A sea of blue and white flags interspersed with signs bearing the faces of 203 Hamas-held hostages covered Trafalgar Square on Sunday afternoon as an estimated 15,000 people stood in solidarity with the victims, demanding their safe and swift return.
The atmosphere was both sombre and resolute as survivors of the terrorist attacks and relatives of the hostages addressed the crowd, interrupted only by chants of "Bring them home".
The event, organised by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and UJIA, was preceded with a moving "human display" of the faces of the hostages, held up by 203 volunteers as their names were read out, which was coordinated by the group Kidnapped From Israel.
Some 15,000 people attended the rally, according to the Board, which described the event as the largest gathering of Jews in Britain in recent years.
People of all ages came together from across the spectrum of Anglo-Jewry, forming a long queue outside the square before being let in by the police and CST, who were out in force.
Evelyn, who also asked the JC not to use her surname, was one of the volunteers who stood holding a poster with the face and name of a hostage before the main rally. She said afterwards: "It was very emotional. I really felt that I needed to support the cause to bring everyone home alive."
Michael, who also asked us not to use his surname, had come from Elstree with his wife Lorraine. He told the JC: "We wanted to show solidarity. We feel incredible empathy with the boys and girls on the front line. Which other country would give warnings before attacking? We are just praying for a speedy and successful outcome."
Hostages, which include Israelis as well as foreign nationals, are being held captive in the Gaza Strip (Photo: Getty)
Addressed by Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, CEO of Liberal Judaism, Marie Van Der Zyl, president of the board of deputies and Keith Black from the JLC, the crowd also heard from Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, who told them: "There are no words to describe the suffering of families who have seen their relatives butchered in front of them and relatives who who live in hope that those who were living peacefully in their homes just two weeks ago and are now in a Hamas dungeon should be freed."
"No words can sum up the evil of those responsible for these acts. But words matter and promises matter and the world made a promise 75 years ago: 'Never again'. And what did we see a fortnight ago? The biggest most horrific slaughter of Jewish people since the Holocaust, carried out by terrorists, an act of evil unparalleled evil and barbarism."
Gove said that those "who fail to condemn, condone. Those who refuse to call Hamas terrorists allow the legitimising of their brutal deeds".
LIVE: Solidarity Rally - Release The Hostages https://t.co/ux5EkE1niU— Board of Deputies of British Jews (@BoardofDeputies) October 22, 2023
To applause from the rally-goers, Gove said: “We must stand together against it. We must stand for life. We must bring the hostages home."
He told participants that Jewish people were "held to different standards as everyone else. There is sympathy when Jewish people are suffering, but when Jewish people need to be strong, we hear cynics and critics attack. Israel must stand strong and Britain stands with Israel."
Calling Israel "a light unto the nations", he said: "It is the only country in the Middle East which holds a Pride march. I feel pride in Israel's humanity and democracy."
People participate in a 'Bring Them Home' solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square (Photo: Jewish Chronicle)
Gove expressed concern that Jewish children were having to "disguise their uniform and... and that students at university were having to hide their Star of David. Every Jewish life is sacred and must be protected."
His comments were echoed by Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow secretary of state for business and trade, who said: "This was a chance for me to express a simple act of solidarity... It is deeply troubling to think what the hostages are experiencing right now.
"When it comes to condemnation of terror, there can be no caveats, no 'ifs', no 'buts'... To express empathy, to condemn the kidnap of a nine-month old baby and an 84-year old woman, there doesn't need to be a political agenda "
London resident Noam Sagi, the son of Ada Sagi, 75, who is being held hostage, told the crowd: "When this [rally] ends, you will all go home and have a cup of tea. My mum will stay a 16th night in Gaza.
People participate in a 'Bring Them Home' solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square calling for the release of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas (Photo: Getty)
Sagi, whose mother is a retired headteacher from Kibbutz Nir Oz, told the crowd: "Every day for families makes it more difficult, more unbearable and more painful. For the sake of families, the community, Israel and humanity, we need [the hostages] back."
Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim paid tribute to the Jewish community's allies, saying: "It's at a time such as this that we discover who our true friends are.”
He added: "Your Majesty King Charles, thank you for your support. The Prince of Wales, thank you for your support.
“Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, thank you for your support. The leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, thank you for your support. Sir Ed Davey, thank you for your support.
"It's at a time such as this that words do matter and to all our friends from whom so far we haven't heard a single word, your silence is deafening. Words do matter."
Speeches were followed by the reading of the names of the hostages and a minute's silence, ending with with a rousing rendition of the Hatikvah. Spontaneous singing of Hebrew songs - and even Israeli dancing - broke out among some groups.
Leaving the rally, Evelyn, who had travelled down from Hertfordshire, said: "It really felt that everyone was very united, very much together. But hopefully there will be action, not just talk."
After the event, JLC chief executive Claudia Mendoza said: “It is important for people to be able to come together, community members, allies and Israelis, to be able to stand with one clear, united message: that our hearts are with all the hostages and they must be brought home without delay.”
The Metropolitan Police said that two arrests were made connected with the event. Officers arrested two men who were heard shouting antisemitic abuse nearby, the force confirmed.