Between a Mohel and a Sieg Heil: What Did Elizabeth Really Think of Her Jewish Subjects?
She didn’t have Jewish friends, but she had very few close friends to begin with. In the end, British Jews loved the queen for the same reason non-Jewish Britons did: She provided a sense of stability
The death of Queen Elizabeth II may be remembered as something of a last hurrah also for the British print media, which on Friday celebrated her 96 years of life and 70 years on the throne with special editions meticulously prepared years in advance. The sepia-tinted and gloriously colored newsprint filled dozens of pages.
Some may say that after decades hounding some of her family members, this was the least Fleet Street could do. Others could perhaps accuse the media of having it both ways.
For Britain’s Jewish media, however, the queen’s death created something of a headache. It wasn’t just the awkward timing of her passing late Thursday afternoon, hours after both the London-based and regional Jewish weeklies had gone to print. That could at least be remedied online.
There was another problem: the absence of relevant material. There’s something of a paucity of cozy anecdotes from royal visits to Jewish community functions and personal recollections from leading Jewish figures.
Amid the scarcity of Jews who actually knew the queen, the websites of both main Jewish weeklies, The Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish News, ran the same piece by a PR guy who for three years was an assistant press secretary to the queen over a decade ago. Most of the articles on Elizabeth and the Jews that appeared online harked back to one particularly memorable meeting she had with Holocaust survivors in 2005. There doesn’t seem to have been much else to work with.
This isn’t to suggest a lack of engagement between the royal family and Britain’s Jews. A number of Elizabeth’s illustrious forebears had famous friendships with prominent Jews of their day, while her successor, the now King Charles III, is such a frequent guest at Jewish events, both officially and as a guest of his many Jewish acquaintances, that he has his own personal kippa embossed with the seal of the Prince of Wales. That will need updating now.
Only the conspiracy-theory-minded would say that the queen had something against Jews. The best evidence they can come up with is the grainy video from 1933 in which the 7-year-old Elizabeth is seen making Nazi salutes with her mother and Hitler-admiring uncle, who went on to reign briefly as Edward VIII.
There’s also her father, King George VI, who asked the Foreign Office to tell Germany’s Nazi leaders to prevent Jews from emigrating to British Palestine. But all that was before World War II, during which the royal family, including the future queen, distinguished themselves as figureheads in the war against fascism.
It’s easy of course to find enough instances of postwar encounters between the queen and British Jews to refute such smears. It’s just that these stories are so well-known and have been rehashed in every Jewish media profile on the queen. The very earliest is the identity of the Jewish doctor who circumcised Charles and his brothers. (Ironically, circumcision of princes is a Hanoverian tradition.)
Many Jewish men in their 60s and 70s are now doubtlessly boasting that they and the new king were circumcised by the same hands. Without a doubt, a mohel trumps a Sieg heil.
The lack of personal engagement between the queen and the Jews can largely be put down to the literally tens of thousands of public events that she and the rest of the royal family have had to attend over the decades. Unsurprisingly, minority communities tend to get a lesser royal. It’s not personal and it’s not as if other minority groups got to see more of the queen.
And though she didn’t have Jewish friends, she had very few close friends to begin with, and nearly all of them came from the tight horse-loving aristocratic set where she could let her hair down. British Jews have achieved an incredible level of assimilation into British society, but that simply isn’t their scene.
What attention the Jews did get from their queen was obvious enough, as anyone who has experienced “the loyal toast” at an annual dinner of a major Jewish organization can attest to. With a few tiny republican exceptions, mainly on the aging Marxist margins, British Jews are a solidly monarchic crowd.
Or as Times of London columnist and conservative politician Daniel Finkelstein (ennobled as Baron Finkelstein of Pinner) once put it, “My grandmother’s view after settling here as a refugee: ‘While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we are safe in Hendon Central.’”
British Jews loved the queen for the same reason non-Jewish Britons loved her. She provided a sense of continuity and stability for so many years, and no community has been more tempered by the bitter lessons of history to appreciate stability and predictability.
Which is also why, despite being also a staunchly Zionist community, Britain’s Jews were so ready to forgive her for visiting most of the countries on Earth over her long reign but not Israel. Conveniently, those antisemitic Arabists at the Foreign Office were always to blame for not letting her come to Zion.