LONDON (Jewish Telegraph Agency) -- With a pair of massive rallies for Israel held simultaneously in London's Trafalgar Square and Manchester's Heaton Park on Sunday, British Jewry may be signaling that its transformation is at hand.
Some 30,000 participants attended the public shows of support for Israel, which were inspired by New York’s annual Salute-to-Israel parade.
Several thousand people waving Israeli and British flags marched from the Ritz Hotel to Trafalgar Square followed by dozens of carnival floats, cyclists, dancers and bands. At Trafalgar Square, an Israeli Cabinet minister, Britain’s secretary of state for Education and Britain's chief rabbi all addressed the crowd. Israeli musicians performed between the speeches.
"I'm sure that my father, who served here as an officer in the Britishrmy, couldn't have imagined that some day tens of thousands of Jews would be waving Israeli flags here in Trafalgar Square," said Israel’s minister for welfare and Diaspora affairs, Isaac Herzog, who addressed the London rally. Herzog's father, the late Israeli president Chaim Herzog, served as an intelligence officer in the British army during World War II.
Observers and critics alike said the unprecedented show of pride and self-confidence at the rallies is a sign that British Jewry is shaking off its reputation for being timid and low key.
Organized by a coalition of community groups under the direction of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, the rallies were aimed at expressing solidarity with Israel at its 60th anniversary and the unity of British Jewry.
Jeremy Newmark, the Leadership Council's chief executive, said the idea for the event was born when he and several British Jewish organization executives attended last year's Salute to Israel parade in New York. Discussing the parade with representatives of the American Jewish Committee, Newmark recalled an AJC representative saying a New York-style Israel salute probably wouldn't play in Britain.
But Newmark said the New York experience changed his mind.
"Seeing this tremendous display of communal unity and affirmation of the relations between not just the Jewish community but actually America and Israel, we thought, ‘Well, here is one thing that might just play in the UK,’” he said.
Herzog told JTA he was pleased that "Anglo Jews decided to follow the American Jews' example with a display of power and unity."
An event like Sunday’s Salute to Israel could not have taken place as recently as a decade ago, Newmark said. But a political shift that has made British politics much more tolerant of minorities, lobbies and interest groups changed that, he said.
"If you want to influence political decisions in Britain, you have to operate up front as an interest group, and the community had to adjust to that," Newmark said.
Some Jews long have complained that British Jews are too timid.
Three months ago, a renowned British-born Israeli expert on anti-Semitism, Prof. Robert Wistrich, told the Jerusalem Post that Britain’s Jewish leadership is taking a "softly, softly approach" in tackling the problem of anti-Semitism.
"There is a long tradition of doing things behind closed doors," Wistrich said. “It is difficult to break with tradition, but it should be broken."
Newmark believes the breakthrough is already under way.
"The caricature of Anglo-Jewry that Wistrich and others have sought to portray is no longer the case; it's history,” he said. “Ask any minister in a government portfolio that relates to the Jewish community in any way if the Jewish community is shy about coming forward or making noise, if they feel they're not being treated the way they want to. You'd get a pretty clear response."
Newmark points to several high-profile media campaigns launched by the British Jewish community in the past year, including fighting an academic boycott and campaigning against the Anglican Church's "divestment intentions," as further evidence of the community's willingness to speak up.
“We now have strong support for Israel within all the mainstreams in the nation's political parties as a consequence of the work done by the Friends of Israel organizations within each party," he said.
At the rally, Herzog lent support to this argument, saying he felt "decision makers in British politics as well as in the media are much more attentive today to Israel's case than several years ago."
Researchers of British Jewry say the Jewish community here has never been healthier.
Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist based at London's Goldsmiths College, says research suggests that in recent years, even during the height of the second intifada, an overwhelming majority of British Jews feel settled and comfortable in their homeland.
To be sure, there are concerns about the growing threat of anti-Semitism and the virulent anti-Israel views coming from some in the media and the intellectual elite. But, Kahn-Harris said in a phone interview, "The threats are manageable and the community developed effective mechanisms to counter them."
Yaakov Wise, a researcher at the University of Manchester's Center for Jewish Studies, said the number of British Jews was growing for the first time since the end of World War II.
A large part of this growth is due to an exceptionally high birth rate among the fervently Orthodox, though they were largely absent from Sunday’s parades.
Also underrepresented were Israelis living in England. One communal leader admitted he was "disappointed" by the "limited success" of efforts to engage Israelis in Britain.
On the fringes of the Trafalgar Square rally, some pro-Palestinian Jews took part in a vigil organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Brian Klug, a prominent left-wing activist who has criticized British Jewry's unconditional support for Israel, told JTA he did find something positive about the parades in the fact that "Jews are able to express in public their views about something that affects them, which was not the case about 30 years ago when I was growing up in London."
Nevertheless, he said, "It is not supportive of
Salute to Israel organizers, however, didn't seem to care much about the voices of dissent.
"We're focused on having a good day and a few fringe voices are not going to upset anybody," Newmark said.
At the London rally, huge screens projected greetings from Israeli President Shimon Peres and London's new mayor, Boris Johnson, followed by a slew of American celebrities such as former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal, Michael and Kirk Douglas, Ashton Kutcher and Ben Stiller.
The events cost some $700,000, and nearly 600 volunteers were required to secure the Trafalgar Square rally alone.
"We promise to do this again next time Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary," Henry Grunwald, the president of the Board of Deputies, quipped when asked if the Salute to Israel would be repeated.
"I'm sure we will have such events again in the future" he later added, "but probably not on an annual basis like in New York."