It is a great delight to welcome you this evening to Buckingham Palace, as the festival of Chanukah approaches, and to celebrate with you the contribution of our Jewish community to the health, wealth and happiness of the United Kingdom. In every walk of life, in every field of endeavor, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends.
That is why I am so glad to have this opportunity to say thank you, albeit in a small way, for all that you do, and have done, across the country, in major national and international institutions, and in local communities the length and breadth of the land.
I often describe the United Kingdom as a “community of communities”, which is enriched by the diversity of its constituent groups, and whose whole is so much greater than its parts. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed, for example, that I travelled recently to the Vatican for the Canonisation of St John Henry Newman, and took that opportunity to express my heartfelt appreciation for all that our Catholic community has brought to the United Kingdom over many centuries. Only two weeks ago, in India, I had the particular pleasure of being able to visit the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, whose half a million followers in the United Kingdom also make such a great contribution to our National well-being. And it is why this time of year, which is so special to Christians and Jews alike, offered an ideal opportunity to arrange this evening’s celebration – because the importance of Unity through Diversity sits at the very heart of our values as a society. It defines what – and who – we are as a country.
The connection between the Crown and our Jewish Community is something special and precious. I say this from a particular and personal perspective because I have grown up being deeply touched by the fact that British synagogues have, for centuries, remembered my Family in your weekly prayers. And as you remember my Family, so we too remember and celebrate you. I am thinking not just of the most prominent members of our Jewish community who, through the ages, have literally transformed this country for the better. I am thinking also, crucially, of those who are not household names, but who are the cornerstones of their own local communities. They are the people who, I am delighted to say, make up the larger part of this evening’s guest list and to whom I want to offer particular gratitude.
In thinking of links between the Crown and British Jewry, I can never forget that the first Jewish knight, created by Queen Anne, was Sir Solomon de Medina, who provided vital supplies for the British Army under the Duke of Marlborough to win the decisive Battle of Blenheim. In the following century, Benjamin Disraeli, of course, the great Prime Minister, although baptized as a child, never denied his Jewish heritage, describing himself to my great-great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, as: “The blank page between the Old and the New Testaments!” When taunted by a Member of Parliament, he answered: “Yes, I am a Jew, but when the ancestors of The Right Honourable Gentleman were living as savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon!”
Then there was Sir Moses Montefiore, who was raised to the Baronetcy by Queen Victoria, and was an immensely distinguished President of the Board of Deputies, famed for his intervention to help persecuted Jews in foreign empires, and for his love for Jerusalem.
These ties come even more directly into the heart of my own Family. If I may say so, I am immensely proud that my dear grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, is buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. She is counted one of the Righteous among the Nations for her actions in 1943 when, in Nazi-occupied Athens, she saved a Jewish family by taking them into her home and hiding them. My grandmother was a formidable lady. When she announced her intention of being buried in Jerusalem, we all wondered how on Earth we were going to be able to visit her grave. She answered: “that’s perfectly alright, there’s a very good bus service from Athens!”
Such courage was not an isolated instance. In 1933, my father, who was spending a year in school in Germany, helped an older schoolboy who had been identified as a Jew and badly mistreated by other boys. His act of compassion is a source of great pride and inspiration to me. It has, sadly, been the case that Jewish history in Britain has often been shadowed by the persecution visited upon Jewish communities elsewhere. As always, it is adversity that proves the real value of friendship. Whether welcoming refugees from nineteenth-century pogroms, or giving shelter to Kindertransport children from Nazi-occupied lands, this country has provided a home where the Jewish community can thrive. In turn, many thousands of Jewish people played a vital role in the war effort. My own great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was enormously proud of the airman, RAF Flight Sergeant Jack Nissenthall, whose missions behind enemy lines would have been a certain death sentence had he ever been captured. This is a legacy in which all share.
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.
If I may say so, Ladies and Gentlemen, 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.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, which provide so much of the ethical underpinning of our society, we read in The Book of Deuteronomy, the inspiring exhortation: ‘Choose life!’
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Jewish community of the United Kingdom have fulfilled that divine command in countless ways, and our society has been immeasurably enriched as a result. Today, we have the opportunity to give thanks for the friendship we have forged, and the values we all share.