WASHINGTON — Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, aka “Tommy Robinson,” is one of the most prominent anti-Muslim activists in the world. A political adviser to a right-wing British party, he is the founder and former chair of a far-right Islamophobic group.
Recently sentenced to 13 months in prison for illegally filming a court proceeding involving Muslims accused of sexual assault and publishing it on Facebook Live, Robinson is more than just an agent provocateur. He’s one of the main forces bringing extremist forms of hate and bigotry from the fringes to the mainstream.
Why, then, are some of his biggest supporters — financial and otherwise — a loose coalition of reactionary, self-proclaimed pro-Israel backers?
According to a recent investigation by The Guardian, Robinson is being bankrolled by a nexus of international organizations. Many of those groups, it turns out, are part of the American right-wing infrastructure supporting the Israeli cause.
The Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum is one of the British extremist’s biggest sponsors. Daniel Pipes, MEF’s president, confirmed to The Times of Israel that his group has spent roughly $60,000 on three demonstrations defending Robinson’s legal trial.
Pipes said that he first met Robinson in December 2017 and was “impressed” by him. He described Robinson as part of a group of people who are “trying to sustain their civilization, trying to keep Europe Europe, trying to keep the West the West. Overall, I think that their effort is sound and needed.”
Robert Shillman, a US-based billionaire who gives frequently to Israeli institutions, financed a fellowship that payed for a position Robinson held in 2017 with a right-wing Canadian website, The Rebel Media, according to The Guardian. (Shillman did not respond to requests for comment.)
Other groups, including the Gatestone Institute, an Israel-focused think tank, and the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center, have published a series of pieces defending Robinson. One on the Gatestone website was titled, “Swift Injustice: The Case of Tommy Robinson.” (The piece’s author, Bruce Bawer, also did not respond to requests for comment.)
Far-right activist Horowitz emailed The Guardian: “Tommy Robinson is a courageous Englishman who has risked his life to expose the rape epidemic of young girls conducted by Muslim gangs and covered up by your shameful government.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has said Horowitz’s organization specializes in “giving anti-Muslim voices and radical ideologies a platform to project hate and misinformation.”
Horowitz himself has espoused a number of racist theories, including that former US president Barack Obama was a secret Muslim. “Obama is an anti-American radical and I’m actually sure he’s a Muslim, he certainly isn’t a Christian,” Horowitz once said in a taped interview posted by the website Right Wing Watch. “He’s a pretend Christian in the same way he’s a pretend American.”
Both the MEF and Gatestone are funded by Nina Rosenwald, a self-described “ardent Zionist” and American Jewish philanthropist who co-chairs American Securities Management, and who founded the Gatestone Institute. (Rosenwald did not respond to a request for comment.) Gatestone also receives millions in donations from the Mercer family, who are one of US President Donald Trump’s top financial backers.
Robinson, however, has been a top concern for the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization that monitors hate groups and the growth of extremist ideologies.
Last November, ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen urging them not to grant Robinson a visa to enter the United States.
“On the basis of his record of incitement against Muslims and immigrants – and on the basis of illegal acts in his past travel to America – I urge you to deny his application for a visa,” Greenblatt said, referring to an incident in 2013 when Robinson tried to enter the country under someone else’s passport. (The 36-year-old’s 2018 visa request was ultimately denied.)
The ADL chief pointed to a number of Robinson’s transgressions: his long history of involvement with British anti-Muslim groups, his popularity with America’s white-supremacist movement. Notably, Robinson was a member of the fascist British National Party from 2004 to 2005. The party, said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow with the ADL’s Center for Extremism, is “really a neo-Nazi party.”
From the margins to the mainstream
Born in Luton, England, Robinson was the children of Irish immigrants. Since the beginning of his adult life, he has been in trouble with the law.
After landing an apprenticeship to study aircraft engineering for five years, he lost his job in 2003 after he was convicted of assaulting a police officer while he was drunk. For that, he spent 12 months in prison.
Once he got out, he joined the neo-Nazi tied British National Party, and has ever since been connected with groups, including the British Freedom Party, that demonize Muslims and blame them for infecting the United Kingdom. Since November 2018, he has been a political adviser to Gerard Batten, the head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Robinson gained international notoriety last summer when he was jailed after illegally filming a rape trial that had Muslim defendants. His arrest and conviction were taken up by far-right activists worldwide, instigating a “Free Tommy” campaign. Donald Trump Jr. shared a tweet from a Robinson supporter with the comment “don’t let America follow in those footsteps.”
It was during this time that MEF got involved to assist in the cause.
Pipes denied that his think tank paid for Robinson’s legal defense, as The Guardian reported, but verified that it bankrolled three demonstrations in London defending Robinson. Pipes also pushed back against allegations that Robinson is an anti-Muslim bigot.
“Anyone who is critical of Islamism, who makes a distinction between Islam and Islamism, who worries about multiculturalism, who worries about Western civilization, is called ugly things,” said Pipes.
Pipes said he developed a natural affinity toward Robinson because he, too, is preoccupied with “the Islamist threat.” He emphasized that this was a common feature of organizations that are invested in Israel’s security and future.
“There tends to be a continuum, because people who are concerned about Israel tend to be concerned about Islamism,” added Pipes. “They don’t always go together, but they usually do.”
The ADL’s Mayo, however, characterized Robinson quite differently.
“He’s been involved in violent street demonstrations against Muslims in Great Britain,” she said. “He basically has promoted the idea that Muslims are invading Great Britain, that they don’t belong there. That’s the kind of rhetoric that he promotes.”
In recent months, Robinson has gained even more attention. The far-right movement, Mayo indicated, has largely used the story of his arrest to make him a free-speech martyr: Tucker Carlson of Fox News hosted Robinson on the program. Robinson’s social media presence has blown up and he now has more than one million followers on Facebook.
But the main attraction for far-right extremists to Robinson, Mayo insisted, are his views on Islam. “What we see from people like him and those who share his views is that there tends to be a lot of generalizations and stereotyping about Muslims,” she said. Since his conviction, she added, “I think actually he’s getting more mainstream support.”
The support Robinson has received from a web of Israel-backing groups may be about more than just protecting “free speech.” As at least Pipes and Horowitz have made clear, it’s also about advancing his ideas.