Boris Johnson’s Sister Reveals His Little-known Past as a Volunteer on an Israeli Kibbutz

‘He was so socially low on the pecking order,’ recalls Rachel Johnson. ‘He was not a kibbutznik. He was not a soldier. And he was so pale he couldn’t even go in the sun.’

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his first trip to Israel in the summer of 1984. Johnson sits on the top step of a flight of steps leading to the golden-domed Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his first trip to Israel in the summer of 1984.Credit: Rachel Johnson
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

LONDON — The outspoken and controversial Boris Johnson has been easing into his new position as Britain’s Foreign Secretary with visits to Brussels and Paris and chummy joint press conferences in London with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

A trip to Israel doesn’t seem to be as high on Johnson’s agenda as repairing fences with the European Union and its member states or assuring Washington and the rest of the world that post-Brexit-vote Britain is standing tall and ready to return to business as usual.

But if and when the mop-haired minister who led the campaign for Britain to leave the EU does pop over to Jerusalem for a visit, he will undoubtedly be welcomed with open arms.

Long considered friendly and sympathetic toward Israel — on his last visit to the country, two years ago, the then-London mayor lashed out at the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and pronounced Israel the only “pluralist, open society” in the region — Johnson’s connection to, and interest in the country goes back many years: to days in which no one was on the tarmac to welcome him at Ben-Gurion International Airport and no red carpets were in sight.

If anyone took note of Johnson’s presence at all, back when he made his first trip to Israel over 30 years ago, attests his sister Rachel Johnson, it was probably just because his floppy bright blond hair and pale skin made him stick out like, as she puts it, a sore “goy” thumb.

Rachel, a London-based journalist, remembers that first trip to Israel well: The siblings undertook it together in the summer of 1984. She was on a gap year before heading to Oxford University. Boris, 14 months her elder and already a student at Oxford, had just finished his first year at Balliol College, where he was a top classics scholar. “Our father thought this was a good way to get rid of us for the summer,” notes Rachel, “and six weeks of what I thought of as ‘Jew camp’ on kibbutz sounded fun.”

While Rachel, Boris and their two younger brothers have some Jewish ancestry on their mother’s side — their maternal great-grandfather, says Rachel, was a rabbi from Lithuania — their Jewish identity, inasmuch as they have or ever had one (Boris identifies as an Anglican) comes by way of their father, Stanley Johnson.

A non-Jew with royal British and Turkish heritage in his ancestral mix, Stanley, divorced from his children’s mother — the painter Charlotte Johnson — remarried a woman from a well-known Anglo-Jewish family: Jenny, the stepdaughter of philanthropist Zionist businessman Teddy Sieff, who had served as chairman of Marks and Spencer and once survived an assassination attempt by Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.

And so it was Johnson’s father who helped orchestrate the Israel trip: putting the youngsters in touch with his wife’s close family friends, the distinguished Israeli diplomat Michael Comay and his writer and architect wife, Joan, and helping make the connection with Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, where Rachel and Boris were set to volunteer for close to two months.

It did not take long for the two sophisticated public-school spawn to decide that perhaps that much time in a agricultural collective community in the heat of summer was a little ambitious.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his first trip to Israel, in the summer of 1984.Credit: Rachel Johnson

“Al [Rachel’s nickname for Boris, whose official first name is Alexander] is living in utter squalor with two others. I am living with Sarah from Maida Vale, who is on ulpan,” says Rachel, reading aloud from her 30-year-old diary: “Al is warning me he is going to stay here 2-3 weeks maximum.”

“It was all very rudimentary,” she recalls today, remembering the “baking-hot huts with corrugated roofs” they were lodged in, and the hummus, yogurt, eggs and tomatoes they were served — as she recalls it — at every single meal. “Neither of us were very impressed at the beginning,” she sniffs.

And while Rachel somehow finagled her way out of her initial work assignment — cleaning the men’s bathrooms — and got herself reassigned to picking apples with “an attractive kibbutznik,” Boris dutifully stuck to his appointed job in the communal kitchen. There — as Rachel describes it in her diary — he “showed inner steel,” scrubbing pots and pans and sweating it out in the heat of the kitchen, meal after meal.

“I played the shiksa princess card and went straight to the work coordinator and said, there was no way I was going to be cleaning men’s toilets on my holiday. But Boris was amazing. I have to hand it to him. He didn’t complain at all,” she says.

Whether or not the future mayor and foreign secretary enjoyed that hot summer on the kibbutz and/or got much out of it is another question. “He was so socially low on the pecking order,” Rachel notes, only half-joking. “He was not a kibbutznik. He was not a soldier. And he was so pale he couldn’t even go in the sun.”

So, while his sister spent evenings in the pub and took weekend trips up to the nearby Lake Kinneret, Boris spend his free time in the kibbutz library, where, Rachel says, he read Virgil and played music on an old record player. “He is self-sufficient,” she says. “I think he was all right.”

Things took a turn for the better post-kibbutz, she remembers, when the two hitchhiked, caught buses and, for a while, took turns driving the Comays’ borrowed car up and down the country: They visited Hebron and Bethlehem, hiked up Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and went sightseeing in Jerusalem. There, one of the first things Boris — a young journalist and rising star at the Oxford Union at the time — did, was ask for an interview with Teddy Kollek, the city’s much-loved five-time mayor.

“He came back from that interview in a state of great elation,” Rachel, who had forgone the visit to the mayor so as to finish her Judith Krantz novel, wrote in her diary. “He loved that.”

It was, in sum, says Rachel, actually a very good summer. They stayed the whole six weeks.

These days, many a summer later, the British foreign secretary, according to the local papers, is in Greece — not to volunteer with refugees or hold talks on that country’s economic woes, but rather just for some rest and relaxation with his family.

It’s a shame really, as he could have come back to the kibbutz instead. He undoubtedly would have been amazed by the air-conditioning in the modern bed-and-breakfast units. And no one would have made him work in the kitchen, either.

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