Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Prince Charles, defender of faith, comes to Israel

This article of mine appears in the new edition of The Jerusalem Report, dated January 27, 2020

          Less than a week after Boris Johnson and his Conservative administration won a sweeping victory in the 2019 UK general election, it was announced that the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, would be making an official visit to Israel. The main purpose of the trip was to attend an event at Yad Vashem titled ”Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism”. Inevitably the gesture was seen by some as a resounding rebuff to the anti-Zionist antisemitism that had tainted the Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and had led, in part, to its electoral defeat.

          In all its 71 years Israel has received only one other such official visit by a member of the Royal family – that of Charles’s elder son, William, in June 2018. Charles himself, his brother Edward, and his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, have all set foot on Israeli soil in the past, but not in an official capacity.

          Back in 1994 the Duke attended a ceremony at Yad Vashem honouring his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who had been awarded the title ‘Righteous among the Nations” for saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust. She is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Charles represented the Queen at the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and of Shimon Peres in 2016. Both visits were categorized as private. The Queen’s youngest son, Edward, made a little publicized trip to Israel in 2007. Edward was invited by the Israel Youth Award program, a self-development group for Jewish and Arab youth affiliated to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Association. While in Jerusalem Edward joined the then Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, for Shabbat dinner.

          Prince Charles is scheduled to attend the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on 23  January 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. He will be joining dozens of other world leaders at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, including the presidents of Russia, France, Germany, Italy and Austria, as well as the kings of Spain and Belgium.

          In addition, according to a statement issued by Prince Charles’s office, January’s trip “will be the first time that the Prince has undertaken a programme of engagements in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has invited Charles to a series of events. This ecumenical approach to his official duties is entirely consistent with Prince Charles’s all-embracing concept of religion.

          The title “Defender of the Faith” was once conferred by the Pope on monarchs to mark outstanding support for the Roman Catholic church. When King Henry VIII broke with Catholicism in 1534, Parliament declared him "Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England", and later bestowed on him the title “Defender of the Faith” – the faith in question now being the protestant Church of England. When anti-Catholic sentiment was at a height in the 17th and 18th centuries this function of the monarch assumed particular relevance. Any royal who married a Catholic was barred from the succession – a disqualification ended as recently as 2013 by an Act of Parliament.

          So the profound shock to the British establishment can be imagined when, some years ago, Charles declared that on accession as sovereign he would want to be known either as “Defender of Faith” or “Defender of the Faiths”, since he saw his role as being supportive of the multitude of different faiths represented in modern Britain. The furore in government, religious and media circles was immense.

          It was the Queen, with her inimitable skill, who paved the way towards a resolution of the problem. In a speech in 2012, she took the opportunity to say that the Church of England's purpose "is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions", but rather the Church "has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country." As a result, Charles has recently been able to modify his original view. In an interview in 2015 he said that on his eventual coronation he will retain the monarch's traditional title as "Defender of the Faith", while "ensuring that other people's faiths can also be practised."

          Prince Charles has extended his positive support to many minority religions in the UK. He has shown particular interest in Islam. For more than twenty years he has been patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. “He makes all British citizens feel they are part of the grand historical narrative,” says the director, Farhan Nizami. “I don’t think there is another major figure in the western world who has as high a standing as he has in the Muslim world.”

          The Prince has studied Judaism as well as Islam, and is close to former UK Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. Believing that Judaism and Islam both have a great deal in common with Christianity, he has said:. “The future surely lies in rediscovering the universal truths that dwell at the heart of these religions. All I have ever wanted to do is build bridges that span these chasms.”

          Charles’s sentiments bear a striking resemblance to those set out by then Chief Rabbi Sacks in the first edition of his controversial book “The Dignity of Difference” ­– a volume that outraged orthodox Jewish rabbis, and that some termed “heretical”. Even the London Beth Din declared that parts of the book were open "to an interpretation that is inconsistent with basic Jewish belief". Published in August 2002, the book was withdrawn from sale after a few weeks, with Sacks undertaking to rewrite passages for a second edition.

         His original text was taken to mean either that no religious faith contains the whole truth, or alternatively that all religions were equally true. A number of phrases in the book caused consternation, but one paragraph in particular seemed to orthodox Jewish critics to place Christianity and Islam on a par with Judaism.

          It reads: "God is universal, religions are particular. Religion is the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith. God has spoken to mankind in many languages through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims." That sentiment seemed to discount the central belief in Judaism of a particular covenant concluded on Mount Sinai between the Almighty and the Jewish people, under which Jews undertook to fulfil the multifarious commandments and obligations that were to be laid on them in the Torah.

          Unlike his friend Jonathan Sacks, Prince Charles crosses no red lines when he seeks to accord equality to all religious minorities, both in the UK and across the world, in the freedom to worship the Almighty in their own way, and when he works to heal division and conflict between them.

          Over the years it has become clear that Charles intends to encourage and support all the major religious communities in Britain. It is no longer a matter of comment when he dons Jewish or Muslim skullcaps in visits to communal events, or puts on religious ceremonial garb for the openings of Sikh and Hindu temples. The Prince also admires the Orthodox Church, not least perhaps because his grandmother, Princess Alice, was an Orthodox nun. He has made regular spiritual retreats to stay in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the Greek republic run by two thousand monks. He has incorporated Byzantine icons in the chapel in the grounds of his residence, Highgrove.

          On December 2, 2019, with the UK election campaign at its height, Prince Charles addressed 400 guests at a pre-Hanukkah reception at Buckingham Palace. He was unequivocal in his praise for the contribution to the life of the UK made by Its Jewish citizens, and his total abhorrence of antisemitism. The Prince said prominent members of the Jewish community had "literally transformed this country for the better" whilst others were cornerstones of their local communities. "In every walk of life," he said, “in every field of endeavor, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends.”

          There is no doubt that in Prince Charles the Jewish community in the UK, and Jews the world over, have a friend. In his closing remarks to his guests as Buckingham Palace he said:

          “In my own small way, I have sought to recognize the contribution of the Jewish community by various means, whether in attending or hosting receptions for the Kindertransport Association, or for Holocaust survivors, or attending events for the National Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, of which I am Patron, or helping to build a Jewish Community Centre in Krakow – where I was privileged to fix a mezuzah to the doorpost – or in agreeing without a moment’s hesitation to become Patron of World Jewish Relief... I see this as the least I can do to try to repay, in some small way, the immense blessings the Jewish people have brought to this land and, indeed, to humanity.“

          Charles deserves the most generous and warm-hearted welcome that Israel can provide.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 15 January 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 January 2020:

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