The streets of central London and Manchester were awash with blue and white on Sunday as the community turned out in force to mark Israel’s 60th birthday.
Police did not formally issue crowd figures, but organisers claimed that up to 40,000 people turned out in London for a parade and Trafalgar Square rally, with more than 6,000 at the Manchester parade and party.
In London, unofficial police sources estimated that there were around 8,000 people in Trafalgar Square at any one time, and that 6,000 people joined the carnival parade.
Early in the planning stages, communal leaders were at pains to portray Sunday’s events as a commemoration. But with parades, floats, marching groups, marching bands, rock bands and a party atmosphere, this was clearly a celebration of the Jewish state.
Board of Deputies president Henry Grunwald told the crowd in Trafalgar Square: “We are proud to be British, we are proud to be Jewish and we are all proud to support Israel.”
On Sunday morning, floats and marching groups lined up along one side of Piccadilly in the heart of central London.
Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor and Mr Grunwald greeted each other with a hug before the parade set off. “Did you dream people would be doing this in London?” Mr Grunwald said.
Also present was Rosalind Preston, former chair of Nightingale, with her camera: “I’m thrilled to bits,” she said. “All the people who said they wouldn’t come, they were too nervous, too anxious, shame on them! They have missed a wonderful day.”
A shofar blast and the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Councillor Louise Hyams, cut a ribbon looped across Piccadilly. She, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Lord Levy, Gerald Ronson and outgoing JNF president Gail Seal led the procession along Piccadilly and Haymarket towards Whitehall.
As onlookers leaned out of the windows of Fortnum & Mason and the Royal Academy, spectators cheered the floats and the marching bands, led to the drumbeat of the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigades band, followed by the be-medalled old soldiers of Ajex, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Eros’s statue at Piccadilly Circus was draped in Israeli flags.
Standing on the corner was novelist Howard Jacobson. “I like being among Jews,” he said.
Among the organisations with bespoke floats were the Board of Deputies, UJIA, the Jewish Police Association, the Jewish Community Centre for London, Zionist Federation, Hadassah Hospital, the JC and Camp Simcha — many giving away goodies and memorabilia as they drove past.
One of the more stylish contributions came from JNF — a 1926 20-horsepower Rolls-Royce, owned by Andrew Sington, who had driven down from Southport for the day. Two years ago, he drove the car, which has been in his family for 50 years, from London to Jerusalem for the JNF car rally.
Other crowd-pleasers were Jewish Care’s float, a mock-up of a J Lyons & Co tearoom, complete with “Nippies”, as the waitresses were once known. A group of 25 revving motorcyclists, calling themselves “Ajex on Bikes”, also got a rousing reception. But perhaps the biggest cheer was given to the Christian Friends of Israel walking group. “Seeing them was really heart-warming,” said Robert Cohen, 26, from Hertfordshire. “Israel could do with some more friends like that.”
In the eclectic music programme, simchah-song supremo Yoni Shlomo, tzitzit flailing, had the audience singing “We want Moshiach now” as a couple of young women danced around their handbags in the centre of the square. At the front of the stage, the Chief Rabbi hora’d with ambassador Prosor, while Israeli rockers Useless ID had Lord Janner doing a turn with Board vice-president Flo Kaufmann.
Marching behind a float, Joanne Harris, of West London Synagogue, said: “My mother-in-law was worried, but we were not. There are lots of Community Security Trust people. The atmosphere feels very safe.”
As the parade turned into Piccadilly Circus, watching was Rabbi Sidney Brichto, of the Israel Diaspora Trust, who has advocated public displays of Israel solidarity in the past. He said: “It’s fantastic. It has shown that the community would come out, they wouldn’t be afraid of terrorism. They have been crying out for the ability to express their identification and support for Israel. This should be an annual event.”
Behind the barricades at Piccadilly Circus were two Chelsea Pensioners in full red regalia: Gerry Johnson, 80, and Joe Cussele, 84, holding an Israel flag. “We just happened to be passing,” Mr Johnson said. “I think it’s great. It’s nice to celebrate something like this.”
By 2pm, the official start of the events in the Square, thousands were waving flags, packing the steps, basking in the warm summer sunshine and getting into a party atmosphere.
Daniel Needlestone, 28, a founding member of the Jewish Teachers’ Organisation, said; “I was a bit cynical before because it was a lot of money and the floats were quite expensive. But it was incredible — walking through Piccadilly Circus was a fantastic experience.”
Geoffrey Clements, his wife Deborah and their children Tamar, 15, Rachel, 14 and twins Joseph and Daniel, 12, from Birmingham, were visiting Mr Clements’s in-laws in London and came to the rally in the square. “It’s so fantastic to see a cross-section of British Jewry here celebrating Israel,” he said. “I said to my kids, we are Orthodox, so we can’t go to Glastonbury, but it’s the next best thing.”
Sam Clarke from Muswell Hill United synagogue, with his nine-year-old daughter Georgia, said: “I think it’s really impressive that so many people have come here. The atmosphere is very different from the Solidarity rally of 2002. This is much more relaxed.”
Hackney Councillor Linda Kelly, who helped organise a 60th birthday celebration at Simon Marks Primary School, said: “This is a brilliant event. It is a tribute to British Jewry to come out and say we are Jewish and proud of it. I never expected such a turn-out.”
“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Roger Graham, 62, from North-West London. “For those who can’t get to live in Israel, this is the next best thing.”