(JTA) — The death of Queen Elizabeth II after 70 years on the throne is a devastating loss for Britain, the Commonwealth and the free world. It is hard to overstate the sense of grief that will be felt at her passing, including from within the Anglo-Jewish community.
I was brought up in a typical liberal Jewish family that showed a healthy respect for the queen, and the royal family more widely. I recall marching down the Mall in London for the 60th anniversary of VE Day and catching a sight of our monarch on the steps of Buckingham Palace. Like other British Jews, I also remember hearing the prayer for the royal family which was, and is, a feature of every Shabbat service.
For Anglo-Jewry, the queen was a rock and mainstay of her nation, a constant, familiar and reassuring presence amid the turbulence of both domestic and international crises. Indeed, she became such a fixture in British life that she created the illusion that she would always carry on as head of state. Of course, no one is immortal. But the queen etched herself so deeply into her country’s story that she became emblematic of its very character, the unspoken essence of modern Britain. She was truly the matriarch of the nation.
The queen was unlike political heads of state. She was not a polarizing figure because, being unelected, she was in no way beholden to vested interests or parties. Instead, she united her nation by becoming a symbol of its most enduring and cherished values. What she brought to her role was an old-fashioned sense of duty and loyalty, reflecting the vow that she made in 1947 to live a life of service, no matter how long or short it lasted. Her values were those of an older Britain, a nation framed by a Christian ethos in which self mattered less than duty and obligation trumped personal ambition.
Those values had resonance for British Jews too, given that their own faith encompassed notions of religious duty and communal service. They recognized that the queen’s tireless devotion to her nation was an example of tikkun olam at its finest. The queen never compromised her fidelity to those values and conducted herself at all times with dignity, decency and propriety. If only one could say the same about today’s leaders.
Above all, she was a steadfast symbol of old-fashioned calm and stoicism in an age when the stiff upper lip was being assailed as quaint and harmful. It was that facet of her character, her ability to show coolness and fortitude despite crisis and sadness, that endeared her to millions of her countrymen and women. In her own life, those sad episodes included the breakdown of her children’s marriages, the death of Princess Diana, the fallout caused by the disillusionment of Prince Harry and his wife with the monarchy, and, above all, the loss of her beloved husband, Prince Philip. Yet her belief in service and her promise to the nation meant that she never contemplated stepping aside. She simply got on with her job, exuding a steely strength and determination that won her so many admirers.
The queen was also an internationally renowned figure. It is easy to forget that she visited some 117 countries as monarch, meeting countless leaders, statesmen and diplomats. She acted as head of state to 15 British prime ministers and met no fewer than 13 American presidents. Indeed, her reign lasted more than one quarter of the entire history of the United States. She was the first British monarch to travel to a communist country when she toured Yugoslavia in 1972. She was a symbol of the reconciliation with Japan, receiving the emperor in the United Kingdom, while her visits to China and Russia in the 1980s and 1990s were equally significant. She also reflected a changed mood when she went to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, something that would have been unthinkable decades earlier. She was undoubtedly the most experienced diplomat of her age and a figure to whom many would turn for wise counsel.
She was also a friend of the Jewish community in the U.K. She met many faith leaders and gained the praise of figures such as the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who described her and the royal family as “one of the great unifying forces in Britain, a unity we need all the more, the more diverse religiously and culturally we become.” She hosted Israeli leaders in the U.K., including President Ephraim Katzir in 1976, and gave an honorary knighthood to Shimon Peres in 2008.
In 2000, she also inaugurated Britain’s first permanent memorial to the Holocaust and served as patron of the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for a decade. It is true that she did not visit Israel as a monarch despite a number of entreaties from the country’s leaders. But this did not reflect any personal malice or bigotry and instead resulted from longstanding Foreign Office policy to avoid antagonizing Britain’s Arab allies. Accordingly, the queen’s death has seen a genuine and palpable outpouring of grief from Jewish communal leaders of every denomination. British Jews are feeling the loss of this remarkable monarch as much as their gentile counterparts.
For now, Britain has a king who will provide the nation and Commonwealth with a sense of much needed continuity. But Queen Elizabeth II was a truly unique figure whose guiding presence symbolized unity, constancy and, above all, human decency. We will not see her like again. PJC
Jeremy Havardi is a journalist, historian and political activist, and is director of the Bureau of International Affairs of B’nai B’rith UK.