I’m a student of history and it never ceases to amaze me that if I open a world atlas dated, say, 1862, the British Empire held sway over more than 400 million people.
That was a quarter of the world’s population, and comprised a similar portion of the globe’s landmass.
It’s ironic, perhaps,that the rule of Queen Victoria did not include what is now Israel, the Palestinian territories or Jordan.
In any case, Jordan was then a ‘backwater’ of the increasingly unstable Ottoman Empire
Indeed 1862 was, in fact, the last time a member of the British royal family paid an official visit to the region as the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, toured the Galilee, Bethlehem and Jaffa and was accompanied by a chief rabbi to the Western Wall, Solomon’s Pool and Rachel’s Tomb.
The official visit of William, Duke of Cambridge, is historic and ought be welcomed by Jews of all denominations and by those who believe that talking is a better means of achieving long-term peace than war.
Although the region was part of the Ottoman Empire until the middle of the First World War, the United Kingdom played a significant role in the 20th century.
The issuing of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, heralded as the first recognition by a world power of the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland, and Britain’s subsequent United Nations trusteeship perhaps gives the United Kingdom a unique opportunity in the region today.
Despite allegations of a ‘pro-Arab bias’ on the part of the British Foreign Office, relations between Britain and Israel are thriving on the diplomatic, political, trade and cultural fronts. English is, of course, widely spoken in Israel, and Brexit gives added impetus for the United Kingdom to develop further relations with states outside Europe.
Perhaps most significantly, there is the decision by US President Donald Trump to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
This has put into question, certainly by Palestinians, whether America can retain a role as a peace broker in the region.
In all these circumstances the United Kingdom has an opportunity to use its offices – including the historic visit of Prince William – to work towards a lasting and just peace agreement.
After all, in the words of Theodor Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream…”.
- Danny Rich is the senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism