When Prince William arrives in Israel on June 25, it will mark the first official visit by a member of the United Kingdom’s Royal family. However, it will be far from the first time that a royal has set foot in Israel. In fact, Prince William’s father and grandfather have both paid visits to Israel. And his great-grandmother is buried in those hallowed grounds.
Today, a look at those non-official visits. And some thoughts on the royal change of mind.
Scenes from Prince Philip’s 1994 visit to Jerusalem
On October 30, 1994, Prince Philip and his sister, Princess George of Hanover, travelled to East Jerusalem to pray at the burial site of their mother, Princess Alice. They then appeared to Yad Vashem to attend the ceremony honouring their mother. The prince planted a tree and addressed an audience which included a member of the Cohen family which had been protected by Princess Alice during the Second World War.
From the Prince’s remarks: “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.”
That brings us to the story of Princess Alice and her ties to Jerusalem. During the War, the Princess was living in Athens as the Germans occupied the city and began to hunt for Jews. The Greek royal family was acquainted with the Cohen family who were desperately seeking shelter. At personal risk, Princess Alice helped them until liberation. I particularly like this anecdote from the Yad Vashem site. “There were times when the Germans became suspicious, and Princess Alice was even interviewed by the Gestapo. Using her deafness, she pretended not to understand their questions until they left her alone.”
Not long before her death in 1969, Princess Alice expressed the wish to be buried in Jerusalem. In 1993, Yad Vashem bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations on the Princess.
Prince Charles meets Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem after attending the funeral of Shimon Peres.
Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s oldest son and heir to the throne has twice visited Israel for state funerals – for Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Shimon Peres in 2016. Curiously, the Times of Israel described Charles’ visit to his grandmother’s grave as “secret.”
Lesser noted is the 2007 visit by Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son. Edward was invited by the Israel Youth Award program, a self-development group for Jewish and Arab youth affiliated with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Association. There were no meetings for Andrew with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or President Shimon Peres. But he did join Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger for Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem.
And just why has there never been an official visit until now? Is it the work of the dastardly British bureaucracy. To commemorate the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief, the late David Landau let off a bit of steam. “Every time I’ve asked a British official why the Queen has boycotted the State of Israel for the entire six decades of her reign I get a muttered line about ‘when there’s permanent peace.’ … The sad but inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that she herself is part of this nasty, petty British intrigue to deny Israel that rankling vestige of legitimation that is in their power to bestow or withhold – a royal visit. She can and should bin these sour-smelling inhibitions and end this boycott.”
So why has this “boycott” been ended? Also writing in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer suggests that this official visit is a sign of Britain’s “diminished status” in the world. Pfeffer lists several reasons for the visit:
- “Britain relies on Israel for intelligence on terror threats emanating from the Middle East much more than Israel needs the U.K.’s assistance.”
- As the U.K. embarks on Brexit, it is “trying to carve out a new niche for itself in international diplomacy.”
- “And, no less crucial for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu enjoys a far stronger personal relationship with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin than she does.”
Queen Elizabeth II has visited 116 countries in over 265 official visits. However, she has never stepped foot in Israel (officially or otherwise) and at her advanced age is unlikely to do so. As such, Israel joins a select family of countries which has never welcomed the Queen including Madagascar, Greece, Cuba, Peru and North Korea.
Let’s hope Prince William brings home some warm memories of his visit that he will share with his grandmother.