This week I, along with many others no doubt, watched the monumental visit of Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, on his first visit to Israel. This visit marked a dramatic change in British royal policy as no monarch had previously visited Israel in an official capacity since the State’s establishment.
I saw the pictures of the Prince visiting Yad Vashem solemnly placing a wreath in memory of those who were killed. For those who have not yet had a chance, I recommend reading the Prince’s heartfelt message in the Yad Vashem guestbook in which he reflected on the ‘moving experience’ and the fact that his great grandmother, Princess Alice, had been awarded a Righteous Among the Nations award for saving a Jewish family in Greece during the Holocaust.
Prince William also met with Holocaust survivors who had been granted safe passage by Britain and were sent on the “kindertransport” without their families and were cared for by British Jewish families. Mr Henry Foner, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor who was fostered by a Jewish family in Swansea, Wales, and later served overseas for the British Army, said it was like a ‘fairy-tale’ for a refugee child like himself to meet a member of the royal family eight decades after the country rescued him.
For many Israelis, the fact that the Royal Family has decided to officially visit Israel is a sign of the shifting times and a result of a more positive understanding of Israel’s place in the world.
This week’s Parsha, Parshat Balak provides a description of some of the earliest details of some of the non-Jewish world’s relationship with Israel and how the Jewish people perceive themselves. Balak, the King of Moav, notes how numerous the Jewish people are a hires the prophet Bilam to come and curse them. Balak, like many rulers since, decides that he would like to eradicate the Jewish people at all costs.
However, as is well known, when the prophet Bilam attempts to curse the Jewish people he fails and each time blesses them instead. The famous poetic “curse” that Bilam cries out include the well-known, “Ma Tovu” verse that states: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!’
From this verse we see clearly how Bilam sees into the heart and soul of the Jewish people; a nation that promotes social justice, cares for the sick and poor and advocates on behalf of those less fortunate. The Jewish people are a nation that holds a covenant with G-d, not just to act in accordance with Torah law, but to promote the intrinsically good values of our religion and culture.
When Bilam states in his blessing: “This is a nation who dwells apart, not to be reckoned among the nations,” he is telling the truth. While the Jewish people have outlived many other great nations, the fact that we dwell apart should not mean that we are not involved in the world’s affairs. We must learn to keep a positive separateness and uniqueness which is inherent to our culture, while also maintaining a healthy connection with the larger world.
For me, Prince William’s visit to Yad Vashem, a place in which the atrocities and horror of the Holocaust are so clear, is a wonderful juxtaposition in itself. While on one hand the Jewish people suffered and were systematically eradicated by the Nazi regime, the fact that the future King of England comes to visit and pay his respects is a symbol of the changing world we live in.
Such a visit seems unthinkable, particularly when delving into the annals of history and looking at the decree in 1290 when King Edward I issued an Edict of Expulsion, expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England. However, in a changing world where opportunities are plentiful and the tides are altering, I believe it is our role to fulfil this blessing of separateness while avoiding the curse of alienation.
Being a minority culture gives the Jewish people a special responsibility to act in a way that helps us to live a more meaningful life and also enrich the lives of those less fortunate; a life in which we are placed in a special position to help others less privileged through our lived experience of being outsiders and oppressed. This helps us to make decisions which we are more consciously aware of and make more informed choices.
May we each be inspired to embrace the beauty of our religion and culture and appreciate the many wonderful values that our history and culture have embedded us with to navigate our role as Jewish people in a non-Jewish world.