On The March With The English Defence League's Jewish Division

Whether they're being attacked by Asians in Mile End or being roasted by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, the EDL are perennially under fire. I spent a month in the company of this disparate group which incredibly included a Jew, a homosexual and a Hindu - all united in their fear of Islam.
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Whether they're being attacked by Asians in Mile End or being roasted by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, the EDL are perennially under fire. I spent a month in the company of this disparate group which incredibly included a Jew, a homosexual and a Hindu - all united in their fear of Islam.

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Under a cobalt blue sky, Roberta carefully unfurls the flag she religiously carries to every protest she attends. “I’ve forgotten my pole,” she laments. “I can’t believe it. I always remember my pole!”

Instead of hoisting her standard high above the crowds, as she usually does, Roberta gathers a couple of other protesters around her, handing each of them a corner to pull the rumpled cloth tight for the cameras.

Surrounding this small group are hundreds of men and women who have struggled through the snow to meet in the quiet Midlands market town of Nuneaton and march in protest; skinheads chant “I’m England till I die”; football casuals with black hoods pulled over their brows, their faces obscured by masks, make last minute arrangements on their mobile phones; organisers stand unnervingly at the edges, arms behind their backs, silent, statuesque.

Someone shouts “No Surrender to the Taliban” to the tune of “Give Me Joy in My Heart”. Another, clutching a half drunk pint, despite the fact that it’s barely 11am, screams: “We Want Our Country Back” to the tune of ‘La Donna è Mobile’. Every few minutes the crowd break into the EDL’s unofficial anthem, ‘We’re Coming Down the Road’ by a sympathetic punk band called Alex and the Bandits. Nuneaton’s bewildered Saturday morning Christmas shoppers look on confused. Who are these people?

Roberta, with her long red-tinted hair, glasses and tiny, almost fragile frame, doesn’t look like she’s one of them. And neither do the other protesters holding her flag: Joe, an erudite, openly gay communist who talks to anyone who will listen about the betrayal of the working classes, and Lee, a seemingly bright 17-year-old student, whose mother is Iranian, and who one day wants to join the army as an officer. But they are. Between them they pull open the cloth and the ubiquitous St George’s cross shines back. One quarter is filled with a large, blue Star of David. The flag reads: EDL, Jewish Division.

The English Defence League is a rare phenomenon: an entity despised by liberal Guardianistas and Daily Mail columnists alike. In 18 months it has exploded from several hundred protesters – who had gathered in Luton to stop the Muslim extremist group Al Muhajiroun from haranguing troops returning home from Afghanistan – into a growing, disparate collection of seemingly incompatible groups that is now one of the highest-profile movements in the UK. The League is led by Tommy Robinson, a Luton carpenter whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. Now, Roberta says, the EDL has over 67,000 members, over 800 in the Jewish Division alone, and has quickly established itself as the media’s hate group du jour.

“We are fighting against the Islam-ification of the country. We are fighting against Sharia law operating anywhere in the country and fighting against prejudice, against women, Jews, Hindus, anyone. It’s not Islam. We are fighting against Islamists.”

The English Defence League have been described as a group comprised of “Home-grown racists. A violent, racist organisation with links to the British National Party and other fascist groups” (Unite Against Fascism) and “A new kind of threat: a cultural movement that is unpredictable and violent” (Labour MP Jon Cruddas). Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Tudway, the man in charge of monitoring domestic extremism, says that “our biggest single area of business the various groups which call themselves defence leagues”. David Cameron has simply said: “The EDL are terrible people… if we needed to ban them, we would ban them”.

The League’s protests across the country have been dogged by violence, costing tens of millions of pounds to police as anti-fascist protesters have also vented their anger. But it is the make-up of the EDL that is the most remarkable thing about them. Unlike other friinge right wing organisations in the past that have been defined by racial purity whilst dabbling in anti-Semitism and homophobia, the EDL has thrown a curveball that the authorities seem unable to deal with yet.

It claims to be a non-violent and non-racist organisation. The organisation is broken up into several divisions – including a Sikh Division, a Hindu Division, a Pakistani Christian Division, even a Gay Division – all united around the single issue of Islam, and stopping what they perceive as the spread of Sharia law in the UK. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Roberta is the leader and beating heart of the EDL’s Jewish Division, feeding on the mistrust and fear amongst many British Jews towards Israel’s hostile Arab neighbours. Joe heads up the Gay Division. “I’m a socialist, a communist,” he explains, picking up his placard as the protest starts to slowly move towards the starting point of the march. On it is emblazoned the slogan “Islamists are Nazis.” Usually he would hold a pink triangle that states, correctly: “Hamas Hates Homos”.

“We should be given funding by the government”, he says. “Really. We need to recognise that universal human rights are dead. This isn’t a racist organisation but at first we were spoken of as fascist, racist, anti-gay [because] the middle classes despise the working class. Now they say we are just right wing, which is a victory of sorts.”

The collection of ex-football hooligans – their allegiances etched in ink on their necks, faces, backs and knuckles – Jews, gays and communists move slowly towards the starting point, Roberta smiling behind her flag.

Roberta has taken more of a convoluted route to the EDL than most. Born in Brazil, the daughter of Lebanese Jewish refugees, she made alliyah and settled in Israel at 17 before fighting in the Israeli Defence Force against the Palestinians during the first intifada, or uprising, in the late eighties. She fell in love with an Englishman 18 years ago, and the rest is history.

“I didn’t want a British passport, I wanted an English passport. OK, I understand that there is something called Great Britain but people should stand up and say, ‘no, we are English’,” she said when we met for the first time in a Starbucks on North London’s Muswell Hill, three weeks before the Nuneaton protest. “I fell in love with the people here. The English are the most tolerant people I’ve ever met. But the English, they try so hard to see the other side, that sometimes we get lost. Extreme tolerance.”

For the past eight years she has been fighting solo against what she calls Islamic extremism, but last May she discovered the EDL protesting in London’s St James’s Park and found a home for her views. She quickly established her own Jewish Division, in part to rebel against the mainstream Jewish community that wanted nothing to do with the EDL’s brand of politics.

The English Defence League is a rare phenomenon: an entity despised by liberal Guardianistas and Daily Mail columnists alike. In 18 months it has exploded from several hundred protesters into a growing, disparate collection of seemingly incompatible groups that is now one of the highest-profile movements in the UK.

“I was so fed up that the Jewish leader-ship were doing nothing about [the spread of Islam in the UK]. There was no Jewish leadership,” she says. “You go to any Jewish synagogue and they haven’t heard of the EDL.”

“We are fighting against the Islam-ification of the country. We are fighting against Sharia law operating anywhere in the country and fighting against prejudice, against women, Jews, Hindus, anyone. It’s not Islam. We are fighting against Islamists.”

It is this stance which has generated support for the EDL outside the UK. Geert Wilders, the Dutch leader of the Party for Freedom who has been vilified for his anti-Islamic views but who has gained some electoral support domestically, has met with EDL leaders. And then there are the links with the US Tea Party movement. An Observer investigation in October revealed that the EDL had made contact with Rabbi Nachum Shifren, a regular speaker at Tea Party events on the issue of Islam, and Pamela Geller, who was involved in the protests against the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. Roberta organised the visit by the Rabbi, to talk at a rally to show support for Israel outside the Israeli embassy.

“What pissed me off was there weren’t enough Jews there,” she admitted. “Well, there were a lot of EDL Jews there, but outside of that hardly any.”

At our meeting in Muswell Hill, Roberta told me that the next big protest was to be in Nuneaton, headquarters of Britain’s first official Sharia court, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, set up in 2007 to deal with civil issues between Muslims. But Facebook also allows her to organise flash demos when the need arises – “I’ll email if anything happens,” she said.

She flicked through the pictures on her phone: pictures of her family; her dogs Zeus, Kylie and Lulu; pictures of the protest outside the Israeli embassy, burning the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of Allah, found on several flags including those of Saudi Arabia, Hamas and Al-Qaeda.

“They told me I’m a pushy immigrant who will start World War III!” she laughed, putting her phone back in her handbag.

This an extract from an article published in issue one of Delayed Gratification

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