Hundreds of Jewish ex-servicemen pay respects to the fallen at AJEX parade

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Hundreds of Jewish ex-servicemen pay respects to the fallen at AJEX parade

Crowds gathered at the Cenotaph in central London for a memorial service led by the chief rabbi, before wreaths were laid in respect

AJEX Parade 2017
AJEX Parade 2017

Hundreds of Jewish military veterans gathered in Whitehall on Sunday for the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) annual remembrance ceremony and parade.

Crowds congregated by the Cenotaph for a memorial service led by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. A series of wreaths were laid, including by the parade’s Reviewing Officer, General Sir Peter Wall, and AJEX President Lord Sterling of Plaistow.

Handheld signs showed military veterans had come from towns and cities across the country to commemorate those who fell in battle. Some had even come from overseas to pay their respects, with Israel, Canada and France among the nations represented.

Family members attended in place of those who could not be there or who have passed away, meaning the parade included participants of all ages. Schools including Hasmonean and JFS also took part.

Joshua Diamond, one of the younger participants, was representing JLGB. He said: “It’s really important for younger generations to come to these events. It’s about being very proud to be part of the Jewish community and also the British community, and of the links between them.

“It’s about saying: ‘We fought these wars too and we’re here and we’re proud to be British and sing the national anthem’.”

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During the hour-long ceremony, there was a special commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele and the Battle of Jerusalem, when the city was reclaimed from the Ottoman Empire. The 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid and the Second Battle of El Alamein were also marked.

As the afternoon sun began to set, the parade stood to attention for The Last Post before the service drew to a conclusion with the The Welsh Guards’ brass band playing Adon Olam and God Save the Queen.

General Sir Peter told the assembled audience: “Let me say how good it is to see so many of you here in London today from all around the country to remember the service and sacrifice of Jewish servicemen and servicewomen in the British Armed Forces.

“The specific contribution of Jewish people to the British military has indeed been very significant, and in many cases disproportionate to their number.”

Organisers estimated that between 600 and 800 people attended the parade.

Speaking afterwards, AJEX Vice President Jeffrey Fox said he had been “overwhelmed” by the number.

He told Jewish News: “It was as many as we’ve had in recent years, so it was really encouraging to see that so many turned out.

“We were given the right to have a religious ceremony at the Cenotaph by George V in 1934 and we’re the only ethnic minority who are allowed that, so we aren’t going to give that up and it’s important that as many people as possible turn up.” 

Ron Shelley, the Parade Commander, added: “This is the major external event of the Jewish community. It has become a community parade and that is absolutely superb.

“We’re the only community in this country, and the only Jewish community in the world, that has this sort of parade in its national capital.

“It’s a reminder of two things: firstly of what our community has contributed and the duty and responsibility it has taken on, and secondly it’s a reminder that we have a life because so many young men and women gave up their lives 75 years ago. We Jews in particular are entitled never to forget that. That’s why my friends and I march year on year and why we will continue to do so.”

Captain Rabbi Ariel Abel, padre of Merseyside Army Cadet Force and rabbi of Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, laid a wreath in honour of Jewish army chaplains.

He said: “The best way for young people to experience being Jewish and British is in the Cadet Force, where one can be observant of Judaism, as well as learn life skills and enjoy camaraderie in service of the Crown.

“On a personal level, it is a privilege that I am able to continue the family tradition of service, as both my grandfather and great-grandfather served in the British Army in the two world wars.”

After the parade, guests heard from General Sir Peter, Rabbi Mirvis and Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev.

Rabbi Mirvis told former servicemen and women he felt “so humbled to be in your presence” and said the Talmud teaches that “sometimes to wage war is a sacred, holy act” . 

He said: “I am standing in the presence of people who have engaged in a holy task: to protect our society, to guarantee our peace.”

The Chief Rabbi recounted how he had been approached after the parade by an Israeli tourist who spoke to him in Hebrew.

He recalled: “He said, ‘I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. I’m a tourist here and we just stumbled across this event, and in the whole world who ever would believe that such a ceremony is possible?’.”

Mr Regev said that without the sacrifice of members of the British Armed Forces, the Balfour Declaration would have been “a worthless piece of paper”.

“Only because of them do we have a free and democratic Britain and a free and democratic Israel,” he said.

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