After a moment of reflection, he walked away backwards — Prince William at the Western Wall

Nathan Jeffay followed the Duke around Jerusalem's Old City and spoke to the people who saw him on Thursday


In the most significant homage to Jewish history by a British royal, Prince William went to the Western Wall on Thursday morning and stopped for a moment of silent reflection. 

He walked to the wall with Britain's Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who then took a few steps back.

Though the Duke was surrounded by thousands of eager onlookers, he was alone, and used the time to place his note and lay his hand on the wall.

When he was ready to leave, he observed the Jewish tradition of walking backwards away from the Wall in recognition of its sacredness. 

The Duke did not stop to make public comments, but did chat to Rabbi Mirvis and Shmuel Rabinovitch, rabbi of the Western Wall.

The visit was part of a faith-hopping tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, in which he also went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount.

At the Western Wall this morning, drummers were drumming dressed in Biblical-era clothing, trumpeters were playing, singers were singing, and children in page boy-style outfits paraded with golden crowns on their heads.

And for possibly the first time in the Duke’s life, none of the razzmatazz was in his honour: the details of his visit were kept strictly under wraps until just before he arrived, so the joyous scenes were just part of a normal Thursday at the Kotel.

The royals unintentionally arranged the visit on the main day of the week for celebrations and dozens of bar mitzvahs took place today, as well as a ceremony to celebrate the crowned four-year-olds getting their first prayer books.

The royal arrival was the surprise of a lifetime for Shimi Abramson of London, who arrived at the Wall for his bar mitzvah, and was unaware that the Duke was in the Old City until the JC told him.

After William left, the family was dancing and calling out: “The prince came to our bar mitzvah.”

With shofars sounding in the background, Shimi’s father David Abramson told the JC that it was a “fantastic thing” to have the royal visit at the same time as his simcha.

He said: “To be here on the day we have such a special visit is quite historical for both his family and my family.”

Many worshippers paused their prayers and pushed towards the barriers when the Duke went to the Wall.

For others, it was just an ordinary day: a man who works on an outreach stand encouraging Jewish visitors to put on tefillin shrugged when asked about the visit, and said it was a non-event to him.

William’s morning in the Old City underscored how entangled the faiths in the city are.

He arrived at the Western Wall, the second holiest site in Judaism. He had been on Temple Mount, the top-rated site in Jewish holiness stakes, visiting the Al Aqsa Mosque, the important Muslim site located there. 

From the Kotel he went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the Muslim man who holds the keys led the visitors in, followed by Christian leaders and the royal delegation. 

Flip Florin, a Romanian Orthodox priest who was in the church during the visit, said: “He chose to come here because of Jerusalem’s importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and he makes an important point by going between the sites one after another.”

William sent out an optimistic message about coexistence, he added. 

A shopkeeper who sells candles and other items for pilgrims near the church said that Palestinians respond well to William because he is a world leader but not a politician.

“We like everyone, we just don’t like politicians who make problems,” said Ghassen Ati.

“But he isn’t a politician, and he talks about peace, which we like.”

Another Christian-Arab shopkeeper saw it differently and was as blasé as the tefillin man at the Kotel.

Sitting on a chair from which you can see the stones of the church, he said that big-name visitors are near his shop all  the time, so he has no reason to get excited. 

William’s first engagement of the day honoured the personal connection that he has to the multi-faith fabric of Jerusalem.

Bearing flowers, he went to the grave of his great grandmother Princess Alice, who saved Jews during the Holocaust and was designated Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

The descendants of one woman she rescued had the chance to meet William two days ago.

That meeting set the scene for Thursday morning's spectacle of a Church of England royal, listening to the Russian Orthodox Archimandrite Roman, praying for his grandmother who rescued Jews.

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