The past month has seen the media spotlight focus on the English Defence League as a result of its most recent bid to establish a pan-European anti-Jihad alliance in Aarhus, and last week’s arrests of five members of the North West Infidels, a splinter group of the EDL.
Formed in Luton in 2009, the EDL emerged as a loosely coordinated affiliation with the objective of combating radical Islam and its ‘encroachment into the lives of non-Muslims’. The EDL claim to be a ‘non-racist, non-violent’ human rights organisation, concerned by the ‘Islamification’ of Britain and the subsequent erosion of England’s culture and Christian values. Claiming to only oppose religious extremism, leaders of the group are quick to highlight the inclusiveness offered by their ‘multi-ethnic, multi-religious movement’. Trevor Kelway, a spokesman for Casuals United – another splinter of the EDL – has proudly said, ‘We would march alongside Muslims and Jews who are against militant Islam…They can join the EDL as long as they accept an English way of life. It is the people who threaten with bombs and violence and threaten and bomb our troops – they don't belong here’. In a recent effort to assert the EDL’s inclusive stance, the group’s founder and self-appointed leader Tommy Robinson emphasised that radical Islam was the group’s raison d’être, and claimed that if extremism were eliminated from Britain (and later Europe), then the EDL would necessarily dissolve as their mission would be accomplished.
However, since its conception the group has been branded as a racist and violent alliance of football hooligans who uphold and promulgate an ideology that is both extremist and far-right in its ethos. Although they claim to oppose Islamic extremism, a simple YouTube search reveals many examples of EDL supporters chanting such mantras as ‘Burn a mosque down’ and ‘Allah is a paedo’. Social networking sites are a key component in the formation and continuation of the EDL, and members frequently protest there against evidence of ‘creeping Sharia’, such as halal food and mosques built on British soil. Such inflammatory statements are viewed by the majority as being directed against Islam per se rather than Islamic extremism, and earlier this month Tommy Robinson was forced to defend himself and his organisation against accusations of Islamophobia, violent and racist behaviour, and inciting social division and religious intolerance when he appeared on BBC1’s The Big Questions.
There is not a great amount of statistical information regarding the EDL, but a recent study by think-tank Demos reveals that 31% of EDL members identified Islamism as one of the two main issues facing Britain, while 41% of supporters claimed to have joined the group because of their opposition to Islam. A further 31% gave reasons relating to the preservation of national values (which, for some, may also have carried an implication that such values were under threat from Islam). It is clear that opposition to Islamism – or Islam, depending on whom you believe – forms the spearhead of EDL ideology, but there is evidence to suggest that religion in general is a factor to be considered. In the lead up to the Aarhus rally, Twitter was flooded with EDL comments claiming that their demonstrators were ‘doing God’s work’ in Denmark and thanking God that they were ‘living in white Christian Britain’. The EDL frequently mention their desire to protect and preserve their country’s Christian values, and the organisation has expanded to encompass Jewish, Sikh and Pakistani Christian divisions (although I could not find any evidence of the third on the official website). Such examples prompted me to consider the religious make-up of the EDL and the religious contradictions that surround it. This is particularly in relation to there being a Jewish wing in an organisation whose members have been pictured making Sieg Heil salutes and whose demonstrations have often been attended by neo-Nazi groups.
The report by Demos and my own observations reveal inconsistencies when attempting to categorise the religiosity of the group. Many of the EDL’s official pronouncements emphasise England’s Christian heritage and the need to uphold Christian values, and in the Demos survey 45% of supporters claimed to be Christians. However, the violent and intolerant rhetoric frequently espoused by the EDL is not in keeping with the inclusiveness and forgiveness that defines the Christian faith, and despite such a high percentage claiming to be Christian, only 7% cited religion as an important personal value for them. This may be linked to the fact that 77% said that they tended not to trust religious institutions,’ which may in turn be driven by a mistrust of religious – in particular Islamic – extremism.
The connection between Judaism and the EDL first emerged in Britain when Tommy Robinson wore a Star of David in his first public speech. Israeli flags were then seen at some of the early rallies and demonstrations, while more recently the Jewish Star has become a permanent adornment on the England flags carried by the EDL. At demonstrations, placards have read, ‘There is no place for Fascist Islamic Jew Haters in England’, while Tommy Robinson has been quoted as saying, ‘we reject all anti-Semitism. The EDL stands where it always has stood, which is side-by-side with Israel…The reason for this is because Israel is a shining star of democracy. If Israel falls, we all fall’. Initially, this was believed to be a ‘macho homage to Israel's “kill or be killed” policy towards Hamas and Hezbollah terror’, but in 2010 news emerged that a Jewish wing of the EDL had been formed. It seemed very unlikely that any Jew should want to associate with an organisation that has been linked to such neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups as Combat 18, National Front, Stormfront, and Blood and Honour, but according to the Jewish Chronicle, hundreds of Jews quickly joined.
Despite such unfavourable associations with neo-Nazi groups, the EDL is quick to distance itself from any anti-Semitic groups or behaviour, and Tommy Robinson repeatedly claims that ‘neo-Nazis, are not welcome at EDL demonstrations, and will be ejected whenever they are identified’. However, Roberta Moore, the hard-line Kahanist who formerly ran the Jewish branch of the EDL quit her post last year citing anti-Semitic behaviour within the group as the reason. This probably came as no surprise to the majority, for the alliance of Jews with a group whose members have been spotted making Sieg Heil gestures seems a bizarre one. However, considering such contradictions, the question remains: how and why does the Jewish division exist?
James Cohen, the new leader of the Jewish division, counters Moore’s allegations and in a recent interview with the European Son website, said that he found EDL supporters to be ‘decent, gentle, and intelligent, in contradiction to the propaganda one hears about them’. He also played down the involvement of Nazism by claiming that ‘a lot of those pictures [of EDL supporters giving the Sieg Heil salute] are just guys hailing taxis, and waving at friends’.  Cohen believes that the Jewish community should form an alliance with the EDL as they are open supporters of Israel as the Jewish homeland, and he feels it a natural affiliation as both oppose Islamic extremism. However he employs some very uncomfortable reasoning to support his theory:
What I’m trying to do is create a space where Jewish people in England feel that it’s more reflective of themselves and their values, and [I hope] they’ll join and participate. Hopefully they’ll form a bigger component of the EDL, because for Jewish people who feel threatened by the EDL – and that may be a good proportion of them, actually – I think the best answer to them is to participate, and help form and shape the EDL, as well as the Jewish division of the EDL, into something more reflective of them and their values. Because I can say with absolute certainty that the greater the presence of Islam in the UK, the greater the threat to Jewish people is going to be. The evidence of that is overwhelming. If you look at FBI statistics in the States. If you look at crime statistics where there are large populations of Muslims, Jews are attacked with greater frequency…It’s simply an empirical fact. So I would suggest that people who are identifiable as Jewish, join the EDL and help shape it into what it is it ought to be.
However unusual or erroneous an alliance between the far-right and the Jewish community seems, the case of the EDL is not a unique one. A majority of far-right parties in Europe have instigated the same volatile mélange; most notably in France where Marine Le Pen has taken to professing her new found ‘philozionism’ (love of Zionism) and attending events with Israel's UN ambassador. (This is the woman whose father founded the National Front and was last month convicted of crimes against humanity for claiming the Nazi occupation of France ‘wasn’t particularly inhumane’…) Right wing political figures from Norway, Holland, Austria and Belgium amongst others, have also publically declared their support for Israel, despite the fact that several of their parties emerged from Nazi origins. Leader of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party, Filip Dewinter, called Judaism ‘a pillar of European society’, yet associates with anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators, while militant Islamophobe and leader of the Austrian Freedom party, Heinz-Christian Strache, regularly consorts with neo-Nazis but attended a conference in Jerusalem in 2010 to support Israel's right to defend itself. In the same year, Dutch MP Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant Freedom party, declared that ‘Islam threatens not only Israel, Islam threatens the whole world. If Jerusalem falls today, Athens and Rome, Amsterdam and Paris will fall tomorrow’.
You would be forgiven for assuming such contradictions might dilute political rhetoric or at least become a stumbling block, but it appears you can now sign up to both anti-Semitism and philozionism. For example, in his manifesto, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik claimed that Europe has a ‘considerable Jewish problem’, whilst simultaneously calling himself a ‘pro-Zionist’. Similarly, BNP leader Nick Griffin once referred to the Holocaust as the ‘Holohoax’ but subsequently supported Israel in its war ‘against the terrorists’, before taking to Twitter to brand Breivik disparagingly as a Zionist the day after the Oslo murders.
On paper, the alliance between the far-right and the ultra-conservative Jewish community has the potential to be extremely destructive, but the majority of Jews appear not to be fooled by the trend of philozionism. The opening of a Jewish division of the EDL was condemned by all the main organisations of the UK Jewish community, and most Jews view far-right philozionism as a political manoeuvre, rather than a genuine reversal of traditional anti-Semitic beliefs. Adar Primor, the foreign editor of Haaretz newspaper said: ‘[the European nationalist parties] have not genuinely cast off their spiritual DNA, and ... aren't looking for anything except for Jewish absolution that will bring them closer to political power.’ Similarly, Dave Rich, spokesman of the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, was quoted in the Guardian as saying that the new breed of far-right philozionists, ‘must think we're pretty stupid if they think we'll get taken in by that. The moment their perceived political gain disappears they revert to type. We completely reject their idea that they hate Muslims so they like Jews. What targets one community at one time can very easily move on to target another community if the climate changes’.
It is encouraging to note that the majority of Jews (and Sikhs) are not swayed by the playground ‘ganging-up’ tactics of the far-right, and they should take further measures to distance themselves from all groups that have such dubious ideologies as the EDL. Anti-Semitism is still very much an issue, as demonstrated by the recent rise in attacks against Jews in Germany, and instead of getting into bed with the perpetrators and their associates, public figures like James Cohen and Roberta Moore should urge Jews, and other concerned groups, to take a stand against fascism and stop allowing the far-right to force unwanted alliances with their religions.