LONDON With a pair of massive rallies for Israel held simultaneously in Londons Trafalgar Square and Manchesters 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 Yorks 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, Britains secretary of state for Education and Britains chief rabbi all addressed the crowd. Israeli musicians performed between the speeches.
Im sure that my father, who served here as an officer in the British army, couldnt have imagined that some day tens of thousands of Jews would be waving Israeli flags here in Trafalgar Square, said Israels minister for welfare and Diaspora affairs, Isaac Herzog, who addressed the London rally.
Herzogs father, the late Israeli president Chaim Herzog, served as an intelligence officer in the British army during WW 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 Councils chief executive, said the idea for the event was born when he and several British Jewish organization executives attended last years 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 wouldnt 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 Sundays 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 Britains 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; its 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 theyre not being treated the way they want to. Youd 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 Churchs divestment intentions, as further evidence of the communitys willingness to speak up.
We now have strong support for Israel within all the mainstreams in the nations 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 Israels 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 Londons 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.
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 Manchesters Center for Jewish Studies, said the number of British Jews was growing for the first time since the end of WW 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 Sundays 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.
At the London rally, huge screens projected greetings from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Londons 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.
Im sure we will have such events again in the future he later added, but probably not on an annual basis like in New York.