Against racism, nationalism and borders

There was a spirited march through central London today to mark the UN International Day Against Racism. I spoke for the Jewish Socialists’ Group at the opening rally, immediately after a group of Polish activists for migrants’ rights

Greetings!

I’m proud to follow the Polish anti-racist speakers. All of my grandparents were Jewish migrants and refugees from Poland and Ukraine. They got in despite Britain’s earlier hostile environment against Jews which saw thousands refused entry, and thousands who were let in, deported later.

We unconditionally support all migrants, refugees and minorities in the world today. Human beings must have the right to cross borders when they need to, and when they wish to. And they need dignity when they arrive.  We continue to fight here for proper justice for the Windrush victims stripped of rights and some later deported to destitution and early death in recent years.

Polish activists for migrant rights

Many refugees are Muslims. Many people in the world want Jews and Muslims to be enemies, but as Jews here, we say to Muslims, you are our sisters and brothers. We fight anti-Muslim racism here, in Israel/Palestine, and everywhere.

And we fight just as vigorously against all antisemitism, rising year on year here under successive Tory governments who have the closest links with Islamophobic and antisemitic parties and government across Europe.

We stand against racism, nationalism and borders. Borders kill. It is time to end Fortress Europe and time to end Fortress Britain. And we stand with Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities  directly threatened by the new Police bill.

Our struggles though are not just against the latest pernicious bills on Policing and on borders. We have to challenge the corrosive impacts of 10 years of the Tories’ Hostile Environment policies during which have been trying to turn doctors, landlords, teachers, social workers and others into border control.

We must refuse this. We need our trade unions to support this refusal on the basis of defiance not compliance. Fight capitalism not immigrants.

Solidarity.

(The march was organised by Stand Up To Racism)

How do we tackle the corrosive effects of the Hostile Environment?

I spoke at the Stand Up To Racism (West and NW London) zoom public meeting on 1 March 2022. Here is my speech

Many thanks for inviting me to tonight’s meeting ahead of the March 19th demonstration of our unity against racism. I hope through this meeting we can encourage you to come to that with your friends.

But tonight we also have an opportunity to move beyond the slogans that unite us and try to understand what the most pressing issues for communities facing racism are right now, and be honest about the scope of the challenges our movement faces.

We are in a much more febrile and alarming political atmosphere than just a week ago before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

I feel my personal connection. In the early 1900s my grandmother (born in 1897), and her parents and siblings entered Britain as migrants/refugees from the Kyiv district of Ukraine.

My grandmother’s identity card under the Aliens’ Order 1920

I hope all Ukranian refugees today get the welcome and support they need wherever they reach – though there are disturbing reports of the open racism that black minorities are experiencing at the Polish  border, from border guards, and from other Ukranians when they try to leave.

The British government expresses concern for Ukranians but don’t really want many Ukranian refugees, and for several months British military personnel have been assisting their right-wing partners in Poland in keeping out mainly Muslim asylum-seekers at the border with Belarus.

The British establishment loves to tell itself myths of its proud welcoming attitude to refugees. These are just myths. My family fleeing persecution, discrimination and antisemitic violence then, from the Tsarist Russian authorities in Ukraine, but also from many non-Jewish neighbours, were fortunate to get in during Britain’s first hostile environment.

The Tories’ 1905 Aliens Act which made it much harder for East European Jews to enter Britain, created immigration officers who could refuse entry, especially on medical grounds. They could also round up and deport people, six months after they entered, if they were wandering the streets without visible means of support. And they did. Most importantly it established two categories that have guided all British immigration/Refugee legislation since. It was never about numbers as newspapers claimed, but about dividing those seeking entry into “desirable” or “undesirable”.  Which people get labelled “undesirable” varies over time, as Windrush showed us.

Young Caribbean workers were welcomed here with open arms by our government in the 1950s, less so by their new neighbours, but several decades later a segment of them were suddenly deprived of their rights, and even deported into destitution and early death.

I also know how few refugees Britain accepted just before and just after the Second World War compared with asylum applications, and how those that did enter were helped by voluntary bodies not the state.

We can rejoice that the House of Lords tripped up the government last night on the Borders and Nationality Bill, but our movement needs to do much more than firefighting against the most pernicious aspects of this latest bill: we have to confront the corrosive impacts of legislation and practice developed in the whole 10 years since 2012 when Theresa May gleefully announced the Hostile Environment (which actually extended earlier racist moves by Blair’s New Labour government). In 2013 May sent the “Go Home” vans on the streets.

In the years since, the Tories have been trying to turn doctors, landlords, teachers, social workers and others into border control. The NHS, free at the point of use, now charges certain migrants for care, restricts access to care, and shares patients’ data with the Home Office.

There are pro-migrant, pro-refugee campaigning initiatives like “Docs not Cops” and “Patients not Passports” that I really urge people to get involved with. We should take these campaigns into our Trade Unions and demand that they challenge the government on this on a basis of defiance not compliance.

The Home office recently published revised details of its Immigration Compliance and Enforcement teams. In 2018 there were 19 teams. Now there are 30, including 7 in London and the South east. They do thousands of immigration raids each year, mostly following tip-offs from the public.

We have to ask ourselves big questions: What’s our strategy for transforming a hostile environment into a welcoming, supportive environment? What needs to change? What needs to be put in place? How? What do we do first?

In tackling racism in our society we can’t just go for easy wins, such as exposing the disgusting racist comments of Jimmy Carr or Boris Johnson for. Carr has form on anti-Gypsy, Roma, Traveller (GRT) racism; he likes to be outrageous, and relishes the attention. His so-called joke on this occasion appealed to and amplified widespread anti-GRT sentiment, but we must be clear that a much more serious ratcheting up of racism against GRT communities is coming from the state – the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, which threatens to criminalise their way of life.

In Eastern Europe where GRT communities look more physically distinct in more monocultural societies, they face increasing discrimination and attacks. Within Britain, GRT communities are less physically distinct – but frequently suffer hate crimes, bullying at school, and discrimination. A reminder to the wider anti-racist movement here that racism and discrimination are not simply about colour.

As for Johnson, I suspect he will be replaced in the coming months by someone more presentable. I am more worried about the far-right ideologue, Priti Patel, who is very willing to blur the lines between racism and fascism. That is shown not only by her deeply anti-democratic Police bill, which will interfere massively with legitimate rights to protest and, by increasing police powers, will impact much harder on certain minority communities, but it is also shown by her avid support for the authoritarian, ethno-nationalist regime of Narendra Modi in India.

I have urged the anti-racist movement to take more notice of what is happening in Eastern Europe. We should also pay more attention here, to India. The blurring of those lines between racism and fascism is a global phenomenon. And our work on the Borders and Nationality bill must be matched by our commitment to challenging the Police Bill. There are horrible random individual hate crimes suffered by different minorities and we must support the victims of them, but for black and brown communities the most powerful everyday experience of oppression is from state racism and institutional racism.

Priti Patel and Narendra Modi

I want to conclude by saying something about the latest developments on the fight against antisemitism in Britain and end on one more ideological challenge for the anti-racist movement. A recent report focusing on antisemitic incidents in Britain in 2021 by the CST – Community Security Trust –  a Jewish body that monitors these incidents, makes sobering reading. I don’t share their ideological assumptions but by and large respect their information gathering methodology. When racism is rising against different groups, I am less unnerved by overall numbers rising than by two other factors. One, that antisemitic incidents involving physical violence are increasing and the proportion of attacks on Jews by individuals from communities who themselves experience racism is growing.

The highest number of antisemitic incidents in Britain took place in Hackney. We can assume that many of these were attacks on highly visible ultra-orthodox Jews. This is an urgent political and educational challenge that needs addressing seriously and carefully in ways that can bring victims of racism together against common enemies.

The second factor is that the bodies that see themselves as Jewish community “leaders”, including CST, make no connection between levels of antisemitism, that have been growing especially since 2010, and the fact that this has taken place on the watch of a Tory Government committed to the Hostile Environment. The Tories have suffered no pressure on this at all from mainstream Jewish bodies who have turned their heat instead on the Labour Party, especially when led by Jeremy Corbyn, and have deliberately, and in most cases, falsely, conflated criticism of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism. This does no favours to the Jewish community. I worry that the Jewish community is becoming more isolated from its natural allies within other minorities against all racism. All anti-racists should be concerned about this.

Finally, among grassroots campaigners there is clearly great will and determination to confront racism, but it is becoming harder to influence mainstream politics. The Tories are openly pushing more rightwards, but the Labour Party under its “new management” is obsessed with waving the Union Jack and flagging up its British patriotism. That is deeply alienating for minorities and will create more indifference in society towards migrants and refugees. Without being politically sectarian our movement needs to put forward positive alternatives to nationalism and patriotism and borders, celebrating our cultural diversity, our commonalities, our outward-looking humanity, our global desire for social justice.  

Reaching the Tipping Point

I left the Labour Party today. I have cancelled my direct debit to a Party that since April 2020 has been waging a full scale war, not on the most dangerous right-wing government I have lived under, but on its own members. A Party founded by trade unionists and dedicated socialists is embarrassed now by its union links and is a hostile environment for socialists. Latest estimates say 200,000 members have left under Labour’s “new management”.

That should be adjusted to 200,001.

Shadow Cabinet member Rachel Reeves openly rejoices that so many have left, slandering us all as “antisemites”. The same Rachel Reeves who gushingly declared her admiration for the Tory, Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in Britain’s parliament, while ignoring Astor’s fanatical support of Hitler and the fervent hope she expressed that he would solve “the world problem” of “Jews and communism.” Small wonder that Labour MP Stafford Cripps dubbed Astor “the Member for Berlin”.  

Mind you, Astor did make the odd exception. At a private gathering she introduced her friend Chaim Weizmann, later to become the first President of Israel, as a speaker, describing him as “the only decent Jew I ever met.”

When Starmer became Labour leader he said his first priority was to eradicate antisemitism in the Party. Reeves has not even had the slap on the wrist given to Barry Sheerman MP for his “silver shekels” remark, or to Steve Reed MP for describing a wealthy Jewish businessman/Conservative donor as “the puppet-master for the entire Tory Cabinet”.

When prominent Labour figures go unpunished for real antisemitism, while many members with impeccable anti-racist track records, especially left-wing Jews who voice criticism of Israel, face disciplinary measures, including expulsion, it is clear that the leadership’s claimed fight against antisemitism is about something else. The cynicism of their phoney war on antisemitism provided the ultimate tipping point that has compelled me to leave what has become a toxic party. I am leaving in disgust, as well as anger, at having discovered how my own ideas and commentary, as a Jewish socialist, were being manipulated by disciplinary bodies in the party to help them exclude other left-wing members. More on this later, but other factors have certainly contributed to my deep alienation from the Party as well.

Compared with the invective that Labour’s leaders direct against their own dedicated members, our hapless Tory government has escaped remarkably lightly. How many times since April 2020 have we heard Starmer’s mantra, “We support the government”, as the COVID bodies did indeed pile high because of the Tories’ disastrous and discriminatory “strategy” for dealing with the pandemic?  

Many Labour members, and scientists too, argued for a Zero-COVID strategy aimed at eradicating the virus rather than managing it, but Labour’s leadership failed to promote any alternative strategy. They stayed as close to the Tories as possible while criticising them mostly for being chaotic and incompetent.

Early on in the pandemic when the National Education Union (NEU) flagged up the serious dangers of children and school staff returning too early to schools that lacked adequate safety measures, Starmer’s main concern seemed to be showing the public that unions would not dictate Labour’s policy. He was more gung-ho than the Tories to get children back to school quickly despite the risks. But when he first pursued this argument in parliament about school settings, the economy and COVID, he made his demands in language that closely mirrored documents just published by Tony Blair’s Global Institute. A clue perhaps as to who he was listening to.

The Tories’ “herd immunity” drive, which prioritised  “the economy” over people’s health meant that those the Government considered expensive and/or expendable were disproportionately affected. Death rates among ethnic minorities, disabled and older people were devastating. While many grassroots Labour members, including myself, volunteered in mutual aid initiatives – and still do –  Labour’s leadership was shamefully complicit in government strategies that brought suffering, financial hardship and so many unnecessary deaths.

It’s not only on COVID strategy that Labour has tried to place itself close to this far-right Tory government’s thinking instead of providing opposition and a real alternative. As an anti-racist and an internationalist I find Labour’s ultra-nationalism and obsession with Union Jacks stomach-turning. Labour will never outdo the Tory Party or fascist groups on patriotism – but why are they aspiring to? We ought to be the Party of commonality that cares for all citizens equally. Displays of ultra-nationalism will simply strengthen hostility towards migrants and refugees.

Every time I see or hear a Labour advert, a Starmer speech, I find so few words I identify with and so many that alienate me. I did not vote for him to become leader, though I know people on the left of the Party who did. They wanted to believe his election pledges which lie in tatters now. Starmer tells us, rightly, not to trust a word that Johnson says, but has opened himself up to the accusation of being a serial liar by ditching practically every pledge he made to convince members to elect him.

My background

I was born into a low-ish income Labour-voting family, conscious of its immigrant roots (all my grandparents, two of whom I never knew, were Jews born in Poland and Ukraine). I imbibed from my parents anti-racist values and a sense of being on the side of the underdog in an unequal society. By the time I was 16, in 1974, I had explicitly defined myself as a socialist. I witnessed the Tory government collapsing in the face of trade union action led by the miners. Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government, and later that year won a narrow overall majority.

My parents took me and my brother to hear Wilson at an election rally locally (held in our secondary school hall). We couldn’t get in because it was full, but listened to it relayed outside over loudspeakers. Two years later, I was among hundreds in the same building hanging on Tony Benn’s every word, as he explained common-sense arguments for socialism. By then I was becoming involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist activities too.

I understood that the fight for socialism was a long-term project against powerful vested interests, but recognised the issues affecting people here and now that could not wait. I’m still waiting for socialism but I have spent the intervening years – I’m 64 now – arguing and persuading, campaigning and struggling alongside others, some of them Labour members, others not, on immediate issues bound together by principles of equality, rights and social justice.

My years as a Labour member in that time, though, starting with a few in the early 1980s, add up to less than 10. But they do include the last six and a half years. I was part of an insurgent, proudly socialist, internationalist, anti-racist, Labour Party that stood up with and for the exploited and oppressed from 2015-19. I cannot use any of those adjectives to describe our Party today. As I leave the Party, it will be a wrench to walk away from comrades I respect and admire and feel close to in my CLP, but I know I will continue to see and cooperate with them in collective struggles, just not in Labour Party meetings.

The Corbyn Leadership

In the Corbyn years I knew exactly what the Party stood for, and was proud to popularise it. I felt the palpable enthusiasm, the desire for fundamental change that this project offered, rather than a mere tinkering with a system rigged in favour of the rich and powerful. I am fortunate to live in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, Islington North, and I have known him personally for more than 30 years.

In 2015, I witnessed young people flooding into the Party and older people finding renewed enthusiasm. They knew especially that Corbyn and those close to him were deadly serious about redistributing economic and political power in the country and empowering ordinary people to claim their rights and a better future. Small wonder he induced so much fear in the establishment, who were determined to destroy him and toxify everything he stood for. They used the filthiest lies emanating from disreputable right wing bodies to smear and demonise him, and ultimately demoralise huge numbers who had found such hope in that movement. As Corbyn reminded us on several occasions. “It is not me they are attacking, it’s you!”

As that ugly process unfolded we saw more clearly who the establishment were: not just the Tory Party and their tame mainstream media, who will always defend wealth and class privilege, but also those elements of our own Party who were determined to sabotage his chances. Today, their hands hold the levers of power within Labour, though they are still nervous about their grip on it. Corbyn continues to live rent-free in the heads of Labour’s leaders. People like Starmer and Margaret Hodge display intense personal jealousy of Corbyn and the popularity he and his policies attract.

Labour’s “new management” recognised that they could only enforce their will on the Party by ruthlessly attacking democracy within it and abusing its disciplinary processes to drive out the bulk of ordinary members who signed up so wholeheartedly for the best motives for the Corbyn Project. And the new leaders have been prepared to bankrupt the Party to get their way.

Like Starmer I went to Leeds University, though not at the same time. I was fortunate to study politics there with Ralph Miliband. Perhaps I should have listened more closely to what he wrote about the Labour Party, though even he would not have predicted the Corbyn leadership and its wave of popularity. But I also took a completely fascinating course on fascism in my final year there, with the brilliant thinker, Peter Sedgwick. He gave me a deep insight into fascist ways of thinking and the mechanisms they use. I never imagined, then, that this would help me understand behaviours at the heart of the Labour Party.

Attack on democracy

Internally, Labour’s “new management”, ­especially through its General Secretary, have implemented methods that are more commonly associated with right-wing dictatorships. The most recent is retroactive bans. This means that members are being expelled for actions in the past that were permitted at the time  – “crimes” such as joining a Facebook group, or even “liking” a Facebook post, or talking to a journal published by a group that has now been declared off-limits.

For the first four months of Starmer’s tenure, under the pretext of the pandemic, Party branches could meet on Zoom but were banned from passing resolutions and making decisions. That was eventually relaxed under grassroots pressure, but we were then forbidden to discuss certain issues that were “not competent business”. This included the massive financial settlement paid by the Labour Party, using our membership fees, over the BBC Panorama programme about Labour and antisemitism (a case Labour had been advised it would win).

That Panorama programme was a travesty, based on unfounded assertions and steeped in unstated factional politics. A series of “talking heads”, most of them past or present Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) officers, condemned Corbyn-led Labour for its alleged “failures” on antisemitism. Yet the JLM itself – an overwhelmingly right-wing, pro-Zionist Labour body – was not named. Some of those talking heads, lauded by the Party’s right-wing as “whistleblowers”, also feature in Labour’s Leaked Report, which offers a very different take on who was actually responsible for delays in dealing with antisemitism cases in the Party’s Governance and Legal Unit (GLU). That report also alleges that the GLU failed to provide accurate information to Corbyn when he inquired about the quantity of cases and progress with them.

The JLM’s political priorities were revealed during the 2019 election, which it effectively boycotted, save for a few seats. They wanted Labour to lose, even though they knew this would open the door to a Tory government led by a known racist, Boris Johnson, who would continue a hostile environment for migrants and refugees. They would surely have known too, that since 2010 the Tories had been co-leaders with Poland’s Law and Justice Party, of a group in the Euro Parliament that included far-right antisemitic, Islamophobic and anti-Roma parties and governments.

Another subject we were forbidden to discuss was the hugely controversial IHRA definition/statement on antisemitism, which was heavily criticised by leading Jewish academics and Palestinian rights campaigners for chilling free speech by confusing and conflating opposition to Israeli policy or to Zionism with antisemitism.

Political anti-Zionism is as old as political Zionism, and was invented, first used and developed by Jews for positive reasons, especially through a socialist, internationalist and anti-nationalist organisation called the Bund, which I and many other left wing Jews identify with. The Bundist philosophy is diasporist. It fights for absolute equality, freedom and cultural rights for Jews and all minorities in the countries where they live: “Rights and justice for Jews everywhere without wrongs and injustice to other people anywhere”.

Outside bodies, however, bullied the Party into adopting the flawed and contested IHRA statement as policy by threatening to slander them as antisemites if they didn’t.

“There where we live, that is our country. A democratic republic! Full political and national rights for Jews”. A Bund Election poster in Yiddish, Ukraine 1918

In late 2020, an older Jewish member of my CLP, with an outstanding record of international human rights work and campaigning dating back to the early 1960s, and still active in his local synagogue’s projects around homelessness and refugees, was summarily suspended after he submitted a motion to his branch that was critical of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Two months later, after he joined a collective court case against the Party over similar unjust measures, he was hastily readmitted, but with no explanation or apology.

Many Jewish Labour members I know personally as committed socialists, humanitarians, and anti-fascists have suffered defamatory suspensions and Notices Of Investigation charging them with antisemitism. Their names have been dragged through the mud and they suffered abuse on social media for expressing valid and honest opinions consistent with their progressive outlook on matters relating to Israel/Palestine, antisemitism and the Jewish community.

One recent case that affected me deeply because I have known her since the mid-1980s, concerned Diana Neslen. Her work against racist brutality and apartheid began in the land of her birth – South Africa. She is also a very knowledgeable person steeped in and very attached to Jewish/Yiddish culture. I suspect her accusers within the Party’s disciplinary machinery are not.

I have described her on social media as a “lomed vovnik” (one of the 36). An old Jewish religious tradition holds that in every generation there are 36 ordinary, yet extraordinary, people whose selfless, righteous work enables the world to renew itself. She has suffered several rounds of accusations and investigations from the Party’s bureaucracy, in the midst of which she was diagnosed with cancer and also lost her husband (who incidentally grew up in a Bundist family, and spoke and championed Yiddish, his mother tongue). Just as she was taking the Party to court to assert her right to express anti-Zionist beliefs in the Party without being condemned as antisemitic, they backed down, but again no apology. Instead of cherishing members like her, the Labour Party is punishing them.

In a similar totalitarian fashion to the injunctions over discussing the IHRA, Party members were later forbidden from discussing the EHRC’s Report on its investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party, which in my view was a shoddy, repetitive piece of work that drew grand conclusions from little hard evidence. The spin put on the report by Keir Starmer was at odds with the bulk of its content. Many left-wing Jewish members, including myself, expressed strong support for the fair and measured statement that Jeremy Corbyn made about it.

The Party banned us from discussing it, treating it as a tablet of stone beyond question. Labour members were thereby prevented from mentioning in meetings the embarrassing immediate aftermath of the report on antisemitism in Labour being published: a damning report on the EHRC itself published by a Joint Parliamentary Committee that criticised its major failures around racism both internally and externally; and a very strong complaint by women working at the BBC calling the EHRC’s report on wage differentials between men and women working there, a “whitewash”. Yet Labour members were not permitted to question any aspect of the EHRC Report on Antisemitism in the Labour Party.

The response by the Party leadership to Jeremy Corbyn’s comments on the EHRC Report is well known. His statement that “the scale of the problem [antisemitism in the Labour Party] was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the Party, as well as by much of the media” was distorted into an accusation that he considered antisemitism itself to be exaggerated. His contextualising words within the same post were simply ignored. He wrote: “Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left”. He was suspended and had the Labour Whip removed.

The NEC panel looking into his suspension had to examine all his words on the matter and he was reinstated into the Party as there was clearly no case against him. At that point he was a full member again with the Labour whip. Twenty four hours later during which newspapers reported that Margaret Hodge had threatened to resign fro the Labour Party if Corbyn retained the whip, Starmer removed it from him again without following any recognisable Party rules or processes. Promises to review the decision within three months never materialised. Corbyn has now been without the Labour whip for 15 months. CLPs were forbidden from discussing and passing resolutions about the action against Corbyn, though right-wing Labour MPs who approved of this action frequently and freely pronounced on it.

When an NEC motion was put last month to resolve this issue by restoring the whip, It was voted down by the right wing NEC majority who could not, and did not, offer a single argument to justify that decision. One of the reasons I stayed in the Party this long was to help the campaign to restore my MP to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn remains in limbo and I do not believe there is any intention to restore the whip to him or to restore democratic justice to his constituents who have voted so overwhelmingly for him since 1983.

Tipping point

But the real tipping point for me had already occurred. I was conscious that many Jewish Labour members I knew were being disciplined by the Party for making comments on social media very similar to those that I had made: expressing non-Zionist/anti-Zionist positions; being critical of the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli army, settlers, courts and government; and openly criticising the views of right-wing Jewish bodies in our community that define themselves as community “leaders” and claim to express the voice of the community.

Yet I was not personally targeted. I then discovered through informal sources that something worse was happening. Non-Jewish left-wing Labour members were being accused of antisemitism if they “liked”, shared or retweeted certain social media posts that I had written. These had been carefully assembled and were appearing in the “charge sheets” accompanying Notices Of Investigation. They were also being presented to some candidates seeking to become councillors in their interviews, in ways that implied that their candidacy would be viewed negatively if they had indeed liked, shared or retweeted such posts.

Why did they not target me directly? I believe it is partly because they knew that these posts expressed a legitimate political point of view of a Jewish member who had an established profile as an author, a contributor to newspapers and journals and as a blogger. But they clearly believed they could get away with accusing non-Jewish members of antisemitism for adopting similar views, fulfilling their factional goal of removing left wingers from the Party.

The most bizarre instance I saw on a charge sheet of a member with a decades-long record of antiracist and anti-fascist work, concerned a Facebook post with a photo of myself and Jeremy Corbyn holding a copy of the new edition of my book Rebel Footprints at its launch event. In the post I described Corbyn as “a rebel I have always been so proud to work and campaign with”. I added “Solidarity with you against the haters, the ignoramuses and the tukhes-lekers (arse-lickers) of the wealthy”. It seems that this non-Jewish member was being condemned for antisemitism for sharing a post that included a Yiddish phrase!

But perhaps they dug a bit deeper and discovered that, in addition to writing a book on the fight against antisemitism in Britain in the 1930s, and helping to organise five-yearly commemorations of the Battle of Cable Street, in which several national and local labour politicians and branches have participated, I do a considerable amount of educating about antisemitism within my professional work and in my voluntary work in the anti-racist movement. This includes being one of the group leaders of annual educational visits to Auschwitz and Krakow for trade unionists, students and anti-racist activists. That work educates people about the rich and very meaningful Yiddish cultural life of Jews in pre-war Poland, as well as about their death.

The most generous description of the behaviour of those within Labour’s disciplinary department, who use my words to incriminate others, would be to call it “cowardly”. I find it sickening, dishonest and disgusting. It was when I had firm evidence that this was happening that I resolved to end my ties with the Party. This is a clear case of cynically weaponising accusations of antisemitism for another purpose – to purge left wing members. It cheapens and devalues the term antisemitism. In doing so, it endangers Jews, while doing nothing to combat real antisemitism.

If anyone still doubts how low the Party has sunk on these matters, the events just a few weeks ago in Hornsey and Wood Green CLP’s online general meeting on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day are salutary. The local Party invited two of its Jewish members to give presentations, one was the branch’s leading JLM figure, the other a left-wing Jewish member, Sue Levi Hughes, whose parents fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, while other close relatives were murdered in Auschwitz and Belsen. She was preparing a presentation about Jewish women’s resistance during the Holocaust to accompany reflections on her family’s experience.

Hours before the meeting, the local Labour MP, Catherine West, tried to persuade Sue Levi Hughes to withdraw because the JLM speaker was refusing to share the platform with her. He cited a tweet she had made several days earlier about the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, which referred to Israel as an Apartheid state (a formulation used by Israel’s leading human rights body, B’Tselem among several others.)

At the meeting, an attempt by Labour right-wingers to block the presentation was voted down by a substantial majority. As Sue Levi Hughes began her presentation, more than a quarter of the members present left the online event. The JLM complainant did not attend the meeting at all. When Catherine West addressed the meeting before it closed, she did not acknowledge Sue Levi Hughes’ presentation at all, or thank her or express sympathy, but instead condemned the “shoddy” treatment of the JLM activist!

Many of those who walked out of the meeting were non-Jews who seem to have decided that they didn’t want to hear from the “wrong sort of Jew” – one who had criticisms of Israel. However they may have justified it to themselves, this was an antisemitic act. But this whole framing of which Jews are allowed to express their views has been promoted by the Labour leadership who take their cue from a narrow set of Jewish establishment bodies, rather than engaging with the diverse views among Jewish Labour Party members let alone the wider Jewish community. And it’s more than distasteful for non-Jews to dictate what views Jewish people may or may not express.

Within an hour of the meeting, those proud of their boycott action were leaking it to a reporter on the Jewish News, praising their MP, who had “really kicked arse tonight” and praising themselves for “giving the left a bloody nose” by walking out. Had they forgotten what the meeting was about, and what Holocaust Memorial Day represents?

I know Sue Levi Hughes well and have been on group visits with her in recent years to Auschwitz and Treblinka. I have seen her presentation, which is stunning and very educational. Fortunately, with the encouragement of the local Party’s BAME officer, the presentation was subsequently sent to every CLP member there. But have we really got to the point where a Jewish Labour Party member’s right to speak about her own family’s experience in the Holocaust and talk about Jewish women’s resistance to the Nazis is conditional on them adopting a particular pro-Zionist position on issues in Israel/Palestine? 

For what it is worth, my own view on antisemitism is that it is becoming stronger in British society alongside other forms of racism, under a Tory government which has been given the easiest ride over this by the mainstream media and by the Labour opposition. It is also growing menacingly in several other countries again alongside other bigotries. I have personally encountered and witnessed more antisemitism here in the last 10 years than in the previous 50, and heard reliable reports from friends corroborating my perceptions.

That includes a small number of cases within the Labour Party. I have no doubt that there needs to be a deeper understanding of facets of antisemitism within Labour and across the Left. That is an educational task. But I also believe that where it comes up in contexts where education can play a part in challenging it and changing people’s minds and behaviour, that has to be our first response. I would apply this to other bigotries as well. Shami Chakrabarti understood this in her report which was attacked and rubbished by some of the very same people who have been waging a factional war under the guise of tackling what they claim to be antisemitism in the Party.

There might be one more reason why the Party did not target me directly. That is because I have been involved in a complaint of antisemitism to the Labour Party made on behalf of a wider group of left-wing Jewish members in December 2020 after we received a collective death threat from a non-Jewish right-wing member of the Party. The case is live, so I won’t add more, except to emphasise that it has now been 14 months since it was submitted. A suspension took place quickly but the case, for reasons that we don’t understand (though we can speculate), has not been heard nor brought to a conclusion.

One of my reasons for staying in the Party was to pursue this case. It is outrageous that it has not been concluded yet, but I know that the other victims will continue to pursue it.

What’s next?

Last week I attended the my CLP’s AGM. I wanted to see out the year in my role as Political Education Officer which members have elected me to do for the last few years, and which I have carried out willingly and enthusiastically. I wanted to be democratically accountable for my work in the Party. On the weekend before the AGM, I held one end of our CLP banner at the People’s Assembly rally in Parliament Square over the cost of living crisis. I was proud to do so, even though I knew it would be for the last time.

I don’t judge individual members for the decisions they take on whether to stay in the Party or to leave. Socialists need to engage in the struggle where they feel they can be most effective in bringing progressive change, and also feel valued and respected. I have always felt valued and respected in my CLP, but clearly I am not valued or respected by the Party machinery. No doubt they will be glad to see me go, but I refuse to go along any further with their utter contempt for democracy, the centralisation of unaccountable power at the expense of grassroots members, their lack of basic humanity, and their attempts to destroy the possibility of Labour being able to elect a left-wing leader again and be a force for a radical transformation of our capitalist society.

I am not seeking to join another Party but intend to replace the considerable amount of time each month that I had put into the Party with work on the political issues that seem most pressing to me, through my trade unions (I am in two), and through specific campaigns – especially those concerned with refugees, anti-racism, oppressive police powers and human rights internationally. There are urgent issues to confront within each of these spheres. I look forward to contributing my energy, skills and experience, and not just doing the right thing but being able to speak truthfully, free from the threats of censure by the machinery of a Party that was created to obtain freedom, equality, dignity and decent lives for everyone, but has moved so far away from these goals.

See you in the struggle!

Biographical Notes

In the 1980s I worked for the GLC-funded Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project then later for the Runnymede Trust, where I co-authored a book, Daily Racism: The press and black people in Britain. I worked as a teacher in an inner London primary school for 23 years where I was also the union representative and the Equalities Manager. I have written two other books: Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s; and Rebel Footprints: a guide to uncovering London’s radical history. I am an adult educator specialising in radical history in London (including many aspects of Jewish history) and of the history of the Warsaw Ghetto. I lead regular walks through London’s radical history. https://www.eastendwalks.com

What we were unable to shout out to the world

Talk by David Rosenberg on a panel at Stand Up To Racism’s Holocaust Memorial Day event 2022
I am honoured to join this platform. Holocaust Memorial events enable us to acknowledge and remember who and what was lost to the world, and learn from individuals’  personal experience.

The Nazis’ final solution attempted not only to wipe out a people, but erase a culture and civilisation – Yiddish culture. But I am proud to use the Yiddish words of anti-Nazi resisters – “mir veln zey iberleben” – we will outlive them, and “mir zaynen do” – we are here!

Nazism was defeated in 1945, but the authoritarian, ethno-nationalist ideas that fuelled it, are still aimed against targets in different countries. Our responsibility is to expose them and build an inclusive, united resistance to those ideas today, drawing inspiration from those who fought fascism before us.

The Holocaust happened in the real world, within a capitalist system that reduced human beings to enslaved, disposable units of production, creating profits for companies that developed and packaged and installed poison gas. This economic system channeled the skills of trained architects, engineers, scientists, physicians, administrators… to create factories of death that deprived the world of the talents and potential of millions of other human beings whom they labelled as inferior.

That’s my analytical framework, but my focus tonight is on resistance, and creators of memory, knowledge and hope through collective action.

In 1987, I attended a conference in New York, of around 50 participants, marking the 90th anniversary of the Jewish Socialist Bund which, together with Polish Socialist Party leftists, led the physical and ideological struggles against Poland far right forces of the 1930s. I met survivors who had been ghetto resisters and partisans in the forests. In one session we heard from Wladka Meed, a quietly spoken woman, whose mother, brother and sister were among more than 900,000 Jews and 2,000 Romani Gypsies murdered at Treblinka, a number exceeded only by Auschwitz, whose liberation we mark this week.

Wladka joined the Bund’s youth movement in Warsaw at 14 years old. In her early 20s she was part of a network, mainly women, collectively known as “couriers”, who lived beyond the ghetto with false papers. They travelled around Poland under the Nazis’ noses smuggling themselves in and out of ghettos, delivering forged identity cards, messages, underground newspapers, and later, guns, grenades and other weapons. The resistance fighter Marek Edelman remarked that most importantly she delivered hope to those walled off from the world.

Wladka (Peltel) Meed’s false identity card

I have a 90 year old friend, in London, who owes her life to Polish Catholic families who hid her, after she and her twin sister were smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, but she owes her life also to Wladka, who visited regularly and made payments to those hiding her.

The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, today, has a permanent exhibition celebrating Emanuel Ringelblum who co-led a network of mutual aid societies organising underground soup kitchens, and secret educational and cultural initiatives with drama and poetry programmes. But above all this exhibition highlights an underground research project he founded calling itself Oyneg Shabbes – “Society for the pleasure of the Sabbath”. Its 12 co-workers documented and archived what was happening in the ghetto under Nazi occupation. They had contact with around 60 others who, to protect the secrecy of the operation, knew few of the others. They distributed and collected questionnaires and notebooks to ordinary people.

When mass deportations began in July 1942, they recorded the destruction of the people, and sent that information out of Poland through clandestine routes.

Its archived materials were buried in metal boxes and milk churns. History, they say, is written by victors, but here it was described by victims on the eve of their destruction. Researchers are still making new insights based on those archives.

The first cache was unearthed in 1946, the second in 1950. Rokhl Oyerbach, was one of the few members of the project who survived. She said there was a third cache that has not been found.

One of the people who buried the archive, 19 year old Dovid Graber, was killed soon after in Treblinka, but his message survived with the material. It said: “what we were unable to shout out to the world we hid underground. May this treasure end up in good hands, may it live to see better times. May it alert the world.”

The most significant physical resistance by Jews during the Holocaust took place over 3-4 weeks in the Warsaw ghetto, but less prolonged acts of collective rebellion, inspired by Warsaw’s example, and informed by messages from couriers, took place in many ghettos, labour camps, concentration camps, even death camps.

The April 1943 uprising in Warsaw built on an earlier act of rebellion whose anniversary just passed. In January ‘43, the Nazis tried to resume their mass deportation programme from the ghetto, but were assailed by gunfire from four different barricaded positions organised by a united fighting body, comprising Bundists, Communists and left wing Zionists. That body’s ammunition was boosted by a small donation of 10 pistols from the Polish Home Army. The Nazis cut short their action. A few days later the Polish Home Army smuggled in 50 pistols and 55 hand grenade to the fighters which were used in the April uprising.

I want to finish with one more example of mutual aid in 1943 and a comment on solidarity actions in Poland today. A Bund activist, Bernard Goldstein, describes the ghetto population and the fighters organisation making collective preparations for their final struggle:

We concentrated on the building of bunkers…hiding places for men and supplies. … Groups of inhabitants in a tenement or in neighbouring tenements organised, collected money, and hired engineers and technicians to supervise the building.

“The bunker took various forms… Sometimes it was a double wall, parallel to the old one, with enough room between the two for several people to wait out a raid. Access… might be through an old wardrobe…its side might be lifted… to allow one person at a time to crawl into the corridor between the walls. …sometimes the bunker was a double cellar, constructed by digging a tunnel under the old cellar and hollowing out a large cavern at the end of it…in some of the double cellars crude ventilation systems were installed as well as connections for electricity and water… tunnels were dug to connect one courtyard to another. Passages were connected through the cellars and the attics – a communications system which proved to be of great strategic value during the ghetto uprising.

“The entire ghetto worked with singleness of purpose…in the conviction that the final battle of annihilation was inevitable…”

Contrast that cooperation with the Nazi system of utilising people’s education and skills to build death factories.  

Anti-racists in Poland today are challenging not only fascist groups but also racist state forces who have built a militarised zone on the Poland-Belarus border to keep out mainly black and brown asylum seekers. Fourteen Polish NGOs have united within Grupa Granica –– to help and support asylum seekers who get through. It was heartening to read an activist explaining that they campaign today because they knew their grandparents had secretly helped Jews in the 1940s.

In 1948, Wladka Meed wrote a book in Yiddish, translated into English in 1972, called On Both sides of the Wall. It’s a harrowing account of resisters and collaborators, courage and betrayal – and many who were simply by-standers, who witnessed terrible injustices but did not intervene. Our job, as anti-racists and anti-fascists is to turn by-standers into upstanders.

Could I just flag up…? No, not really

“Think of all that the British have to be proud of. The rule of law. Her Majesty the Queen…”

“I believe that the best still lies ahead for this country. But only if we have the courage to create a new Britain.”

“We stand for the future of British purpose”

“This is a remarkable nation with an extraordinary cultural heritage. British music, British fashion, British advertising, British acting.”

“We stand for the new England”

“I don’t think you cease to be a patriot because you notice your country has flaws. On the contrary, the reason we in this party want to correct those flaws is precisely because we are patriotic.”

“The Labour party is a deeply patriotic party.”

I had no great expectations from Keir Starmer’s address to the nation today. Quite the opposite – and he didn’t disappoint on that. Patriotic platitudes were just slipping off his tongue. I felt I should treat you to some of them. Actually two of those seven quotes were not said by Starmer this morning, but they fitted in quite well. They were actually said by another person with a penchant for authoritarianism and also totally addicted to meaningless patriotism – Oswald Mosley. He uttered them seven months after he had left the Labour party and formed the New Party, which we know now was a Halfway House to fascism.

If you have any doubt about which two quotes were said by Mosley rather than Starmer, ask yourself why you have those doubts. And, if you are on the left and you voted for Starmer, you may have another question to ask yourself.

It was a dreadfully boring, inspiration-free speech. He ended it by saying “…thank you for listening.” I think those hundreds of us that did, deserve more than thanks. A medal perhaps. But not one that says Knight of the Fucking Garter, please.

Though I should acknowledge that, near the beginning of his speech Starmer included two moments of honesty. Firstly he appeared to notice that he hasn’t been doing his job. However, he explained away this lapse as best he could: “It’s normally the job of the opposition to criticise and oppose. But it can make us sound pretty miserable.”

OK. We have been faced with the murderous consequences of electing the most vicious, greedy, self-serving, bunch of racist millionaires and billionaires, but we don’t want to rock the boat too much – that would makes us sound miserable. FFS! We are not miserable, we are angry.

Starmer also acknowledged that he gave the government too much of the benefit of the doubt over how to deal with the pandemic, a frank admission. But then he knows who is really to blame:  

“One of the best characteristics of the British people is that we are fair-minded. Our instinct, in a national crisis is to give the government the benefit of the doubt. And because the pandemic posed an unprecedented problem we, Her Majesty’s opposition, did the same.”

Hard to believe it (or maybe not), but that was his pathetic excuse.

Incredibly it managed to go downhill from there, all the way to the pride he expressed that Britain has the capacity to murder millions of civilians in far away countries:

“It was a patriotic government which understood the importance of national defence, which created NATO… and gave this country its independent nuclear deterrent.”

People don’t actually want to kill millions of others or even have the capacity to do so, and they are not yearning for the patriotism he just goes on and on about. What they actually want is justice in the face of so many terrible injustices, on so many levels.

Not least are the economic injustices that continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. That petty cut back on universal credit, which deliberately keeps families in even more poverty. The threat of the most draconian punishments for people who have the temerity to protest about injustice. The misery planned for desperate asylum seekers should they succeed in reaching Britain etc. But Starmer doesn’t want to “oppose” and run the risk of sounding miserable. And besides, he adds: “We do not bind a nation by emphasising what divides us.”

Yes we do actually. Take a leaf out of the Occupy Movement. “We are the 99%”. We can be united for a better future for nearly everyone.

And while I am on about injustices, I could refer to the many good socialists who have fallen foul of the appallingly unjust, anti-democratic, Kafkaesque disciplinary “processes” of the Labour Party.

Without any hint of irony, Starmer said: “I regard the rule of law, as one of the things that makes Britain great. Due process… The integrity of British justice has always been the envy of the world.” I have breaking news for him. Those disciplinary processes he endorses are really not the envy of the world (though they might be considered more generously by right wing dictators)

He praises “Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership”, which he identified as “the Nolan principles”. Perhaps it is now time for him to ask what the Nolan Sisters asked in a song a long quite a while ago: “How do I survive?”

I could tell you more but it will just make you feel as angry and frustrated as I do, so I will finish with the one uplifting thing he said: “This year, 2022 is a big year.”

I knew it. He has just been holding back, getting us to think he was dull and boring but now comes the sting in the tail! I was gearing up to read on: “This is the year we take an uncompromising fight for social justice to the heart of every community and turf out these Tory thieves and chancers once and for all…”. But I think I might have been reading too many of my own thoughts into his previous comment.

This is how the leader of a socialist party, founded by trade unionists to give a voice to working class demands, actually explained why this is going to be such a big year:

“It is Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.”

OK. Enough. “Thank you for listening”, as someone once said when he correctly seems to have presumed they had stopped. Oh, in case you are still wondering which of the quotes were from Mosley rather than Starmer they were the third and the fifth, but don’t tell anybody.

Tory Party ironies from London to Poland

Ironies can be beautiful or ugly. I’ll go with ugly for this one. A few days ago Tory ministers were fuming about students at the LSE who had the temerity to protest at the presence of an out and out racist, a believer in ethnic cleansing, a defender of an illegal occupation that daily inflicts human rights abuses on Palestinians. The protesters against Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, who included Jewish students, were ludicrously condemned by these ministers for “antisemitism”.

Today those Tory ministers are defending a decision to send a team of UK troops to Poland to assist a government widely condemned for its antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny in recent months and years, in its efforts to prevent asylum seekers crossing the border into Poland, into the EU from Belarus. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/nov/12/british-troops-sent-to-poland-to-assist-with-belarus-border-situation?fbclid=IwAR01rA4SWUhcGJyiKdzsFvM9T8wBxxvkHrsuduo-U0y8Ly4MXHUscYYT61M

The point of attempted entry is in the forests on the Poland/Belarus border. In recent weeks the Polish border guard presence has multiplied. They have created a two-mile deep militarised zone where they have been building a razor-wire fence creating dozens of checkpoints, and keeping human rights observers away.

And here the ironies multiply too. In October 1943, 300 inmates of Sobibor, the Nazi death camp, who led an uprising and mass escape ran for safety into those same forests. Only a few dozen survived, Most were hunted down by groups of Polish partisans in the forests who were against German occupation, but were also deeply antisemitic.

Today, Poles in local villages there are urged to report on those “who look like they don’t belong” to border guards.

The British Government will claim that their military team are merely giving “engineering” support to the Polish government against a dastardly plan by Belarus, but in reality they are colluding with a far right government in actions against the human rights of asylum seekers.

If the Tories want to chat more with their Polish government counterparts, why don’t they ask them about what happened elsewhere in Poland two days ago (11 November), when that government overruled the decision by Warsaw’s (more liberal) mayor to ban a provocative ultra-nationalist independence Day march through Warsaw’s capital in which neo-Nazi organisations played a very prominent role.

Why don’t they ask them about events in Kalisz Western Poland that same day where a similar demonstration took place and witnessed virulent antisemitism? There were chants of “Death to Jews”, and cheering as a replica of the “Calisian statute” of 1264, which protected Jewish autonomy and safety there, was symbolically burned.

The Tory Party are adept at imagining antisemitism on an anti-racist protest at LSE, but have long closed their eyes to antisemitism stoked by their allies in Poland’s ultra-nationalist right wing government, and the forces further right that Poland’s “Law and Justice” government tolerates and fuels.

Replica of Calisian Statute, 1264, being burnt at ultra-nationalist rally, Kalisz

Fear in the Forests of Sobibor in 1943 and 2021

My talk on a panel at the international Conference of Stand Up To Racism on Uniting Against Fascism Far Right, Antisemitism and Islamophobia, online on 16/17 October 2021

This week saw the anniversary of a remarkable act of anti-fascist resistance in 1943 in Sobibor, a Nazi death camp surrounded by a forest, near the Polish-Belorussian border. In just 17 months, 167,000 Jews, and some Roma Gypsies too, were exterminated there. On 14 October 1943, some 300 Jews took part in an uprising. They overpowered guards, seized weapons, and escaped. Around 80 died on the surrounding minefields, others were shot by German and Ukranian guards, but many reached the forests to fight on as partisans.

In the forests though, they were hunted by Polish partisans who opposed German occupation, but hated Jews. The few dozen Jewish escapees who survived until liberation either found some friendly partisans, or sheltered with Polish peasants.

Three days ago, my facebook friend, Jan Grabowski, a Polish historian of Catholic and Jewish heritage, living in Canada, graphically described what is happening in those forests right now: He said:

“Today, the Sobibór forests are filled with Polish border guards, police and army, looking for illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East… A two-mile zone has been declared… a ‘martial-law area’, off limits to humanitarian organizations and journalists. Official Polish state media warn the population about illegal migrants: we are told they rape animals… they are terrorists.  Local Poles are asked to alert police and border guards whenever they see: ‘anyone who clearly does not belong here’. You can guess… having a darker colour of skin clearly places you outside the group of people ‘who belong here’… Tomorrow, when we think about the Jewish refugees dying in the forests around Sobibór, we might want to reflect on the people who face death today, in the same forests, due to forces of hatred and prejudice.”

Grabowski himself has faced repression and abuse in recent years from the right-wing Polish authorities and far-right agitators, for his work revealing Polish antisemitism during the Holocaust, not just individuals, but institutions too: Polish auxiliary police, who helped Nazis round up hidden Jews.

In Poland today many forms of racism feed each other – anti-black, anti-refugee, anti-Roma racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism. It’s similar in Hungary. Yet our Tory government has the warmest relations with the governments of both Poland and Hungary. In the Council of Europe, Tories sit in a bloc with their Polish and Hungarian government counterparts, and with ultra-right representatives from AfD in Germany, Salvini’s Lega Nord, the Danish People’s Party, Bulgarian Patriots and Vox in Spain.

“Poland was and is Slavic and will never be Muslim” – banner at demonstration against refugees

The right-wing British media who profess concern at antisemitism, but twist its meaning to include political criticism of Israel or Zionism, show no interest at all in the deep, pervasive antisemitism and Islamophobia, and elevation of the Christian family and Christian Europe that is part of the racist mosaic of Poland and Hungary today. Neither are they interested in our government’s collusion with them.

When Donald Trump led America, people made simple equations between him and Johnson, while ignoring Johnson’s other role models. Both he and Priti Patel are fervent admirers of authoritarian-populist, majoritarian, ethno-nationalist regimes from Poland and Hungary to India and Brazil. We need to offer real solidarity to anti-fascists resisting these pernicious regimes.

Our movement needs to broaden and update its analysis. We have traditionally drawn a clear line between the mainstream political right and the fascists, while noting how the former often help to provide political space for and breathe life into the latter. But those lines are increasingly blurred by a new authoritarianism fast emerging from a Tory government that Shami Chakrabarti characterises as a Far Right government.

It’s direct targets are innovative protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion, and Black Lives Matter, human rights lawyers standing up for refugees, and one minority the government think few people will stand up for – Gypsies, Roma Travellers.

Our challenge is to integrate our campaigns against every form of racism with work against this new authoritarianism. As we seek to build anti-racist majorities in society we must simultaneously build anti-authoritarian majorities while we still can.

So what happened after the battle, then?

They thought they were invincible, that the future was theirs. Oswald Mosley, or “The Leader” as his overworked footsoldiers called him, boasted to his followers that the streets belonged to them. But the people of London’s East End, especially the Jewish and Irish communities, whom he had sought to divide against each other, united to stop him.

In a rare moment of introspection, the fascists’ newspaper, The Blackshirt, admitted that on 4 October 1936, his movement had been “humiliated”. They swore revenge on “Communism and Jewry”. They rioted in a Jewish neighbourhood a few days later and a 17-year-old Jew was thrown through a plate glass shop window.

When anti-fascists were first alerted to Mosley’s plan to invade the East End, they pinned their hopes on a mass petition to the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, which saw nearly 100,000 signatures collected in 48 hours calling for the march to be banned. Days earlier local police in Leeds had chosen to divert a threatened fascist march through the town away from its heavily populated Jewish district.

As it turned out, though, it was better for the anti-fascist movement that the Home Secretary had such contempt and disdain for the lives and fears of the working class Jews of the East End that he prioritised Mosley’s free speech and free movement. In doing so he unwittingly enabled a people’s victory, in which 7,000 police and 5,000 fascists were hopelessly outnumbered by those who felt they had no option but to battle for the streets.

At the British Union of fascists (BUF) headquarters, recriminations over their shock defeat were flying thick and fast. Mosley, himself, had other things on his mind for a few days. Two days after the Cable Street catastrophe, he was in Berlin, marrying Diana Mitford in a small private ceremony at the home of Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, with Hitler among the specially invited guests.

Police intelligence reports reveal that over the next two months the fascists actually recruited around 2,000 new members, but these were predominantly young people keen on physical action. They were not serious ideological recruits, and they soon got bored.

The more significant reaction to the Cable Street humiliation was within Mosley’s inner circle, among those who had really believed in his project, his philosophy and his infallibility. A feast of back-stabbing and front-stabbing followed over several weeks. There were sackings, people leaving in a huff, and some questioning what kind of an entity they had got embroiled in.  There was less adoration for Mosley from those who stayed to pick up the pieces.

But they regrouped, setting their hearts on strengthening their East End base, targeting local elections in March 1937. They began publishing a weekly local paper – the East London Pioneer – to supplement the nationally distributed Blackshirt paper. The BUF stood two candidates – one well-known local activist alongside one seasoned fascist from the party’s centre – in each of their three strongest East London areas: Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse.

Local paper published by the fascists in East London for several months from October 1936

They promised their supporters they were heading for victory. But despite their activity, their candidates were well beaten, winning 14% – 23% of the votes, while successful Labour candidates in each seat took more than 60%. Predictably, Mosley blamed “the Jews” for plumping solidly for Labour, but this was a reflex on his part. Those areas were on the edges of the Jewish enclave and included few Jewish voters.

Nevertheless, many Jewish anti-fascists canvassed for Labour votes to inflict defeat on the fascists. The left-wing Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism had grown in prestige and membership as a result of its militant, public role in the fight against Mosley’s movement (a role that put the complacent “official” leadership of the Jewish community – the Board of Deputies – to shame.) The JPC’s propaganda work paid dividends, but ultimately it was non-Jewish voters who sealed the fascists’ defeat at the ballot box.

More defections followed these disappointing results, most significantly Charles Wegg-Prosser, who stood for the fascists in Limehouse. Educated at an independent Catholic school and Oxford University he joined the BUF in 1934 believing them to be a force for social and national progress. In 1936 he was the organiser of the Shoreditch branch – though he had conflicts with some fellow fascists more fixated on physical violence.

When he left after the 1937 elections he announced his defection to the anti-fascists becoming a valued propagandist for them, penning articles for the Jewish People’s Council and appearing on public platforms with other repentant ex-fascists. After the war Wegg-Prosser was a Labour councillor in Paddington and one of the founders of North Kensington Law Centre, which has particularly served immigrant and refugee groups.

The attempts to revitalise the BUF were also hampered to some extent by the state’s legislative intervention – the controversial Public Order Act. The Jewish People’s Council and the National Council of Civil Liberties, who worked together closely, both rejected the arguments for this legislation, claiming that it would actually fulfil some fascist demands by restricting protests and giving police more powers. They correctly claimed that it would be used far more against the left than the right. They argued instead for a law against racial incitement but were ahead of their time and didn’t get one.

Nevertheless, the Public Order Act stipulation banning political uniforms did affect the BUF. They looked more ordinary and felt less powerful out of their uniforms. And when the fascists sought to try and march once again in the East End, exactly a year after Cable Street, they were banned, and ended up attempting to march south of the river through Bermondsey.

Yet again, dockers, who had shown solidarity with Jews in Cable Street in 1936, were central to the resistance in Bermondsey in ’37. Barricades went up in Long Lane and the fascists had to divert from their chosen route, and go round the edge of the borough. Huge banners hung from Bermondsey’s treasured council flats, saying: “Socialism builds, Fascism destroys”.

North of the river, housing was the number one problem for all communities in the East End, and one fascists had tried to exploit by telling Irish tenants that they had bad housing because the Jews had the good housing. But the anti-fascist movement, with the Communist Party playing a central role, had a creative and successful long-term strategy to counter this.

Focusing on the mixed estates on the Jewish-Irish borders, they encouraged tenants to form committees and campaign collectively on their housing issues. The Stepney Tenants Defence League was born. By 1939 it had 11,000 members. Communities slowly began to trust each other instead of fear each other. Between 1937 and 1939 there were more than 20 successful rent strikes. And as this movement mushroomed, the fascists trying to foment hatred between tenants on the basis of ethnicity or religion were increasingly marginalised.

In those same years around 200 East Enders – half of them Jewish – took their anti-fascism on to the international stage by joining the International Brigades fighting Franco in Spain. Thirty six of them never returned.

But the years of fascist campaigning left their imprint nationally, not least on the upper echelons of certain state agencies dealing with refugees through the 1930s. The most right wing mainstream newspapers, while ultimately rejecting Mosley, ran vicious “alien scare” campaigns that strengthened the hand of Government to make it extremely hard for refugees from Nazism to get sanctuary here.

Women from Langdale Street Mansions during their successful 21-week rent strike in 1939

David Rosenberg was convenor of Cable Street 80 in 2016 and is the author of Battle for the East End, Five Leaves Publications. This article was also published in the special wrap-around of the Morning Star, on 2 October 2021.

Dangerous times when forces of hate commandeer our language

My talk on a panel at the Midlands TUC/Stand Up To Racism summit 18 September 2021

Thanks for inviting me .

In two weeks’ time I will be march with other anti-racists through East London, then co-chair a rally marking the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street – a famous victory for people’s power when Jews and non-Jews, including many trade unionists, formed a mass blockade and put up barricades to stop Oswald Mosley’s Fascists violently invading the streets where 60,000 Jews were living. Our side pushed back against thousands of police who tried to clear a path for the fascists. 79 anti-fascists were arrested; some served custodial sentences.

Our commemoration happens every five years. Sadly, this will be the first one without the living voices of brave veterans from 1936. That sadness, though, will be offset as we will hear from relatives, who share their parents lifelong anti-racism.

We will hear especially from Jewish and Bangladeshi speakers, celebrating a shared heritage of resistance, whether in the ‘30s against Mosley, the 1970s and ‘90s against the National Front and BNP, or more recently EDL and Britain First.

That resistance, and our victories were achieved through unity in action. We did not have to agree on every political issue to unite against a common racist enemy.

Despite those victories, though, racist beliefs, discrimination violence still scar our society. Whether from individuals, organised groups, police or government, racism threatens and diminishes the lives of longstanding minorities as well as recent migrants and refugees.

Yet, this summer there was massive support for England’s footballers defiantly taking the knee. Right now there is widespread sympathy for Afghan refugees, far beyond the ranks of activists for refugee rights. But less appetite to reverse the whole hostile environment.

We need to seize this moment in ways that are challenging and persuasive, to say all migrants and refugees to Britain, deserve support, friendship and dignity in their lives. 

We have to push wide open a debate about how a hostile environment can be transformed into a welcoming environment, and fight for our demands against what Shami Chakrabarti rightly described recently as a “Far right” Tory government, that is happy to polarise society through racist and nationalist culture wars, and, by doing so, give oxygen to small and splintered openly fascist groups waiting in the wings.

We need to shed some of our own comfortable myths. I often hear anti-racists say: “Britain has a proud record of welcoming refugees.” It hasn’t. My Jewish grandparents were not welcomed by the British state. They got in and survived despite being targeted by Britain’s first hostile environment that led to Britain’s first peacetime immigration law with its ugly name: the Aliens Act. That act, and others passed in that same mean spirit, made it so hard for refugees fleeing Nazism to enter. The British state did nothing for them; determined individuals and voluntary groups did everything.

Britain took very few Holocaust survivors from DP camps. In the ’50s British citizens from the Caribbean were invited for their labour, but their presence was soon condemned by organised racists. They faced abuse, discrimination and violence. The case for migrants and refugees is not about  tolerance but because they are human beings with human rights. We fight to protect free movement, sanctuary when needed, for all human beings, at all times.

We live in dangerous times, emerging slowly from the worst of the COVID crisis, into an economic crisis, where fear, scapegoating and conspiracy theories gain traction. Disparate groups are being convinced by these theories and mobilised. I saw that in early summer as my partner and myself were leaving a People’s Assembly demo in Parliament Square. Just at that point a far, far bigger, noisy, demo of anti-vaxxers was passing. Mainly white, multi-generational, some clearly aligned with the far right, real hatred in their eyes.

We were stuck there for quite a while. I heard later that an Indian friend also trying to get home was shouted at for wearing a mask, then punched, by a man wearing a t-shirt that said “freedom”. It is when the forces of hate commandeer the language of rights, freedom, liberation, and say they are oppressed, that they become so dangerous.

I read a report this week on antisemitic incidents in Britain between January and June 2021. It had a photo of a very striking but sickening example: a billboard advert showing two people enjoying a beautiful view defaced with a swastika and  graffiti saying: “COVID is a lie. Holocaust is a lie. Fuck the Jews.” Similar incidents have happened elsewhere, not just in Britain.

Anti-Vaxxers marching in Western Poland in July, were chanting: “Jews are behind the pandemic”, “Jews rule the world”. Similar mobilisations have occurred in Hungary where people are being influenced by conspiracy theories presenting themselves as “anti-elite”, or “anti-Western” but suffused with antisemitism. In both countries antisemitism flourishes alongside Islamophobia, anti-Roma, anti-refugee sentiment.

Our Tory government has the closest, warmest relations with their counterparts in Hungary and Poland who enable far right ideas to flourish. They will never challenge them on the antisemitism they enable, any more than on their Islamophobia.

We need convincing counter arguments to these lies and conspiracy theories, exposing the role of the far-right within these movements, and build real solidarity with anti-racists and anti-fascists in Hungary and Poland.

I know, as a Jew, that the light sleeper of post-war antisemitism, wakes up in dangerous times. The incidents we meet are far fewer than attacks on Black and Brown minorities, but they are growing and must be countered with the same determination. In the first six months of 2021, antisemitic incidents in Britain were higher than similar periods in previous years.

Threats and abuse glorifying the Holocaust and Hitler are growing. Physical assaults especially on visible ultra-orthodox Jews have increased significantly, with perpetrators sometimes using stones, eggs, bricks and bottles.

Two patterns should especially concern us: Most antisemitic incidents are usually done by adults. This year, incidents involving younger people – school students – have increased (against pupils mainly, but in some cases, teachers).

Secondly, the proportion of threats and assaults on Jews by those who themselves face racism has grown – each of us needs to counter that by explaining that the only safety for all minority communities is in solidarity with each other.

A final word – we can get very depressed about all of this but we must never lose sight what are we fighting for: justice and equality for all, in a world without fear and without borders.

Extending Labour’s purge to trade union leaders really takes the biscuit

“The Labour Party was formed out of the trade union movement to give working people their own political voice. The link from the workplace to the party through the affiliated trade unions is what makes it unique to this day. This link is more important than ever as we work together to tackle the urgent problems we face as a country, from stagnating wages to failing public services.”

That’s not me speaking, but the Labour Party’s own website in 2021.

Only the Party now seems to have such little respect for some of its own statements. One of the latest targets of its purge of left-wingers is the National President of one of the oldest unions who have traditionally organised among very poorly paid workers. He is Ian Hodson of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), currently in receipt of a letter threatening him with potential expulsion dressed up in the Orwellian euphemism “auto-exclusion”.

Hodson’s union can trace its lineage back to the “Manchester Friendly Association of Operative Bakers” established in 1849. By 1854 it was led by another Hodson – Thomas Hodson. No relation, Ian tells me, but he’s pleased by the coincidence and has a picture of his namesake on the wall of his union office.

In 1861, the first Hodson led the formation of the Amalgamated Union of Operative Bakers (AUOB), bringing together unions in Bristol, Cheltenham, Hanley, Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Warrington and Wigan, along with his Manchester society. The union relocated its headquarters to London back in the 19th century, but the majority of its members then were still from Lancashire. The current Hodson – Ian – worked formerly as a biscuit baker at Symbols Biscuits in Blackpool.

The AUOB was one of the earliest unions to give financial support to the fledgling Labour Party, cementing that crucial industrial and political linkage in 1902. The key period that prefigured the Labour Party coming into being as a political expression of the trade union movement is seen as 1888-89 when there were epic struggles by female matchworkers at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, East London in June/July 1988, Gasworkers at Beckton in the spring of 1889 and the Great Dock Strike of late summer and early Autumn 1889. East London was the cradle of these struggles for shorter hours and better pay in safer workplaces, though the first burst of militancy in that district in those years, a few weeks before the Matchworkers strike, barely registers a footnote.

This was a strike led by immigrant Jewish bakery workers who had fled persecution in the Russian Empire, and were now fighting in their new adopted land against 16-20 hour shifts with few breaks. They took spontaneous strike action, marching from bakery to bakery with a few musicians playing stirring music, to call workers out. Some 300 bakery workers were eventually involved, winning support too from German immigrant bakers in the East End. Their gains were minimal but the example of workers organising collectively left its imprint.

In the wake of the successful Great Dock Strike a year later, involving many tens of thousands of East End workers, two of its leaders, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann wrote about the “new unionism” of the ultra-exploited unskilled and low skilled workers that had been born through these struggles. They wrote:

“The real difference between the old and the new unions is that they do not recognise, as we do, that it is the work of the trade unions to stamp out poverty from the landWe are prepared to work unceasingly for the emancipation of the workers. Our ideal is the Cooperative Commonwealth – for families to procure not merely the necessaries of life as ordinarily understood but everything that conduces to the elevation of humanity”

One important strand that emerged was syndicalism which stressed that economic and political change could be brought about by militant industrial struggles by workers, but the more enduring expression was in the idea of forming a political party that would give a powerful collective voice to the needs and demands of working class communities.

Pledge number 7 of Keir Starmer’s “10 Pledges” to Labour members on which he was elected as party leader was to “Strengthen workers’ rights and trade unions”- working “shoulder to shoulder with trade unions”. it is hard to see how the targeting of BFAWU’s National President – who works day in, day out for low-paid workers – for expulsion matches that pledge. Mind you there has been precious little sign of any of Starmer’s other pledges being acted on. But this action against Hodson seems also to symbolise the desire among Labour’s leaders and influencers to break the fundamental link of the Party with the conscious collective struggles of working class people through their unions.

While the Labour Party “under new management” continues to show how acceptable it is to businesses and Middle England, BFAWU, meanwhile, continue to spearhead key campaigns for better working conditions in the food industry; for food workers not to be priced out of purchasing the food they produce; for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for low-paid workers, especially women, and workers on zero-hours contracts who don’t meet the threshold for SSP of earning £120 a week. And BWAFU are seeking to unionise the precariat who work on Zero-Hours contracts in the super-exploitative fast-food industry.

These are the campaigns against Tory-imposed misery that the Labour Party ought to be putting its full weight behind, but it can’t when its main priority seems to be an internal war on the Left of the party and even on trade unionists who are standing up to that misdirection of the Party’s energy and resources. Meanwhile the Tories, the party of the millionaires and billionaires, are laughing all the way to the bank.

Ian Hodson 3rd from left behind the BWAFU banner