During my first couple of years in Israel, I used to take my shoes to be repaired by a cobbler on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road. The lovely old gentleman was born and grew up under the British Mandate for Palestine (1920-1948). When I first told him I was British, far from throwing my shoes back in my face, his eyes lit up as he reminisced, with no little nostalgia, how wonderfully polite the British soldiers were during that period, almost as if wishing them back.
This is not the reaction one would expect from a cold study of the history books. Even if the British could have explained away the 1939 White Paper – severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine – as political necessity, the turning back of ships packed with survivors of German death camps smacked of unimaginable cruelty.
But the deferential Israeli attitude to everything British prevails to this day. When the English football team and fans visited Tel Aviv for a European Championship qualifier, in March of last year, the authorities bedecked the Tel Aviv promenade in the flag of St. George, turning it into a Middle Eastern Southend-on-Sea. And the annual British Film Festival, at the Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa Cinematheques, is more popular than any other.
But there is something more than a little patronising about Britain’s attitude towards Israel. And it defies logic.
Whatever his many detractors in Israel might say about him, no one can deny that President Shimon Peres has devoted much of his life to masterminding the survival of Israel and its citizens, through unremitting wars with Arab neighbours to daring operations like Entebbe (of which he is widely considered to have been the brains). The Queen and Prince Philip, on the other hand, have spent much of theirs gallivanting around the Commonwealth, gazing at natives’ bouncing dangly bits, in one “Bongo-Bongo Land” or another (let’s face it, I’m sure that’s how the wonderfully un-PC Prince would view them) .
Not a single member of the Royal Family has ever been on an official visit to Israel. During her 56-year reign, the Queen has undertaken over 250 official visits to more than 130 different countries. Her total abstinence from Israel is all the more remarkable when one considers her constitutional role as Head of the Church of England. Has no one ever informed her that some pretty heavy Christian sh*t has gone down here too?
A leaked email exchange between his aides, last year, suggested that Prince Charles – who has visited Israel once (for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin) – was unlikely to do so again, as Israel might use any such visit to bolster its international image (God forbid). And the heir to the throne did not respond to a fresh invitation, last week, from President Peres – in town to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen at Buckingham Palace – despite having said that it was his lifelong dream to visit the grave of his grandmother (Prince Philip’s mother), on the Mount of Olives (I suppose that cash flow could be an issue for the Prince, in these recessionary times).
In view, especially, of Britain’s deep, problematic involvement in the history of this Land (the effects of which are still felt here), the Royal reticence towards Israel does the Family a disservice and Israel a dishonour.
With the man’s penchant for international recognition, it was never going to happen, but President Peres should have politely declined this dishonourable knighthood.