The Love Affair Between British Jews and the Royals

British Jews are celebrating the new-born prince's arrival - but the Anglo-Jewish infatuation with the British monarchy is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It is a mistake (I am constantly telling my students) to suppose that the United Kingdom is a democracy. It’s actually a hereditary constitutional monarchy. And the most important thing about a hereditary monarchy is that the line of hereditary succession should be secured. That is why the news that the Duchess of Cambridge (the future Queen) has given birth to a son has been greeted so enthusiastically here in England and throughout the British Commonwealth. Ignore the protests of republicans: As the Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations showed last year, hereditary monarchism is very much alive and well throughout the land. And there is no section of Her Majesty’s subjects more in tune with this sentiment than the Jews.

Within a few hours of the royal birth, Jewish representative groups were falling over themselves to present their loyal congratulations. We can expect rabbis of various persuasions to refer to this auspicious occasion in their Shabbat sermons. And gifts with a distinctly Jewish flavor will surely follow.

But the Anglo-Jewish infatuation with the British monarchy is of comparatively recent origin. Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290, and the landmark agreement for the Readmission of the Jews to England (1656) was only effected once Charles I had been beheaded and a republic declared under “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell.

At the Restoration (1660, when the monarchy was re-established) there was genuine concern that the Jews whom Cromwell had readmitted might be thrown out – especially when the easy-going Charles II was succeed by his aggressively Catholic brother James II (1685-88). It is often forgotten that Jewish money helped fund James’s overthrow and his replacement by the Dutch Protestant William III. On the death of his sister-in-law and successor Anne, in 1714, the Protestant succession was secured through an invitation to George, Elector of Hanover, to take the British throne in preference to James II’s son, the Stuart “old pretender.” When the “young pretender,” also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, sought to overthrow the Hanoverian George II (1745), there was panic on the London stock market - and Jewish bankers again came to the rescue.

It was also thanks to the Hanoverians that the custom arose of having royal sons circumcised by Jewish mohelim. I was circumcised in 1944 by the late Reverend Dr Jacob Snowman; four years later Snowman circumcised Prince Charles. (Whether the new royal prince will be similarly serviced remains to be seen, but is already the subject of much debate.)

By the end of the 18th century the Jews – though still suffering from a catalogue of legal discriminations – were nonetheless very much part of the economic fabric of Great Britain. Wealthy Jews married into the landed aristocracy, thinking little of converting to Christianity in the process. Less wealthy Jews undertook a variety of employments that emphasized their social acculturation: There were Jewish policemen in 18th century London and Jewish boxers (“prize-fighters”), such as Daniel Mendoza (an ancestor of the 20th-century film star Peter Sellers). In the Victorian period more or less all the vestiges of legal discrimination were swept away. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) famously refused to bestow a peerage on Moses Montefiore, but agreed to give one to Nathan Mayer Rothschild, subsequently the first professing Jew to sit in the House of Lords.

But it was during the short reign of Victoria’s son Edward VII (1901-10) that a close relationship was cemented between the British monarchy and its Jewish subjects. Edward was an easy-going cosmopolitan. He liked the company of accommodating women and of rich men – especially rich Jewish men. His friendship with the Ashkenazi financier Sir Ernest Cassel was the subject of much gossip (“Windsor Cassel”), which he ignored. He was also on friendly terms with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, to whom he referred unashamedly as “my Chief Rabbi.” The king's official biography (1925) was written by Sir Sidney Lee; but Lee had been born Solomon Lazarus Lee, the elder son of a London-based Jewish merchant.

I have from time to time been asked about the attitude toward Jews of the present monarch, Elizabeth II. The answer is that I do not know. Whatever private views she may have on many subjects, the Queen has been punctilious in keeping them from the public gaze. No inference can or should be drawn from the fact that she has never visited Israel: On this matter she must follow the advice of her prime ministers. In 1992 the Queen’s only daughter Princess Anne, divorced from her first husband, married a naval commander, Timothy Laurence, whose ancestor is said to have been a Venetian merchant, one Zaccaria Levy. But Timothy and Anne were married under the auspices of the Church of Scotland; whether the Queen would ever give her consent to a member of the Royal Family marrying a professing Jew is problematic, if for no other reason than that in the U.K. there is no separation of Church and State.

British Jewry is quite untroubled by this circumstance. There are, no doubt, British Jews who are republicans, but my guess is that they are few and far between; the vast majority of British Jews will full partners in the national celebrations of the royal birth. 

Geoffrey Alderman is a professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, England, and author of "Modern British Jewry."

AP