Archbishop of Canterbury: Accusing Israel of hospital blast is ‘blood libel’

Speaking in Jerusalem to families of killed and kidnapped, Justin Welby says no evidence of Israeli complicity in deadly explosion at Anglican hospital

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks in Jerusalem on October 22, 2023, with the family of Yosef Guedalia, who fell fighting Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks in Jerusalem on October 22, 2023, with the family of Yosef Guedalia, who fell fighting Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in Jerusalem on Sunday that there was no reason to assume Israel was behind the October 17 blast at an Anglican Hospital in Gaza City, and that spreading false accusations about Israeli responsibility was a “blood libel.”

“Don’t assume it’s Israel,” Welby said to The Times of Israel. “You have no proof.”

“Do not start propagating another blood libel,” he said in a message to those blaming Israel.

The Anglican leader came to Israel on a solidarity visit after the blast at the Anglican Al-Ahli hospital. He met on Sunday at the King David Hotel with the family of a slain 22-year-old IDF soldier of British descent,  Sgt. First Class Yosef Malachi Guedalia, and with members of the Haran family from Kibbutz Be’eri, 8 of whom are missing or taken captive, and 2 of whom were killed on October 7.

On October 17, the local Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem issued a statement blaming “the loss of hundreds of innocent civilians” on Israeli airstrikes. Welby would not back that figure, saying only “I have no idea how many civilians there were, I’ve heard so many different numbers.”

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza immediately blamed the blast on an Israeli airstrike. However, Israel produced evidence showing it was caused by a failed rocket launch from Gaza by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, an assessment endorsed by the United States, which has said it has its own data to this effect.

Hamas health authorities put the death toll at 500, an account that was widely reported worldwide.

Bodies of Palestinians killed in a blast near the Ahli Arab hospital are seen gathered at the front yard of the al-Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, Oct. 17, 2023. (AP/Abed Khaled)

“Of course, Palestinian families cry out in protest,” Welby said in response to a question from the media about Gazan casualties. “Who wouldn’t when they’ve lost their children? Let’s not run to judgment and blame straight away, let us lament and mourn with them.”

He also decried those pro-Palestinian demonstrators marching in London and other cities on Saturday who accused Israel of genocide.

“You have no understanding of what you’re saying,” said Welby. “Wait, think. listen, mourn, cry out for peace. Look for ways that nobody need go to bed fearing their house broken into and their children butchered, their relatives taken hostage. Cry out against that. Cry out against people dying in airstrikes.”

Hours after his meeting with the families, Welby tweeted out a call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, and a statement from Saturday by the heads of Jerusalem’s churches condemning Israel “in the strongest possible terms” for an October 19 strike alleged to cause part of the Orthodox Saint Porphyrios Church in Gaza to collapse, which the statement said had killed at least 18 people.

Welby was attentive and clearly moved during his nearly hour-long talk  with the Guedalia and Haran families.

“I am at a loss for words to express my horror, shock, and sense of the extraordinary pain that you are all feeling,” said Welby.

“How do I begin to convey what this means for you?” he asked the families. “What is it you want me to hear? What is it you want me to say?”

“Where will I start, with hope or with grief?” asked David Havron, who has 8 family members still missing and presumed kidnapped by Hamas.

“Please help if you can help,” said Havron. “I have two sisters. I am not sure they are hostages. They are missing. We plead everyone that can help please help.”

Isidore Zuckerbrod and Renata Szyfner looking through the Central Database of Shoah Victims Names looking for members of Isidore’s family murdered during the Holocaust on May 25, 2022. (Yad Vashem)

David Guedalia, whose son Yosef fell during the fighting in Kfar Aza, said that his family was “fortunate enough to have his body to bury.”

“Yosef put his all into every aspect of his life, whether that was Torah, friends, family, me, our household, the army, and doing good for others,” his widow, Senai, told The Times of Israel.

“We miss him and we know he is doing so much good for all of us from above. I feel like the floor has been ripped out from under me – and to think that approximately at least 1,600 other families are feeling the same is heartbreaking. We’re all one family and we all feel each other’s pain. And despite it all we wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

Yosef and Senai were married for a year and four days.

Sgt. First Class Yosef Malachi Guedalia. (Courtesy)

“You’ll go on remembering always,” Welby told Senai. “You never get over it. You go on, you build live. There’s always a hole. But the pain will ease, and happier memories will flood and drown the pain.”

Welby lost his seven-month-old daughter Johanna in a car crash in 1983.

Yosef’s mother Dina, originally from Manchester, gave Welby a drawing he made in kindergarten, then a photo from his service in the elite Duvdevan unit.  “He was sweet, sweet, kind, loving, gentle, caring, beautiful child, who was very, very, very professional in his job,” she said.

“Our enemies are evil, pure evil,” said Daniel. “I said to myself, having enemies that are pure evil means we’re pure good.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks with the family of Yosef Guedalia, who fell fighting Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Yosef’s grandfather Isidore Zuckerbrod, born to Holocaust survivors in Poland weeks after the fall of Nazi Germany, called October 7 “a pogrom.”

“There’s no other word to describe what happened,” he told Welby. “There were pogroms in Poland, in Europe. Something that I would not in my wildest imagination think would happen is that there are pogroms in Israel.”

On October 7, 2,500 terrorists broke through the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip in a multipronged, devastating onslaught. At least 1,400 people were killed, including over 1,000 civilians, and over 200 people were abducted to Gaza as hostages.

Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what US President Joe Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

Zuckerbrod said he had a range of emotions on hearing about the Hamas attacks and the death of his grandson.

“My first reaction was one of anger, that 80 years after the Nazi Shoah we should still be in the same situation, even worse,” he recalled.

“My second reaction was one of pride. What my father would have given to see his grandson a fighting soldier, being able to stand up from himself to be able to defend his people.”

“My next reaction is pain, obviously,” Zuckerbord continued. “My own pain, the pain of his wife, his mother, his father, brother, sister-in-law, the pain of the family.”

Zuckerbrod asked Welby simply to “support us.”

“Support us in the media. Support us  by declaring the justice of our being in Israel…our very very simple narrative, we are Jews this is our home, this is where we live ,and this is where have to defend ourselves, this is where we able to defend ourselves.”

In response Welby said he “agrees entirely with that.”

Demonstrators hold up flags and placards during a pro Palestinian demonstration in London, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/David Cliff)

“Israel is a legal state, it is entitled to self-defense,” he told the families. “There is no equivalency between Israel and Hamas.”

He also told Zuckerbord that his father “would have been so proud to see [Yosef] fighting for his home.”

Sitting next to Welby, Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, asked the archbishop to take what he heard in Israel, and “share it , communicate it with a wider audience, use the privilege the Almighty has given you in a way that none of us can.”

“The world often seeks to purify the evil in certain terms, and will not identify terrorism for what it is,” said Rosen. “It’s some small comfort when leaders identify evil as such.”

Welby similarly denounced the attack as evil: “This is like a volcano breaking out, it is evil in its most extreme form. and I’m so glad you’ve named it for what it is.”

He said that his first reaction on hearing about the attacks on October 7 was anger, “because it’s the throwing away of life. It’s the throwing away of hopes for the region, it’s the beginning of throwing away of an awful lot of other lives that are going to be caught up in this disaster.”

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