At midday last Sunday, hundreds of people waving Israeli flags started weaving their way through London’s streets towards Hyde Park Corner, writes Michelle Morris.
The bright blue and white shone out with the sunshine against the grey Victorian buildings of central London. As the streets surrounding Piccadilly were cordoned off by the police and CST, tourists in cafes looked up curiously from their coffee cups.
Parade participants touched up their face paint, started testing their songs and boarded their red double decker buses in the queue for the procession. In celebration of the Jewish state’s 65th anniversary, the Closer to Israel Parade had begun, led by the country’s Ambassador, the Chief Rabbi and an assortment of other dignitaries.
Lining the streets behind them for the biggest show of support for Israel that London has seen in five years were around 50 marching bands, colourful floats and buses representing organisations, schools and youth movements from all parts of the community. Towards the helm, a group of ex-servicemen and women from AJEX marched to the beat of drums blaring from loud speakers as those around them erupted into cheering and ecstatic flag-waving.
“Back in 1948 we could not celebrate in the streets of London because of anti-Semitism, so we celebrated mostly in shuls and at home,” said AJEX member Jeff Borseck, 76. “Now we can stand here and we’ve got friends from other faiths celebrating, too.”
Many of the thousands of revellers travelled from outside London to take part in or watch the parade, Jews and non-Jews alike. Aged 65, Sandra Billings from the group Christians for Israel woke up at 5am to show her support. “We just love Israel and do things to support her all year round. People don’t realise how many incredible things come from Israel, like electronics and medicines. Some say boycott Israeli goods, but will they put their technology down?”
All wearing Star of David earrings, the Parillon Alnglais family from Dominica also joined the march. “We stand with the Jewish people and Israel is where are hearts are forever,” said Lisa, 47, who hopes to visit for the first time next year. Her niece Malaika, eight, added that she gave some money to her mother to give to lonely soldiers in Israel.
As well as lead organisers the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and UJIA, the 2,000-strong parade featured organisations including the Zionist Federation, Camp Simcha, JLGB, Yachad and Jewish News, the event’s media partner. A group of beaming volunteers from London 2012 also returned to the streets of London, proudly wearing the uniforms that became such a familiar sight last summer.
Revelling in the atmosphere was Rebecca Berger, 26, who has taken part in Israel’s birthday parade in New York since she was eight. “Although it’s smaller than back home, it’s a beautiful parade because you can see the connection people have with Israel and that they really identify,” she said.
For Ruby Howes, seven, taking part in the event made her want to literally get closer to Israel. “I’ve been to Tel Aviv, but this is making me excited to go again,” she said.
As participants passed Eros in Piccadilly Circus on foot or by bus, event committee chairman Doug Krikler introduced them to the roaring crowds gathered at one of London’s most recognisable landmarks. Along the route, mothers holding their children’s hands marched and Bnei Akiva teenagers sang. The fleet of Jewish biking group Yids On Bikes revved their motorcycle engines and the Israeli Dance Institute’s pupils danced in festive costumes.
The sense of unity and camaraderie along the route was captured by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner of the Movement for Reform Judaism. “I was just offered a lift on another organisation’s bus,” she exclaimed as she wound her way to Trafalgar Square. “Our diverse community is a place where we honour and look after each other and that’s something to be really cherished.”
Even as the parade reached the famous square, the celebrations were far from over. As last-minute touches were made to a specially-designed stage emblazoned with the words Closer to Israel, people nibbled on falafel and enjoyed the offerings of Uncle Doovy’s ice cream van, as children played games in a special tent organised by Bnei Akiva.
With the sun beaming down, a series of high-profile speakers took to the stage to address a crowd that had swelled to more than 5,000, creating a sea of blue and white flags. Rousing addresses were interspersed with musical entertainment from former Eurovision entrant Harel Skaat, who had revellers dancing with a set that included tunes from Britain and Israel.
Drawing huge applause as he declared he was proud to call himself a Zionist, Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “On Israel’s borders, the shadow of extremism and the sound of suffering is particularly profound. That is why I think it’s so important all those of us who are friends of democracy, freedom and Israel take the opportunity whenever it is given to us to stand up and say ‘Israel has achieved amazing things’. Its people are showing courage at a difficult time – we stand with you in your struggle for democracy.”
The Chief Rabbi was given a rousing reception for what was one of his final major addresses before stepping down. Challenging the accusation of apartheid often levelled against the country, he said: “If Israel is criticised by people who should know better, then we would still rather have Israel and the criticism of the world than be homeless and defenceless and have the sympathy of the world.”
The crowd gazed up at a giant screen to hear a special message from President Shimon Peres in which he hailed the special relationship between Britain and Israel. Ambassador Daniel Taub – who joked that it was clear the parade was a Jewish event by the fact there was “more talking than walking”.
He later told the Jewish News “What’s wonderful about this event is that it’s not an event during a crisis; it’s an event where people are proud and celebrating Israel. The challenge for us is to keep this amazing atmosphere going all year long and that’s what the Closer to Israel project is all about.”
Masorti Rabbi Wittenberg, who also spoke, said: “This parade is an expression of the connection towards Israel and its right to exist and a celebration of Israel’s many achievements.”
In a poignant reminder of the community’s passion for both Britain and Israel, those in the Square wrapped their arms around each other, swaying as they belted out the British national anthem and the Hatikvah.
It seemed fitting that a rousing chorus of Oseh Shalom, the melodious prayer for peace recorded by the Chief Rabbi five years prior for Israel’s 60th anniversary, brought the curtain down on the day.
“This was the most powerful exclamation and declaration of our commitment to Israel and the place that it holds at the heart of our identity as a community here,” said Krikler as the crowd dispersed.
“The sea of Israeli flags, Union Jacks and shining faces exceeded our expectations. It showed that when we hoist the flag, the community comes out to celebrate, proving its strength and vitality. Long may it continue.”[divider]
Jewish News is featuring a bumper set of photos from the parade this week.