LONDON — A bitter row broke out at the end of a rally Friday in Golders Green, north London. Under the slogan “Golders Green Together,” the rally was called to demonstrate opposition to a proposed neo-Nazi gathering that had been planned for the neighborhood, which is nicknamed London’s “Jewish heart.” But the display of Israeli flags at the largely good-natured event proved divisive.
Earlier this week, London’s Metropolitan Police announced that it had relocated the neo-Nazi rally to a secure area in Richmond Terrace, Whitehall, where the demonstrators will be confined to a one-hour slot on Saturday before being made to disperse.
In preparation for the anticipated neo-Nazi invasion, however, mainstream Jewish opponents, including the umbrella organization the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the London Jewish Forum, and the pluralistic anti-fascist group HOPE Not Hate, had banded together in Golders Green to declare a “Day of Action” on Friday.
A variety of faith communities in the area had lent their support to the Day of Action, and organizers decided it would go ahead despite the relocation of the far-right action.
On Friday morning two women appeared at the event carrying a huge Israeli flag and proceeded to decorate parts of the Golders Green war memorial, where the rally was being held, in Israeli bunting and pennants.
The women, Sharon Klaff and Amber Shetreet, claimed to represent five grassroots organizations which monitor anti-Semitism. They denounced the Board of Deputies for what they called its “kumbaya” cooperation with HOPE Not Hate, which they insisted is virulently anti-Israel. (Gemma Levine, HOPE Not Hate’s deputy director, emphatically denied this claim.)
Although the women attempted to broadcast their ideas through a megaphone during the morning’s event, for the most part the other participants, busy draping lamp posts and flower troughs in the Golders Green campaign colors of gold and green, did not interact with them.
But a furious Israeli businessman, Eyal Landau, was not ready to ignore them. Despite angry protests from Klaff and Shetreet, Landau accused them of “disrespecting” the Israeli flag.
“People died for that flag,” he proclaimed, as he went around the war memorial taking down the women’s flags. “You have no right to use this flag here,” Landau told the women. “You are doing great damage. This event is not about Israel, it is about anti-Semitism. Enough is enough.”
As Landau told the women he was reporting them to the Israeli embassy for misusing the flag, the women, in their turn, said he had no right to lay hands on their property.
The clash was the only sour note, however, in a relatively good-humored event, attended by some 80 supporters, including Golders Green MP, Conservative Mike Freer, and London mayoral candidate and former Labour front-bench MP Dame Tessa Jowell.
Freer was also not pleased when he saw Israeli flags.
“Those of us who stand up for Israel in parliament spend a lot of time making a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; this kind of thing” — pointing to the Israeli flags — “doesn’t help,” said Freer to The Times of Israel.
Asked how he felt about the neo-Nazi rally taking place at all, albeit not in Golders Green, Freer said: “Banning is a natural instinct but to some extent I would rather have them [the neo-Nazis] out in the open where they can be seen.”
Jowell told the Times of Israel that she had come to express her solidarity with the Jewish community of Golders Green.
“I will always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish community of London,” Jowell said. She added that she felt “deeply uneasy” that any neo-Nazi rally should take place anywhere in London.
“It is undesirable, painful and offensive to thousands of London’s Jews,” she said.
Jonathan Arkush, the newly-elected president of the Board of Deputies, said that the fight-back against the far-right had shown “that Jews can’t fight anti-Semitism alone.”
“This morning, to see Golders Green draped in gold and green is really great. Other Jewish communities in Europe really admire how we have turned such hatred into anti-racist celebration,” said Arkush.