LONDON — Anglo Jewry’s celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday culminated in a gala show at the iconic Royal Albert Hall Thursday night, featuring Prince Charles but not one stage invasion by angry protesters.
The prince’s special appearance made the show, “Platinum – Celebrating Israel at 70,” a big deal. This kind of spectacle has a particular resonance for Brits, whose peculiar institutions include the annual Royal Variety Show, a charity fundraiser where a senior member of the royal family has to sit through a sequence of performers.
As a bastion of family entertainment, the Royal Variety Show is more or less immune from political comment, with the exception of John Lennon’s famous comment when he performed in 1963.
“For our last number I’d like to ask for your help,” he asked. “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
Politics were kept firmly out of Thursday night’s extravaganza too, or at least studiously ignored. There were no shouts of “Free Palestine” as there have been at other performances by Israelis in London.
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Even the inevitable protests outside the Victorian building, ringed with masses of security, were surprisingly restrained considering the high profile Israel has had in recent weeks over the army’s killing of demonstrators at the Gaza border fence.
Just a half dozen pro-Palestinian activists bearing propaganda material from the Iranian-backed InMinds lobby group stood arguing with a trio of counterprotesters wearing T-shirts reading “There’s No Such Thing as Palestine.”
Instead, royal kitsch was everywhere, from the lusty singing of national anthems to the master of ceremonies’ mazel tov wish to the prince for his simcha the previous weekend.
British Jews feel embattled amid the anti-Semitism in parts of the country’s far left, and – however moderate their views tend to be on Israel – a sense that the world and in particular its media coverage just isn’t fair to the Jewish state.
Still, Prince William will be making the first royal official visit to Israel this summer, and Prince Charles’ attendance at Albert Hall helped the event seem more like an exercise in validation than a celebration of culture.
He has just turned 70 too, which made both him and Israel relatively youthful compared to most people in audience. The 5,000-plus venue was barely half full; the smattering of young people mostly seemed to have come with their parents or got discounted tickets through youth groups
As a friend observed, the event was sponsored by some of British Jewry’s wealthiest and most powerful organizations, yet the hall was half empty.
Indeed, the night wasn’t so much a celebration of a living, dynamic country than a birthday party on a mass scale, with the interminable speeches, overrunning schedule and folk-song sing-alongs.
“You’ve broken a record – they’ve never sold so little alcohol, or sold so much food or had so many complaints,” the master of ceremonies, reality TV star Rob Rinder, chortled after the intermission.
The government was represented by MP David Lidington, in effect Prime Minister Theresa May’s deputy. He delighted the crowd by ending his speech with the Hebrew words yom huledet sameach Yisrael – “Happy Birthday Israel.”
There was also the Commonwealth’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis (who knows what he made of the mixed dancing?) as well as Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, all issuing their warmest thanks to Prince Charles – who in any case left at the intermission.
Meanwhile, there were few spaces between the dignitaries being wheeled out to speak and the event’s sponsors – the Jewish Leadership Council, UJIA and Israel Bonds – being endlessly namechecked. But in those few spaces the acts were stunning.
The Gilad Ephrat Ensemble string quartet was all growling double bass and shimmering mandolin, with modern dance troupe Vertigo’s performance wonderfully baffling. Israeli band Balkan Beat Box even had some of the pensioners tapping their feet.
The focus throughout was Israel’s multicultural nature, with promotional material featuring Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic and Russian script and inclusivity madly stressed at every opportunity.
Fusion was the watchword, with Rinder promising performances to reflect “the broad range of the immense tapestry that is the State of Israel an extraordinary range of Israeli culture!”
There weren’t any Arab performers, though; not even a back-up singer. Otherwise, the concert seemed to represent the version of Israel that the Diaspora wanted to see – multicultural, secular, vibrant and creative. Nothing scary, messy, populist or unsophisticated.
At the end of the night, the young ones finally got their brief chance to leap about to Balkan Beat Box. The older crowd began to file out; apparently for them the speeches and solidarity were the thing.
Even the performance by the band A-WA – three Israeli sisters inspired by Yemenite music – couldn’t entice them to stay. The group’s “Habib Galbi” (“Love of My Heart”) was the first Arabic-language song to top the Israeli charts and was a massive worldwide hit, even in Yemen.
Still, as the old folks meandered out to the sound of the sisters’ soaring lyricism, one audience member could be heard explaining to his companions, “No, no, no, that’s not Arabic. I know Arabic. That’s Aramaic, you see.”