Welcome to Stamford Hill on the Med

By Michael Freedland, December 24, 2013
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In percentage terms, Gibraltar has the largest diaspora Jewish community

In percentage terms, Gibraltar has the largest diaspora Jewish community

If there was a competition for the Queen’s most loyal and patriotic subject, Solomon Levy would be a favourite to win.

As the man who was the first mayor of Gibraltar not affiliated to a political party, his voice resonates throughout this tiny outpost of Britishness, at the tip of Span.

Last year, to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee, the ex-mayor who calls himself “Momy” (a Spanish — his first language — rendering of “Solomon”) paid £2,000 for a giant poster bearing a huge picture of the Queen to hang outside his estate agent’s office.

There are models of the monarch in his office window. And a sign that says: “I was born British and British I’ll die.”

Former mayor Solomon Levy

Former mayor Solomon Levy

The 77-year-old, a biography of whom was published recently, likes to tell the story of his conversation with a taxi driver. “Your messiah has already come,” he told the cabbie. “Mine is still to arrive. But when he does, Gibraltar will still be British.”

In the continuing crisis between Britain and Spain over sovereignty, he has been almost literally shouting the fact from the rooftops. He has said it on television and in the local newspaper.

Everywhere he goes on the Rock, he is stopped by people who simply want to talk and debate with him. When he has lunch outside his daughter’s kosher restaurant, it would be unusual if he managed to get two forkfuls in his mouth before someone stopped to chat.

What strikes you is that his views are totally accepted by his fellow Jewish citizens. When the question of sovereignty was put to the vote a few years ago, the community voted 100 per cent not to abandon the mother country and go with Spain.

That is a more significant fact than immediately meets the eye. The community on the Rock may be small, but it is important in all sorts of ways.

For one thing, it is, in percentage terms, the largest Jewish grouping in the world outside Israel. Of the 30,000 people living in Gibraltar, 800 are Jewish. That is, as close as you might like to get, to three per cent.

Walk through Main Street, it could be Golders Green or Stamford Hill. Men have no compunction wearing kippot. Women in sheitls and long skirts are surrounded by their children, just picked up from the Jewish day school, the Talmud Torah.

On Shabbat the four synagogues are full, following for the most part the ritual of Morocco, from where most of the community originally came, using prayer books with a translation in Spanish.

Apparently, there is little or no antisemitism on the Rock, and, remarkably, not only do the young people not leave, locals marry Britons and then set up home here.

According to James Levy, Momy’s younger brother, who is a QC and president of the community: “People have moved here and they are much more religious. Let’s say, they want a higher standard of Judaism. They are very committed — and also very vocal.”

The brothers’ uncle, incidentally, was Sir Joshua Hassan, another former mayor who became the semi-independent country’s first Chief Minister.

It is, says Momy, Sir Joshua’s legacy that has kept the Rock and its Jews steadfast. “I think he’d be very proud of us,” he says.

Last updated: 9:45am, December 24 2013