July 23, 2013
Royal baby, Jews and international fascination
So we have a new royal baby in the United Kingdom. Mazal Tov! As someone who worked in communications for Buckingham Palace for three years, from 2009 to 2012, I was both delighted to hear the news and interested to gauge the global media reaction to the new arrival. It’s a story off the Richter scale of the mainstream news agenda, generating interest from almost every outlet in every country in the world (to give a sense of international interest in the royals, the wedding of Kate and William in 2011 was broadcast in 180 countries). It means that the queen, at the grand age of 87, leads a family of four generations, with the succession mapped out for another generation.
Americans, of course, have long been fascinated by the monarchy. Since becoming queen more than 60 years ago, Elizabeth II has met every U.S. president, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. It is worth remembering that, at the beginning of her reign, President Harry Truman occupied the White House, and Winston Churchill was the British prime minister. President Barack Obama was not even born when she became queen, nor was Prime Minister David Cameron, or Tony Blair for that matter. As monarch, she has remained a steadfast figure in an age of enormous political, social and economic change.
When Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, Jacqueline Bouvier, later to become wife of President John Kennedy, was one of the thousands of journalists in London to report on the coronation (she was working for the Washington Times-Herald). The queen’s first visit to the United States took place in 1957, on the 350th anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement, and she has been most recently in 2007, as well as three previous visits in 1976, 1983 and 1991. Her grandchildren have followed in her footsteps, with William and Kate visiting California in 2011, and Prince Harry visiting as recently as May this year.
If the volume of U.S. media coverage of royal stories is anything to go by, the fascination of Americans with the British monarchy has intensified in recent years. There are a number of factors in this; certainly films like “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech” have magnified global interest in the monarchy. Of course, the combination of affection for an elderly monarch, and the increasing prominence of the “third generation” of William, Kate and Harry, with their mixture of composure and glamour, has also generated interest. It appears that President Obama and the queen enjoy a warm personal chemistry, cemented on a state visit in London in 2011, when it was revealed that the first daughters had ridden in a carriage on palace grounds on a previous visit to London. At a more conceptual level, there has also been a growing public appreciation of the stability and continuity engendered by the monarchy, at a time of economic turbulence and falling trust in politicians and in a number of public institutions.
The American media presence in London for recent big-ticket royal events has been enormous. All the major U.S. networks have come here in droves. There were reports that one large U.S. network sent a staff of 400 to cover the wedding in 2011. American tourists have flocked to London, and a must-see on their itinerary is a visit to watch changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or another royal venue (they helped make 2012 a record-breaking year for inbound tourism to the United Kingdom).
So trans-Atlantic interest in the monarchy may be booming, and as British Jews, we, too, have reason to be thankful for the monarchy. This may not be immediately obvious to our American co-religionists. In the United Kingdom, we do not have a separation between church and state. The Church of England is the official religion, and an onlooker could easily think that minority faith groups could feel excluded and marginalized, but nothing could be further from the truth. As it happens, the Church of England provides a protective umbrella for faith, ensuring that the importance of faith is woven into our constitutional architecture, even in an increasingly secular society.
One of my favorite moments of last year’s Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years of the queen’s reign, was a gathering of the different faith communities in the United Kingdom at Lambeth Palace, the home of the archbishop of Canterbury. Each of the major faiths in Britain brought an object of particular significance to their tradition and history in Britain to show to the queen. The Jewish community showed her the Codex Valmadonna, which is a Talmud dating from the Middle Ages, before the Jews were expelled in 1290. At another Jubilee event, this one at Buckingham Palace, one Jewish community leader was able to wish the queen, “Ad me’ah ve’esrim, Your Majesty” (“until 120,” a common birthday wish for a long life). This was well received on translation, even though some of the media reporters at the palace understandably required an explanation.
Given the attention the monarchy pays to minority faiths, it is not surprising that it is very popular in these segments of the population. Our own community enjoys positive relations with the royals. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was a guest at the royal wedding and other “state” occasions. Royals are patrons of some Jewish charities and organizations. At a community event last year, Prince Charles praised the “talents and contributions” of the Jewish community in Britain, especially its philanthropy. In shul every week on Shabbat, a special prayer is recited for the royal family.
The monarchy, therefore, is regarded positively in both the Jewish community in Britain and among the American public. Public popularity and sentiment can be fickle, and the institution is mindful of that. In time, the new royal baby will come to appreciate that while he will not become king of America, his family is the subject of public fascination the world over.
Zaki Cooper worked in the Buckingham Palace press office from 2009 to 2012 and writes in a personal capacity. He is a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews.