With hundreds of Israeli flags waving in the sunshine, it was easy to imagine that this was Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square rather than London’s Trafalgar Square.
Sunday’s Closer To Israel parade and party saw thousands of the country’s supporters mark its 65th birthday by transforming central London into a sea of blue-and-white.
The day started with a fleet of open-top buses and floats carrying groups of excited Israel supporters making its way up Piccadilly. More than 50 groups were represented in the parade. Leading the way was the band of the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade, with a rousing rendition of the Star Wars theme.
Initially, the marchers outnumbered the spectators, but things looked up as the parade reached the statue of Eros. Here, a cheering crowd of supporters and curious tourists had gathered to hear an announcer introduce each group as they went past.
Some of the marchers had seen it all before. Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women national standard bearer, 88-year-old Leslie Sutton, said he had been turning out for Israel solidarity events since before the nation was even founded. “This parade is important to let other people know what Israel stands for. It is our home whether we live there or not. I’m privileged to be here,” said the veteran.
Others were turning out for the first time. Draped in an Israeli flag, 23-year-old Jacob Merrygold, who is converting to Judaism, said the atmosphere was “beautiful. Israel gets very bad press but, today, you can see that it’s not like that. The Jews are a rainbow people.”
Emma Stone, 23, from Hendon, north-west London, was dressed as a giant gold star for her role on the UJIA float. “It’s amazing how many people from the community are here,” she said, before admitting: “I don’t yet have any dance moves for the float. I think I’ll make it up as I go along — probably a bit of twinkling.”
Nottingham-based Muslim Kasim Hafeez got up at 6am to join the Aish group in the march. The 29-year-old said: “I’m standing by Israel in a time when it’s being delegitimised and all these libels are being spread about it. We’re showing that Israel’s not alone.”
He was not the only one to make a long journey. Jewish studies lecturer Hedva Abel, 32, and her seven-year-old daughter Sara, who was marching with Bnei Akiva, arrived on a coach from Manchester with members of Stand With Us and Habonim Dror.
She said: “My daughter and I are making aliyah in the summer. Our hearts are with Israel so we had to be here today.”
Board of Deputies senior vice-president Laura Marks stood on the steps of the organisation’s bus before it set off down Piccadilly. Gazing over the line behind her, she said: “To have so many people here from across the spectrum of British Jewry is really inspirational.”
Many of the participants were British-based Israelis. London Business School student Iris Marguli, 28, said: “This is amazing, the amount of organisations that are showing their strong support. It is crazy the amount of engagement you can see here today.”
The engagement came from non-Jews, too, with a large contingent of Christian Friends of Israel taking its place in the parade. Member Moira Dare-Edwards said: “I’m here to support Israel, to support the Jewish people — anything to do with Israel we are going to get out there and show our support.”
Unusually for a Jewish event, the parade arrived early in Trafalgar Square, the journey from the Hyde Park starting point having taken less than the expected two hours. Queues immediately began to form in front of the Felafel Feast stall and Uncle Doovey’s ice-cream van. Sustenance was needed before the speeches from the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and special guest, Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Doug Krikler, who chaired the event’s planning committee, had predicted a turn-out of 20,000 people. The actual attendance fell well short of that bold prediction, with estimates of the turn-out ranging from 3,000 to 7,000.
Mr Krikler was not downhearted however. “I think the parade itself had about 1,500 people taking part. The square felt full. It felt like the community was coming together. These are the kinds of moments that live in the communal memory.”
Responding to the suggestion that the final weekend of half-term, in the middle of the school exam season, was not the ideal time to hold the event, he said: “You are always juggling competing things in the calendar. It was difficult to pick a date that suits everyone.”
Closer to Israel cost around £250,000 to stage, with the main financial backing provided by the Jewish Leadership Council and UJIA. The Board of Deputies, which said it could not afford the £30,000 it had been asked to donate, made a “small contribution”. Private donors, including JLC trustees chair Mick Davis, also helped with funding.
In the VIP area on a terrace overlooking the square, community leaders mingled as they waited to take their turns on the stage. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks posed for pictures with children, while Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub shook hands with members of the crowd.
Pausing to soak up the rays before taking his place on the stage, Mr Taub said the day had provided a “fantastic” chance for supporters of Israel to come together. “It’s very rare that people in Britain get the opportunity to show they are standing up for Israel. The challenge for us is to take this atmosphere and continue it throughout the year,” he said.
Masorti rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, accompanied by his dog Mitzpah, was busy enjoying the afternoon. Summing up the mood, he said: “Although it is not the biggest Israel event I have been to, it is the nicest.”
As Israeli pop star Harel Skaat bounced onstage to cheers and applause, the crowd certainly seemed to feel closer to Israel.
But one spectator, Colin Fink, from Bushey, was about to go one better. “I’m off to Tel Aviv on Monday week, so I’m very close to Israel indeed,” he said.