Lately, there have been many articles alluding to the fact that Prince Harry’s soon-to-be bride comes from Jewish ancestry. To be honest, I have no idea whether this assertion is accurate and I’ll admit that I don’t follow the Royal Family or Ms. Markle (the potential fiancé), but how strange that readers expressed so much excitement about the possibility of a Jew marrying into British royalty. When I researched non-Jewish publications, venerable ones too, the reaction was different and centered on a genuine concern that another “commoner” was joining the ranks of the Royal Family. There were ridiculous terms such as “pleb” and “oak” and “social climber” with reference to anyone unsuitable for royal marriage. I was addled by these impassioned reactions; how could they not realize that they were also mocking themselves by giving more credence to such antiquated social divide?
I kept oscillating between Jewish and non-Jewish articles and the reactions to a royal-Jewish union and the general public’s reaction to a commoner and a member of the Royal Family. I couldn’t decide which was more bizarre. It’s as though a connection to peerage would make someone possess some sort of innate, unique quality that would make them more suitable for royalty. There was reference to Kate Middleton and her mother—also known as “Doors to Manual,” because in the past she was a flight attendant, which is very, very common and very, very unsuitable for royal life.
Status outside of royalty is usually measured by other parameters such as academic distinction, business success, good deeds and philanthropy, yet when it comes to the Royal Family we still see a remnant of Medieval England flourishing among the British public especially. With respect to the rumors of an impending engagement between Harry and Meghan, a snapshot of Jewish opinions implied such a sense of achievement for all Jews. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Meghan is indeed Jewish, in that sense people were delighted that a Jew had reached the upper, most desirable echelons of British society. The jackpot of acceptance and integration!
However, if it’s so important to be defined by one’s bloodline then why would anyone want to be associated with royalty, when monarchy is such a paradox—it counters liberalism, and people take is so damn seriously. To quote Barabas in The Jew of Malta: “I must confess we come not to be kings: That’s not our fault: alas, our numbers few, And crowns come either by succession, Or urg’d by force; and nothing violent, Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent . . . .”
The general public seems to forget that kings and queens had secured their titles and amassed their riches by enacting feudal rule, and imposing ruthless terror campaigns to instill fear in anyone who stood in their way.
I understand that things are very different these days and the Queen’s role as Head of State is symbolic; she’s viewed as a unifying entity, promoting national identity and a great tourist draw regardless of what it costs the British public or the controversy surrounding the pros and cons of maintaining the crown. Just the other day, the Queen celebrated her 91st birthday and thousands of her adoring subjects crowded the sidewalks of London to get a glimpse of the Royal Family and the Trooping the Colour celebrations. It has always struck me as odd that so many revere the monarchy, and I can only assume that when it comes to the Queen logic is not a requirement per se. It’s a form of escapism, and many find comfort in holding onto the monarchy and all of its ceremonial aspects. It raises a sense of pride in their British past, albeit a bloody and cruel past that seems to evade them.
This past had also rejected Jews; all Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and only readmitted in 1656. Even after their return, Jews were considered numinous figures, defined by evil as we’ve read in old literature. Even though they were also “protected” as wards of the Crown, they had to carefully navigate between restrictive statutes, confiscation of property, extra taxes and tallages, funding of the Crown, forced conversions and historical events such as pogroms, blood libels and scapegoating of high-profiled individuals. One such example was Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth I who was accused of plotting to poison the Queen and executed in 1594. But the trial was turned into a theatrical production with the utmost exposure, and the address to the jury pointed out the doctor’s Jewish ethnicity too, with emphasis on a “plot and practice that were more wicked, dangerous and detestable than all former plots . . .” This pretty much sums up the attitude towards Jews at that time.
Alright, but today’s royals have nothing to do with this horrid past, and generally speaking the British and non-British tourists are suckers for pomp and pageantry. This reminds me of the time my little 6-year-old daughter and I were vacationing in London, and I took her to the biggest tourist draw of all: Buckingham Palace. How surprised we were to find out that the Queen was going to make an appearance in order to inspect the Sandhurst Cadets. I remember the day vividly; we were standing by the gates at Buckingham Palace and Queen Elizabeth appeared in the courtyard wearing a green skirt and coat ensemble, with a matching green hat and shoes. When I pointed out to Maya that she was looking at the Queen of England, she seemed confused. The crowd looked euphoric; there was a mild din, mostly of cameras snapping photos, but everyone else seemed to be holding their breath. Maya was not in the least bit taken by all the excitement. In her very cute, but loud Mickey Mouse voice she said that the Queen was ugly!
You know how you can sometimes hear a pin drop when there’s an uncomfortable silence? Well, that was precisely our experience. The glaring eyes all around us and the blubbering under their breath with “Well I neva’ . . . “ Needless to say, we had to slink out of there in a hurry because it was apparent that nobody had a sense of humor or compassion for a little girl who was disappointed by the Queen. As far as my little girl was concerned, the image she had of a queen was shattered when realizing she could also be a short-haired, podgy, middle-aged woman, which countered the other picture she had forged in her mind of a long, blonde-haired, slim-figured beauty wearing a pink, flowing gown and golden crown.
So we know that the majority of people love the monarchy and that would naturally include British Jews as well. I don’t know whether Meghan is Jewish or not, but the articles and comments I read have led to a few thoughts on why some Jewish readers expressed pride because of this possible union. Jewish immigrants in every country around the world had striven to reach the highest levels of success—a method that helped them integrate, although we know that this has not always been the case and Jews also suffered as a result of their success, and penalized for it repeatedly throughout history.
Perhaps this was the reason that some Jews preferred to keep their ethnicity private. Bram Martin was a famous band leader in the 1920s, and he was also my husband’s grandfather. His orchestra was based at the Holborn Restaurant in London where he would mingle with the rich and famous who would drop by the restaurant to enjoy his music. We have a photograph of Bram playing the cello as Betty Davis sings at one of his lavish parties. My husband has mentioned that his grandfather’s Jewishness was kept quiet, but I wonder whether he was actually pressured to downplay his ethnicity. Bram had also started the tradition of celebrating Christmas with his family, and this tradition continues to this day with most of my husband’s family. Equally, I notice that my husband’s Jewish friends in London all celebrate Christmas; they have the tree, the Turkey dinner, gifts etc., and their Facebook profile photo changes to that of a wholesome family photograph wearing Christmas sweaters and red hats atop their heads, while the Jewish holidays are completely downplayed for the most part. It seems that so many of those Brits have embraced national culture, but perhaps sacrificed their religious identity along the way.
I know most of you can relate to someone in the family who’s always pointing out a Jew on TV:
“He’s so handsome and talented. Did you know he’s also Jewish?”
They feel an instant kinship with a Jewish public figure, and more acceptance. They are the very people who cringe when someone Jewish is indicted for a terrible crime; as irrational as it sounds, they somehow see their crime as a reflection on every one of us.
Jews continued to fight for acceptance even after their emancipation in many countries around the world, and so many preferred to shut a blind eye to veiled discrimination, but the reality was that they were always reminded by others that they were Jews. Maybe the jovial reaction to the possible royal engagement has something to do with that sense of urgency that naturally develops in a marginalized group of people who feels the need to prove that they are an equal part of society. And this is so even though times have changed and Jews are safe, and antisemitism is not institutionalized or as prevalent as before. But there’s that collective memory of pogroms, expulsions, the Holocaust and a plethora of malevolent depictions of Jews by people who came from all walks of life.
Moreover, that need is still there because antisemitism is a reality that we all have to deal with, and veiled antisemitism is the more modern take on anti-Jewish sentiment. Sartre had poignantly expounded on this in Anti-Semite and Jew and how the most polite individuals have confided in him their revulsion with Jews or that “they should play a lesser part in the activity of the nation . . .”
My son dashes out of his room looking for me every time someone uses anti-Jewish slurs on an online game he’s playing. Just the other day he told me that someone’s usename was “Hitler” and his avatar reflected his likeness. My son is only ten years old, and he already understands how some people feel towards Jews.
I think that many Jews who live outside of Israel grapple with their Jewish identity, and even though we live in an open and more enlightened society there’s still the memory of being ridiculed for not adhering to the standards and morals of a Christian society—for not fitting in. I am sure that the need for more acceptance is the driving force behind such comments, including the recent excitement of a possible engagement between Harry and Meghan.
Many people think that Benjamin Disraeli who was prime minister in 1868 and 1874-80 was a Jew who reached the highest distinction in British society. However, he wasn’t a Jew since his father had him baptized as a child in order to enhance his chances in all spheres of life. Sadly, the very same act that allowed Jews to sit in Parliament, The Jews Relief Act of 1858, is still in place today and it states that “No person professing the Jewish religion, directly or indirectly may advise the monarch on appointments in the Church of England.”
Since 2015, there’s been an amendment to the Act of Settlement, which prevented a royal from marrying a Catholic. These days it’s permitted although a Roman Catholic can never become a monarch. But there’s no restriction of any other religion.
If Harry and Meghan marry, and if she’s indeed Jewish, I can assure you that the ceremony will not take place in a synagogue, but can you just imagine Meghan instilling some of her Jewish heritage in future royal holiday celebrations.
“Harry, how much gelt should we give the kids this year for Hanukkah?” or ” Is your grandma going to come over for the Seder?”
Na. I don’t think so. And perhaps I sound a little too cynical when I say that even if a Jew marries into the Royal Family it would solve the problem of antisemitism in England today. But the royal courtiers as well as the rest of the snobs would have a field day with a Jewish addition to the family, and “Doors to Manual” would be lost among the new choice phrases that I can only imagine.