Life & Culture

What makes the EDL’s former leader, who says he is a friend of the Jews, tick?

Inside the mind of a street thug


What do you really know about Tommy Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League who claims that he is an advocate of the Jews and Israel?

I assume you know that the 32-year-old, born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to a working-class family in Luton, was notorious for setting up the "street protest" movement, which attracted neo-Nazis and football hooligans, to attack what the EDL called the "ideology of Islam". The rise of radical Islam in his Bedfordshire town, he says, made him want to tackle it head-on.

For five years, he was the EDL's Golden Boy. His oratorical skills and media appeal thrust him and the EDL into the spotlight. His racism and angry thuggery regularly stirred up angry crowds.

Then in 2013, he suddenly resigned. Sitting beside reformed Islamist Maajid Nawaz, he told a packed press conference that despite attempts to kick out neo-Nazis and white supremacists, the EDL had been infiltrated by such far-right splinter groups. He was no longer prepared to be the face of the EDL. Nawaz's anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation had, as a result, facilitated his exit.

Two years on, here I am, in a Luton hotel off the M1, waiting to meet Robinson. The friendly barista has "never had a problem with him" and whips up his favourite order: a hot chocolate. "Trust me, he'll like that," he says, walking off.

I've come to meet the ex-leader of the EDL in spite of initial protests from within the JC newsroom. "Why would we give a racist a platform?" asked one colleague.

Well, Robinson has apparently adopted the Jewish cause - whether or not his support is wanted. He has held up Israeli flags at EDL rallies; he has worn an "I am a Zionist" badge and he has condemned the rise in UK antisemitism.

That's why I'm here, waiting to meet the man whose stand with the Jews and Israel many would wish away; the man who could have gunned for the Jews, if he wasn't so busy gunning for the Muslims.

"That argument - Muslims now, then Jews - is pathetic," retorts Robinson, a former member of the BNP. "People say, 'when you're done with the Muslims, then you'll be attacking the blacks - you'll be attacking the Jews'.

"Because I'm against Islam, it's all 'oh, I'm against Judaism, I'm against Sikhism'. Nonsense! The only Jews I've ever met have been great. My barrister was a Jew, my accountant, too. The point I always make is that there's no Jews that are involved in any radicalisation, there's no Jews that are involved in any gangs, or selling heroin, there's no Jews jumping out of cars beating people up – all the things that affect us here."

I raise my eyebrow. For someone who never met a Jew until the EDL brought him into contact with "a lot of Jews who feel sympathy towards what we're saying" – he purports to know a lot about the community.

Not least that British Jews are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to the rise of radical Islam in the UK. "I thought you were going to come here and pretend everything's all right," he shrugs. "The Jewish Chronicle has always attacked us and I could only put it down to the fact that they didn't want Jewish youth getting involved in the EDL."

So, I ask, do Jews and the white working man share the same gripe with the rise of radical Islam in the UK?

"No," he pauses. "They want to kill you. I know they want to kill everyone with their guns and their bombs, but Jews are more at risk.

"The rise in antisemitism is out of control and it comes from the preachers of hate, it comes from the mosques.

"We are sleepwalking into oblivion in Britain, and the Jews are, too. The Jews need to be vocal, demanding of the government that they fix these problems, it's not right that you've got speakers and imams giving hate speeches.

''All these inter-faith programmes where you have rabbis sitting with Muslims, saying how much they love each other, and there's a photo taken twice a year – well I just think it's bull****."

Robinson and the EDL have been accused of wanting to whitewash Britain with the St George flag. So are we really meant to believe that he would consider us, a people who would dress, eat, pray and practice different traditions, British?

But with so many issues facing persecuted communities around the world, why does he care about Israel?

Surprised by the question, Robinson leans back, as though the answer is obvious.

"If Israel falls, we all fall in this battle for freedom, liberty and democracy. English people see it as their fight as well. The Islamists say, 'Saturday come first, then come Sunday' – the Jews first, then the Christians.

"The media would have us believe that everyone in this country hates Israel, that Israel is this big monster.

"That comes from this whole left-wing mindset, this whole victim thing with Palestine which is inbred into students at university. It's not inbred into anyone I know – white working-class people."

And then, Robinson reveals his holiday plans. "I'm going to Israel as soon as I get off licence in July," he says, with a touch of schoolboy excitement. Robinson is currently on licence for a mortgage fraud. "My uncle went last year, did the tours and everything - he said it was an amazing experience.

"I never thought of Tel Aviv as a holiday destination. You know, when the DJs finish in Ibiza, they go to Tel Aviv – the more I looked at it, I thought, 'right – this looks really good'."

It's hard to pigeonhole Robinson. On the one hand, he once considered flying to Israel to meet Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner who's been banned from the UK; and on the other hand, he wants to go clubbing in Tel Aviv.

From morning to night, he tweets about the threat of Islam to his 100,000-plus followers; but on the other hand, he's concerned about the welfare of his three young children who don't know what the EDL is.

He claims to be against extreme Muslims and backs the agenda of Geller, anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the controversial American Orthodox Rabbi Nachum Shifren, who stood with the EDL at a protest outside the Israeli Embassy in London in 2010.

He reams off emotional stories, some that have brought him to tears, of Jewish men and women in Europe who have been hit by antisemitism.

He started the EDL - to which he is clearly still loyal - as a result of discontent. He says the number of grassroots communal protests or controversial movements like the Jewish Defence League are "good" - even though last week the leader of the JDL's UK branch was found guilty of assaulting two people at a pro-Palestinian event in Haringey.

I think that despite the almost unanimous condemnation of Robinson from across the board, his inflammatory, and perhaps dangerous, message does sometimes hit a nerve.

My theory is given some credence at the close of our interview. A couple from Plymouth have been quietly eating their cheesecake and lemon tart at the back of the room. As Robinson heads towards the door, the husband - who says he is voting Conservative in the upcoming election - stands up to shake Robinson's hand. "I don't agree with everything you say, but some of what you do say makes sense," he explains.

"That's what a lot people come up and say to me every day," interjects Robinson, looking over at me.

Just before our meet comes to a close, I suggest we play a game: fill-in-the-gaps.

"Most Muslims are…?"

"What do you mean?" he laughs.

"Tommy, you know what I mean."


"Most Jews are…?"


"What are you going to do with yourself now?"

"That changes all the time. I've sacrificed my life for this. I've got three young kids. My money has been frozen, my mum's remortgaged twice. I've been physically attacked by Muslims on the street and never had any security.

"When you see people in the street, it's because they're desperate and haven't been listened to.

"It's going to kick off – a civil war. When that kicks off, it's not going to be in Hampstead. It's going to be where I live, it's our people that are getting attacked on the street."

Robinson, it's clear, is getting ready for a fight.

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