Who knows the king?

King Charles III has built extensive relationships within the U.K.'s Jewish community

He mourned the death in 2020 of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, saying he had “lost a trusted guide and an inspired teacher.” He has spoken movingly of the need for Holocaust remembrance, that “we must never cease to be appalled, nor moved by the testimony of those who lived through it.” He has pressed for interfaith understanding, and warned against antisemitism, of “branding those who are different as somehow deviant.”

And he was even on hand earlier this year in the south of England at the unveiling of a statue to an obscure 13th-century Jewish businesswoman, Licoricia of Winchester, who helped to fund the building of Westminster Abbey and is believed to have bankrolled three English kings.

Prince Charles, the former Prince of Wales, has, according to many observers, deep and long-standing ties in Britain’s Jewish community, despite assumptions that the British royal family barely notices the Anglo-Jewish community. Now, as he assumes the throne as King Charles III after the death on Thursday of Queen Elizabeth II at 96, after a remarkable 70-year reign as monarch, interest is intensifying about who has the new king’s ear in the Jewish community, how he would deal with rising antisemitism in England and what his seemingly complicated views are concering the Middle East. 

The monarchy is “very deeply rooted in British political life,” Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a political scientist and historian, who is professor of government at King’s College, London and author of The Monarchy and the Constitution, told Jewish Insider. “I think the Jewish community has always felt that it is a guarantor of tolerance.”

The new king’s long relationship with the Jewish community can perhaps best be viewed through the lens of tolerance. As the Prince of Wales, a title he assumed in 1969, Charles had almost no official or unofficial links with the Jewish community in the early years of his adult life. But lately, it is a rare communal event that is not blessed with the prince’s presence, such as direct, hands-on patronage of charities such as World Jewish Relief (the humanitarian arm of British Jews), the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, or the youth movement, the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade. He made history in 2013 by attending the installation of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, with whom he has a relationship, at a London synagogue, becoming the first royal to participate in such an event. 

Prince Charles meets with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (L) at the Orthodox Jewish School Yavneh College on February 1, 2017, in London, England. (Photo by Toby Melville/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

He has also taken a keen interest in Holocaust issues, commissioning, earlier this year, portraits of seven U.K.-based survivors. Last year the prince wrote the foreword for a memoir written by 98-year-old Lily Ebert, one of the survivors whose portrait was among the seven paintings. At the unveiling ceremony, Ebert showed him the tattoo forced on her in Auschwitz, telling Prince Charles, “Meeting you, it is for everyone who lost their lives.” The prince insisted, “But it is a greater privilege for me.”

Charles has also built a relationship with Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, who was instrumental in introducing both Charles and Camilla to survivors.

In January 2020, Prince Charles, drawing directly on the actions of his grandmother, Princess Alice, who saved Jews during the Nazi invasion of Greece, and who is buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, was the keynote speaker at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem. 

He has also worked closely with Paul Anticoni, the head of World Jewish Relief, who first introduced Charles to the organization’s humanitarian work in Krakow. 

Speaking in the aftermath of a general election in which many British Jews were appalled at the prospect of a victory for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the prince’s words had additional resonance. He told his audience: “The Holocaust must never be allowed to become simply a fact of history: we must never cease to be appalled, nor moved by the testimony of those who lived through it. Their experience must always educate, and guide, and warn us.

“All too often, language is used which turns disagreement into dehumanization,” he continued. “Words are used as badges of shame to mark others as enemies, to brand those who are different as somehow deviant. All too often, virtue seems to be sought through verbal violence. All too often, real violence ensues, and acts of unspeakable cruelty are still perpetrated around the world against people for reasons of their religion, their race or their beliefs.” 

As one friend of Charles admitted to Jewish Insider, “If there is one thing I have learned over 25 years, it is better never to talk at all.”

The affinity Prince Charles has for the Jewish community has been reciprocated. Since 1801, British Jews have recited a prayer for the royal family on Shabbat, at a point in the Shacharit service where other communities might pray for the welfare of the government. The prayer resonates with the prince: He has referred to it many times in his public appearance at Jewish events, not least at a reception he gave for the Jewish community at Buckingham Palace on Hanukkah in 2019.

He said then that he believed the links between the British monarchy and the country’s Jewish community were “something special,” adding, “I say this from a particular and personal perspective, because I have grown up being deeply touched by the fact that British synagogues have, for centuries, remembered my family in your weekly prayers. And as you remember my family, so we too remember and celebrate you.”

The warmth with which Prince Charles approaches the Jewish community today is not believed to have come from his mother. Though she did host some events for British Jews, it was the queen’s late husband, Prince Philip, who was the driving force in building relationships with the Jewish community. He had close personal friendships with the South African-born scientist Lord Zuckerman, and the society photographer Baron, whose real name was Sterling Henry Nahum. Both were clever men whose fresh take on social issues intrigued Philip, who enjoyed their company immensely. 

“He’s in a unique position because he’s the first heir to the throne who’s actually found a real role for himself,” says Bogdanor. “There’s no job description, and he could have spent his time in nightclubs.”

Like his father, Prince Charles has close friendships with members of the Jewish community. But they are extremely circumspect, and declined to be quoted for this article. Their continuing friendship is dependent on their continuing discretion: As one friend of Charles admitted to Jewish Insider, “If there is one thing I have learned over 25 years, it is better never to talk at all.”

Last year, Charles was given the prestigious Bridge award by the Council of Christians and Jews. In his acceptance speech, he said: “The Council of Christians and Jews was established nearly 80 years ago and was far ahead of its time in recognizing how religious and racial prejudice, hatred and discrimination present such a threat to the harmony of our society.

“Yet I do think the essence of its mission has never been more relevant than it is today,” he continued. “We must not forget that the CCJ was founded in 1942, at the height of the Holocaust, by Chief Rabbi Hertz and Archbishop Temple in order to support Jewish refugees from Europe and combat antisemitism, and to build a bridge between Jewish and Christian communities at the most dire moment in their long, often troubled relationship… This noble mission and this widely held vision about what is right are now challenged by the vicious distortions of history which attempt to diminish or deny the Jewish experience of antisemitism over the millennia, but particularly the Holocaust.”

The Prince of Wales looks around the Remu’h Jewish Cemetery on his tour of Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Andrew Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)

Charles added, “Trying to build bridges between faith communities and to deepen mutual understanding has been a major part of my life’s work. So I cannot tell you how profoundly grateful I am for such a very special accolade.”

His response reflects his often-repeated declaration that when he accedes to the throne he will not be merely a “Defender of the Faith,” as the monarch pledges in the Coronation ceremony. For many years he was mistakenly said to want to be known as “Defender of Faiths” — in other words to speak out on behalf of other religions besides the Church of England. But now Prince Charles is understood to be content to allow this description to remain in the Coronation.

Bogdanor told JI that while the coronation is an Anglican, or Church of England, religious service, Charles may well seek an additional ecumenical service to follow it — in which the voices of other religions will be heard.

“He’s in a unique position because he’s the first heir to the throne who’s actually found a real role for himself,” says Bogdanor. “There’s no job description, and he could have spent his time in nightclubs. But he hasn’t done that: perhaps most important are the various charities that he’s involved with, in particular the Prince’s Trust, which has helped more than one million young people find work or launch businesses in the past 40 years.”

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, wearing a Jewish yarmulke, watches Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall light the Menorah as they celebrate Hanukkah at Hendon Hall on December 12, 2007, in London, England. (Photo by Anwar Hussein Collection/ROTA/WireImage)

Bogdanor says Charles’ view is that “everyone ought to belong to a community, and when people don’t belong, there’s trouble.” For many years, he says, the prince believed that members of non-white communities felt they did not belong [to British society], and so went out of his way to meet and talk to ethnic minorities. “After 9/11 he did a lot with Muslim communities in his speeches, to ensure that people didn’t equate all Muslims with extremists; and after the 2011 riots in Tottenham [an inner-city London area where there is considerable poverty] he went back five times to see what had gone wrong and to see whether people could be helped with jobs. He’s done a lot to integrate people and to help them feel part of Britain. That’s a really important contribution.”

The monarchy is “very deeply rooted in British political life,” says Bogdanor. “I think the Jewish community has always felt that it is a guarantor of tolerance.”

That is certainly the view of the representative body of British Jewry, the Board of Deputies. Its president, Marie van der Zyl, told Jewish Insider, “The Board of Deputies of British Jews has always had a strong connection to the Crown; our organization was formed in 1760 to pay homage to George III on his ascension to the throne.” 

She said she had met the prince several times, “in particular, an event at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the UK Jewish community’s contribution to this country, on which we worked together. We were also honored to have the Prince of Wales as guest of honor at our 250th anniversary dinner. He has engaged closely with our community through [his] position as patron of a number of key Jewish charities. and has made a considerable effort over many years to form a strong connection with British Jews; we are delighted that he has done so.”

Better placed than most to understand the future king is Sir Lloyd Dorfman, a leading member of the Jewish community, who is currently vice president of Prince’s Trust International, or PTI. He chaired PTI from 2015-2021 and also Prince’s Trust UK from 2015-2018. [CVO and CBE are national honors given to Sir Lloyd for his charitable work.]

Dorfman told Jewish Insider, “I have seen the Prince close up through my involvement with Prince’s Trust over the past 20 years. I have seen how engaged and passionate he is about helping young people and what a difference the charity has made. He cares deeply about their futures and is well-informed. He is incredibly hard-working and tenacious. On a personal level, he is also extremely thoughtful to those around him, and I have heard and seen first-hand many instances of personal kindness… As king, I have absolutely no doubt that the British Jewish community could have no greater friend or sovereign.” 

Charles was on intimate terms with the former chief rabbi, the late Lord Jonathan Sacks, and was said to have been devastated by his death in November 2020. He said that the country “lost a trusted guide and an inspired teacher. I, for one, have lost a true and steadfast friend.”

Earlier this year the prince went to Winchester, the town in the south of England which was once the heart of medieval Jewry, after the unveiling of a singular statue. It was of a 13th-century Jewish businesswoman, Licoricia, who helped to fund the building of Westminster Abbey and is believed to have bankrolled three English kings.

Among the crowd in Winchester was the rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, Rabbi Jonathan Romain. He knows the prince well, having received a national award from him in 2003 (the MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his work in helping mixed-faith couples. Informally, since Maidenhead is the closest synagogue to Windsor Castle, Rabbi Romain could be described as the royals’ rabbi. He points out that these days the monarch — whoever that might be — does not have a great deal of power. 

Among all these bona fide good vibrations — a princely visit to a synagogue in Wales, the royal opening of a new Jewish community center in Krakow — there are some reminders that not everything has been sweetness and light to get to this stage.

For example, it took the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in November 1995 for Prince Charles to visit the country for the first time, when he represented the queen at Rabin’s funeral. Prior to that visit, his father had been the only royal to travel to Israel since the country’s founding. Philip went in 1993 for the reinterment of his mother, Princess Alice, at a convent in Jerusalem — and even then it was described as an unofficial visit.

Charles also represented the Queen at former Israeli President Shimon Peres’ funeral in 2016. Peres had been awarded an honorary knighthood by Britain in 2008.

His supporters say that whatever Charles’ private views on Israel and Zionism were and are, the fact that Israel — despite repeated invitations — remained a largely royal-free zone in the Middle East should be laid firmly on the shoulders of the British Foreign Office. Since royals abroad are often there as supplementary trade ambassadors, decades of Foreign Office advice was not to permit members of the royal family to go to Israel, lest it upset its Arab neighbors.

Britain’s Prince Charles (L) meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, on the sidelines of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Photo by DEBBIE HILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Almost 40 years ago, however, there was a glimpse of how Charles felt about Israel in a letter he wrote to his great friend, the explorer Laurens van der Post. In this 1986 letter, later leaked and published a couple of years ago by the Daily Mail, Charles had just finished a tour of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. 

He’d very much enjoyed the tour, he told van der Post: but he had learned that “I now appreciate that Arabs and Jews were all a Semitic people originally and it is the influx of foreign, European Jews (especially from Poland, they say) which has helped to cause the great problems [in the Middle East].”

Time has moved on, and the Middle East is not the same as in 1986. Bahrain has signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, Saudi Arabia has opened its airspace to Israeli flights and the prince himself — even if he remains naive — has demonstrated an affinity for Israel. 

Meanwhile the last word should go to the (foreign-born, refugee) grandmother of a British Jewish writer and political consultant, Lord Finkelstein. She nailed the situation pithily: “While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we are safe in [London suburb] Hendon Central.” That sentiment will surely apply equally to King Charles.

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