The British Foreign Office has its own reasons for sending Prince William to visit Israel. The prince himself is only an excuse. The visit is not intended to boost the young man himself or the Royal Family as a whole, nor to showcase Israel on its 70th anniversary. The real aim is to get Britain back in the engine room of Middle East and world politics. Not necessarily a bad idea in itself, but an exercise in cynicism and humbug. I hope it is not too late.
Britain seems to be feeling increasingly fragile on the world scene. If the British government had been smart it could have claimed a special status in the Middle East by virtue of its (sometimes tortuous) role in 19th and 20th century Zionism, and one might have thought its vaunted friendship with Israel could have been given expression before this. There may be reason to fear that Britain has abdicated to the US the role of special friend.
Many Israelis still need convincing that Britain really is a friend. Those with long memories cannot forget the Mandate period. When my late parents-in-law made aliya in 1965 and said they were from London they saw Israelis physically flinch. Possibly most Israelis today think this is just history and prefer to accentuate the more positive attitudes of Arthur James Balfour and Winston Churchill, but this still does not justify the lack of official visits by British royals. The British way of showing friendship is to send the royals on a visit. They have had sixty-odd years to do this during the queen’s incumbency but the Foreign Office kept dithering – or worse, sneering and using bad language about the Jews.
Over the years there could have been some official fence-mending, but now it will be harder. The queen might have been able to charm Israel but she is no longer so young and energetic after more than 65 years on the throne, making her the longest-serving British monarch. She will presumably keep going until the day she dies. Few people share her concern for dogs and horses, nor is she a warm everyone’s-grandmother type. But she is part of the marketing, like Big Ben and the Thames. She is part of the ethos that makes Britain interesting.
Whatever her lack of political power, she is a powerful symbol, and she has a presence. The British government must feel that her grandson has the personality to enhance Britain’s name in Israel, in line with the British system (which with qualifications applies here too) of divided priorities – the human, emotional and cultural task being undertaken by the head of state and the politics being in the hands of the government headed by the prime minister.
Jewish history is familiar with monarchs who combined the two types of leadership. Some of the medieval rabbis explained the saying, “The law of the realm is the law” on the basis that the king owned the country and anyone who wished to live there had to accept his authority. As time evolved, Jewish teaching honored kings and queens but was more interested in elected leaders.
Without leadership of any kind, say the sages, “people would eat each other alive” (Avot 3:2). Shakespeare, who knew rabbinic sayings in Latin translation, echoed this adage when he said, “You cry against the noble Senate, who, under the gods, keep you in awe, which else would feed on one another.”
When absolute monarchy was still the norm, some kings were bombastic, unethical and self-serving, but Jews usually kept their reservations to themselves so long as they were more or less left in peace. Though they responded to Jeremiah’s call (Jer. 29:7) to pray for the welfare of the government, the prayers were sometimes tongue in cheek, such as when the rabbi says in Fiddler on the Roof, “God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us.”
In British lands the patriotism was genuine, even if sometimes the Royal Prayer on the synagogue wall has not been updated since Queen Victoria and the siddurim pray for long ousted princes and potentates. These old siddurim are strewn around synagogues in provincial towns in the antipodes, where most of the country communities have gone but those that survive betray their 19th century origins.
In the Middle Ages, Abravanel said that though a king “promotes unity, continuity and absolute power,” a republic is better, with “many leaders, united, agreeing, and concurring in counsel... When the turn of other judges and officers comes, they will examine whether their predecessors have failed... Since their administration is temporary and they are accountable, the fear of man will be upon them.” Abravanel warns, though, that not all monarchies are bad and not all republics good.
Jews always hoped for a good monarch. In Worms they said, “He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, may He bless our exalted Kaiser. May He prosper his undertakings and establish his throne in justice, so that righteousness may rule in the land: grant life and peace to him and his descendants.” The prayer used in Plymouth says, after the names of the Royal Family, “O Lord, King of Kings, in Thy mercy preserve their precious lives and deliver them from all trouble and danger... Raise and remount the planet and fortune of Her Majesty’s Arms, that her enemies may fall under her feet... prolong her days in her kingdom... In Thy clemency incline her royal heart as well as the hearts of all her Nobles and Counsellors, to use us kindly....”
In 1895, British Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler replaced the words, “Put compassion into the Queen’s heart and into the hearts of her counsellors and nobles” with “Put a spirit of wisdom and understanding into her heart and into the hearts of all her counsellors”. Chief Rabbi Hertz removed the words, “May He subdue nations under his [the king’s] sway and make his enemies fall before him” and inserted, “In his days and in ours, may our Heavenly Father spread the protection of peace over all the dwellers on earth.”
The prayer always included the messianic hope, “May the Redeemer come unto Zion.” An early version prayed “that Judah be saved and Israel dwell securely” (Jer. 23:6).
Outside Britain, local references were often added. In Australia, mention of the colonial governors was replaced in 1901 by “the Governor General and Governors of the States.” In Sydney, the Great Synagogue replaced the archaic phrase “Our Sovereign Lady the Queen” with “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia,” added “the legislators and leaders of Australia and its States and Territories” and referred to “the happiness and welfare of every citizen” and “all the peoples of this land (living) in amity and mutual respect.”
A Queensland synagogue once asked me which to put first, the prayer for the queen or for Israel. I quoted, “Aniyei ircha kodmin,” (“One begins with local needs” – B.M. 74a).
Another relevant memory: when Australia was debating whether to become a republic I had the honor of being named one of 20 leading Australians, and a TV station interviewed me about the future of the monarchy in Australia. I answered, “It’s up to the queen herself. If Australia really mattered to her and she wanted to remain its queen she would have a home here and spend a few months here every year. More important, she would barrack for the Australian team in the cricket Tests....”
The queen has made many visits to Commonwealth countries. When I was presented to her in Sydney she shook hands and asked me about my synagogue: she has a quick mind and knows the right thing to say. Prince Charles told my wife that he had heard that the Great Synagogue was a heritage building and he’d like to pay a visit. The Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles have both been to Israel, though only on occasions of mourning.
When Prince William comes as the first official royal to visit, the Anglos will be delighted. The really serious stuff will probably not be on the agenda but there is a good chance that the prince will achieve something by his mere presence.
The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.