(JTA) — Like many European Jews, Stephen Lever has mostly stopped wearing his yarmulke on the street in recent years.
A Londoner, Lever said he fears joining the hundreds of Jews accosted annually in his native United Kingdom, often by Muslim or Arab extremists seeking to exact retribution for Israel’s actions. More than 1,000 anti-Semitic attacks were recorded in Great Britain last year — an all-time high and a number even bigger than that of France, which has roughly double the Jewish population.
The exception, however, is in Golders Green, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in northwest London that is considered the epicenter of British Jewry. Approximately one-fifth of Britain’s 250,000 Jews live in the surrounding northern borough of Barnet.
Along the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Golders Green Road, dozens of shops feature signs in Hebrew. The neighborhood is home to several Israeli-style cafes, kosher food purveyors and an outpost of the Israeli bookstore Steimatzky. When the Jewish Sabbath concludes on Saturday night, one of the neighborhood’s institutions, Carmelli Bakery, opens until the wee hours of the morning as a diverse cross-section of British Jews leave their cars double parked outside its neon sign while they pop in to buy some rugelach, kichlach and pita bread.
Lever said he considers the neighborhood a “safe haven.” Which is why he was outraged to discover last month that for the first time in decades, several dozen neo-Nazis were preparing to rally in the neighborhood on July 4 at an event that their leader — the self-described fascist Joshua Bonehill — promised would feature “Jewish book burning and Jewish flag destruction” to protest “Jewish privilege.”
Despite requests from local Jews, the police declined to ban the rally, which some see as an effort to intimidate Jews in the heart of their community.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, said in Parliament earlier this month that the neo-Nazis had a right to free expression, though he also condemned the rally and said any “harassment or threatening behavior … should be prosecuted.”
“The far right isn’t a big concern, much weaker than it used to be in the 1980s,” Lever told JTA late on Saturday as he waited to buy pastry at Carmelli. “But it’s still upsetting because it builds on the anti-Semitism that’s already out there and compounds that aggression by Muslim extremists.”
At the bakery, three activists from Campaign for Truth handed out fliers for a counter-protest to entering customers, whom the activists invited to wear blue and white — the colors of the Israeli flag. Hundreds, if not thousands, are expected to show up for the counter-protest.
Ambrosine Shitrit, one of the group’s coordinators, said the rally is a “troubling sign of growing intimidation against Jews and other supporters of Israel in Britain.”
Golders Green is testament to the confidence that for centuries has characterized the only large European Jewish community to be spared the horrors of the Holocaust. In the 1930s and ’40s, thousands of refugees from mainland Europe arrived in the area, followed later by an influx of Sephardic Jews from India, Iraq and Syria. Unlike other London Jewish neighborhoods where the haredi Orthodox set the tone, Golders Green is wildly diverse, with all the major streams represented, including some less mainstream ones.
In Golders Green, affluent Reform Jews live in close proximity to Yiddish-speaking haredi families whose tally of children is in the double digits. They also often cross paths with thousands of Israelis who call the neighborhood home.
Elsewhere in Europe, heavily Jewish areas are less visibly Jewish and more visibly protected — including, in Paris, by armed soldiers following the Charlie Hebdo killings and the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in January. Still, “there is a growing atmosphere of fear” among British Jews, according to Laura Marks, former vice president of the Board of Deputies who cited figures from the Jewish community’s security unit showing that 1,168 anti-Semitic attacks were reported in England last year — even more than the 851 recorded in France.
Marks said the fear is “changing the priorities of British Jewry, even as it experiences a cultural renaissance.”
In an EU survey published in 2013, 41 percent of 1,260 British Jewish respondents said they experienced anti-Semitism at social events in the previous 12 months, and 19 percent said they had suffered anti-Semitic harassment in that time frame. Still, only 8 percent said they avoid being identified publicly as Jews all the time, compared to 34 percent in Sweden and 29 percent in France.
Sharon Klaff, another Jewish campaigner against the rally, said some of the fear comes from harassment “that you can’t put your finger on as anti-Semitic, but that’s nonetheless happening to Jews because they are Jews.” She cited robberies where Jews are targeted and shouts from moving cars on heavily Jewish streets and vandalism against Jewish property.
British police are informed regularly of such incidents and make efforts to detain and deter perpetrators, but the community remains divided over whether they should step in and ban the neo-Nazi rally altogether.
Yet to Keith Harris-Kahn, a London-area Jewish sociologist and editor of the Jewish Journal of Sociology, the event is shaping up as it should: “a neo-Nazi event that will be dwarfed by a far larger counter-protest.”
Harris-Kahn adds, “It’s just one of the unpleasant aspects one needs to deal with in a democratic society.”