Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Queen and We

Living in this country I cannot but join in the outpouring of celebration for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Belonging at the same time to the Jewish religion I cannot but feel nauseous by the sycophancy of our Chief Rabbi's prayer, speech in the House of Lords and appearance on the Today programme's Thought for the Day.

We as Jews have good reason to be grateful for the stable and democratic society we live in where all religions and races are treated equally and where the rule of law reigns supreme. History has given us ample opportunity to sample an array of alternatives and it hardly need be said that they haven't always been pleasant. The Queen as Head of State embodies these values and an occasion like this gives us an opportunity to join our fellow countrymen and women in celebrating the stability of her reign and showing appreciation for her unflinching duty to the citizens of this country.

But to thank her as her "loyal and devoted subjects" for "her repeated acts of kindness to our community and its institutions" smacks of grovelling servility rather than respectful appreciation. It reminds me of an old age home in Jerusalem where residents saw fit to display on the wall near the lifts a framed appreciation to the management in similarly fawning terms. And of the cringeworthy mazel tov adverts the Hebrew teachers of local schools place in the advertising sheets when the offspring of those who deign to pay their salaries are engaged and married.

While it may be incumbent on us to show appreciation to the Queen as the titular head of state, as citizens of this country we also have a right to expect no less than these kindnesses. The idea that we as a community owe her something more than the rest of the country is belittling and insulting. The Chief should be reminded that he is not in the 19th century talking to huddled masses of refugees in Toynbee Hall in honour of Queen Victoria but his prayers are for born and bred British Jews in 2012 to honour Queen Elizabeth II.

He doesn't however stop at her kindness to us. Rabbi Sacks praises Her Majesty's sceptre as being 'law and morality, equality and freedom.' The Queen may carry out her role with grace and discretion and a great sense of duty but it is parliament and not the Queen that makes laws. And the Chief Rabbi's prayer aside, I have yet to hear of Her Majesty being referred to as an arbiter of morals. Her concern is indeed the welfare of the people of this country but her passion lest we forget is also corgis and horses. The Chief must be scaling the very top of his lofty register with "for sixty years the Queen has spoken gently to the better angels of our nature."

Here are links to prayers of the Church of England, the Catholic Church, a letter from the Muslim Council of Britain and the Chief Rabbi. To the Chief's benediction add his speech in the House of Lords, the most syrupy extract of which was republished on the front page of the JC, flavoured by his panegyric on Thought of the Day and garnished with yet another paean to the Monarch in an op-ed article in The Times.

Pray tell me, why is it that of all prayers the Jewish prayer and thanksgiving must sound as if it is addressed to the Tzar, Kaiser and Sultan all rolled into one? Are only we Jews her 'loyal and devoted subjects' and is it only we who must "express our deepest sentiments of loyalty, esteem and gratitude?" Why can the others do with a British nod of the head while we must genuflect and repeatedly fall on our knees as if it's Yom Kipur in shul? We are not minions living under her protection; we are equal citizens living in a democratic, plural society and this slobbering nonsense is insulting and belies the truth. It is precisely that we require no special favours that we are so fortunate.

It was also sneaky of Rabbi Sacks in his Thought of the Day broadcast to translate the mishna הוי מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות as 'pray for the welfare of the monarch'. The closest would be, for the welfare of the monarchy, which is for the institution and not the person. A more accurate translation however would be for the welfare of the state, or as the Chief himself translates it in his Siddur, 'pray for the welfare of the government.' That is what we ultimately pray for. The Queen is indeed the personification of the state but that still need not turn us into quivering vassals.

So yes, raise your cups in a lechaim to the Queen and join the throngs in celebrating her reign of six decades and appreciating her dedication to her citizens. But if republicanism be your bent have no qualms in joining the anti-monarchy protests for it is precisely in the fact that we are equal citizens of this Sceptered Isle to take part in all aspects of our society that we celebrate.


Anonymous said...

The reason we are her 'loyal and devoted subjects' and "express our deepest sentiments of loyalty, esteem and gratitude", while the others "do with a British nod of the head" is because we Jews uniquely have over the years been persecuted and hounded from country to country, quite unlike the others to whom you refer.

Indeed "we are equal citizens living in a democratic, plural society", but we were also living a very comfortable life in Spain before we were expelled, as was the case in many occasions in our troubled history.

I sincerely hope I am not tempting fate, but comments like yours can only mean that some of us have become far too comfortable in this country and have lulled ourselves into thinking that it will remain so forever.

IfYouTickleUs said...

May I remind you that it was the republican Oliver Cromwell who readmitted the Jews. He probably would by now have visited Israel too.

Rachel said...

I'm surprised to read a comment on your blog critising Sacks for once. I have to say I agree with every word you say on this. I thought I was the only one who thought this.

Moish said...

Rachel, I can't say I'm that taken aback by this well deserved critique - Mr Tickle has always struck me as an equal opportunity offender.

simcha said...

There is a great deal said about the UK as a "malchut shel chesed". I believe the UK qualifies because we have a parliament. Without democratic institutions the monarchy would be able to do whatever it felt like. I would urge all concerned to read the history of England from Queen Elizabeth I up to the end of the 17th century, in order to get some perspective on where we have come from.

I think that the head of state should be elected by the people, as opposed to being born to it, and have joined Republic. My personal vision is of a President of the British Republic whose primary focus would be the spiritual impact of legislation on our well-being. To the question of who my candidate would be, I would suggest the writer and film maker Ken Loach, or failing him Mike Leigh or David Hare, or someone similar from the world of writers and film makers. They strike me as having their finger on the pulse of the country more firmly than most politicians and all Rabbis.

Rachel said...

I thought you were serious, then I read the 2nd paragraph :D

Simcha said...

What I said was no joke, it really is what I think.

May I suggest, it would be helpful if you could explain what you find amusing about an elected head of state, about his or her taking responsibility for the spiritual impact of legislation upon us (as opposed to making laws with an eye on tomorrow's newspaper headline) and about a topnotch writer and social commentator having the above mentioned job.

Of course I would not put such a person in charge of a government budget of billions of pounds. However, that is not the role of the head of state.

Moreover, there would be little gained in simply replacing the Queen with an elected head of state without other changes, chief of which would be a written constitution to set out what politicians can, and cannot, do, and to guarantee our freedoms, which I perceive to be under threat from various quarters.

Perhaps I should also qualify what I mean by spirituality. It is not the same as religion. Spirituality is the practical outworking in our daily conduct of our fundamental views on life. You don't need a religion to have fundamental views: look at Richard Dawkins (or rather, perhaps, look away from him).