Boris Johnson, the newly-elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, isn’t Jewish. But his Jewish ancestry and personal experiences volunteering on an Israeli kibbutz as a young man positively impact his feelings about the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.
It’s all in the name
Johnson’s full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Given the middle name Boris to honor a Russian émigré his parents once knew, he chose to use that name in his political career.
Johnson was born in New York City in 1964 to British parents. Though pale and blond, he has an especially colorful lineage, with an intriguing combination of religions represented. He has great-grandparents who were Christian, Muslim, and Jewish and sometimes refers to himself as a “one-man melting pot.”
Johnson’s maternal great-grandfather was a Russian Jewish immigrant named Elias Avery Lowe. Lowe was not a practicing Jew but was descendent of a strictly Orthodox Jewish rabbi from Lithuania.
Throughout his political career, Johnson has been a strong advocate for Israel. Writing for The Jewish Chronicle, Daniella Peled reported in 2007 that Johnson is, “an enemy of politically correct anti-Zionism and immensely proud of his own Jewish ancestry.” She quoted Johnson saying, “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.”
In addition to his Jewish ancestry, Johnson has even stronger ties to Israel through his Jewish stepmother, Jennifer Kidd Johnson, who married his father Stanley in 1981.
In 1984, Johnson, age 20, and his sister Rachel spent six weeks in Israel, volunteering on Kibbutz Kfar Hanasi, approximately 22 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.
The visit was coordinated by Michael Comay, a career Israeli diplomat and close family friend of Johnson’s stepmother. Comay and his wife Joan connected the Johnson siblings with the overseas volunteer program at Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi.
A hard worker
Writing for Haaretz in 2016, Danna Harman interviewed Johnson’s sister Rachel about the summer she and her brother spent in Israel. Harman reported that Boris’ assignment was to work in the communal kitchen of the kibbutz, “scrubbing pots and pans and sweating it out in the heat of the kitchen, meal after meal.”
After their volunteer service ended, the pair traveled around Israel. “They visited Hebron and Bethlehem, hiked up Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and went sightseeing in Jerusalem,” Harman wrote.
While in Jerusalem, Boris, who was a budding journalist, secured an interview with the well-known mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek. Boris’ sister Rachel recalled that “He came back from that interview in a state of great elation.”
Hope for a better Kingdom
The siblings spent a total of six weeks in Israel that summer., no doubt contributing to Johnson’s reputation for being both pro-Jewish and Zionist. A new Prime Minister with Jewish roots and a decades-long attachment to Israel could also help reverse the marked increase of antisemitism in the UK’s Labour party in recent years.
Although it is too soon to see how his relationship with Israel might be altered by the pressures of his new position, his record on Israel is a positive one.
While serving as mayor of London from 2008-2016, Johnson denounced the BDS movement and noted that Israel is the only “pluralist, open society” in the entire Middle East region. He has openly criticized the United Nations Human Rights Council for their obsession with Israel’s so-called human rights violations.
A Trump ally
He called the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 a “moment of opportunity” for peace and, while serving as the UK’s Foreign Secretary in 2018, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Johnson refers to himself as a “passionate Zionist” who “loves the great country” of Israel. Writing for the Jerusalem Post, Cnaan Liphshiz commented on the uniqueness of Johnson’s self-definition. Given the history of British rule in Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Liphshiz noted that, “British politicians rarely call themselves ‘Zionists.’”