The slogan, “Yes to peace” rang out over Trafalgar Square on Sunday as thousands of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, supported the call of the Chief Rabbi and other speakers for an end to the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel.
Similar scenes were enacted in Manchester where some 4,000 people gathered in Albert Square in the city centre to hear a half-dozen top speakers, including Deputy Israeli Ambassador Talya Lador-Fresher, MPs Ivan Lewis and Louise Ellman and Bicom head and former MP Lorna Fitzsimons.
Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, told the Trafalgar Square crowd that it was “imperative to reclaim the public space and make our voices heard.” Mr Grunwald launched a month-long phone-text campaign to help two hospitals in Israel and Gaza (texting the word LIFE to 81400 will send £1.50 to the International Red Cross for distribution to the hospitals.)
He said that no-one with an ounce of humanity could have failed to have been moved by the disturbing scenes of suffering in Gaza. But, he asked: “Where were the media personalities like Annie Lennox in the last eight years when Israeli towns were under rocket fire?” Ms Lennox and other celebrities took part in a massive pro-Palestinian rally in Hyde Park on Saturday.
Israeli ambassador, Ron Prosor, clearly moved as he looked out over the sea of blue and white banners, said: “Wow, this is something to look at.”
The demonstrators, he said, “are here to show support for the brave men and women of the Israeli Defence Forces, our sons and daughters.” His message was “to tell the terrorists that enough is enough; that they, and not we, will be defeated; and that the missiles must stop — full stop.” He spoke of the “wickedness of the suffering of the people of Gaza, held to ransom by Hamas.
“It is time to send a message to the Palestinians: it doesn’t have to be like this. There is another way,” he declared.
Noting that the anti-Israel demonstrators frequently shouted “we are all Hamas now”, the ambassador set out a new slogan: “We are all Sderot now, we are all Ashkelon and Ashdod now, and we are all am Yisrael (the people of Israel) now.” He thanked the community for its “overwhelming” show of solidarity.
To cheers from the crowd, supporters from the Indian, Hindu and Sikh communities were welcomed, together with Christian Friends of Israel and demonstrators from France, Poland, Portugal and Greece.
MPs Andrew Dismore from Labour Friends of Israel and Douglas Carswell from the Conservative Friends of Israel lent their voices to the rally, as did Mick Davis on behalf of the UJIA and Tim Vince, who brought a message from the Bishop of Manchester.
And there were cheers for the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, who observed: “Nothing that has happened, needed to happen.
“All it took to avoid all the suffering was for Hamas to stop the rockets.”
The rally ended with Sir Jonathan being joined on stage by choirmaster Steven Levey, communal leaders and members of youth movements, leading the crowd in “Oseh Shalom”.
Throughout the rally, Muslim and anti-Zionist activists attempted to disrupt the event. Hundreds of police, including mounted officers, struggled to keep the two sides apart and officers pounced several times as pro-Palestinian activists, some with their faces covered with keffiyehs, breached barriers keeping them from entering the square.
One demonstrator jumped into a frozen fountain, yelling anti-Israel slogans during the address by the Chief Rabbi, but he was swiftly dragged away by security officials and police.
Police and Community Security Trust officers also acted to stop a surge by a section of young, flag-waving pro-Israel demonstrators who engaged in an angry exchange of slogans with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
A number of Jewish groups, including anti-Zionist Charedi sect Neturei Karta, the International Jews Against Zionism Network and Palestine Solidarity were prominent alongside members of the Islamic Human Rights Commission in the counter-demo, while members of Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians formed a separate anti-Israel group.
There were chants of “we are all Hamas” from the hardline group, while banners called on Israel to “stop the Holocaust in Gaza” and accused IDF soldiers of being “baby killers.”
One Jewish demonstrator carried a placard comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, while another set fire to his Israeli passport.
Yet another carried a homemade banner calling for Israel to be “cancelled”, explaining that Jews “had made a mess of having a state of their own, so it should be dismantled.”
Richard Kuper, of JfJfP, said his organisation wanted to show “that there very many Jews who, while condemning rocket attacks on Israel, do not support what Israel is doing in Gaza.
“You can’t butcher hundreds of civilians, including children, and call it collateral damage.”
Brian Klug of IJV described the pro-Israel banners calling for peace for both Israel and Gaza as “a cheap confidence trick in support of the Israeli government.
“The organisers said this demonstration was called in the name of the whole Jewish community. We are here to show that not all Jews think like this.”
Mr Klug insisted that IJV’s demonstration had nothing to do with that of the Palestinians, despite both being outside Canada House on the same part of Trafalgar Square. He said: “Ours was an entirely separate demonstration. We were separated by the police and we were glad we were.
“Our message was to stop the carnage in Gaza, end the blockade and talk to Hamas. We wanted to show that there is more than one point of view in the Jewish community,” he added.
Dan Judelson of JfJfP said the movement was happy to join IJV’s demo but was “unhappy” at calls for the destruction of Israel.
“We have several streams of opinion within our movement — Zionist, anti-Zionist and non-Zionist — but we are against the occupation, not against the existence of Israel.”
Sunday’s rally and counter-demonstration followed a week of angry protests against Israel in the capital. On Saturday, three police officers were injured when a march to the Israeli Embassy turned violent. Chanting “Hey-ho, Israel has got to go,” and “From the river to the sea,” protesters hurled missiles, including shards of glass from smashed shop windows, at police and set off firecrackers. One police officer was knocked unconscious and at least 15 arrests were made.
In Manchester, Jews and non-Jews from across the North of England braved the cold and rain to publicly demonstrate support for Israel.
Bicom head Lorna Fitzsimons called on all British citizens to support Israel’s, “struggle for peace. No sovereign state should, or would, tolerate continued attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians. Israel has a right to respond and we support the Israeli government’s decision to make stopping the rocket attacks an urgent priority.”
Deputy Israeli Ambassador Talya Lador-Fresher told the crowd it was “heartwarming to see so many brave the cold and rain to rally for an end of terror..We are expressing our belief that there can be peace for the people of Israel and the people of Palestine.” Bury South MP and International Development minister Ivan Lewis told the rally that “no government would survive” if it allowed rockets to fall from a neighbouring territory.
He continued: “There is tragedy and trauma on both sides. It is essential that we send a clear and responsible message from the great city of Manchester that this community stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel.”
Other speakers included Barbara Goldstone, president of the Jewish Representative Council, ZF vice-president Joy Wolfe and Holocaust educator David Arnold, who read a message of support from the Anglican Bishop of Manchester.
There was a counter demonstration by around 100 Muslim students who were joined by 10 members of JfJfP. They were kept away from the rally by dozens of police from the Greater Manchester Tactical Aid Unit.