Olympic Trauma

Love for Jews rises from the ashes of Munich massacre

Bruce Thompson. Photo courtesy Charles Gardner

Traumatised by the Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes as a 12-year-old sports fan, Bruce Thompson grew up to be a Methodist minister with a deep love for the Jewish people. And he has been critical of the anti-Israel attitudes expressed in church groups over the years.

Bruce had been looking forward to the 1972 event for weeks, and his parents had bought a colour television for the occasion. But the Black September Palestinian terrorist group shattered his joy when they took a number of Israeli Olympians hostage and subsequently slaughtered them.

“I was traumatised by it, and wondered what on earth this was all about,” the Lincoln clergyman shared (via Zoom) in a lecture hosted by the Church’s Ministry among Jewish people at their Nottinghamshire headquarters.

It set him off on a search for understanding what was behind the worldwide hostility towards Jews. His interest grew the following year when the Yom Kippur War broke out, with Israel’s neighbours intent on destroying her. Bruce was fascinated by wars anyway as his grandfather had served in World War II, but again he wondered why Arab countries were ganging up against such a tiny state.

Then he learnt about the Holocaust when six million perished just for being Jewish, and struggled to grasp why Hitler diverted precious resources which could have protected his own people towards persecuting the Jews. It made no sense. Even in Sunday School, the Jews were painted as people of darkness with the Christians as people of light.

It was not until he served as a minister in Manchester during the 1990s that he began knowingly to encounter Jews. Later, as a minister in Taunton, Somerset, he staged an exhibition about Anne Frank, whose diary about the trauma of hiding from the Nazis became a worldwide best-seller. As a result, he was contacted by a man who claimed to be “the only Jew in Somerset”.

It turned out there were several others making the same claim, so he helped form a Jewish Cultural Society for the county. This was part of his response to a rabbi in Manchester who had tasked him with building a synagogue in Taunton when he moved there. When he shared this with someone after later moving to Lincoln, the response was: “It’s about time a Jew built a church.” To which Bruce countered: “It’s too late; it’s already happened! His name is Jesus!”

He is saddened by the ignorance, or at least indifference, to our Jewish foundations among so many in the church. It had opened up a whole new world to him, and he began to read the gospels in a different light. Yet little of it was taught at theological college.

Then, aged 35, he was persuaded to lead a pilgrimage to Israel, having hardly set foot outside England, and his life took on “a wholly different perspective”. He was especially surprised when he found himself weeping profusely at the Western Wall as he witnessed the venue “alive with joy and celebration” on a day of bar-mitzvahs (marking the coming of age of boys), after which he redoubled his efforts to connect with the Jewish community at home.

But he felt “physically sick” by a church report on Israel/Palestine, after which he and others founded Methodist Friends of Judaism as an attempt to bridge the gap of understanding between the two communities. Their differences, he has discovered, seem to boil down to the fact that, while Christians believe the Messiah has already come, Jews are still waiting for him.

“I believe we have a great deal to teach each other,” he said, adding: “We have much to learn from the people who have always been a minority over 2,000 years.”

But he insists that he won’t desert the Methodists because of the love and care shown him when, as a boy, he was seeking comfort and guidance. “It is my family,” he said. “The Methodist Church provided me a family when I felt I had none as a toddler – I was an only child.”

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