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Guest Post: Imposters Among Us
An astonishing story in the news recently revealed that an American charedi family living in Israel for many years were actually secret Christian missionaries. Subsequent investigations revealed further "sleeper cells." Paul Shaviv writes the following bizarre account of another such imposter who was prominent in the 1980s. It is disturbing to see how many people were willing to accept the outrageous lies of this imposter without any verification, because it played into a narrative that appealed to them.
When I and my late wife lived in Israel (1982-1990) I did a certain amount of freelance journalism. I wrote for the Jewish Chronicle, including a regular ‘Letter from Jerusalem’. From time to time I did other articles, and I used to meet once or twice a year with the then ‘Features and Judaism’ editor, the late Meir Persoff, when he visited Israel. At one such meeting, he handed me an envelope. “Someone in Jerusalem thinks we should run a feature on this man. Can you check him out and write something for us?”, he said. I put the envelope down, and we carried on our meeting. When I got home I looked at the contents. These were press cuttings and pamphlets about a Jerusalem character called Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Golding, who spearheaded an organization which combatted Christian missionaries. Some of the press reports mentioned that he had previously been an Anglican clergyman, and had converted to Judaism.
By chance, I saw an advertisement a couple of days later that the following week he was going to give a talk about his life and work to one of the groups of English-speaking Jerusalemites.
Jerusalem was, and is, a honeypot for fanatics, fantasists, conmen, wild-eyed religious, would-be messiahs, prophets and all other sorts of strange people, of all religions. Among the population are also many genuine saints and scholars, and individuals of immense spirituality and immense knowledge. You encounter them in the supermarkets, or on the bus, or in all sorts of formal and informal settings… Some are well-known ‘characters’ – familiar sights on the Jerusalem streetscape.
The Christian population includes a subset of all of the above, including representatives and believers of many tiny and historically distinctive Eastern Christian churches. There are a few Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus, and a few Christian Missionaries. But in the main, the more mainline Christians come to study, to experience Jerusalem and to explore their own Holy Places. Some have diplomatic or UN postings. They keep a low profile, and are generally extremely civilized people. There is also a sub-culture of ‘Interfaith dialogue’ in Jerusalem – of earnest and cheerful Christians, and usually former American or other Anglo-Saxon Jewish Israelis. Few ‘sabras’ and fewer Haredim have any interest in those discussions.
So – back to Rabbi Dr. Golding! The following week, armed with a notebook and pen, I turned up to hear his talk, which was at the Yeshurun Synagogue. There was an audience of about 100 or so, mainly British and American, middle-aged, religious. I knew quite a few of them.
In the chair was Rabbi Moshe Rose, whom I knew from London, the former director of Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie’s office.
Rabbi Golding stood up to speak. He was short and stout, bearded, rather gingery, black-hatted, black suited, and gave every impression of a Haredi Jew. He had a northern British accent.
But it only took about five sentences for every alarm bell in my head to start ringing!
Golding’s claimed ‘life story’ was a web of impossibilities.
He claimed that as a small child he had been rescued by mysterious people from Babi Yar (in a bus!); smuggled across Europe, and then smuggled into England during wartime. Brought up in Yorkshire as a Christian, he had met and married “a daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury”. His father-in law, the Archbishop, had suggested he go to Evangelical Bible College. Along the way, mysterious strangers had appeared at the house of his adoptive parents, and confided to him that he was a descendant of the ‘Demidovo’ Hasidic Rebbe, and he had relatives in the East End of London. As an Evangelist, he lived in Turkey for years, smuggling Bibles across the border to Russia.
At a later stage, he had questioned Christianity, and converted to Judaism.
There is no record of children rescued from Babi Yar, let alone in a bus (there were one or two adult escapees); it would have been near-impossible to be smuggled all the way across Nazi-occupied Europe; there was no way to be smuggled across the North Sea into wartime Britain; the Demidovo Hasidim are unknown; no Archbishop of Canterbury would send anyone to Evangelical Bible College (would R’Moshe Feinstein suggest to a son-in-law that they should take some courses at HUC?); and was Turkey known as a base for Christian Evangelists???
Who was this strange person? And, why didn’t anyone else in the room seem remotely disturbed by his story – or by any of the three or four alternative stories of his origins which he subsequently spun!
Let me answer the second question first. As I discovered, he was pressing the right buttons. There are two things that are guaranteed to overcome the natural defences of any Israeli (or religious Jewish) audience – first, “I was rescued from the Holocaust!” and second, “I used to be a Christian priest until I converted to Judaism!”. After the session, I approached the Chair, Rabbi Rose, and asked him what he thought. “Well, he has an interesting story!”, he responded.
At the same time, Golding’s anti-Missionary campaign rolled into action. Reports started appearing in the ‘Jerusalem Post’ and other media of aggressive tactics being used by a new wave of missionaries in and around Jerusalem. It made the ‘New York Times’ in 1984. Profiles of ‘Rabbi Dr. Golding’ began appearing in English and Hebrew media, including ‘Yom Shishi’, Hamodia and even Maariv. A magazine sponsored by the Jewish Agency ran a feature. All repeated the same stories he had told at the meeting; none of the reporters seemed to have checked out any of the facts. I called several of them, including some then – and now – very well-known names. “Did you check the facts?”, I asked. Not a single one had. All accepted his story at face value.
He was now being presented as the authority on missionaries in Jerusalem (“I am maintaining files”), and the coordinator of anti-missionary semi-vigilante activity. He claimed a network of volunteers whom he directed by a radio network. He brandished a walkie-talkie in front of visitors to his office – “As soon as we get a report of missionary activity we can send volunteers”. Someone who visited him tried to look at the files of information in rows of binders on his office shelves when he momentarily left the office. They were all empty! Reporters, rabbis, and heads of religious activist organisations trooped up to his office/apartment near Ben Yehuda, and issued him with letters endorsing his activities. MK Geula Cohen visited him, and commended his work. American yeshivah and seminary programs invited him to speak.
There were more sinister developments. Priests and nuns in Jerusalem reported abuse and harassment on the streets. Some Christians living in an apartment near the Mount of Olives were assaulted. All of this began to be reported in Christian newsletters circulated overseas.
I went to interview Golding. I noted that his domestic setup was strange. There was a wife – and another young woman with a baby, with her head covered in the style of religious women. He volunteered the information that she was his daughter, and that her husband was “overseas”. He confided that his daughter had been long-lost (I can’t now remember how), but that he and his wife had been travelling in Spain, and had stopped to pick up a hitchhiker – who, amazingly, turned out to be his long-lost daughter!
Amidst all of this, Golding launched ‘The Jerusalem Institute of Biblical Polemics’, offering courses to (mainly American) yeshivah and seminary students on how to combat and refute missionary arguments. It was financed by an American “millionaire”. This ran for quite a number of years. In the absence of real missionaries – what was its purpose? We will return to that question. Suffice it to say that his major achievement seems to me to have been introducing dozens and dozens of religious Jewish students to detailed study and reading of the New Testament – a book they would otherwise never have dreamt of opening.
I started to follow leads. Who knew this man? I spoke to some of the ‘Establishment’ anti-Missionary organisations – ‘Yad l’achim’ and others. They all admitted that there was no real missionary threat – perhaps isolated incidents, but there were no longer the institutions – schools, clinics, hospitals, soup kitchens – that had operated in previous generations. But the ‘anti-Missionary’ banner was good for fundraising in the USA. They were all deeply uncomfortable with Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Golding, and deeply suspicious of his bona fides. I spoke to one rather reclusive scholar, to whom I had been referred. Where did Golding’s rabbinic ordination come from?, I wondered. He looked at me wearily. “He hasn’t got one”, he replied. “Then how can he call himself ‘Rabbi’”, I asked. My interviewee looked even more weary. “If all the people in Jerusalem who had no qualifications were barred from calling themselves ‘Rabbi’, half of the city would be out of their jobs.”
Christian contacts of mine in the city were also suspicious. His claim about being the son-in-law of the Archbishop of Canterbury did not stand up to examination. We looked at all the Archbishops and their children going back for decades. None had married anyone who could have been Golding.
When he first came to Israel he had lived in a southern Israeli town called Yeruham, which was home to a group of Anglo-Saxon immigrants who had chosen to settle there. I spoke to one. He described Golding as a ‘man of mystery’, so much so that he and others had drawn Golding to the attention of the Israeli security services.
One magazine editor who had published a profile of Golding wrote to him and asked him to verify some facts, including his connection to the Archbishop; his ordination and his doctorate. Golding’s reply, which she shared with me, was interesting. He claimed that he had said that his father-in-law was ”regarded LIKE the Archbishop of Canterbury by his followers”, who were members of an American Church (whose name I have forgotten). That was definitely not what he said, because I heard him, and wrote it down. What was the Church, though? It so happened that a week or so later I was in the library of the American Cultural Centre on Keren Hayesod in Jerusalem. On the reference shelf I noticed a directory of American Churches. I opened it. The very first entry was that very church – it was a Black Evangelistic congregation. I suspect(ed) that Golding, needing the name of a church, did exactly what I did – he went to the American Cultural Centre, found the directory, opened it on the first page, and appropriated the first entry.
More was to come. Golding published an “Autobiography” – a small booklet of about 40 pages. (There were actually two versions of this – a later one deleted derogatory references to yeshivah bachurim and haredim). This was also a fantastic tale, featuring ghosts passing through walls in the Yorkshire village where he was allegedly brought up; it gave names of his ‘relatives’ in Brick Lane in London; and some tales of his time in Turkey, along the way claiming that that was where he had been converted to Judaism.
A journalist in London, Jenni Frazer, looked through old street directories and other reference works. There was no trace of his relatives, who bore suspiciously fake-sounding Jewish names. That was the least of the improbabilities in his story. We passed photos of Golding around Christian journalists and others in London – no one recognized him. At the same time I found myself in Istanbul, attending the funeral of the victims of the attack on the Neve Shalom synagogue. I took the opportunity to speak to David Asseo, the then Chief Rabbi. In Hebrew, he told me that he was “Very troubled to hear of the activities of Golding in Israel.” He said that Golding had indeed been in Turkey, he thought somehow attached to a British engineering company. He had approached the Jewish community; Asseo had in fact converted him, although he was puzzled by his story.
In the late 1980’s and 1990’s Golding continued his activities, but toned them down – concentrating on running his courses at his ‘Institute’. He was financially supported by an American sympathizer. He published a few anti-Christian books. In ill-health, he passed away, I believe, in the early 1990’s.
All of this was good. But there was one thing that I could never discover, and which prevented me from writing up the whole story at the time.
What was his real name? And who was he?
I never knew.
UNTIL… Every few years I would idly Google his name. Nothing much came up – references to the books he wrote, and references to him in several books discussing Jewish-Christian relations in Israel, or books by evangelicals about Missions to the Jews. Occasionally an endorsement by a former student of his would surface. But suddenly, in the mid-2000’s, an astonishing item surfaced. (I had never seen it before, and it is no longer on the web.) It was a plea by his daughter in England – a middle-aged woman – for information by anyone who had known him. I immediately contacted her (I am going to protect her privacy and not disclose names). “Golding” – not, obviously, his real name – had been an Evangelical pastor in England, who had undertaken Evangelical ’Revival’ tours of England in a double-decker bus. But at some point, perhaps in the 1970’s, he had simply abandoned his family, wife and children - he walked out of the house and disappeared. His family had no idea where he was, and his daughter – who lived in eastern England – had never recovered from sudden abandonment by her father. She emotionally described her loss, and the feelings of unresolved emotions. She knew he had ended up in Israel, but knew little about his life there, although she was in touch with a woman who was apparently his granddaughter. I now knew his real name, and a little about his original Evangelical background.
At the end of the day, I have a theory about Golding. I am puzzled by his activities and preoccupation with the New Testament. I have known a number of converts to Judaism. They all wished to leave their previous lives firmly behind them. No one wanted to be involved with Christianity – except Golding, who occupied himself and others all day, every day, with the New Testament. As I mentioned, he taught it in detail to numerous Yeshivah and Seminary students… In his writings, and his ‘Autobiography’, he continued to employ the language of extreme Protestant evangelism… references to Gog and Magog, the anti-Christ, and other apocalyptic language.
I think that he may have been the most extreme Christian missionary of them all.
In apocalyptic Evangelism, the End of Days and the Second Coming will be brought about by wars between Christians and Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, triggered by the Anti-Christ – who will come from among the Jews. As a convert, Golding technically came from “among the Jews”. He was very deliberately and actively stoking the conflict between Jews and Christians in Jerusalem. Did he cast himself in a gesture of supreme sacrifice as the Anti-Christ – and did he believe he could bring the Second Coming???
In the crazy pressure-cooker of Jerusalem – nothing is impossible!
Paul Shaviv is a retired educator, originally from the UK, and now living in the USA. He gives adult education courses on Jewish History in person and online.