Natan Sharansky has hailed the “unbelievable quality” of aliyah from the UK as he joined a unique gathering of Brits who have moved to Israel and made their mark on the country.
The event at the residence of British Ambassador David Quarrey was the culmination of the Jewish News’ Aliyah 100 project, in partnership with the Jewish Agency and UJIA, to identify those figures who’ve helped shape the modern state in politics, media, business, diplomacy and the military. In a nod to the state’s special birthday this year, the list comprises 70 living olim as well, as 30 who are no longer with us, whose family members were invited to join last Thursday’s reception.
Sharansky, Israel’s most famous immigrant who now heads the Jewish Agency, revealed that a total of 41,157 Jews had moved from Britain since 1948, around 1.2 percent of all olim from around the globe. “Taking into account the fact that the Jews of Britain are approximately four percent of the diaspora it’s not such a big figure. But if you compare that to the percentage coming from America it’s a much bigger number. The quality of aliyah is unbelievable, quantity we have to work on.”
Pointing out that the list includes three presidents and leading publishers, he delighted the audience by joking this had been achieved partly through “cheating”, claiming figures like Chaim Weitzmann and Rav Kook, both born in the Russian Empire, were rightfully part of “our list”.
The list, released as a magazine on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last November, was selected by a panel of judges by the UK and Israel after hundreds of nominations from readers.
Germany-born Alice Shalvi, who spent 15 years in this country before moving to Israel a year after the birth of the modern state, topped the list for her work as a pioneering educator and social activist.
The 91-year-old said her time in London “instilled in me the conviction that we have a moral obligation to contribute to society whenever we can, in whatever way we can. Those principles of dedication to society at large were typical of those who came to the country, even before the state was established”.
That, she told a transfixed audience, accounted for the comparatively small number of immigrants who went into party politics. “Many went in to the judiciary, diplomacy, the civil service or education, and they are a wonderful force in the non-governmental organisations which have been so condemned by some people that are doing their best to ensure Israel be what the founding fathers envisaged; a country in which all people irrespective of race, religion or sex will be equal. It’s our duty inculcate those same ideals in the next generation of Anglo-Saxons.”
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Representing those on the list who have passed away was veteran Labor MK Isaac Herzog, the current Leader of Israel’s Opposition, whose late father Chaim served as president. His uncle and former business partner were also featured on the Aliyah 100.
He said visiting the UK ambassador’s residence aged eight when his father was knighted brought home the “special connection” between the two nations. He added: “Aliyah is something you carry with you throughout your life and your children’s lives. We can’t escape our British roots and are proud of them, although sometimes we can be critical of the ancient motherland.”
Major Keren Hajioff, who moved nine years ago and has risen up the IDF ranks to head its public diplomacy unit, thanked the thousands of British Jews who set an example by “serving in our army and are involved in every aspect of society. To the generations who came before Facetime , Easyjet and before Israel started selling McVitie’s biscuits. To the British olim who’ve chosen to raise their kids to be that little bit more polite than their friends.”
Quarrey hailed the list as a “brilliant idea” and joked that ranking olim was “probably a good way to lose friends quickly”.
He told the gathering – which was co-sponsored by the Israel Britain Alliance, LABS and Israel Discount Bank: “As the British ambassador and someone with a great affection for Israel, it made me very proud to see the contribution that brits have made to Israel. We are delighted to host this celebration and to take it as a moment to reflect on the strength of the friendship.”
London-born former envoy to the UK Daniel Taub praised Jewish News’ “continued positive energy and creativity” and its efforts to “deepen engagement with Israel”. He also pointed to the contribution of so many non-Jewish Britons to shaping the country and asked what olim could do to support Anglo-Jewry “that gave us so much”.
Andrew Gilbert, who chaired the Aliyah 100 panel, said: “Analysis and learning about the contribution of British Jews who have made aliyah was furn and a great honour. To see so many of them at the residence of the British Ambassador showed how important this list was to do and to give kavod to some very special people.” His message was reflected by UJIA chief executive Michael Wegier, who added: “It was a wonderful gathering of the very best of British Jewry who are contributing to Israeli society in so many different ways. The fact that so many of them were products of UJIA programmes made me feel especially proud of our work.”
Photos by Yossi Zeligar/Nikoart