Jewish London: Redbridge, flags and ‘an existential weight’

Jewish London: Redbridge, flags and ‘an existential weight’

I was looking for the synagogue when I saw the flag of Palestine. It wasn’t all that prominent in the Newbury Park streetscape – not hung high in full view – but flying from the front of a fast food shop. It was, though, quite visible enough to make its point to customers and passers-by.

The synagogue was very near, but hard to find. I had to telephone to get directions. It was set back off the street behind security gates. But once through them, the welcome I received was warm.

Jordan Helfman showed me round the building, putting on his kippah as we entered the prayer hall. Aged 40, he has been rabbi of the Oaks Lane Reform Synagogue, formerly the South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, for two-and-a-half years. It goes without saying in the past six months the demands of his job have intensified.

How have he and his fellow local Jewish Londoners dealt with the conspicuous and sometimes furious responses of some other Londoners to Israel’s retaliation in Gaza for the 7 October atrocities committed by Hamas, actions described by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland as “a pogrom”, one “as lethal as any that cut down the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the early last century or, in repeating patterns, the centuries before”.

Lately, Rabbi Helfman has been urging his community not to withdraw into itself, despite circumstances feeding defensiveness and division. A message to congregants delivered earlier this month drew on Tracy-Ann Oberman’s stage conversion of Shakespeare’s Jewish stereotype Shylock into a 1930s anti-fascist to remind them “how your parents and your grandparents, the Jews from the East End, gathered together, supported by all ethnicities and workers groups, to stand firm against [Oswald] Mosley’s blackshirts”.

There was also an article in Jewish News. “Among the pain, there is incredible and uplifting joy,” Helfman wrote. “This month my synagogue was one of many Progressive communities inviting in Muslim friends and neighbours for iftar as they broke their Ramadan fast.”


His positivity should, though, not be taken for complacency. When we spoke for an hour in his office a few weeks ago the rabbi shared many insights about the everyday experience of being Jewish in this part of outer east London, around the furthest reaches of the Central line – an experience jarringly changed by the appearance of Palestinian flags on lamp posts and elsewhere last autumn.

The same phenomenon in inner city Tower Hamlets has been amply publicised, its equivalent in suburban Redbridge, where more Jewish Londoners abide, less so. “As soon as they went up, my phone started ringing off the hook,” Helfman said. “People were asking, ‘rabbi, why is there a Palestinian flag outside my window? This is happening in Israel. And now, suddenly, it’s on my doorstep’.”

Helfman described people feeling an “an invasion of peace and security” in an area where Jewish Londoners have lived for many decades. As recently as 40 years ago, Newbury Park and neighbouring Gants Hill and Barkingside collectively contained among the largest Jewish communities in Europe.

Numbers have fallen significantly since then, to perhaps 6,000, as Jewish Londoners have followed generations of other Londoners on the outward migration trail into Essex, where houses are larger and cheaper – a different part of the same trail that has brought many more Muslim Londoners to this part of outer London this century.

Think of Jewish London today and the ultra-Orthodox of Stamford Hill and the Golders Green epicentre come to mind first. Yet this part of Redbridge still has three Jewish schools, two primary and one secondary, and Jewish residents still feel that, in Helfman’s words, “this is kind of their home territory”.

That is despite undercurrents of antisemitism long being present. It was troubling to learn from Helfman that even before 7 October, some Jews were wary of visiting Ilford, Redbridge’s one town. Well before the street he lives on became festooned with Palestinian flags, another congregant was yelled at while there “for looking Jewish”. Helfman said he personally is not intimidated: “I think it’s safe.” However: “This community generally does not go into Ilford town centre. I advertise events happening there, and I know it doesn’t show up.”

And suddenly the mood became much darker. Jewish Londoners are long accustomed to events in and around Israel having unwelcome implications for them. As Helfman put it: “When things happen there, there’s a feeling that things get a little bit spicier around here.” Now, the huge surge in antisemitic incidents in London and elsewhere in the country reflected the extreme seriousness of the something that had happened this time.

The raising of flags has throughout history denoted a claim on territory. With that can go an assertion of power. To many local Jews, the flag displays felt hostile to their presence. In Newbury Park and its environs, they wanted them taken down.

This was easier asked for than achieved. Those attached to Transport for London property were quickly removed. Those flown from Redbridge Council’s lamp posts proved harder to get lowered. It was established with the Met that putting them there was not illegal and that the flags themselves remained the property of whoever owned them.

The council was entitled to remove them because permission to adapt their lamp posts for use as flag poles had not been given. However, members of the public who sought to do the same would be committing acts of theft. Helfman described an ensuing “cat and mouse game” of getting the flags legitimately brought down.

Amid all this, his personal and public stance on flags of Palestine was one of tolerance combined with a request for acknowledgement of the anxiety they awoke. In his late December rabbinic reflection, Helfman wrote of seeing them as representing concerns of “a fellow minority group here in the UK” and stated that “the mosques in this area are friendly to our synagogue community”. This good relationship meant, he continued, “we can make sure they know how seeing the Palestinian flag, a symbol of religious pride and peace for them, is being read in our community as a symbol of violence and war here in Redbridge”.

The alarming polarisation the whole issue can provoke was illustrated by a local pro-Palestine social media response to Helfman’s careful points with words to the effect of “Rabbi tries to silence us”. Yet outside the public eye, friendly dialogue between local faith group leaders  endured, ranging from good wishes exchanged on days of special religious significance to discussions about how best to lower tensions.


Those discussions have included getting round a table with police officers, gatherings encouraged by Chief Superintendent Stuart Bell who leads the Met’s East Area basic command unit. A local constable – “a lovely guy, a former rapper”, Helfman said – made it his business to make the meetings happen.

Leaders of the more political mosques have attended. Helfman found that instructive: “We talk, we chat, it’s very informal. They’ve said, listen, we really appreciate the Jewish community being here. We love the diversity of this area.” His fellow faith leaders’ argument was not with him or with Jews in general but with local MP Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary who was sticking firmly to Labour’s national line on Gaza of the time, which was to stop short of calling for a ceasefire.

This helped form Helfman’s feeling that the flying of Palestinian flags was an act of political protest rather than a mark of hostility towards Jews. Daily experience has reinforced it. “I wear my kippah when I’m in the prayer hall and sometimes, just absent-mindedly, I don’t take it off afterwards,” he said. “I’ve walked down the streets, passing people on the way, sometimes on a Saturday when a lot of the protests happen. I might have left the synagogue and there are people with flags on their way to rallies. In my mind, they don’t look at me twice. I think it’s really important to say that.”

This doesn’t make the anxiety of others any less real, let alone unjustified. Helfman knows of a fellow London rabbi who wears a stab vest. The main fear, though, he said, is not of physical attacks – police say none have been reported – but of unpleasant remarks being made, or worse.

As elsewhere, some local Jews have taken steps to conceal their Jewishness, such as by hiding religious symbols. Not doing so creates a risk – perhaps a small one, but best avoided nonetheless. “In the majority of Redbridge, people feel they can be openly Jewish and go about their everyday life,” Helfman said. “And sometimes they’re wrong.” He described a congregant going to a restaurant and finding someone “staring at him for wearing his Magen David and then shouting at him”. The man had his nine year-old child with him.

For a while, Helfman’s own children wore other garments to hide Jewish stars on their uniforms when travelling to and from school. Pupil attendance briefly fell to maybe 20 per cent of normal as parents kept their kids at home. There was scary moment when a parent spotted a gas canister at the side of the road and feared it was a bomb. In fact, it belonged to a homeless woman who was living in her car and needed it for cooking. The police asked her kindly to move on.

There have been wider, knock-on effects. Post-7 October, the synagogue has stepped up daytime security to ensure the peace of mind of staff and those attending its larger events, though in November that didn’t prevent almost every primary school that had planned to visit as part of its pupils’ learning about religion cancelling the arrangement.

Across the area, circumstances and reactions varied: amid the borough’s diversity, Jewish Redbridge is itself diverse. Some have not been greatly perturbed. But Helfman knew of others who were planning to move away, perhaps already had. “To put it mildly, an existential weight has been added,” he said.

Feelings about Israel vary too. Some actual Israelis have been part of Jewish Redbridge. For much of it, though, Israel is a place Jewish locals support in what Helfman called “a they’re-our-family kind of way,” but that is as far as it goes. Displays of the flag of Israel have not been a feature of local reaction to Palestinian ones appearing and persisting. The Union Jack unfurled by a Jewish bakery might be a more accurate representation of UK Jewish feeling about a distant foreign war.

Helfman stressed that his community “is not uniform in its support for Israel and everything Israel is doing in Gaza”. Some members of it who disapprove of Israel’s response to 7 October are also unhappy with Helfman’s. He revealed on the day we met that on that very morning he had received a letter of resignation from membership of the synagogue: “It said I cannot bear to be a member of a Jewish community that is not coming out and publicly condemning the state of Israel and its actions.” Around five families have been lost to him for the same reason. That is despite his community being one which, he said, “works quite actively for a more equitable and fair and loving and diverse state of Israel”.

Through it all, Helfman has defined his main task as striving “to make peace and try to make people feel as secure emotionally and physically as they possibly can be”. Nerves have had to be settled. There have been bumps in the road. On one Monday night a month, Oaks Lane hosts refugees and asylum-seekers housed in nearby hotels, providing them with a space for socialising, clothing swaps and religious observance, of whatever kind. Concerns were raised that these gatherings might present a security risk during Ramadan. Helfman’s decision was that “we must keep doing this. This is our community interaction”.

Holocaust Memorial Day, marked with a ceremony at Valentine’s Park where there’s a memorial garden, is usually attended by a Muslim delegation, but not this year. The reason seems to have been that the son of a rabbi booked to speak at the event was serving with the Israel Defence Force. As the ceremony took place, a local resident played loud music. People couldn’t help but wonder why.


Reflecting on what I think of as the appropriation of Jewish Londoners by some for political ends, Rabbi Helfman observed at one point in our conversation that his very presence as a representative of Jews in wider community settings has become increasingly regarded as, at least potentially, of itself a political statement.

This isn’t something he welcomes. As should by now be clear, he doesn’t do politics. Given this, his view that the flying of Palestinian flags in Redbridge is best regarded as making a political point, in part directed at Labour politicians, rather than as an attack on Jews gains authority for being shared by some local Labour politicians with an interest in the matter.

From such perspectives, the war in Gaza has provided fresh ammunition for enemies of Wes Streeting, Redbridge Council leader Jas Athwal and others who were in the thick of Labour’s internal conflicts when led by Jeremy Corbyn. Much of the hostility is from the hard or far Left, for which Gaza is a mobilising issue, as the situation of Palestinians in general has been for years.

This is evident from protest action outside Streeting’s Ilford North constituency office, posters at local bus stops claiming that a vote for Labour is a “vote for genocide”, and the emergence of candidates for both the Ilford North and Ilford South parliamentary seats who have bones to pick with Labour under Keir Starmer.

Leanne Mohamad, a young local woman who has been campaigning to about Palestine since she was at school and recently addressed a gathering of the Peace and Justice Project founded by Corbyn, was selected in January by vehemently anti-Israel activists operating under the name Redbridge Community Action Group to challenge Streeting. She is currently calling herself an Independent.

The local Green Party has, somewhat incongruously, adopted as their Ilford South candidate Syed Siddiqi, well known in Redbridge political circles as an abrasive close ally of Ilford South MP Sam Tarry, the Corbynite who became Labour candidate for 2019 after a controversial selection process which saw Athwal knocked out of contention just before the crucial ballot. Tarry has since been de-selected and Athwal picked as his near-certain successor in the safe seat.

In today’s post-Corbyn Redbridge Labour circles, the taking up of the Gaza-Israel war as a local political cause is considered self-indulgent and divisive: as if running flags up lamp posts to the dismay of Jewish neighbours does anything to reduce anyone’s suffering in the Middle East: as if Hamas or the Israeli government are waiting for the line from Redbridge Council; as if Muslim Londoners are helped by the presumption that their concerns as a minority – and often disparaged – community are best addressed by having them harnessed to activism against a foreign war.


On the streets and in the homes and places of worship of Redbridge, those narratives of protest, disturbance and democracy continue to unfold. At Oaks Lane, a compromise has continued to be struck between judicious caution and debilitating over-concern. World affairs continue to have local impacts: there was a sharpening of vigilance in the wake of Iran’s drone attack on Israel.

Meanwhile, far away, the horrors of Gaza and the agonies of Israeli victims of the Hamas attack continue with little sign of an early end in sight. Rabbi Helfman has room in his heart for all those suffering. “The community really is heartbroken for the disrupted and destroyed lives in Gaza, the pregnant women and the hungry children,” he told me as I prepared to leave. And his voice wavered as he described meeting families of Hamas hostages on a recent short visit to Israel: “At the same time, we’re praying that they are able to see their loved ones again.”

I took the Tube back towards Hackney with the good feeling you get from spending time with a good person and holding fast to the hope that Rabbi Helfman’s good example to his fellow Londoners will be followed.

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