A group of neo-Nazis are preparing to rally in the heavily Jewish London suburb of Golders Green this week to protest supposed Jewish control of the capital.
This tiny group of mostly clapped-out neo-Nazis have already won themselves headlines in the national and local media for this extraordinary act of chutzpah. (To add insult to injury, they are rallying on July 4, a Saturday).
In April, the same gang turned up in Stamford Hill, north London, home to Europe’s largest ultra-Orthodox community. Between 20 and 30 middle-aged neo-Nazis spent a few hours corralled by police in a spot near the tube station. In this Haredi-dominated neighborhood, religious leaders told their congregants to ignore the neo-Nazis, and they duly followed suit.
A strong case could have been made for once again simply ignoring the whole sorry affair, because while hugely provocative, this rally is otherwise insignificant. Neo-Nazi movements briefly flourished in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, but have been declining ever since. They need to be monitored, but as an organized movement, the far right presents a minimal threat.
Instead, some Jewish Londoners are now drawing comparisons with the Cable Street rally of 1936, where a popular protest fought back fascists in the heart of London’s Jewish East End.
Hyperbolic, but understandable. Whether their fear is justified or not, many in the community do feel under attack. There was a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents last summer at the time of the Gaza war, albeit mostly online.
Although pro-Palestinian groups managed to keep a lid on hate speech during the mass protests, many Jews still felt uncomfortable with such vociferous criticism of Israel. And George Galloway’s recently announced bid for mayor of London has also filled the community with dismay. Obviously, one must not imply any kind of link between the famously litigious Galloway and anti-Semitism, but London’s Jews will see every vote for him as one cast against their particular ethnic group.
It’s rare that the community gets an opportunity to agree on what constitutes anti-Semitism, but a neo-Nazi demonstration protesting Jewish control of Britain certainly seems like it should have qualified on all counts. If the rally were to have been the target of protest, that protest should have been a cross-communal effort in which people put aside political and religious differences and come together. It should have been as simple as that. But any unity didn’t last long.
Part of the problem is that the bureaucracy of religion has obstructed any cohesive communal response. Major community bodies found it impossible to overtly call for people to break the spirit of the Sabbath. So the counter-demonstrations have been left to a plethora of activist groups, many making head-clutchingly clumsy links between neo-Nazis, Islamists, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and various other nebulous threats.
One group has declared its members will all wear blue and white and carry Israeli flags because, according to their Facebook page, the enemy is “The Nazis with skinheads/The nazi BDS/The Nazis Islamists,” as well as anyone “appeasing” those groups. “The Nazis are trying to split communities and we will resist,” trumpets the Facebook page for a group called EO Antisemitism, going on to make it clear that only committed Zionists are welcome at their protest.
Another Facebook page, for a group called U.K. Friends of Israel, says the real Nazis are the liberal left-wingers “dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel,” and flyers distributed in the area have hammered home the idea that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” Some non-Zionist groups that want to hold counter-protests have been threatened. One young Jewish woman reported several abusive messages on social media, including the gleeful expectation that she would be “flattened” just like Rachel Corrie, the International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.
Meanwhile, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, a grassroots movement formed last summer amid last year’s Gaza conflict, is portraying the fact that the neo-Nazi rally is allowed to take place as another example of the latent anti-Semitism of the British establishment. (It really isn’t: Britain has a long and proud history of idiots demonstrating in other people’s neighborhoods. Look at the Orangemen in Belfast, or marches by the xenophobic English Defence League in Muslim areas.) The group's spokesman declined to give any details of their plans for the rally, or how they aimed to address any friction. This is worrying, because badly managed demonstrations by inexperienced bodies like the CAA risk turning into a chaotic mess.
One scenario is that, with the police keeping the neo-Nazis far away from the protestors, emotions will run high and the various Jewish groups will turn on each other. Current security advice is to keep all the counter-protests separate from each other.
It should have been so simple. Protests like this are often about making the participants feel better, rather than producing any concrete outcome. There’s nothing wrong with that. A sense of public solidarity is powerfully soothing when people feel threatened. Instead, narrow interest groups are exploiting this as a chance to insist, variously, that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, that the British government tolerates racial hatred on the streets of the capital and that we are poised on the abyss of an epidemic of anti-Semitism. This is just not true.
It’s sad that this is where we have ended up, with Israel having become a divisive force. The protests countering the neo-Nazi rally should be about unity – not Zionism, not Israel, not boycotts. There is one group, the London Jewish Forum, that seems to have gotten the message. It has launched a clever month-long “Golders Green Together” campaign with the Hope Not Hate anti-fascist organization to celebrate the area’s diversity. But they have no involvement with any of the counter-protests on the day the neo-Nazis come to Golders Green.
Life in London is characterized by its diversity and tolerance, and the Jewish community of London needs to be part of a dignified, peaceful and united response to the last hurrah of a gang of aging skinheads. Let’s hope that common sense prevails.