When news broke of Prince William’s upcoming official visit to Israel, I was tempted to treat the news as I do all other dispatches concerning the royal family: By rolling my eyes, sighing softly, and wondering why these waxen wallydrags still managed to interest anyone but their unfortunate subjects. But the facts, as they so often do, began to chafe, and a rethinking of my position was in order. Even if, like me, you see the Windsors as a slightly less elegant version of the Kardashians, the visit is still one you should contemplate, as it is, incredibly, the first official one.
In a maddening and wonderful essay on the subject, the British historian Andrew Roberts explained that “although Her Majesty the Queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor one single member of the British royal family has ever yet been to Israel on an official visit.” And it’s not that the elderly monarch doesn’t travel much: She’s been, Roberts helpfully recounts, to “Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.”
And yet the region’s lone democracy and the Crown’s former charge was never graced with the royal touch. Even when Prince Phillip asked to visit his mother’s grave in Jerusalem, he was denied permission to do so until 1994, and even then was forced to go on a private, not an official, visit.
What, in light of this grim history, to make of William’s upcoming jaunt? If you are cheerful and hopeful, you may see it as a long-awaited peace offering, a signal from a state accustomed to giving Israel the coldest of diplomatic shoulders that the times they may be a-changin’ and that Israel will be snubbed no more. But such niceties are hardly enough. If William wants to repent for his family’s truly abysmal record when it comes to the Jewish state, he should show that he’s keenly aware of the historical debt his people owe when Israel is involved. And there’s no better way to do that then visit the new memorial to the Exodus, in the port of Haifa.
If the name evokes nothing more than the Leon Uris novel and Paul Newman’s star turn as its protagonist, Ari Ben Canaan, in the subsequent film version, a brief examination of the historical record is in order. The real life Exodus arrived in Haifa on July 18, 1947. It was carrying 4,554 passengers, the overwhelming majority of them survivors of the Holocaust. As it approached the port, British war ships rammed into it, determined to stop what the Mandate government, eager to appease the Arabs, deemed the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine. The men, women, and children on board resisted, and the Brits showed no mercy: They opened fire into the crowd, killing three men, including the ship’s second in command and two Holocaust survivors, the younger of them only fifteen years old. Eventually, the tired and hungry immigrants had no choice but to surrender, and disembarked the ship singing Hatikvah and weeping. They were put on other vessels outfitted with barbed wire to prevent escaping, and deported to France. There, they refused to disembark, and the Brits, ever the gentlemen, retaliated by refusing to provide their prisoners with food. Eventually, the ships sailed to Germany, where its passengers spent another year in detention camps before finally being allowed to immigrate to the newly born state of Israel.
And so, if William is serious about turning a new page, let him lay a wreath in Haifa and apologize for the death and the suffering his nation had caused mine. Otherwise, the visit, like sound and fury, like the royal family, will signify precisely nothing.