LONDON (AFP) — The unusual sight of crime-fighting Orthodox Jews pounding the streets of a tough London neighbourhood after dark has captured the attention of grateful locals, but their ongoing protection of local Muslims has seen their profile go global.
The work of the 25-strong “Shomrim” even caught the eye of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who praised the neighbourhood patrol group’s “remarkable courage”.
Members of the Haredi Jewish community in Stamford Hill formed the group — named after the Hebrew word for guards — in 2008 in response to high crime levels.
Police initially feared vigilantism but now cooperate closely with the volunteers, who helped in 197 arrests last year and even apprehended the area’s “most wanted burglar.”
It is Shomrim’s role in helping protect the area’s large Muslim population, however, that has secured its place in the community and garnered international praise.
The group was called upon by local councillors in Hackney, north London, following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by Islamic extremists in the British capital in 2013.
“There was a spike in anti-Muslim hate crime. All over England, mosques were being firebombed,” explained Shulem Stern, a young man sporting the “payot” haircurls and “kippah” skullcap associated with the Haredi faith.
“The councillors thought: ‘We’ve got Shomrim in the local area, who don’t we utilise them’?”
They continue to protect local mosques as Muslim communities across Britain are back in the spotlight following the rise of the Islamic State organisation in Syria and Iraq.
“In many ways they’re a really well organised neighborhood watch,” explained police Superintendent Andy Walker. “They are very much the eyes and ears of the police.”
From his car parked outside a warehouse owned by one of the group, Shomrim volunteer Chaim Hochhauser shows off the stab vests provided by police, highlighting the everyday danger faced every day by these unlikely crime fighters.
Shomrim also receive regular advice sessions from local officers, and use their new knowledge to help to defend the main local mosque.
“Their doors are open all the time, so anyone who wants can walk and do what they want, chuck in a firebomb,” explained Hochhauser.
The arrangement was lauded by Kerry when he launched the annual US report on International Religious Freedom in July.
“Their courage goes unremarked, but that makes it all the more remarkable. Believe me, that’s the definition of courage,” the top US diplomat said.
However, Stern insisted there was nothing remarkable about their work.
“The local Muslims and local Jewish people do so much business together. In religious aspects as well there are loads of similarities,” he said.
“Also, because we’re visible and suffered a long history of hate crime, we’re very alert to anything unusual.”
Rise in anti-Semitism
“The (Haredi) community is not known for being too inclusive, but where necessary they will help the wider community,” said Michael Desmond, the leader of the local council who recently hosted an event honouring the group.
“We are both sons of Abraham after all,” added Ian Sharer, an Orthodox Jewish councillor.
Local Muslim councillor Dawood Akhoon, who worked with Sharer to bring the two communities together, said the Muslim response had been “really good and positive”.
“It’s part and parcel of each of our faiths, we have to take care of our environment and our neighbors,” he told AFP.
Ties between the two communities came under renewed scrutiny in July, when anger at Israel’s operation in Gaza led to a spike in anti-Semitic incidents across Britain.
But Shomrim insist that any problems, such as the recent appearance of swastikas graffitied on local walls, originate from outside the area.
“I want to make this clear, none of the suspects that we’ve dealt with have been local Muslims,” said Stern.
Councillor Sharer added: “To the incredible credit of the Muslim community, there has not been one incident in this area. That’s down to one word: respect.