In the words of A.A. Milne, “they are changing the guards at Buckingham Palace.”
With the death of Queen Elizabeth, the expression “passing of an era” was never more apt. For most citizens of the Commonwealth, the Elizabethan era has been the only one that they have ever experienced. For those of us whose years span a rather longer epoch, the term “God save the King” is not such an unfamiliar affirmation.
I grew up under the reign of King George VI when all bank notes, coins and stamps carried the image of the then Monarch and when everyone stood in cinemas as the national anthem played and the King appeared on the silver screen.
In those days at our local primary school, we paraded every morning and stood to attention as the New Zealand flag was hoisted, and we all sang the national anthem. Interestingly enough it was God save the King rather than God Defend New Zealand, which illustrates, I guess, that in the 1940s at least, the priority was saving the King rather than imploring the Deity to defend the country.
In 1953 to commemorate the coronation of the new Queen, representatives of all Wellington area primary and secondary schools were selected to march to and parade in the grounds of Parliament. There, together with members of the armed forces and Members of Parliament, we were to listen to speeches and the broadcast from the BBC of the Coronation itself. I was chosen at the age of eleven to represent our school together with some other pupils and I remember the excitement as we marched through the streets of the Capital waving our flags and caught up in the drama of the occasion.
The most dramatic and totally unexpected event which occurred was the interruption of the broadcast ceremony and the appearance of the Prime Minister on the balcony of the Parliament building. Sidney Holland, the then PM, breathlessly announced that Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Sherpa Tensing Norgay of Nepal had reached the summit of Mount Everest and were thus the first people in the world to conquer that formidable mountain. All of us joined in the frenetic cheering that followed this news, and it is safe to say that the rest of the coronation broadcast rather paled into insignificance as a result.
We all received a special commemorative coronation coin which, with its royal blue ribbon, looked rather impressive.
Following the accession of the Queen, all Jewish Synagogues under the authority of the UK Chief Rabbi had to hastily amend the prayer for the Royal Family, and therefore all our Singer’s prayer books had sticky labels inserted which reflected the new reality. No doubt, the same thing will happen now, although from my personal observations, it seems that quite a few congregations now omit this particular prayer. In fact, when I was last in Melbourne some years ago, the Chabad Shul I attended did not even recite the prayer for the welfare of Israel and those who defend it.
My closest encounter of the royal kind took place many years later, in 1986, when we were invited as representatives of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation to attend a garden party during the visit of the Queen at that time.
Commentators have all noted the late Queen’s remarkable reign and her record-breaking seven decades of unflinching service to the UK and the Commonwealth.
Jewish spokespersons, religious and lay, likewise have highlighted her personal affinity and interest in fostering good relations with all sectors of society.
There are several aspects which I believe deserve some comment.
The first relates to the fact that during the Queen’s seventy years on the throne, she managed to visit 117 countries, some of them including Australia and New Zealand, several times. When you analyse these royal tours, you find that they cover the whole spectrum from full-blown democracies to regimes with dubious human rights records, from Republics to autocratic monarchies as well as “occupied territories.” It is certainly a prodigious list, and that makes the one glaring omission so obvious.
During all these decades, the one country which has never had the opportunity of being graced with a royal visit is, of course, Israel. When you come to think of it this is rather peculiar for several reasons.
Jewish sovereignty over the territory from the Mediterranean to beyond the river Jordan was, after all, promoted and fostered by the Balfour Declaration and the UK Government of the day and then endorsed by the San Remo Agreement and the League of Nations. Of course, it didn’t take long for the “antis” in the Foreign Office to carve up the eastern side of the Jordan and create an artificial country for their Hashemite friends. That still left everything west of the Jordan, which includes Judea and Samaria, for Jewish settlement and sovereignty, but even this mandated task was subverted by the United Kingdom.
During the years of Jordanian illegal occupation of Jerusalem and what is erroneously termed the “West Bank” not a peep of protest was heard from Whitehall. Following 1967 the British Foreign Office woke up and suddenly invented “illegally occupied Palestinian territories” with which to lambast Israel. Obviously, the Hashemite trashing of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives and ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Old City of Jerusalem raised nary a ripple of protest because the Queen honoured them with a royal visit in 1984. Abdullah, the Jordanian monarch, has described Her Majesty as a “partner and dear family friend.”
By now, you should have discerned that the malign policies of the British Foreign Office have been responsible for the Queen never visiting Israel because it is at their behest and approval that royal tours take place. The Duke of Edinburgh paid a private visit to the grave of his mother, who is buried on the Mount of Olives and is honoured by Yad Vashem for saving a Jewish family during the Shoah. Prince Charles (now King) visited Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres and then again in 2020 for the World Holocaust Forum. In 2018 Prince William paid an official visit. It will be interesting to see whether this undeclared “boycott” of Israel being visited by the reigning British Monarch will continue or whether King Charles will put an end to this shameful charade.
Much is being made of the fact that two previous Chief Rabbis were elevated to the House of Lords by Her Majesty. In actual fact, the Queen or King bestows these honours at the request of the Government of the day and is therefore hardly likely to refuse to do so. Margaret Thatcher was an ardent admirer of the late Rabbi Jakobovits, and it was she who promoted him. Likewise, Tony Blair elevated the late Rabbi Sacks to the House of Lords.
Prince Charles (now King) revered the late Chief Rabbi and gave a most moving eulogy when he passed away. His warm public empathy with the Jewish community so openly displayed on many occasions heralds perhaps an even closer relationship in the future.
Among the outpouring of sympathy and pledges of loyalty from the British Jewish establishment, I noted a somewhat revealing sentiment. A senior UK Reform Rabbi of the Maidenhead Synagogue stated that “we do not feel that we are in exile in Britain.” That may very well be the overwhelming belief of most Jews not only in the UK but also in other parts of the Diaspora. No matter how happy and secure they may feel, one hopes that they do not fall into the same complacency as their co-religionists did in Europe pre-war. Today’s rise of Judeophobia in most countries should be a sobering wake-up call for all those who think Galut is a permanent safe haven.