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Chief Rabbi: Why Prince William’s Israel visit meant so much to British Jews

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The following article was published by The Telegraph on 29 June 2018 following HRH The Duke of Cambridge’s trip to Israel.

Yehuda Avner, the Israeli diplomat, once related how, in British Mandate Palestine, David Ben Gurion, who would later become the first Prime Minister of the Jewish state, attended a formal dinner at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Jerusalem. It was a warm evening and Ben Gurion thought nothing of removing his jacket. He was promptly passed a handwritten note from the High Commissioner which read, “Mr Ben Gurion, please respect British etiquette and replace your jacket.” Ben Gurion turned the note over and wrote his reply: “I have been given permission by your Prime Minister to keep my jacket off.” At the end of the evening, the High Commissioner asked the inevitable question, “How can you possibly have had permission from the Prime Minister to remove your jacket at this dinner?” Ben Gurion smiled and said, “On a recent visit to Britain, I was a guest of the Prime Minister at dinner at 10 Downing Street. During the dinner I removed my jacket. Mr Attlee noticed what I had done and immediately wrote a note which was passed to me by a waiter. It read: ‘Mr Ben Gurion, when you are in Jerusalem you may do as you wish … but here in Britain we keep our jackets on.’” The Israeli culture of informality may once have appeared at odds with British protocol, but that was not the case this week as they welcomed the Duke of Cambridge as the first member of the Royal family to make an official visit to the world’s only Jewish State.

It was a rare privilege for me to have been part of such a historic delegation and to see how enthusiastically the Duke’s visit was greeted, not only in Israel but at home by Britain’s Jewish community. Wherever I have been, excitement reached fever pitch. “What will he see? … Who will he meet? … How will he find time to watch the World Cup? … and, of course … Where will he eat?”

To truly understand this unprecedented interest is to understand the depth of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

Think of an immediate relative. Your love for them is unconditional. It is a love borne of your shared history. It has shaped your values and touches the deepest aspects of your identity. You rejoice in their achievements. You wince when they are pained. You experience every twist and turn in their life as if it was your own and hope and pray that they might find a life of peace in which they can fulfil their potential. Like all relationships it is rewarding, challenging and fulfilling.

This is how the overwhelming majority of Jews relate to Israel.

The visit of the future Monarch sends a powerful message to the Jewish world and particularly to the Jews of Great Britain: We understand and respect the very deepest recesses of your identity.

When the Duke toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, the message was that he understands how important the memory of the Holocaust remains in the collective Jewish consciousness. When he stood at the Western Wall, the message was that he understands the unbroken centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish theology and history. When he visited the Equalizer Project, which brings together young Israelis and Palestinians in friendship, the message was that he understands just how desperate we are to see a future of peace and reconciliation in the region.

It is no secret that, diplomatically, a visit of this kind is far from straightforward. Although it has taken 70 years, the fact that the British Government and the future King have enthusiastically embarked upon it sends an unprecedented message of friendship to Israel and the Jewish world. It is a message which I believe advances the cause of peace.

I couldn’t help but smile when our delegation attended a reception at the British Ambassador’s residence and, despite the heat, the Duke kept his jacket on. Some things are so ingrained, it feels as though they’ll never change, but together we must never tire of our efforts to ensure that the conflict in the Middle East is not one of them.