The Queen and the Jewish community in Britain

Image credit: Office of the Chief Rabbi

Every Saturday in synagogues across Britain, congregants say a prayer for the Queen, calling on “he who gives salvation to kings and dominions to princes” to “guard her and deliver her from all trouble and sorrow”.

Visitors have often commented on the custom, including the Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret.

Writing in The Guardian in 2012, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Synagogue, said the princess had been “astonished” when she heard the prayer during a visit in 1990. He said: “When I explained that the prayer was not a one-off but recited every Sabbath in every synagogue in Britain, she remarked: ‘How lovely. They don’t do that for us in church. I’ll tell my sister’.”

According to custom rooted in the Bible, the Sabbath service includes a prayer for the welfare of the ruling party, government or monarch. Jeremiah 29:7 states: “And find the protection in the city where you have been exiled to, and pray to God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall succeed.”

The community’s loyalty to the monarchy stretches beyond the synagogue, as anyone who has ever attended a Jewish wedding in the UK will know as the guests usually make a toast to the Queen.

Rabbi Romain told the Religion Media Centre: “The Queen’s official title may be ‘defender of the faith’, referring exclusively to the Church of England, but in reality, her reign has seen all religions flourish in a remarkable flowering of interfaith harmony.

“Unlike the time of the first Elizabeth, when Jews were still banned from entering the country under the 1290 Edict of Expulsion, British Jewry has had a golden age of tolerance and security during the era of the second Elizabeth.”

During her 70 years on the throne, the Queen has presided over 14 prime ministers — as well as four chief rabbis. In recent days, the current incumbent, Ephraim Mirvis, issued a prayer for the Platinum Jubilee, calling for Queen Elizabeth II to enjoy “many more years of blessing”.

The prayer, due to be recited across the UK and the Commonwealth, calls for the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the wider royal family to enjoy health and strength for years to come. “In this year of joyful remembrance and celebration, we express our deepest sentiments of loyalty, esteem and gratitude,” it says.

The Queen has visited more than 100 countries as monarch, but has never officially visited Israel, which has at times raised questions within the community. The first official royal visit there came in 2018 when the Duke of Cambridge toured Israel and the Palestinian territories. It had previously been British policy not to make an official royal visit to the region until the conflict there is resolved.

“The Queen’s official title may be ‘defender of the faith’, referring exclusively to the Church of England, but in reality, her reign has seen all religions flourish in a remarkable flowering of interfaith harmony”

– Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Unofficially, the Queen’s husband Prince Philip was in Jerusalem in 1994 when his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was formally recognised as a “righteous among nations” by the international holocaust centre, Yad Vashem. Buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, she had sheltered Jewish refugees in during the Second World War.  

The Queen’s relationship with British Jewry is close and after the Duke of Edinburgh’s death last year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) created an official book of condolences, featuring heartfelt messages from every corner of the community.

The board declared in a recent opinion piece for the Jewish Chronicle that it has “impeccable royalist credentials”, having been established in 1760 to pay homage to George III on his accession.

The BoD is considered a “privileged body”, with the ability to petition the Queen for an audience, which Vivian Wineman, who was then the board’s president, did in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee. Six years earlier, the Queen held a palace reception to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of the Jewish community in this country in 1656, following the 1290 expulsion of the Jews. 

Marie van der Zyl, the board’s current president, said: “In her remarkable reign, the Queen has encouraged harmony and friendship across the many different communities and denominations of this country. She also embodies the finest qualities of our country: stability, solidity, reliability and supreme dignity. The jubilee gives us the opportunity to celebrate her magnificent 70 years of service to the UK and Commonwealth.”

The concept of jubilee hails from the Torah. The Hebrew word yovel is observed once every 50 years, following seven cycles of seven-year shmita, or sabbatical years. As with the shmita year, the jubilee is one where no agricultural work is to be done and the land is to lie fallow.

In royal terms, the jubilee brings friends, families and communities together in celebration. Among them many charities who have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the sovereign. 

The Queen was the patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust from its inception in 2005 until she handed over to Prince Charles a decade later. During her tenure, she visited Bergen-Belsen, welcomed Holocaust survivors to royal garden parties and bestowed honours 10 such individuals.

On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, 2005, she met survivors at St James’s Palace. Lord Sacks, who was then chief rabbi, wrote of the occasion: “One of her attendants said that he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure. She gave each survivor — it was a large group — her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story.”

Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of trust, said the Queen’s involvement has “not only honoured individual survivors but also sent a loud message of the value of Holocaust and genocide commemoration and education”. 

She added: “For many survivors, she’s a symbol of the warm welcome they have found in the UK. We are delighted to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee, and to celebrate the lives that survivors have rebuilt in this country.”

Norwood — the largest Jewish charity in the UK supporting vulnerable children and their families, children with special educational needs and people with learning disabilities and autism — is the only Jewish charity to have the Queen as its patron, which it has done since her accession 1952.

Neville Kahn, who chairs its trustees, said: “Norwood has always been incredibly proud of our long association with Her Majesty and the wider royal family. Our staff and the people we support have enduring memories of her visits to our services over the years, and of the warmth and grace she shows, and which have characterised her reign. As Her Majesty celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, I join with all the people we support, Norwood staff and lay leaders, in paying tribute to a magnificent 70 years.”

Another role she has held for that long has been as patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, set up in 1942. One of the charity’s trustees, Zaki Cooper, has more awareness of the Queen’s relationship with the community than most. Now director of a communications consultancy, his CV includes a stint as spokesman for Lord Sacks and several years as assistant press secretary at Buckingham Palace.

“One of the notable features of her reign has been the move from a largely homogenous society with a significant Jewish minority to really now today, 70 years on, to a truly multicultural society with a whole diversity of different faith groups,” he said. “The Queen has played an important but quite subtle role in embracing that shift.”


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