Why David was headhunted for interfaith council

DAVID GIFFORD is a man on a mission as chief executive of the Council of Christians and Jews.

Headhunted four years ago, despite having little experience of Judaism, the Church of England minister took up the challenge without hesitation.

"Starting with the CCJ was exciting and new," he recalled.

"It has been an enrichment from the beginning to connect with the Jewish community.

"If you are a cultured person then you cannot get away from the influence of Judaism on music, culture, art, philosophy and writing.

"You also cannot understand Christianity until you understand more of Judaism."

David has particularly enjoyed participating in Jewish festivals.

"I'm drawn to Yom Kippur, Purim is always great as is Shavuot and I've been to several sedarim at Passover."

The Jewish way of mourning has also proved educational.

"I lost my father Keith more than a year ago and, as a Christian, my faith helped me through, but the way the Jewish community rallied around me really touched me," he said.

"It was natural for them to write and say things - from the Chief Rabbi to people everywhere.

"I heard about shiva and this is something we need to learn from because it is a way to handle bereavement."

David added: "When you understand more about religions you become less intolerant, then you engage more, encounter more and both are more enriched, but we must be quite clear to say that the distinctiveness of Judaism is very different from the distinctiveness of Christianity as a religion.

"Both communities should develop in a way that is right for them. Both should affirm their distinctiveness, Jews with Judaism and Christians with Christianity."

Growing up in South Wales, David went to Croesyceiliog School near Cwmbran.

Although he was a keen squash player, like most Welsh youngsters, he followed the great Wales rugby union team of the late 1960's and 70's.

"I watched Pontypool play, but also went to many games at Cardiff Arms Park when they played in the Home Internationals," David, 57, recalled.

"Wales had world class stars during this era."

He now watches Wasps when he gets the chance.

At his provincial school, David's favourite subjects were geography, which he later studied at university, English literature and language.

A member of numerous choirs, music has also played a large part in his life.

A bass baritone, he cites performing with Oxford's combined Welsh male voice choir at the Royal Albert Hall as particularly memorable.

The CCJ, formed in 1942, is the UK's oldest national inter-faith organisation.

The organisation was founded when William Temple (later the Archbishop of Canterbury) and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz met to address intolerance and prejudice in Britain.

In addition to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Rowan Williams, the group today includes Rt Rev Cormac Murphy O' Connor (Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster), Rabbi Abraham Levy (Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Congregations), Rt Rev Gregorios (Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain), Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, (Reform Judaism), Commissioner Elizabeth Matear (Free Church Group), Rabbi Danny Rich (Liberal Judaism), Rt Rev David Lunan (Church of Scotland) and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (Masorti Synagogues).

"The group meets once a year and talks about issues relating to communities and society at large," David noted.

As for his role, he said: "I make sure we are always at the cutting edge of Jewish/Christian dialogue. We push forward and address the issues of the day.

"Antisemitism had been going down, but has gone up again at a rate of knots, which is disconcerting.

"Another major issue for us is Israel and the reaction of the Church and wider society to what happens in Israel when things go wrong with the Palestinian conflict.

"Very often the diaspora in Britain tends to get a lot of the fall-out from the negativity that comes.

"Our position on Israel, Zionism and all those issues are on our website for all to see.

"Israel is a legitimate state and the rights of the Israeli people must for self determination and security has to be obeyed. But there is also a narrative of the Palestinians and we say that a two-state solution is the way forward, but at the same time it must be a negotiated settlement."

He added: "All faiths have extremist elements. It is a fact of life that those people will not involve in dialogue.

"We get them in Judaism and Christianity, but in between those two extremes is a huge area and those are the ones we work with. Better to spend energy on what can be done rather than what cannot be done."

David takes the view that older people have decision making powers and influence on policy, but also recognises that formation happens when the younger generation are in education so the CCJ has an ongoing policy to provide materials for teachers and visits schools.

On campus, because CCJ has not got the resources to work with every university and all the student groups, it has launched a project called Side By Side where the organisation works with faith chaplains to aid interfaith dialogue.

"Each term the Jewish/Muslim/Christian societies come together for a multi-interfaith event to share discussion," he explained.

"We give them the skills and ideas to start things on campus as they are there a lot longer than the students.

"I am encouraged by the amount of interfaith work that takes place around the country but we must guard against a lot being said and not a lot being done.

"It was not there 10 years ago, but the government backed the first interfaith week last year and we did a huge amount of work all over the country, which was great but it must not be a one off."

Regarding Islamaphobia, David said: "Talking to groups there is not so much a sense of Islamaphbia in a negative sense that they are all bad people, but there is a fear of Islam that it is all terrorism. Yet there are many people that know they are all not like that."

As for Israel in the media, he noted: "In every conflict there are two narratives and it's not fair that the Israel narrative doesn't get a fair crack of the whip.

"It always seems that the reader says, 'This is the Israeli side and this is the Palestinian side', then falls on the side of the Palestinians.

"There are injustices done and we understand this, but the question is why are these injustices happening.

"We need to go back in history and start at the beginning.

"We need to say, all right what happened in the past is over, how do we work in the future."

Looking to the future of Jewish/Christian relations and the Middle East, David is optimistic.

"You have to hope there will be peace one day and must work for it, but there must be give and take between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

"I'm also positive about the future for Jewish/Christian dialogue, but it isn't easy and there are lots of things to work out.

"We have to cross new barriers but enjoy the richness of each others culture and traditions while at the same time will continue to move forward."

Prior to taking up the post at CCJ, David held firm views relating to the Jewish religion and Israel.

"I've never believed Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, he died because of human nature," he said.

"I always saw Israel as a sovereign state and knew of its struggle with neighbours, but I'm far more aware now.

"I also had limited knowledge about the Jewish culture and its people before CCJ, but now I'm much richer.

"There was a real gap and this has spurred me on through CCJ."

David added: "I'd not been to Israel before CCJ, but I've now been three times.

"From a religious perspective all the things I've read about in the Old Testament come alive. Places are dripping in history and evocativeness.

"Seeing how the land has been transformed, it is impossible not to be impressed and, of course, also by the development that has taken place turning dry land into crops.

"The most beautiful place is the Mountain of Beatitudes on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, but I also enjoy experiencing the busyness of Christians and Jews in Jerusalem.

"I hope to visit the Negev soon and will one year join the annual visit of Christian clergy that attend a 10-day study trip organised by the CCJ and Yad Vashem Institute."

David's mother, Brenda, lives in Cardiff. He also has a retired brother, Hugh, living in Wales.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph