Rabbi Herschel Gluck: ‘We are not here to be vigilantes; we are here for justice’

Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE with Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe (Metropolitan Police Commissioner). Pic: Shomrim N.E. London

Racist and religious hate crime across all Eastlondonlines boroughs has increased by 40 per cent. But our communities are fighting back. Take, for example, the Stamford Hill Shomrim, who have been assisting the police in tackling hate crime since its inception in 2008

“We are not here for revenge, we are not here to be vigilantes, we are here for justice,” says Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE, the Shomrim’s president since 2015. In Hebrew, “Shomrim” translates to “watchers” or “guards”, but Gluck is sitting at the end of a long table in an old-fashioned drawing room. It is dominated by two large wooden cabinets full of books, and various accolades, including his OBE, line the shelves.  

“Sadly, a lot of people are under the impression that so-called political correctness is going out of the window,” Gluck says, “so therefore that gives them the license to hate, license to discriminate, license to be anti-Semitic. We need to be very vigilant to counteract that narrative, and to show that it is not right to discriminate, or to attack, or commit hate crimes against anyone.” 

According to Metropolitan Police data, anti-Semitism in Hackney quadrupled between January 2019 and January 2020, with rates second only to Barnet. Stamford Hill has one of the largest concentrations of Charedi Hasidic Jews in Europe, and the community has been historically plagued by anti-Semitic abuse.  

Shomrim’s record on dealing with hate crime is impressive. “We have brought more hate crime matters to justice than any other organisation in the country – we are very proud of that”, said Gluck. “When a person is attacked, and it is identified as a hate crime, we try to persuade the victim to take the matter to court, and to give a witness statement; because if someone commits a hate crime, that could happen again.” Last year, Shomrim assisted in 11 arrests following anti-Semitic incidents, nine of which resulted in prosecution and conviction.   

The Stamford Hill Shomrim is an enhanced neighbourhood patrol, run by volunteers. The concept was first established in Brooklyn during the late 1970s, in response to violence directed at local Jewish communities throughout New York. Plans for an independent brand in London were originally treated with suspicion. It wasn’t until the then-police Chief in Hackney visited the States – the authorities wanted to see how the organisation operated in practicality – that Shomrim established its presence in north east London, in 2008. 

Gluck is keen to dispel the myth that Shomrim is primarily focussed on anti-Semitism. “A lot of people come with a misconception of what Shomrim is”, he says. “We are against crime. Anti-Semitism and hate crime are crimes, so we deal with them as well. But anti-Semitism isn’t our raison d’être, that isn’t what we are here for. We are here to help with all types of crime, for members of all communities”. 

Gluck has devoted his career to fostering greater interfaith and intercommunal understanding. In 2000, he founded, and subsequently became chairman of, the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Stamford Hill; the organisation is dedicated to strengthening ties between the two communities. He has also acted as a mediator in global conflicts such as in Former-Yugoslavia, via his involvement with the Next Century Foundation, a think tank dedicated to diplomacy. Gluck’s dedication was formerly recognised in 2013, when he awarded an OBE. 

In 2019, well over 60 per cent of the calls received by Shomrim were from the public, outside of the Jewish community. The night prior, Gluck had hosted members of the Muslim community from a town outside London who wanted to set up a similar organisation. “We told them the pros and cons, we discussed with them what we are and what we are not – we are constantly dealing with members of other communities, trying to help them”.  

“When Lee Rigby was murdered in the terrorist attack a few years ago, the English Defence League went on the war path, and we were asked to protect the Muslim institutions in the area, which we did with pleasure, and we still do. Whenever there are tensions, we protect any community which feels under threat.” 

Operating community patrols six days a week, and running a public hotline round the clock, Shomrim facilitates the arrest and prosecution of hundreds of criminals every year. The organisation’s structure is voluntary; 30 volunteers respond to daily calls – “they could receive a call at 2am, jump out of bed, take their own car, pay for their own petrol, and go to the scene within minutes”, said Gluck – and when responding to missing person cases, Shomrim can call upon as many as 500 volunteers at any one time.  

“We’re here to help the police – who are underfunded and understaffed – to assist them in areas where they find it difficult to manage on their own”, Gluck says. Shomrim’s relationship with the police initially had its ups and downs, as any partnership does, Gluck reminds me. In January 2010, a statement from the Metropolitan Police read: “There is an issue of members of the public putting themselves at physical risk – through attending an escalating situation, interfering with possible evidence or potentially risking criminal prosecution themselves.” 

But, since then, the relationship has been very healthy, and enormously beneficial for the community. Indeed, Shomrim’s work has repeatedly been recognised by the higher echelons of the Metropolitan Police hierarchy, who “deeply appreciate [their] work”. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, former-Commissioner of the Police and now a feature of Gluck’s mantel following their meeting, said: “I would like them to be seen and known as members of the community who kindly volunteer their services as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the community to help keep everyone safe and free from crime”. Boris Johnston, too, has issued Shomrim thanks for keeping London’s communities safe.

Reflecting on the situation in civil society, Gluck emphasises that greater awareness, achievable by better training, will be critical in combatting hate crime. People must be able to recognise what constitutes a hate crime, and deal with it in an appropriate manner. He isolates online hate crime as evidence of this interpretation.  

“Online hate crime is a major problem because people feel they can hide behind the anonymity of social media, and say things they wouldn’t say in person.”

“The bar for hate crime on social media is very high. There needs to be a very strong reaction – it must be dealt with in a strong and constructive manner.” 

This is day two of our Eastlondonlines’ #HatefulLondon series. Read the rest of the story here. 

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