Boris Johnson has become Prime Minister at a pivotal time in the nation’s history. Whilst Britain’s exit from the EU is understandably top of his agenda, Christians are also earnestly praying that Britain will bless Israel under his leadership.
Boris describes himself as a “passionate Zionist” and earlier this year said that “wild horses wouldn’t keep me away” from visiting Israel as Britain’s prime minister.
From refusing to boycott Israeli goods as Mayor of London, through to his instrumental role as Foreign Secretary in the Balfour Declaration celebrations and first-ever Royal visit to Israel, Boris has proven to be a friend to Israel.
But with new challenges ahead and Britain’s longstanding foreign policy not having always been loyal towards Israel, the Jewish state needs not only friends, but courageous advocates who are prepared to stand with Israel in a world that is increasingly volatile towards it.
The Iran Deal, the recognition of Jerusalem, Palestinian terrorism, the protection of Jews in Britain and strengthening of bilateral ties with Israel, are all matters of importance in Boris’s inherited in-tray. The question is: Will Boris back Israel?
A heritage of fighting injustice
Boris Johnson’s family history reflects a legacy that has no doubt helped shape Boris’s driven aspirations.
Daniella Peled reported for the Jewish Chronicle in 2007 that Boris is, “an enemy of politically correct anti-Zionism and immensely proud of his own Jewish ancestry,” with the new PM’s maternal great grandfather, Elias Avery Lowe, being the Moscow-born son of a shmutter merchant (a cloth trader).
Boris told her, “I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack, that’s when it sort of comes out. When I suddenly get a whiff of antisemitism, it’s then that you feel angry and protective.”
Boris’s great-grandfather on his paternal side was Ali Kemal, an Ottoman Turkish journalist and politician who held the position of Interior Minister in the early 1900s in what is today Turkey. Kemal, who married an AngloSwiss woman, was outspoken against the waning Ottoman Empire and condemned its genocide of the Armenian people, demanding that those responsible be brought to justice. Having advocated for British protectorate status for Turkey, he consequently became public enemy number one to the nationalist movement. In 1922, after being arrested for treason for wanting to negotiate peace with the Allies, he was mob lynched, brutally tortured and then hanged.
Kemal’s son and daughter, who lived in England during the First World War, adopted their grandmother’s maiden name, Johnson.
A love for the Land of Israel
Boris Johnson has said he “loves the great country” of Israel. In fact his ties with Israel go back to the 80s.
In 1984 a 20-year-old Boris arrived in Israel with his younger sister Rachel Johnson, where the two siblings spent the summer volunteering in Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, situated north of the Sea of Galilee. The pair stayed with the Collins family, who had made Aliyah to Israel from Leeds and was arranged by Boris’s father, Stanley, who had remarried a woman from a well-known Anglo-Jewish family.
Boris’s assignment was to work in the communal kitchen of the kibbutz. There, as Rachel describes it in her diary, he “showed inner steel,” scrubbing pots and pans and sweating it out in the heat of the kitchen, meal after meal.
“He explores everything down to fine detail, he wanted to know everything about the Kibbutz,” Alec Collins told Israel Hayom after Boris’s leadership win. “Even back then, he used to say ‘I will be a leader one day.’”
Boris was very happy to be in Israel and even told him, “Alec, I am having a great time here, but I want to see the entire country.”
Danna Harman, who interviewed Boris’s sister Rachel about the trip, said after their volunteer service ended, the pair travelled around Israel. They visited Hebron and Bethlehem, hiked up Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and went sightseeing in Jerusalem.
While in Jerusalem, Boris, who was a budding journalist, secured an interview with the well-known mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek.
Rachel recalled that “He came back from that interview in a state of great elation.”
A return to Israel
Decades later Boris was in Israel again in his role as Mayor of London with the aim of strengthening trade ties.
During the visit, Boris visited the Western Wal, was given a tour of Israel’s innovation and displayed his footballing skills along with President Rivlin at a match with Jewish and Arab children.
“I was proud to be the Mayor who led the first ever London-Israel trade mission,” Boris said in July, “I’m proud that the UK is now Israel’s biggest trading partner in Europe and we saw huge investments both ways, partly actually as a result of that trip. We did a lot of good business but we want to step it up. There’s much much more to be done and I will be actively supporting trade and commercial engagements of all kinds.”
But the media attempted to stoke up controversy when his visit to the so-called West Bank was cancelled over comments he made earlier in his trip about the anti-Israel boycott movement.
“I cannot think of anything more foolish” than to boycott “a country that when all is said and done is the only democracy in the region, is the only place that has in my view a pluralist open society,” he said.
Whilst initial reports said the visit was cancelled by the Palestinians, it later emerged that the decision was based on security concerns resulting from the comments.
Boris reaffirmed his opposition to Israeli boycotts in an interview with Jewish News, conducted days before his appointment as Prime Minister in July 2019. He said that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is part of an anti-Semitic “syndrome,” adding that “anybody who knows anything about it knows that actually, the boycott and disinvestment movement will probably hit hardest Palestinian community people who are in jobs, are benefitting from Israeli investment, Israeli farming, whatever.”
Boris likewise condemned the Palestinian leadership’s policy of paying salaries to terrorists: “I think it’s ludicrous that there should be any kind of financial incentive or compensation for terrorist activities,” he said, vowing to continue raising the issue with Mahmoud Abbas if he became PM.
But Boris was pressed in the interview to clarify remarks he made in 2014, in which he described the Israeli military campaign in Gaza against Hamas as “disproportionate.”
“Israel has a right to respond, Israel has a right to defend itself. Israel has a right to meet force with force. I absolutely agree with that, but all I was saying is I believe in Israel. I support Israel. I will always support Israel. I just joined with those who say ‘I want the Israeli response to be proportionate’.”
In 2017 following a question by Conservative MP, Crispin Blunt, asking if the international community should engage with Hamas, the then Foreign Secretary responded saying Hamas “have to renounce terror, have to recognise” the right of Israel to exist, “have to cease vile” antisemitism.
Opposition to anti-Israel bias
Boris’s tenure as Foreign Secretary saw him take a strong stand against the United Nations, describing its bias against Israel as “disproportionate and damaging to the cause of peace”. Boris became the UK’s first Foreign Secretary to vote against “Item 7”, a permanent U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) agenda item that singles out Israel for criticism. He also promised that the UK would vote against all anti-Israel resolutions after six months unless things changed. His successor, however, only partially honoured this ultimatum.
Despite acting in defence of Israel on multiple occasions, Boris as Foreign Secretary in December 2016 confirmed that Britain was closely involved in the formulation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 concerning settlements and commended John Kerry’s critical speech on Israeli policy.
CUFI took action in response to the UK’s involvement in the blatantly anti-Israel resolution with thousands of supporters challenging the Government’s decision. The pressure placed upon the Government led to Britain blocking the EU’s adoption of the Paris Peace Summit statement a few weeks later.
Sir Winston Churchill, one of Boris’s heroes about whom he has written a biography, said, “You ought to let the Jews have Jerusalem; it was they who made it famous”.
We hope this sentiment of recognition of rightful Jewish ownership of Jerusalem will run deep through the corridors of the UK Foreign Office under Boris’s premiership and that Britain will shift from its historically compromised position over the Israeli capital.
Regarding recognising Jerusalem, Boris said during his leadership campaign that he “could see the logic” in moving the British Embassy to Jerusalem but believed “the moment for us to play that card is when we make further progress”. He added that the moment for the UK to formally recognise a “State of Palestine” would be when Palestinian leaders “meaningfully recognises Israel and stops threatening to revoke recognition”.
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Standing with the Jewish community
Closer to home, it will be important for Boris to give reassurances to the UK Jewish community, which is faced with rising anti-Semitism.
Boris has lent his support to the planned Holocaust memorial outside Parliament, which CUFI is campaigning in support of. Speaking earlier in the year about Jeremy Corbyn, Boris was unsurprisingly optimistic that he could keep the Labour leader out of Downing Street, although he didn’t go as far as branding Corbyn an anti-Semite.
“I can’t make a window into his soul, and discover exactly where his feelings lie on this. I think there is no question that he is indulging and condoning antisemitism in the Labour Party that is quite extraordinary and reprehensible. It would never have been tolerated 20 years ago.”
In his message for Hanukkah, Boris said “In the media, on the streets and particularly online, anti-Semites have, in alarming numbers, been emboldened to crawl out from under their rocks and begin, once again, to spread their brand of noxious hatred far and wide.
“But as you kindle the Hanukkah light tonight and in the nights to come, I want you to remember this. When the Maccabees drove the forces of darkness out of Jerusalem, they had to do so on their own. Today, as Britain’s Jews seek to drive back the darkness of resurgent anti-Semitism, you have every decent person in this country fighting by your side.”
“Because Britain would not be Britain without its Jewish community. And we will stand with you and celebrate with you – at Hanukkah, and all year round.”
One of the greatest current challenges facing Boris, aside from implementing Brexit, is Britain’s response to the growing threat from Iran.
Boris, consistent with government policy, was a supporter of the disastrous Iran deal, which the United States has since withdrawn from.
However, he has said that he is “prepared” to consider sanctions against the Islamic Republic after its announcement that it has begun enriching more uranium than permitted under the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
“My strong, strong advice to the Iranians would be to cease this madness, not to take any further steps that would break the terms of the agreement, and not to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Boris told Jewish News, “I think that there are enough tensions in that region without triggering a nuclear arms race, whose consequences would be very hard to foresee, and which would certainly pose very difficult choices for any Israeli government,”
He added that “as Prime Minister, I’d make sure we continue to do everything we can to constrain Iran’s disruptive behaviour in the region.”
Hope for strengthened relations
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stand with Israel will be put to the test. But the self-described “Zionist” has a deep love for Israel that we pray will steer him to be a reliable and outspoken defender of the Jewish state.
The UK will be blessed by standing with Israel. We pray for wisdom for Boris and that he will discern with utmost clarity, God’s call for Britain to stand with Israel, especially at this time when Israel needs faithful friends.
A version of this article was first published in CUFI UK’s quarterly magazine, TORCH. Click here to subscribe for free