By Simon Hooper
05 Sep 2013
Muslim leaders in an area of north-east London have recruited the help of a police-trained ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood patrol to bolster security following attacks on mosques and threats against Muslim communities in the UK.
The initiative, in the Stamford Hill neighbourhood of Hackney, has seen mosques added to a list of local sites watched over by Shomrim, a volunteer organisation that responds to reports of crime, anti-social behaviour and other incidents in the area and calls itself "the eyes and ears of the police".
"We keep an eye on all the mosques. If we see anything suspicious, we'll take down a car registration number, report it to the police, keep it for intelligence, log the call and hopefully there won't be any trouble," Chaim Hochhauser, Shomrim's supervisor, told Al Jazeera.
Munaf Zeena, chairman of the North London Muslim Community Centre, said the arrangement, under which Shomrim volunteers have also advised the centre on security issues, was prompted by a series of attacks targeting mosques and Muslims since the killing of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in Woolwich, south London, in May.
Increase in Attacks
Police have also reported an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, while the far-right English Defence League, which is accused of fomenting Islamophobia, plans to march through the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets on September 7.
"The more evidence we have [of attacks happening], the more vigilant we need to become," Zeena told Al Jazeera.
Stamford Hill is home to Europe's largest community of Haredi Jews. Many arrived as refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe or as Holocaust survivors in the 1930s and 1940s and the fast-expanding population, now estimated at upwards of 20,000 people, is served by its own synagogues, schools and kosher stores.
Yet it is also an area as diverse as any in London. About 14 percent of the population - approximately 34,000 people - of the wider borough of Hackney is Muslim, according to 2011 census figures, with large and long-settled communities from South Asia and Turkey.
After Friday prayers at the neighbourhood mosque, hundreds of men pour onto the street, many dressed in white Shalwar Kameez and other traditional robes and headwear, even as Haredi men, with their hair in ringlets and wearing distinctive black suits and rimmed hats or yarmulkes, go about their preparations for Shabbat outside a nearby synagogue.
Ian Sharer, a local Liberal Democrat councillor who brought leaders of the community centre and Shomrim together in June, said Jews and Muslims had long ago learned to live side by side.
"People just get on with their lives, bring their children up, study their own laws, pray to their God," Sharer told Al Jazeera. "People walk side by side to the mosque and the synagogue, and we like to see it."
Shomrim, modelled on the organisation of the same name in Haredi neighbourhoods of New York, was established in Stamford Hill in 2005 amid local concerns about crime and anti-Semitism. "There's always been trouble. You always got people knocking off their hats. It's a tough area. You've got 'murder mile' a few yards away," said Sharer, referring to the infamous nearby stretch of road where stabbings and shootings were so common a decade ago that newspapers declared it "more dangerous than Soweto".
Sharer said he sympathised with his Muslim neighbours now facing the heightened threat of Islamophobia. "Anybody who doesn't like Jews probably doesn't like black people, doesn't like Sikhs, doesn't like anybody. It's unfounded hatred," he said. "Anyone who says they don't like Muslims, there's something wrong. It's a bigoted view."
That opinion was echoed by Eusoof Amerat, a Muslim community advocate in Hackney.
"Shomrim has been patrolling this neighbourhood for many years now and when they pass the mosque they don’t close their eyes," he told Al Jazeera. "But this makes it legitimised and the community now knows we are working together. Forget about race, forget about ethnicity, we are living together. And how can we live together without respecting and tolerating each other's viewpoint, faith and customs?"
Shomrim operates a 24-hour emergency line with operators fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew handling almost 5,000 calls in the year up to June 2012, according to its own figures. Its volunteers pass on information to the police and attend the scene of reported incidents. Although they do not have powers of arrest, volunteers will often identify and follow suspects until the police arrive, as well as searching for missing people and stolen cars.
"We are local, we live in the community. We see what is going on and we pass over intelligence to the police," said Hochhauser. "We deliver the goods, and they get the pat on the back."
Matthew Horne, the Metropolitan Police's borough commander for Hackney, said the police had a strong relationship with Shomrim, adding that he could cite "day in, day out incidences of intervention" by the group that had contributed to an overall decline in crime in the area.
"The Jewish community is extremely good at noticing when something is wrong. They will very quickly contact Shomrim. They will keep an eye on it and they will generally know when the time to call us is. They don't tend to waste our time and they don't let people go," Horne told Al Jazeera.
Amerat said the Muslim community planned to use Shomrim as a model for its own local volunteer patrol group, with operators handling calls in Urdu and Gujarati.
"It's going to take time. We are looking for volunteers and maybe in two or three years we will be in position to set something up," he said. "In the meantime we work together and we support each other."
Hochhauser said he welcomed the prospect of a Muslim patrol joining Shomrim on the streets of Stamford Hill, providing it recruited its volunteers responsibly. "We've told them we are more than happy to help them out if they get the right people for it. We don’t want any hotheads because they could bring down the whole operation," he said.
Such a scenario could be beneficial to the Jewish community as well, he added. Because of their strict observance of Shabbat, when many activities are prohibited, Shomrim volunteers can only respond to life-or-death incidents, such as a search for a missing person, on that day.
Visiting relatives in Hackney as a boy from his childhood home in Yorkshire, northern England, Zeena admitted once feeling scared of the "strange people with braids and black hats".
But he paid tribute to members of the Jewish community who welcomed Muslims and helped them settle in the area, even supporting them as they established the first mosque in Hackney in the 1970s. And he said both sides were now reaping the benefits of the willingness of local leaders to put historic animosities aside, consolidated a decade ago with the establishment of a Muslim-Jewish forum in the neighbourhood to address issues of concern to both communities.
"It took great risks and understanding between the Jewish group and the Muslim group to say we are not enemies of each other," he said. "We live side by side and we share many of the same problems. This is about living together as neighbours and human beings, respecting each other and tolerating each other."