Queen Elizabeth II and the Jews
Six facts about the monarch’s tumultuous relationship with Jews, on the occasion of her Platinum Jubilee.
Aish is sadden by the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This article was written in celebration of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. She was the longest serving monarch in the history of Britain.
This year, people in Britain and around the world are celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest serving monarch in Britain’s history, who ascended to the throne 70 years ago, in 1952. In Britain, the centerpiece of Her Royal Majesty’s Jubilee celebrations is a special Bank Holiday weekend June 2-5.
Over three quarters of Britons report feeling admiration and approval for their queen. In fact, one recent survey found that the most popular dream in Britain is having tea with the queen.
On her 90th birthday, in 2016, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, then Britain’s Chief Rabbi and who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, spoke for many when he noted that “the respect she has shown for all religions has enriched our lives.” In her 70 years on the throne, her Royal Highness has provided encouragement to many, including her nation’s Jews.
Here are six little-known facts.
Childhood “Heil Hitler” Gaffe
One of the major plot elements in The Crown is the alleged Nazi sympathies of Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, who reigned for less than a year in 1936. (He abdicated to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson; she was a divorcee, and at the time the Church of England didn’t allow the monarch to wed someone who’d been previously married.) Rumors have long swirled around Edward and Wallace - they took the titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor - that they sympathized with the Nazis in the run-up to World War II.
There’s plenty of evidence that the rumors do have some substance. In her 2008 book Edward VIII, biographer Frances Donaldson notes that in 1937, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Hitler at his vacation home and Edward saluted Hitler throughout their stay. After World War II, the Allies found evidence of a top secret German project nicknamed “Operation Willi” which planned to overthrow Edwards’s successor (and Queen Elizabeth II’s father) King George VI and reinstall Edward on the throne.
It seems that the pro-Hitler feelings of some of her relatives influenced a very young Queen Elizabeth. In 2015, Britain’s newspaper The Sun released a private royal family video of a seven-year-old Elizabeth, along with her younger Princess Margaret, her mother Queen Elizabeth, and her uncle Edward VIII, performing Nazi salutes. When the video came to light, Queen Elizabeth was said by the Palace to be “livid” and emphasized her extreme youth in the video. At age seven, back in 1933, she could hardly have been aware of how vile it was to make a Nazi salute.
Her Mother-in-Law Saved Jews During the Holocaust
The third season of The Crown features a Greek-speaking, tough talking nun. Shockingly, that nun was Queen Elizabeth II’s mother in law, Princess Alice of Battenberg. Even more surprisingly, The Crown never explores Princess Alice’s heroism during the Holocaust, when she saved Jews by sheltering them in her home in Nazi-occupied Athens. It’s an amazing story that ought to be known.
Born in 1885 in Windsor Castle - where Queen Elizabeth II now lives - Princess Alice was Queen Victoria’s great granddaughter. She was deaf - a fact that the royal family hid - and learned to lip read as a child. Historians have speculated that this might have made Princess Alice more sensitive to other people who were different from the mainstream in some way.
Prince Philip with his mother Princess Alice
When Alice’s brother Edward was crowned King Edward VII in 1902, one of the guests at his coronation was a dashing Greek prince named Andrew. The two fell in love and married. Alice moved to Greece where she had four children: three daughters and a son, Philip (Queen Elizabeth II’s husband). The family was riddled with dysfunction. Alice’s husband became a dissolute playboy and eventually moved away. Her three daughters all became ardent supporters of Hitler and each one married senior Nazis. Only her son Prince Philip resembled her, eschewing Nazism and spending time with Jewish friends and his British relatives.
When World War II broke out, Prince Philip volunteered for the British navy, and battled Nazis with distinction. Princess Alice resisted in more secret ways. Remaining in Athens, she invited the Cohens, a distinguished Greek Jewish family with whom she and her husband had long been friends, to hide in her house. Rachel Cohen, her daughter Tilde, and her son Michel moved in with the princess. The apartment was small and located just yards from Athens’ Gestapo headquartered. Once, Princess Alice was even brought in for questioning, but she refused to divulge the fact that she was sheltering Jews in her home.
After the war, Princess Alice founded an order of nuns. She returned to London in 1967 and died there in 1969. She requested that her remains be interred in Jerusalem, and in 1988 they were buried on Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
In 1993, Princess Alice was declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Prince Philip traveled to Jerusalem for the ceremony, where he planted a tree in his mother’s memory. “The Holocaust was the most horrific event in all of Jewish history,” the prince said, “and it will remain in the memory of all future generations. It is, therefore, a very generous gesture that also remembered here are the many millions of non-Jews, like my mother, who shared in your pain and anguish and did what they could in small ways to alleviate the horror. I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special… She would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”
Queen Elizabeth II Hired Jewish Mohel to Circumcise Prince Charles
Queen Elizabeth II hired an Orthodox Jewish mohel to circumcise her son Prince Charles. Rabbi Jacob Snowman (1871-1959) was a London mohel of great renown, and it’s said that the Queen was impressed with Rabbi Snowman’s skill and experience.
The tradition of British royals to ask Jewish mohels to circumcise their sons goes back to King George I, who was born in Hanover, Germany, and reigned over England from 1714-1727. Back in Germany, some aristocratic parents hired Jewish mohels, and George I brought the custom with him to England. Years later his great great granddaughter Queen Victoria hired Jewish mohels to circumcise all of her sons. She is said to have believed that her family tree went directly back to the Biblical King David.
Coincidentally, Queen Elizabeth’s mohel Rabbi Jacob Snowman had another royal connection: his younger brother Emanuel Snowman was chairman of Britain’s renowned Wartski jewelry dynasty, which sold wedding rings both to Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and to Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.
British Jews pray for the Queen every Shabbat
It’s a Jewish custom around the world to recite a prayer on Shabbat for their government leaders. In Britain, this means praying for the welfare of Queen Elizabeth II and her family. British Jews ask God to “preserve the Queen in life, guard her and deliver her from all sorrow.” The prayer goes on to ask that the Divine “put a spirit of wisdom into her heart and into the hearts of all her counsellors” too.
The Queen has never visited Israel
Despite traveling all over the world - including to many nations with reprehensible human rights records - Queen Elizabeth II has never made an official visit to the Jewish State. Over the long decades of her reign, this boycott has come to be seen as a painful omission by some British Jews.
In 2009, the British historian Andrew Roberts said that the “true reason of course is that the FO (Britain’s Foreign Office) has a ban on official royal visits to Israel, which is even more powerful for its being unwritten and unacknowledged. As an act of delegitimization of Israel, this boycott is quite as serious as other similar acts, such as the academic boycott, and is the direct fault of the FO Arabists. It is, therefore, no coincidence that although the queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor one single member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit.”
That changed in 2018, when Queen Elizabeth’s grandson Prince William went on an official visit to Israel. In 2000, her son Prince Charles represented Britain at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem. (He’d visited Israel several times previously, but never before in an official capacity.)
Prince William at the Western Wall
While her son and grandson might have warmed to the Jewish State, it’s unclear exactly how Queen Elizabeth II feels about it herself. Besides her resolute steadfastness in never visiting, the Queen also made troubling remarks on an official visit to Jordan in 1984. Shown a map of the disputed West Bank, which has been in Israeli control ever since the Six Day War in 1967, Queen Elizabeth called it “depressing,” and described Israeli planes flying in the West Bank as “frightening.” On that visit, she also laid a wreath at a memorial to Arab soldiers who died attacking Israel.
She Departed from Royal Protocol to Listen to Holocaust Survivors
While Queen Elizabeth II seems notably cool towards the Jewish state, when it comes to Britain’s Jews recent years have found her conciliatory. The royal family has shown a particular interest in the welfare of Holocaust survivors of late.
Queen Elizabeth with Holocaust survivors
On January 27, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Queen Elizabeth hosted a group of Holocaust survivors in St. James’s Palace in the center of London. Notably punctual, on this occasion the Queen threw protocol to the wind. As she mingled with the survivors, one of her aides informed her that it was time to wrap up the event.
Instead, the Queen continued to talk, to listen, and to reassure. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was present and later recounted: “When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said that he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure. She gave each survivor - it was a large group - her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story.
“It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears. One after another, the survivors came to me in a kind of trance, saying: ‘Sixty years ago I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.’ It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives.”
Queen Elizabeth II and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l
In January 2022, Prince Charles commissioned a royal series of portraits of Holocaust survivors. “As the number of Holocaust survivors sadly but inevitably declines,” he explained, “my abiding hope is that this special collection will act as a further guiding light.” The portraits are to be displayed in Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II’s official home.