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How a Biographer Repaid One of History’s Debts

In 1997, while scanning the books clamoring for attention in the literary editor’s closet at The Jerusalem Post, Haim Chertok, an occasional reviewer for that paper, noted a festshrift — a collection of commemorative essays — marking the centenary of the birth of an Anglican priest, James Parkes.

Chertok had read two books that Parkes had written, including one about the unhappy history of the early church’s relations with the Jews. The other, “Whose Land?” examined claims that Jews, Christians and Muslims had on the Holy Land and concluded that on historical grounds, the Jews had the strongest case. Chertok, who taught English at Ben-Gurion University, toyed with the notion of selecting a novel to read on the bus back to Beersheba, but in the end his hand reached for the book of essays. That casual choice in 1997 would decide the direction of Chertok’s life for the next decade.

Parkes was a formidable champion of the Jews not because of theological dictate but out of a sense of earthly justice. As a young man, he was aware that the Jews had been roughly handled by history. But his personal encounters with virulent antisemitism during trips to the Continent as an activist in the Student Christian Movement made him acutely aware that this troubling chapter of history was far from closed.

Reading that festshrift, Chertok felt he was being drawn into something on which he had not planned. One of the essayists noted that 25 years had passed since Parkes’s death and no biography of him had yet appeared. It struck Chertok that given the debt owed Parkes by the Jews, it would be appropriate for a Jewish writer to take on the task. Although Chertok had written several books, he did not consider himself — a Torah-observant Jew — to be a natural candidate (though he had studied at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, when he lived in the Bronx). It was a whimsical trip to the Channel island of Guernsey that finally enabled Chertok to persuade himself to take up the challenge. He visited Guernsey in 1995 on a hunt for historical evidence of a Jewish community on the island, but it proved a dead end. He was, however, enchanted by the island and made friends there. Parkes, it turned out, was born on Guernsey. It struck Chertok that working on Parkes’s biography would provide him a legitimate excuse to return to the island to conduct research. Thus began an odyssey that led to the publication in 2006 of a 500-page biography titled “He Also Spoke as a Jew: The Life of the Reverend James Parkes.”

Chertok describes Parkes as “the most steadfast and effective defender of the Jewish people to emerge from Gentile ranks in the Twentieth Century,” a period in which the church’s attitude toward the Jews underwent a remarkable transformation. But while the far-reaching changes in the Vatican’s attitude toward the Jews took place only after the Holocaust, Parkes had taken to the barricades already in the 1920s.

In 1925, at age 28, Parkes chaired a conference of the World Student Christian Federation in Switzerland, dedicated to the Jewish question. To his astonishment, the first speaker delivered a venomous anti-Jewish address that appeared to have the support of many in the large audience. Assuming his prerogative as chairman, Parkes announced that the conference would not proceed unless the speaker returned to the podium to apologize. After tumult lasting some 20 minutes, the speaker did return to say he had been misunderstood.

It was Parkes’s first head-to-head confrontation with antisemitism, and it proved decisive. “Hitherto, it had been just one of the many contemporary problems of which I was aware,” Parkes would later write. “This conference made me conscious of its violence and special quality.”

“From this point on,” Chertok explained in a recent interview. “Parkes felt drawn to defend the Jewish people for the rest of his days.”

The title of Chertok’s book comes from a speech that Parkes gave in 1946 to a Jewish audience in New York: “I speak as a Christian, but in a sense I also speak as a Jew.” Both religions, Parkes said, were true. “Neither is simply an incomplete form of the other. Sinai and Calvary are two closely interlocked and complementary stages of a single divine plan.”

“Parkes did not shrink from tossing overboard nineteen centuries of Christian negatives about Jews and Judaism,” Chertok said. “Among Christian scholars and so-called ‘philosemites,’ he achieved unique success in internalizing Jewish modalities of thought and tradition. For a Jew to read Parkes on Jewish tradition or on the meaning of the state of Israel, which he visited seven times, is akin to at last being recognized and accepted for who he really is. After so much ignorance, distortion and well-intentioned palaver, it is inebriating.”

Abraham Rabinovich is the author, most recently, of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East” (Schocken).

This piece is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post.

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