Let Them Eat Bagels: Queen Elizabeth's Relationship With the Jews Remains a Mystery

As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her diamond jubilee, synagogues throughout the Commonwealth will read out a prayer for the monarch. But the high regard in which U.K Jews hold their queen is based on little concrete evidence.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Thousands of Jewish men of a certain age have an intimate connection with Britain's next king. Like them, the Prince of Wales, Charles, was circumcised by Rabbi Jacob Snowman M.D, at the time the leading mohel in London and the circumciser to the royal family. Unlike other tradesmen and purveyors of services to Buckingham Palace, Rabbi Dr Snowman did not go around London with the royal coat of arms on his doctor's bag, but the fact that the delicate act was performed upon the royal princes by a Jewish practitioner, a custom dating back to George I, who brought it over from his native Hanover, has long been a source of pride within the local community.

This Saturday, as Britain begins a four-day jamboree celebrating the diamond jubilee, in shuls around the United Kingdom and throughout the British Commonwealth, as far away as Australia and New Zealand, the prayer for the health and good counsel of the monarch will be read out. Many will reflect that over the course of history, this ancient text was never said by so many Jews, for so long and with such sincerity as it has been over the sixty years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.
The high regard in which Britain's Jews hold their queen has little concrete evidence to lean on. Part of Elizabeth's long-enduring popularity is derived from the fact that in six decades as head of state she has almost never used her royal prerogatives and her personal views on matters of state, despite her weekly meetings with the prime minister and her exclusive access to the government's affairs, next to nothing of her personal views, likes and dislikes, asides from a predilection for Corgi dogs, is known.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, an expert in contemporary British history, is one of those who are proud to have been circumcised by the royal mohel and is convinced that "the fact that the royal family has always used Jews for this is indicative" of their attitude toward Jews. He admits, however, that "we cannot know what the queen's view of Jews is, as she is not allowed to express her views in public and we won't know, if ever, for a long time. I have been introduced to the queen at Buckingham Palace, she was very gracious and she obviously noticed my yarmulke but that doesn't mean anything. She has to be gracious to everyone."

In the absence of much evidence, the lack of visible prejudice from a woman who is the product of a British establishment that historically has harbored latent anti-Semitism is significant. Professor Alderman notes that the queen, who has to grant her consent to the marriage of her children, is not known to have any objections to her only daughter, Princess Anne, having married a naval officer of Italian-Jewish descent.

But with few aberrations, most notably the pro-Nazi Edward VIII who reigned for less than a year until his abdication in 1936, for the last couple of centuries the British royal family has been remarkably free of judeophobia, specifically from the long reign of Elizabeth's great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837.

The writer Simon Sebag Montefiore insists that "historically the British royal family has had a very friendly relationship with the Jewish community." He should know, as his family, from the days of his illustrious forebear, Sir Moses Montefiore, has been friendly with various royals and he himself is known to be a friend of Prince Charles. "It started when Sir Moses lent Victoria a key to his estates in Ramsgate, Kent. VIctoria and the other members of the royal family and aristocracy regarded him as what they expected a Jew should be like in an era of philosemitism and evangelical Christian Zionism." This tradition he says, endures "ever since the 19th Century, and right up to Britain today. Members of the royal family routinely attend many, many Jewish events and support Jewish causes and charities. Something regarded as totally normal here. And rightly so."

The man closest to Victoria, after her beloved Prince Albert, was Benjamin Disraeli, who though baptized aged 12 was widely regarded during his time as prime minister as a Jew, including by his anti-Semitic rival, William Gladstone. And while Victoria was ambivalent to Disraeli's Jewishness, it was her son, Edward VII who was the true philosemite.

Throughout his life, the urbane and hedonistic Edward, who reigned in the first decade of the 20th Century, surrounded himself with wealthy Jewish friends. Many of his numerous mistresses were also Jewish. One of his closest friends and riding partners was the financier Ernest Cassel, and the anti-Semites of the time sometimes called the king's residence outside London, Windsor Cassel. Cassel's granddaughter would marry in 1922, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the matchmaker between his second cousin, the future Queen Elizabeth and his nephew, Prince Phillip of Greece and Denmark.

Phillip also has an important Jewish connection. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg was recognized in 1994 by Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile for saving a Jewish family in war-time Athens and is buried on the Mount of Olives. The cantankerous royal consort, notorious for offensive gaffes, is never known to have ever uttered a disparaging word against Jews. Instead, many Jews treasure humorous conversations with Phillip, such as his exchange with Rabbi Morris Unterman of the Marble Arch synagogue, who was asked by the prince where he lived. "Over the shop," answered the Rabbi to which Phillip responded, "oh, just like us."

British Jews are by and large monarchists. Especially among the older generation, it is an article of faith that monarchy is good for the Jews as it gives stability, a condition that Diaspora Jews have always craved. Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian's columnist is an anomaly; a prominent Jewish republican. His first book in 1998 was Bring Home the Revolution: The case for a British Republic, which argued for a complete constitutional overhaul.

Freedland says that two influences had steered him away from republicanism on Jewish-related grounds – his grandmother, an ardent monarchist who felt Jews had a special obligation to feel grateful to Britain for taking us in, and "the couple of anti-Semites who over the years have sent me hate mail, warning that it was not for me, a Jew, to challenge the arrangements of a country in which I was lucky to be a guest - adding that if I didn't like it here, I could always leave.

"My own view is that my grandmother was right on the first aspect of this - that Jews should indeed have a sense of gratitude to Britain, which stood alone against Nazism and which has proved a place in which Jews have been able to flourish. Where I differ is that I think that, if Jews are full members of this society - which we are - then we have the same right as everyone else to debate how the country is run. That includes the right to say that, if Britain is a genuine democracy, then it should be up to the people to choose their own head of state, rather than for that post to be the exclusive preserve of a single family - a family which, we might add, is white and Protestant and yet is asked to represent in perpetuity a country which is not exclusively one or the other."

The Jewish community has one grievance with the queen. Her reign has spanned nearly Israel's entire existence but neither she nor any member of her family has ever visited the Jewish state. Phillip has only visited his mother's grave twice, and each time the British Foreign Office emphasized it was strictly a private visit. Charles visited Israel once for 24 hours, for Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, a visit which was also described as "private."

Views within Israel's foreign service are split. While some diplomats believe that the queen could have accepted one of her many invitations by Israeli presidents, if she really wished to do so, others understand that it is out of her hands. "It would be wonderful if there was a royal visit to Israel," said one senior diplomat, "but we know that it is entirely unlikely unless there is a major shift in the region. The British Foreign Office will never expose her to any kind of controversy. Instead of making a fuss out of something that won't happen, it's much more important for the prime minister to come with a delegation of British businessmen."

Staunchly pro-Israel historian Andrew Roberts has long insisted it was no coincidence that there had never been a royal visit to Israel, despite the Foreign Office sending the Queen on extensive state visits to the Middle East and North Africa.

Yet Roberts staunchly defends the queen saying that she "could certainly not go to Israel without the Government’s say-so, however much she might want to personally. She absolutely has to do what the Foreign Secretary (and thus sadly usually the Foreign Office) says." Roberts is adamant that "there is no whiff of anti-Semitism in the present Royal family" saying that the queen's grandson, Prince Harry, dressing up in a Nazi uniform at a party seven years ago was due to "him being moronically incapable of spotting the PR repercussions of such a thing for everybody, not just Jews."

And while some Jews are worried about rumors of future monarch Prince Charles' critical views on Israel's policies, others are reassured by his many Jewish friends including Sebag Montefiore and actor Stephen Fry. Charles even has his own blue velvet kippa with a royal crest on it in silver to wear at Jewish weddings.

Souvenirs including paper masks of Britain's royal family are displayed at a store in central London on May 31, 2012.Credit: AFP



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