On the Coronation of King Charles III
Well, thank you! Thank you for coming to shul this Shabbat; rather than spending your Saturday morning in front of the TV to take part in an I want a Christian ceremony. I am so grateful to you all, to each one of you. It is beautiful when Jews keep loyalty to the Jewish faith and observe Shabbat despite everything.
But I don’t want to sound too judgemental towards these Jews who right now express their loyalty to the King and will read this sermon in the coming days. Someone -I think it was Howard Jacobson- said that “as long as the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, my Jewish family are safe in Hendon”. I don’t know who said it, but it perfectly summarises the prevailing attitude of a large part of the Jewish community towards the Monarchy.
And for many good reasons.
As Jews, we have many reasons to be grateful to the British Royal Family. None of them ever signed any antisemitic legislation, like Vittorio Emanuele III of the House of Savoy, the operetta villain who led Italy through two World Wars and handed the Country to the Fascists. Thankfully, the current British Royals are different people.
The Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue has been invited to attend the ceremony with his wife. Everything has been provided so they won’t have to publicly desecrate Shabbat. Last night they had a nice sound sleep in Buckingham Palace. Yesterday evening they had a nice kosher Friday night dinner, and the Chief Rabbi recited Kiddush. At the coronation of Richard III back in 1189, Jewish dignitaries were beaten for daring to show up. See how things are different now, just eight centuries afterwards!
The British Monarchy, but I would say the culture of British aristocracy is quite different in their attitude from their continental equivalent and relatives. Many French aristocrats still resent the moment when a head fell into the basket — and guess whom they blame, the Freemasons and the Jews. Among Italian nobility, there is still nostalgia for the times when the pope ruled over Italy, and we Jews were secluded in ghettoes — we call them nobiltà nera, “black nobility”, for a good reason. And as regards the attitude towards the Jews of the nobility in Germany, Poland, Hungary… well… don’t go there. Literally.
England is different, everybody knows it, and we proudly show it off, till the point of spending a Saturday morning in front of the TV, something that we do for very important reasons, a match by Brighton and Hove Albion, for example.
But why? Why is the British Monarchy and its influence on British culture so good for the Jews?
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l wrote extensively about this topic. He agreed with the general opinion that the roots of democracy are in the Western Enlightenment. But he made a distinction. An anti-religious Enlightenment, such as in France, led to totalitarianism, hence not democratic. While the Biblically-based British and American Enlightenment led to modern democracy.
Jonathan Sacks eloquently demonstrated that the great architects of British and American democracy drew their inspiration from the Hebrew Bible. The arguments for democratic government carried force precisely because they were based on Biblical principles and values. Even if those principles -the rights of the individual and the family, the common good, and freedom of speech- are now under attack. They still hold together British society and shape the lives of most British citizens — at least of those who do not lose their time supporting battling on Twitter for some woke cause. Respect for the Jews and reverence for the Jewish tradition are cornerstones of that system of values.
Jonathan Sacks has devoted all his public life to defending “the home that we built together” -the Western civilization- and spoke at length of the room the Jews have in that house.
This is possibly one of the reasons why antisemitism here is confined to the outsiders: the grim thugs of the Far Right, the addicted to intellectual blathering on the Far Left and the Islamist. Those parts of British society are definitely not the mainstream, for which Charles III is the legitimate King, and God save him.
Then there is another explanation, less intellectual, perhaps. It may sound naive, but it has some points. Let us call it Progressive, as it is based on the belief in human progress. It goes like this. Suppose you look at the 20th century with a progressive attitude. In that case, believing that the future can be better than the past, you have good reasons to be optimistic. People live longer and better now than 100 years ago. The most evil dictatorships ever appeared on European soil have both been defeated. Germany, the country that once declared war on world Jewry is now a trusted ally of the State of Israel. Living in a ghetto is no anymore the default condition for European Jews. We Jews in England have benefitted from the State and Monarchy’s protection. At the same time, in the rest of Europe, our brethren were rounded up and sent to die in the gas chambers.
Britain has led the way for the rest of Europe towards a more tolerant, less hostile relationship with us Jews. Even now, for example, the alliance between Israel and the United Kingdom is one of the strongest; it is based on common interests and on shared values -maybe this King will visit the Jewish State one day… There are good reasons to be optimistic if you are used to looking at the half-full part of the glass. We are grateful to the Monarchy because it has made this Country a good place for us Jews. Better than France. Or Italy, if you ask me.
I have to add another explanation that neither invalidates nor confirms the previous two. It is based on my experience as a Rabbi.
I officiate funerals, and sometimes those funerals are attended by non-Jewish friends and acquittances of the deceased person. Funerals can be awkward, as you can imagine. They are times for the expression of deep and personal feelings. At the same time, there are cultural rules and norms which one is supposed to know and are often unconsciously broken, in total goodwill.
One day I will write a book, I promise, about my experiences at funerals; I can tell you it will be real fun. Mourners that have not been exposed to the beauty of Jewish funeral practices, such as placing stones on the tombstones that last, like the memory. So they show up with their arms full of very expensive -and quickly perishable- flower compositions. What do you do at that moment? You don’t want to embarrass anyone, but there are rules, customs and traditions that the deceased person, and the family, expect to be followed.
I often recognize non-Jewish friends and relatives because -if male- they do not wear the kippahs. And often they are dressed in their best outfit, stylish and appropriate. No one would dream of damaging these expensive fashion pieces with the keriah! etc
Yet, the general British attitude towards Judaism and the Jewish mourning customs are always respectful, sometimes curious, and often benevolent. Genuine and respectful questions are sometimes asked, such as “Why no flowers?” or “Should I cover my head?”
Don’t take it for granted. Elsewhere people love to have fun with our mourning traditions and customs that comfort us when we are vulnerable and exposed.
I experienced the length and, quite often, the cruelty of Italian bureaucracy. They really cannot get -or they like to say in your face that they don’t get- why a Jew cannot be buried in a “regular”, that is, Catholic, cemetery. “Why all this fuss to defend your privileges? What’s the problem of a dead Jew buried next to a cross?”
Other European Countries can be worse. Do you know that the Jewish cemetery of Geneve, the Swiss city, is literally beyond the border, in a village in neighboring France? That is because, in 1916, when the Jewish community had to expand the existing cemetery, the authorities of the city of Geneve could not find a place suitable to host the cemetery. The placid and tolerant and -at that time- piously Christian city of Geneve did not want to have anything to do with dead Jews. We desecrate their ground, apparently.
Things are obviously worse in places like Iran or Tunisia, where the Muslim authorities uses the memorial stones taken from Jewish cemeteries to pave parting slots or public toilets. So much for the much-praised Jewish-Muslim coexistence, Not to mention -again- the number of Jewish cemeteries in France and elsewhere vandalized by Fascists, Palestinians and everything in between.
Nothing of this happens in England. There is much more respect. For our family names, there may be a bit of curiosity, as sometimes they are difficult to pronounce. But in my experience, it is always a benevolent attitude.
And the reason is that British people do not feel threatened.
British people do not consider us Jews a menace to their life. Remember, working-class people, even in difficult times, did not fall for the promise of economic improvement by Jeremy Corbyn. “He promised us that we will be better if he’s in charge, but he is not a friend of the Jews -so, no, thanks.”
It’s quite easy to scapegoat the Jews, and -historically speaking- showing contempt towards Jewish customs and observances carries almost no consequences. But in this country, things are different.
Only a minority of Left and Right Wing fanatics see us as a threat. For the general British public, we Jews are not a secret cabal that conspires to protect their privileges. Perhaps because in British popular culture imagination, such a role is played by someone else, the aristocracy indeed. But most likely because British people value stability. They feel stable and secure, on average more than in the rest of Europe. And the monarchy is precisely that: a symbol of British stability, security, and continuity.
The Parliament rarely gives a great example. It’s difficult to remember a Prime Minister who has covered the role in a dignified, non-divisive manner. Not so the Monarchy. Go into every place that keeps this nation together, the hospitals, the post office, the schools, the police station, and you will find a portrait of the King, more personal than any other national symbol.
It’s a play, perhaps. Do you really believe that the King is doing, as he says, “a service to the nation”? I am part of this nation, and certainly don’t look at him as a public servant!
Nonetheless, the King’s presence in public life is a sign of stability. And we Jews, as members of a minority, highly value stability because social turbulences always turn us into scapegoats. A great majority of our non-Jewish British co-citizens see the King as a guarantee of stability; they feel safe and secure, regardless of the turbulence of the economy or the speed by which the society is evolving.
They look at the King and -even if many cannot voice this feeling- feel safe (why should a British person voice feeling after all? Let’s have a cup of tea instead. Or go to the pub).
And this is good for the Jews.
Whether you like the Monarchy or not. Wherever you are, to daven in shul and talk to our Melech halakhic, the Heavenly Kings of Kings, or on your sofa, at home, right now, watching the Coronation of King Charles III.
God save the King, really.
[sermon delivered at Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 6 May 2023]