced this country?

Lambeth Palace Libray

What has happened is that new Pharaohs have arisen in the Church of England, for whom Bell's 'absolute truth' is alien. These Pharaohs understand only 'glittering images' and 'glamorous powers'. But when it comes to the biblical 'still small voice' of reason, or even the very British concept of 'innocent until proven guilty', these people in their smallness, envy and distortion of mind, prefer the cowardly option of 'damage limitation' and the breaking of reputations.

So may I suggest that readers of Christian Today take some time to read the very clear report written by Lord Carlile on the way the Bishop Bell case has been handled. Then please ask yourselves if, on the evidence, Bishop Bell is guilty of child abuse as charged, or simply a victim of the workings of the Church of England.

Lord Carlile was asked by the Church authorities to look into the way the investigation of this case was handled, and has concluded that the arrangements were shockingly cavalier and that as a result a man has been found guilty without any proof whatsoever.

You don't have to be a lawyer to read the report. And on reading it myself, it is hard not to conclude that the evidence is overwhelming that Bell is a martyr not of the Church but by the Church. And if, after reading the report on the workings of the Church of England in this case, you agree with me, don't you think that you should do something about it?

Because the biblical Moses was asked by G-d to entreat the Pharaoh of his time to let his own Jewish people go – in words that have enthused heroes such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

But what Bishop Bell did in the 1930s was if anything even more heroic: what he did was to take on the entire Church establishment of the day to ask them to take in the tiny remnant of the Jewish community in Germany and eastern Europe. And this the Church establishment found too difficult to contemplate.

In our contemporary world of social media and soundbites, it is often the case that heroism is rapidly forgotten and reputations rapidly betrayed.

It is all too easy to reflect that there have indeed been many well-documented cases of abuse of both male and female children. But every case should be seen on its own merits, using that very English attribute of common-sense.

But common-sense has flown out the window on this one. And, to add insult to injury, the ever-changing group charged by the Church to investigate the evidence seriously considered approaching the Kindertransport children who Bell had succeeded in bringing in to the country, to ensure that they had not been harmed by their saviour. These guardians of the Church apparently didn't even stop to consider that most of the Kindertransport children will now be in their nineties, with very confused memories.

So who are the heroes in this story? The heroes are Bishop Bell himself, Lord Carlile and the George Bell Group, which includes people from every wing of the political and religious spectrum.

Let us hope that the leadership of the Church of England takes note, issues a swift apology and takes steps to rectify its gross miscarriage of justice. Saying sorry isn't always the option of weaklings, after all, at least not according to Jewish teaching.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.