The conversations on racism that are rising to the surface

My talk from the online Stand Up To Racism event at the Labour Party online Conference fringe 2020

I am honoured to be on this platform representing the Jewish Socialists’ Group, and also as a grassroots Labour Party member. I am very fortunate that my MP is an outstanding fighter against all forms of racism and bigotry, in our constituency, across the country, and internationally: his name is Jeremy Corbyn. But I worry that, while the issues around racism have become sharper since he is no longer leader, the party has become more distant from the movements on the ground, especially Black Lives Matter! and movements actively supporting asylum seekers.

In the Jewish Socialists’ Group we are proud of our international links. After George Floyd was murdered and we were preparing a statement, we listened to what our sister organisations in America were saying and incorporated the powerful words of the Boston Jewish Workers’ Circle within it.

They said “We are full of grief and outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and all black lives lost to police brutality and white supremacy. As a multiracial Jewish community committed to racial justice and a better world for all, we mourn together, we protest together, and we recommit ourselves to work together for racial justice within ourselves, our communities, and our country.”

When people here saw what happened in America, they wanted to show solidarity. But the strength of feeling shown in gatherings and protests across the whole country testified to the depth of daily racism, institutional racism, and state racism experienced by Black people and other minorities here.

Our media much prefer to focus on random hate crimes against various targets than expose systemic state racism, but the Black Lives Matter! movement has started to rebalance and re-politicise discussion about racism in our country. We need to fight both against systemic daily racism, and hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and LGBT people.

When slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was dumped in the River Avon, it made a splash well beyond Bristol. As he sank to the bottom, what rose to the surface was a long overdue conversation about statues that grace, or rather disgrace, our towns and cities, that reinforce a dominant class and race history of oppression. And this has prompted a further conversation about decolonising our schools, our institutions, our public spaces.

Should statues be replaced? I can think of several exceptional individuals from working-class and marginalised communities who should be memorialised. But I still react instinctively against monuments that invite us to look up to what Maya Angelou describes as “our heroes and she-roes.” I prefer monuments to collective struggle such as the Cable Street mural, the International Brigades statue, or the mural close to where the Grunwick factory stood, where Jayaben Desai led a courageous battle by female Asian workers in the late 1970s against super-exploitative employers.

So where are we today? Still in the middle of the COVID Crisis. I have hope, but not necessarily faith, that we will emerge from it – but it will be straight into a huge economic recession. Racists and fascists are already rehearsing arguments to blame immigrants, refugees, Muslims and other groups they define as not fully English, for that crisis. That blame culture will produce increasing violence against minorities. We must be part of the resistance.

The fascists cannot credibly blame other poor people for running the economic and political system, so they revive conspiracy theories against wealthy figures, who happen to be Jewish, like Rothschilds, Goldman Sachs, and George Soros. These arguments are finding a new audience among the thousands of COVID deniers/anti-Vaxxers who hang on the words of antisemitic conspiracy theorists such as David Icke.

The threat of new fascist forces emerging must be taken seriously. One of our challenges is to integrate struggles against state racism and institutional racism with anti-fascist politics, and with the fight for jobs and public services. Ironically Donald Trump understands this. When he described Black Lives Matter! protesters in America as “looters, thugs, Radical Left… Lowlife & Scum”, he specifically namechecked Antifa.

The current positioning of the Labour Party on racism and fascism worries me deeply. The MPs on this platform always make strong statements, but not the party leaders. In the last five years we knew that Labour was on the side of victims of racism, on the side of refugees, of victims of the Hostile Environment. What we see now from the top is equivocation and a renewed obsession with patriotism.

As a Jewish Labour member I am really angry that the debate within Labour around antisemitism became so overlaid with factional agendas that the Party has failed to articulate the most obvious points:

• that antisemitism in British society is growing alongside other racism and bigotries;

• that it has increased year on year on the watch of the the party of the Hostile Environment – the Tory Party;

• that it is growing alongside Islamophobia, especially in countries with extreme right-wing governments such as Poland, Hungary, and the US, with which the Tories are very friendly.

I want to finish by bringing us back to tackling racism in the COVID era. Ironically the new realities and restrictions imposed have made our movement do something that we badly needed to do ­ – that is to resist the urge to keep having symbolic action mainly in city centres and really focus instead on the local, working at building inclusive alliances to cement anti-racist and anti-fascist majorities in our neighbourhoods, in our localities. In the long run that will turn us into a much more powerful vehicle for change.

Irving and his friends

There was quite a lot of discussion recently about the veteran Holocaust denier, David Irving, after Norman Finkelstein, a prominent anti-Zionist writer/academic made surprisingly favourable comments about him at a public Zoom meeting.
I make no apology for reacting strongly about this at the time, and I was glad that some others did too. But this was far from universal.  One of my main points was that Irving is not just some individual who said bad things a long time ago, but someone who has had continuing relationships with Far-Right groups in different countries.
Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.59.03I quoted the example of Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski (National Rebirth Poland – NOP), who have been very prominent with their distinctive flags in  large and menacing fascist contingents on Poland’s huge Independence Day marches in recent years.
NOP are a fringe far-right agitational group in a country where a very right-wing ultra- nationalist government has provided so much breathing space for reactionary and antisemitic discourses, not least when they made crude attempts to outlaw statements of any Polish complicity in the Holocaust (as if the 18,000 strong Polish Blue Police who hunted down Jews being hidden by Polish non-Jews during the Holocaust years didn’t exist…). They have also been mounting attacks on “Jewish claims” of restitution of property owned before the Holocaust.

I’ve been doing a bit more research – and to be honest what I’ve found only gets worse but with an interesting twist.

The NOP are the oldest of the “new” Far-Right groups in Poland going back to the early 1980s, and they see themselves as deeply rooted in the tradition of the very antisemitic National Radical Camp, formed in 1934.

Irving being promoted by NOPTheir association with Irving goes back a few decades too (though not as far as the 1930s!). He has frequently contributed to their magazine Szczerbiec (which means a Polish Coronation sword). Irving’s books have been translated into Polish by Bartek Zborski one of the editors of the magazine. NOP have a front organisation called Instytut Narodowo Radikalny which has promoted the works of several Holocaust deniers.

Although they are obsessively nationalist, the NOP are also active in their own forms of Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.45.10international solidarity. They protested in support of David Irving when he was on trial in Austria for Holocaust denial. They protested in support of the Greek neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn when members of their party were on trial for attacks on anti-fascists, attempted murder, weapons possession, racketeering and other crimes. For a number of years they have had a London branch that has worked closely with the BNP .

NOP’s London branch have been assiduously building links with other far right forces here. A few years ago they cooperated in an event with the “London Forum” – an outfit that is an umbrella for various Far Right, antisemitic, and neo-Nazi individuals – where they welcomed a very special guest – David Irving. London activists of NOP were very proud to have their pictures taken with such an eminent Holocaust denier.

Irving+NOP1NOP describe their ideology as “Third Positionist” – neither socialism nor capitalism, and wholly opposed to “abortion, artificial birth control, euthanasia, divorce, homosexuality, genetic experimentation on humans at any age and vivisection”, since, they say, these “contravene God’s Law and Objective Truth”. They are very strong Catholics. Their opposition to homosexuality is particularly extreme at street level where on demonstrations their supporters shout “Gas the queers”.

NOP declare their other main enemy to be multiculturalism. They claim that this is bringing about a “nightmare world” where “the very words Race, Nation and Culture would cease to have any meaning at all. Where the “richness of racial diversity” is replaced with “a rootless mass, lacking identity and history.”

In an interview with one of their leaders last year, he was very clear about how Poland can make itself more secure from such forces: “No immigration… African, Asian or Jewish…  even a small group of culturally alien people is a threat to the national community. Our home, Poland, needs to be rebuilt, not let hordes of people of other cultures into a politically, economically and ethically damaged country.”

Their ultra-nationalism, Christianity, homophobia, opposition to minorities, and their antisemitism ought to make them feel comfortable with many aspect of the ruling PiS (Law and Justice Party), which has strong stands on all of these too, but here is an interesting twist: they condemn PiS as pro-Zionist, while they consider themselves thoroughly anti-Zionist. And indeed, despite some differences over the Holocaust Revisionist laws that PiS have put in place, PiS leaders have built a very positive relationship with Israel’s very right wing Zionist leaders.

NOP, in contrast, are Far-Right anti-Zionists who describe Zionism as “a power structure of colossal proportions that straddles the globe. This structure includes not only the illegal Israeli regime, set up on the stolen land of Palestine, but also the power bases that Zionists have constructed in the spheres of Politics, Economics and the Media, especially in the USA and Europe… this power structure exists to serve and extend the interests of International Jewry, and this can only be done at the expense of the indigenous populations who have lost control of their countries to this discriminatory creed.”

In this, NOP are much closer to Britain’s older far-right ideologues like John Tyndall, who Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 18.55.55was fundamentally anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist, than it is to the the more modern faces of the British Far-Right like Tommy Robinson, or Paul Golding of Britain First who are both very pro-Zionist, and apparently as comfortable holding Israeli flags as George Crosses or Union Jacks. Tyndall saw what he called “Jewish power”, expressed both in diaspora communities and through the State of Israel as the main enemy.

In the light of Finkelstein’s David Irving moment, I suspect that more care will be taken on left wing anti-Zionist platforms so that such moments can not recur. But it is also important for leftists, who are rightly opposed to Zionism and its daily repression and humiliation of Palestinians and denial of their rights, also take note of the rhetoric of Far Right anti-Zionists so that they absolutely steer well clear of any similar arguments.

We may generally consider Irving well past his sell-by date but he still has a certain influence on Far-Right/neo-Nazi agitators in the here, there and now.

Rafal Pankowski of Poland’s Never Again Association, which monitors developments on the Far Right in Poland very closely, has made some very incisive observations. In a recent lecture he described the re-emergence of antisemitic Far-Right groups there as one of the paradoxes of the freeing up of politics in Poland after 1989. But he has described how commentators on the Left saw antisemitism as mainly confined to an ageing sector of Polish society who had long held such prejudices and were suddenly free to express them. The feeling was that antisemitism was not taking off among younger generations, and it would gradually decline as that older generation passed.

But developments since than have not borne that out. A range of emerging Far-Right groups have established a strong antisemitic ideology among younger people through developing a thriving Far-Right football and music scene. And this has blended well with their homophobic, Islamophobic, and mysogynistic themes.

Another factor strengthening and cementing these themes together has been the growing cultural influence of Radio Maria, a far-right Catholic fundamentalist phenomenon, that is a social movement with radio, television, a university, and various front organisations which are strongly xenophobic and deeply antisemitic at the same time.

When PiS took power in 2015 they used a good deal of Islamophobic and anti-refugee rhetoric in their campaigning. Some commentators believed that Islamophobia had replaced antisemitism as a central far-right theme, which was bad enough and needed to be fought. But, especially in the last few days of the recent presidential elections, where the sitting candidate was desperate to gather all the available votes from people further to right than PiS voters, antisemitic themes came very much to the fore.
Irving and his younger friends remain a problem that faces us here, and in Poland. Our anti-fascist consciousness must be both raised and deepened if we are to successfully confront the threats they pose locally and globally.

“This march must not take place!”

Far Right activists have been making threats on social media against the Cable Street Mural, and indicating they would attempt an action on 9 August. Unite Against Fascism and Tower Hamlets Stand Up To Racism called a gathering at short notice to defend the mural and to speak out against the racists and fascists. There were several speakers. This was my talk:

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 20.16.53

David Rosenberg speaking at Cable Street. Photo: Vince Quinlivan

We are here today to protect, defend and celebrate this fantastic mural that illustrates a key moment in our history: 4th October 1936, when Oswald Mosley was planning to march thousands of uniformed, jackbooted fascists in four columns through the heart of the Jewish immigrant area of the East End – where 60,000 working class Jews – tailors, shoemakers, cabinet makers – eked out a living.

The mural is a celebration of courage, solidarity, unity and collective strength and an immense peoples’ victory.

In the week before Mosley’s march, a local grassroots Jewish group, the Jewish People’s Council Against Racism and Fascism took a petition to the Home Secretary calling for the march to be banned. Nearly 100,000 signed it in two days – Jew and non-Jew.

But the Home Secretary recalled the important rights liberties that Britain protected: the rights to intimidate, threaten, abuse and attack immigrant populations dressed up as “free speech and free movement” for Mosley’s fascists.

For the Home Secretary it was not about freedom from attack for the community. He promised to send police down to make sure the march could pass peacefully. But the Jewish People’s Council had a Plan B.

After the Home Secretary sided with Mosley, they quickly ran off another leaflet calling


Cllr Rabina Khan

on “Citizens of London” – not just the Jews – to make sure this march does not take place. If the state won’t ban it – the people will. Which is what they did. At last a “Prevent Strategy” I can support!

At Gardiners Corner, Aldgate, which Mosley had intended to reach before dividing into four columns, there was a mass blockade. 7,000 police were mobilised but they couldn’t clear a path. They advised Mosley that he would have to enter further south.

The anti-fascists had already worked out that if he couldn’t get through at Aldgate, then Cable Street was the next most likely point of entry. They built barricades in this narrow street which at the time had shops on both sides and tenement flats above all along the street.

Who were the people of Cable Street? For the first two thirds, going east, they were mainly Jews. My grandfather’s cousin, Harry, had a stationery shop at number 27, and Harry’s family lived above it. Their shop was about 20 yards before the first barricade – a turned over lorry. On the mural you can see the wheel of that lorry. And the furniture stacked up behind the barricades.

The final third of Cable Street was mainly Irish catholic. Mosley had tried to win the Irish against the Jews. But the anti-fascist movement was bringing Jews and Irish together against Mosley. On the day, Irish people, especially the most trade unionised ones – dockers and railworkers – came from their end of Cable Street to help the Jews build barricades. In the mural you can see the banners of the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party who were fighting fascism throughout the 1930s.


Rafique Ullah, activist with the Bangladeshi Youth Front, 1970s

At one point the police dislodged the first barricade – they didn’t know there were other barricades behind and as they ran through they were trapped between the barricades. At that point women in the flats above rained down everything in their kitchens on to the police. Everything you see flying through the air in the mural comes from oral histories of people who were part of the battle.

On the mural there is a woman holding an egg wondering what to do with it. With resistance at ground level and from above, the police were forced to retreat and had to tell Mosley to go home and take his supporters with him.

There were around 200,000 people on the streets of the East End that day. if I was there at the time I would have signed the petition to ban it, but in a way I am glad that the Home Secretary cared so little about the rights of people there that he didn’t ban it, because he inadvertently brought about a bigger victory – a people ‘s victory.

Why did so many people come out that day? In a statement afterwards, Scotland Yard said they thought it was because of the weather! It was actually because the working class communities of the East End had a history of decades of struggle for better lives and were used to coming out on the streets, on picket lines, on marches to protest.

This mural was commissioned in 1976 but was not completed until 1983. It had frequently been attacked by fascists. The original artist, feeling unsupported, abandoned the project and three other artists completed it. In that period Bengali immigrants were moving into the East End, including on Cable Street. And they were facing the same racism and fascism from Mosley’s political descendants – the National Front, British Movement and Combat 18. A young Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali was stabbed to death. And there was resistance as Asian youth organised in a similar way to how the Jewish People’s Council had done in the 1930s.

The first Asian councillors in Tower Hamlets were very enthusiastic about this mural project. The people developing the  project invited the local community to be part of it. behind the banner in the bottom left you can see some faces of the new immigrant community of the 1970s.

Finally,  we have to remember our history, and defend our history, as a resource in the IMG_3746present and for the future. Those who want to whitewash Mosley’s history of fascism and whitewash his antisemitism share the same circles as those, like David Irving, who wish to deny the Holocaust. They secretly dream of doing again what they deny ever happened.

All forms of racism and bigotry, including everyday state racism and institutional racism, will only be eradicated if we come together across ethnic and cultural divides to collectively do the eradicating. No to all racism. No to fascism. No Pasaran!

Circles of solidarity and resistance

My talk tonight at an online event organised by Durham North West CLP on Racism in today’s Britain: What it is and How to Fight it 

Thank you for inviting me. I want to begin with a quote:

“We are full of grief and outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and all black lives lost to police brutality and white supremacy. As a multiracial Jewish community committed to racial justice and a better world for all, we mourn together, we protest together, and we recommit ourselves to work together for racial justice within ourselves, our communities, and our country.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 22.45.56This statement was published last month in Boston, Massachussets by one of seven remaining North American branches of the Workers Circle: a Jewish mutual aid society founded in New York, in 1900, by Yiddish-speaking immigrant sweatshop workers, that fought against “sickness, early death and capitalism”!

In Coronavirus times, we have rediscovered Mutual Aid, and its philosophy: “solidarity not charity”

The Circle* once had branches in 34 American states. It would have been 35, but Alabama’s laws required societies to register and confirm all members were white. The Circle would not legitimise racism, so It operated informally there.

The Workers Circle are very proud of two consecutive campaigns from the 1940s. They helped pressure a reluctant US government to admit Holocaust survivors from Displaced Persons camps in Europe. Then in 1947 they co-sponsored a tour through the American South to test a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on interstate buses. They joined anti-lynching protests in the 1950s and freedom marches in the 1960s.

They fought for the oppressed, exploited, and those suffering discrimination. Today, they identify completely with “Black Lives Matter!”

In my late teens I joined a Jewish group here with similar values: the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG). I’m still a member. The anti-fascist struggle of the late 1970s dominated my early Jewish Socialist years, as the National Front were terrorising and intimidating Caribbean and Asian communities.

We were energised by the slogans “Black and White Unite and Fight”, “Self-Defence is Nobrick-lane-black-white-unite-2 Offence”, “Here to Stay, Here to Fight”. But one well-meaning slogan was problematic. It said. “Yesterday the Jews, Today the Blacks”. It highlighted vicious racism against Caribbean and Asian communities but relegated antisemitism to history. I knew then, as now, that antisemitism was still breathing. Fascists don’t replace targets – they accumulate them.

While fascist foot-soldiers physically attacked Black and Asian communities their internal propaganda was pushing wild antisemitic conspiracy theories to core members, accusing Jews of masterminding mass immigration to dilute the white race.

Those ideas have returned today as the “the great replacement theory” that accuses Jews of driving immigration by Muslims and refugees to the West to replace the white race.

As a young anti-fascist I heard about the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. Members of my family and community came together with non-Jewish Londoners to form mass blockades and build barricades to prevent 7,000 police from forcing a path through for Mosley’s fascists to invade London’s East End.

I learnt about the Jewish People’s Council against Antisemitism and Fascism who mobilised Jews, while building links with non-Jewish anti-fascists to cement a local anti-fascist majority.

But the Jewish People’s Council had one additional battle: against their so-called community “leaders”, the Board of Deputies, who told people: stay indoors; don’t join public demonstrations.

In the 1970s, the Board of Deputies told Jews: keep away from the Anti-Nazi League. Trust the state authorities. But these authorities included police using SUS laws against Black youth, and immigration officers targeting Asian communities. Left wing Jews ignored the Board and we threw ourselves into the struggle.

Today the Deputies claim the threat of antisemitism is not from the right, but from the left, from Islamic groups, from my MP Jeremy Corbyn, who I have known personally for decades. They accuse Corbyn of tolerating antisemitism as party leader and being antisemitic himself.

Britain Refugee March

Jeremy is a rock-solid anti-racist and anti-fascist in both word and deed. Jewish members in our CLP work very closely with him and see him much more frequently than his detractors do. If he held antisemitic views would we not notice?

I want to be clear. I know that there is, and has been, some antisemitism among Labour members that must be dealt with appropriately. I’ve seen it immediately challenged by Labour members when it has very occasionally surfaced in our CLP.

Sometimes, though, comments on the separate matter of Israel/Palestine, borrow antisemitic stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously. That needs challenging. Some comments impugn all Israelis, when they mean the government, the military, or settlers, and talk as if there were no internal opposition, which there certainly is. More precise language and more vocal support for Israeli oppositionists would undercut false claims that attacks on Israel = attacks on Jews.

In most cases, though, when Labour members support Palestinian rights, condemn Israeli policies and military actions, and criticise Zionist ideology, they express perfectly legitimate views, shared by increasing numbers of Jews, including myself. It is bizarre that some 25 Jewish LP members, including longstanding anti-racist activists, have been suspended or investigated, accused of antisemitism.

So where does antisemitism really live in Britain? How is it manifested?  until WW2, At least, Jews in Britain suffered state racism and frequent discrimination, as well as attacks by antisemites. I was born in 1958 and I have heard more antisemitism spoken in the last five or six years than ever before, especially on buses, tubes and planes, in cafes and pubs, and at football grounds. There are around 1,500 reported antisemitic incidents a year in Britain, far fewer than Muslim communities endure, but growing. They are mainly carried out in London and Manchester.

These include verbal abuse and threats; physical attacks especially on ultra-orthodox Jews; desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and synagogue; social media comment ranging from negative stereotypes to outright hatred, frequently including Holocaust denial, and praise for Hitler.

Perpetrators, where identified, tend to be white and far right, but a significant minority of attacks are by individuals from groups that experience racism themselves. We need to combat that through education and learn more about each other’s oppressions.

Serious ideological antisemitism remains, as it has for more than 120 years, among upper-middle/upper classes on the right and far right of British politics, and among those segments of the working class and lower middle class they have won to fascism.

Far Right movements in Britain are fragmented, but through YouTube and other social media channels, they can mobilise large numbers for certain actions

We will eventually emerge from the COVID-crisis but straight into a huge economic recession. Racists and fascists are rehearsing arguments to blame immigrants, refugees, and groups they define as not fully English, for that crisis. But they can’t credibly blame other poor people for running the economic and political system, so they revive conspiracy theories against wealthy figures who happen to be Jewish, like Rothschilds, Goldman Sachs, and George Soros.


in Hungary and Poland where Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-feminism, anti-Roma prejudice and antisemitism ride together, conspiracy theories about Soros circulate freely. In Trump’s America too. Our local Soros-haters include Rees Mogg, Johnson, and Nick Timothy (Theresa May’s key advisor).

The Black Lives Matter! movement has started to rebalance and re-politicise discussion about racism in Britain where systemic state and institutional racism that Black and migrant communities suffer daily, had been relegated by the media below vicious but less frequent random hate crimes against Jews. We are now starting a long overdue conversation about decolonising our schools, our institutions, and our public spaces. We must all be engaged in the fight against systemic daily state racism and against fascist ideology and hate crimes. In America, Trump himself recognises the links, describing Black Lives Matter! protesters as “looters, thugs, Radical Left… Lowlife & Scum” and by targeting Antifa.

Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 22.58.45I want to end by returning to the Boston Workers Circle who described their community as a “multi-racial Jewish community”. That is true in Britain too, though not recognised enough. Since the early 1980s, we have had JSG members who are Jews of Colour. In uniting with Black, Asian and other migrant communities against the racism they suffer, the Jewish community must also tackle racism within. And the time to do that is now!

* It was originally called the Workingmen’s Circle, although two women workers were involved in the meeting that founded it.

My co-speakers were former international footballer Curtis Fleming, of Show Racism the Red Card, and Local Labour member and Romany Gypsy Jane Lee. The meeting was chaired by Laura Pidcock.

A welcome promise of solidarity?

“…we understand the injustice which underpins these protests… this Windrush Day, I want the message to go out, loud and clear: The Jewish community in Britain will be an ally to our black neighbours. We will make our own spaces more welcoming to black Jews and Jews of colour. We will stand with you in opposing racism.”

The author of these words condemned the “cold-blooded, racist murder of George Floyd” 3_Black-Lives-Matter-protestsas well as the “systemic and widespread racism” the Windrush generation have faced. She was absolutely on point in saying: “The recent protests that started in America were born out of the fact that there is clear and systemic racism against black people.” She recognised the Black Lives Matter movement as “a response to racism, which saw black people being the particular targets of regular police brutality.”

This writer uneqivocally condemned those who say “all lives matter”, saying that it “detracts from black people’s concerns, and belittles their call for equality.” And she went considerably further, noting that many proponents of the “all lives matter”  are “flirting or fully engaged with far-right ideology”.

I completely agree.

And that surprises me. Because up to now I have been very much at odds with the author of these words: Marie Van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, (in an article for the Jewish Chronicle). She wrote this, despite spending so much of 2018 and 2019 lambasting one of the politicians who for decades has long been at the forefront of challenging systemic racism and police brutality in Britain, who strongly condemned the injustices meted out to the Windrush Generation and warned of the alarming growth in the strength of racists and fascists in Europe and America. That politician was Jeremy Corbyn.

She still managed to include one specious dig at Jeremy Corbyn, but it was incidental to the thrust of her argument.

Since becoming Board President, Van der Zyl has constantly praised the Tory Party, especially its former leader Theresa May, the architect with David Cameron of the Hostile Environment which continues to cause so much suffering, including deportation to destitution and early death of Caribbean-born British citizens. Before deportation, those Windrush victims were often placed first in inhumane and humiliating detention centres, alongside wider groups of migrants many of whom fled to this country from persecution and torture.


Van der Zyl and Johnson

During that time Van der Zyl and her closest colleagues barely raised a whimper about the Tories’ open links and support through their (pre-Brexit) European alliance, the “Conservatives and Reformists Group”, for Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma and anti-refugee parties. These same Conservative MEPs’ joined with the most Far-Right parties in the European Parliament when they shamefully lent support to Orban in Hungary against attempted censure by the EU: Orban had used classic antisemitic conspiracy propaganda about George Soros as a key plank in his last election campaign. The Board expressed no criticism when, then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, warmly congratulated Orban on his election.

If we have indeed witnessed a major change of heart from Van der Zyl, and a significant change of positioning from the majority within the Board of Deputies, I absolutely welcome it, and urge progressive Jewish groups to do so too. We should build on it to strengthen the widest possible support across the  Jewish community for the demands of Black Lives Matter, to challenge structural racism here – and elsewhere. I also welcome Van der Zyl’s serious commitment to addressing discrimination towards Jews of colour.

Back in the 1980s there were very sharp conflicts between the Jewish Socialists’ Group and the Board of Deputies. This was rooted in our insistence that our community should consciously regard itself as an ethnic minority (not simply a religious minority) and should identify itself much more openly and forthrightly with the struggles at that time of Caribbean and Asian minorities, and the small but growing numbers from other migrant and refugee communities, against harassment by fascists, and also against the daily racism and discrimination they suffered from employers, the mainstream press, and from several arms of the state. In that period, and since then, the Board of Deputies has been very protective of its close and uncritical relationship with the Police and the Home Office, to the dismay of activists within other minority groups. If that is going to change to a more challenging relationship, that is good and long overdue.

Van der Zyl’s reference to systemic racism in America is also significant, given that her predecessor as Board President, Jonathan Arkush, gave such a fawning and disgraceful welcome “on behalf of British Jews”, to that friend of white supremacism, Donald Trump, on his election victory in 2016.

So far so good. The range of Jewish individuals and groups who have been engaged with grassroots anti-racist campaigning, anti-deportation work, regardless of the Board’s indifference and disdain, definitely have something to work with. We don’t have to abandon our longstanding criticism, mistrust and frustrations regarding the Board of Deputies to recongnise this as a very positive development.

But I want to come back to Van der Zyl’s comments about those who are “flirting or fully engaged with far-right ideology”. Because, just two days before her welcome statements in the Jewish Chronicle, she was quoted making these remarks about the imminent appointment of a new Israeli ambassador to Britain

“We will be delighted to work with the next Israeli ambassador to sustain and advance the relationship between Israel and the UK Jewish community … We will give her whatever support and advice we can to achieve these ends.”

That appointee-in-waiting, Tzipi Hotovely, has gone well beyond the flirting or

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.48.11

Tzipi Hotovely

innocently fumbling stage with Far-Right ideology. She has been in a deep and meaningful relationship with it for several years, making openly racist statements about the Palestinian people (whose existence she denies), expressed her desire that the Israeli flag should fly over Al Aqsa mosque, and she is completely at one with the racist and fascist ideas of the most hard-line setters in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (which she calls Judea and Samaria.) In 2011  as chair of the Knesset Womens’ empowerment Committee, Hotovely, invited the notorious far right activist Benzi Gupstein to the Knesset. Several members of Gupstein’s Far Right group have been convicted for arson and other racist crimes, including assaults on Palestinian and African men suspected of “sullying the purity” of Jewish woman in his group’s words. Hotovely, herself, has condemned what she calls “miscegenation… when Jewish women marry Muslims”.

Marie Van der Zyl still has an opportunity to withdraw those comments and replace them with a statement about Hotovely’s appointment that would match her much braver, more principled words about challenging systemic racism in America and Britain. I hope she does.




Don’t put them on a pedestal

Screen Shot 2020-06-10 at 10.29.43Last Sunday, slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was daubed with paint, pulled to the ground, jumped on by joyful protesters, rolled along to the harbour and dumped in the River Avon. The events caused quite a splash. As Colston sunk ignominiously to the bottom, what rose to the surface was a long overdue national debate about statues that grace or rather disgrace our towns and cities, and reinforce a dominant history.

Here is someone writing on this issue five years ago with  some comments that are very pertinent for this moment: it’s Billy Bragg, in his foreword to the first edition of my book Rebel Footprints, a book which I had conceived of as a memorialisation of past struggles, in order to allow them to live and breathe in the present.

Billy Bragg wrote: “Half way up Whitehall, there’s a massive equestrian statue in the middle of the road. A rotund figure sits astride his horse, nose in air, wearing a cocked hat, a field marshal’s uniform and sporting massive mutton chop sideburns. Inspection of the plinth reveals this to be George, Duke of Cambridge. No, me neither.

“He’s one of a number of marshal figures impeding the traffic down Whitehall, few of whom would be readily recognisable to the British public. Recent years have witnessed a laudable attempt to democratise this space, with statues to those who fought and served in the two world wars, but this is still a thoroughfare peopled with memorials to those who defended the British Empire

“Where are the statues to those who fought and struggled for the rights of the British people? Their memorials are all around us: the universal franchise; the eight hour day; the NHS. None of these great monuments bear the names of those who battled to win them.

“The stories of those men and women have been largely overlooked by imperial history…”


Billy Bragg with Rebel Footprints

Billy Bragg mourned their absence and what could have filled that void: “…the strong tradition of dissent that has shaped our history and made us who we are.”

There are certainly some statues in London (and other big cities) that could do with coming down. And the sooner the better. Whether we need to replace them, by putting up other individuals to be revered, to be literally placed on a pedestal, is another question completely.

I, myself, signed a petition on the very day that Colston’s statue came down, urging the local authority to replace it with a true local hero – Paul Stephenson – who led the 1963 “Bristol Bus Boycott”. Black workers in Bristol were refused work despite a worker shortage due to a resolution passed by the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The boycott of the city’s buses lasted four months until the company backed down and abolished their discriminatory policy.


Paul Stephenson (right)

At the moment I signed the petition, it had just over 350 signatures. Three days later, as I write this blog, it has more than 38,000. Edward Beeston, who launched that petition wrote: “It is time Bristol moves forward with its history in the slave trade, acknowledging the evil committed and how it can educate its citizens about black history.”

There can be very few people who would publicly state that they think Colston’s statute should be recovered, refurbished and re-mounted. I  suspect that if a question was put to the general public, about whether new statues of other more deserving people should be put up to replace the rogue representatives of a deeply oppressive history that is currently commemorated, a majority would probably support that.

I can think of  several exceptional individuals that I celebrate in Rebel Footprints, who would be suitable candidates for new statues in London. They came from working class and marginalised communities, such as: the Black Chartist leader William Cuffay; or union activist Will Thorne who helped to win the 8-hour day for Gasworkers in 1889; Mary MacArthur who founded the National Federation of Women Workers; Melvina Walker, a cleaner who was a dedicated activist for the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

But personally, I still react instinctively against statues that invite us to look up to what Maya Angelou describes as “our heroes and she-roes”.

IMG_3766I actually prefer monuments to collective struggle such as the colourful and moving Cable Street mural, where you can almost hear the figures shouting and screaming, or the artistic monument to Spanish Civil War volunteers in Jubilee Gardens, both of which celebrate those who challenged fascism. Or the mural on the bridge on Dudden Hill Lane round the corner to the Grunwick Film processing factory in Willesden, where a strike committee headed by Jayaben Desai led a courageous battle by mainly female Asian workers in the late 1970s against super-exploitative and inhumane employers.

These are monuments that invite you to directly identify with lives and struggles that were lived then, on matters that continue to plague the world in the present. These monuments honour ordinary people who who took up the fight of the oppressed against the oppressors. They inform, educate and give inspiration to those who will fight for a better world, where slavery, exploitation and oppression have finally  been consigned to the past.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.

Z is for Zangwill and Zygielbojm

For my final post in this series I struggled to find London radicals whose surnames began with X or Y, but I have found two Zeds – whose roots were much further east than Whitechapel or even Essex.

Israel Zangwill was born in Whitechapel in 1864. His mother was from Poland and his father from Latvia. Szmul Zygielbojm was born in Borowica, Poland in 1895. His life in London lasted just over a year, from late March 1942 until early May 1943, but it was a very dramatic one.

When Zangwill was very young his family moved to Plymouth and Bristol before they


Israel Zangwill

returned to the East End when Israel was 9 years old. They enrolled him at the Jews’ Free School (JFS) in Bell Lane near Spitalfields market (my grandfather went there too, in the early 1900s). Zangwill stayed for many years because when he finished his schooling he became a teacher at JFS.

During his early years as a teacher the demography of the East End changed rapidly with the arrival of a much bigger influx of Jews fleeing persecution and violent pogroms in Eastern Europe. They also suffered discrimination which restricted their options for work and education. Many came as economic migrants seeking better opportunities, as well as political freedom. Initially they huddled within one square mile around Aldgate and Whitechapel.

An acute and acerbic observer of the new scene, Zangwill wrote about this rapidly changing environment. He resigned his teaching post in 1888 to become a journalist on a recently established journal called Jewish Standard.

220px-Israel_Zangwill_by_Walter_Sickert_Vanity_Fair_25_February_1897He went on to write acclaimed novels and plays, his most famous book being Children of the Ghetto, (1892). His writing, which laid bare poverty, petty and major class distinctions, and both the grim and humorous realities of the struggle for life, earned him a title – the “Jewish Dickens”. Biographers describe him as: “angular, tall, gaunt, and bespectacled” a “witty, powerful… speaker”, who was “eccentric in some respects … giving the appearance of brusqueness, sometimes bordering on rudeness.”

His overt political radicalism was expressed through feminism and pacifism and a complicated engagement with Jewish nationalism. In 1903 he married Edith Ayrton, a feminist writer active in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and later the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU – Suffragettes). She noted: “… as I am unable to be militant myself, from reasons of health, and as I believe most fully in the necessity for militancy, I was bound to give every penny I can afford to the militant union that is bearing the brunt of the battle… the WSPU.”

One difficulty the WSPU faced was promoting their views across a mainstream media dominated by an anti-suffrage male establishment. Women struggled to intervene on letters pages of influential press outlets, which is partly what prompted the WSPU to establish its own newspaper.

But a left of centre cultural elite among male poets, writers and artists, could get their critical views published. Zangwill was a co-founder in 1907 of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, which wrote letters, campaigned and attended protest rallies. He used his sardonic wit in his campaigning, saying: “A man likes his wife to be just clever enough to appreciate his cleverness, and just stupid enough to admire it.”

He spoke up in defence of militant tactics of civil disobedience but criticised the use of arson, and increasingly, the lack of internal democracy in the movement.

He was committed to absolute equality of the sexes in the fight for a new way of life. He promoted “joint work” among women and men “to foster every noble growth; joint work to make a better world for both.”

His dream of overcoming the world’s imperfections informed his pacifism. He was an outspoken critic of the First World War, and supported the pacifist Union of Democratic Control (UDC), formed in 1914. The UDC which demanded transparency in foreign policies of government. It believed that smaller conflicts between nations only escalated into wider conflicts because of secret military alliances. Transparency would make that less likely to happen.

The UDC was vilified in the right wing press, especially the Daily Express, and some meetings were broken up by soldiers. Zangwill believed that the impulse to war grew from exaggerated nationalism but knew that Germany was not the only culprit. He criticised the peace treaty’s terms at the end of World War1, predicting another more deadly war could follow. He branded the League of Nations, the “League of Damnations”, a body that guaranteed that the injustices of the peace treaty were eternalised.

Zangwill argued that a future war could be prevented by abolishing “frontiers, passports, customs and tariffs”!

During World War one he was especially moved by the symbolic and actual changes GunmakersPlaque-300x225brought about in Old Ford Road Bethnal Green, a road which he lived on earlier in his life. The East London Federation of Suffragettes converted a disused pub there, the Gunmaker’s Arms, opposite a munitions factory, into a mother and baby clinic, free milk depot, and day nursery (later a small school run on Montessori principles). They renamed it the Mother’s Arms.

When Zangwill was opening the Second Women’s Exhibition at Caxton Hall In 1916 (a favoured venue of suffragettes) he declared: “…the hope of the world lies in changing the Gunmaker’s Arms to the Mother’s Arms.”

Zangwill was an early adherent of Zionism, from the standpoint of seeking a solution for Jewish people suffering antisemitism in many lands over many centuries. He was friendly with its founder, Theodore Herzl, and helped him to reach a wider public, but a few years later he broke with Zionism – over insistence on Palestine. Zangwill became part of the Territorialist  movement that sought a Jewish homeland wherever a safe spot on the globe could be found.

While personally close to many ardent Zionists, he criticised the Zionist movement he had formerly supported over its downplaying of potential conflict with the indigenous population and its willingness to become a pawn of colonial powers. Zangwill also had high hopes that what seemed to many an eternal persecution of Jews, could be overcome through progress in diaspora nations.

defaultIn March 1917 he spoke alongside Labour MPs George Lansbury, Josiah Wedgewood and William Anderson, and the left wing libertarian writer, Henry Nevinson, at a rally in London welcoming the February Revolution in Russia that removed the Tsar. Zangwill said: “As a representative of the race which has suffered more than any other from the old Russia, I am very happy on this occasion to add my words of welcome to the new Russia.”

He worked for a world comprised of increasingly cosmopolitan societies, based on equal rights, where nationalism would have diminished influence.  But he worried that: “Nationality, deep as life, but narrow as the grave, is closing in on us” and that “religion was giving way to ‘nationality’ as a permanent placeholder for cohesive shared experiences… leaving no space for … more benign forms of group identity.”

Zangwill’s columbarium in London’s Liberal Jewish cemetery bears an inscription he had prepared for after his death: “A man of letters and a fighter of unpopular causes.”

Z is also for Szmul Zygielbojm, an even more strident critic than Zangwill of all nationalism, not least Zionism. Zygielbojm was a leading member of a working class, Jewish socialist movement, the Bund, that was initiated in a house in Vilna (Vilnius) in 1897, in the same year that Herzl founded political Zionism in a more salubrious location in Basel.

One of 10 children from an impoverished family, Zygielbojm was working as a carton-box maker for pharmaceutical supplies from the age of 10. At 12 he was apprenticed as a glove maker. Largely self-educated, he developed a love for music, art, theatre, literature and poetry, but had few outlets to express this early on.

He joined the Bund as a young adult and rose within both the party and the trade union

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Szmul Zygiebojm

movement. He became Secretary of the Metal Workers Union and an executive member of the Federation of All Trade Unions in Poland to which Jewish and non-Jewish workers’ were affiliated. In 1930s Poland Jews comprised 10% of Poland’s population but 25% of all the country’s trade unionists.

Fast forward to 1939 and the invasion by Nazi armies. Bundists and Polish socialists helped form workers’ battalions in Warsaw to resist the invaders but Warsaw succumbed after three weeks. The occupying Nazi forces set about discriminating  against Jews and physically separating them from non-Jews as a prelude to complete ghettoisation and eventual deportation for annihilation.

After Zygielbojm engaged in an open act of defiance he was “invited” (ordered) to report to Gestapo headquarters “to discuss important matters”. His Bund comrades hid him, then, a few weeks later, organised a daring escape in which he travelled in disguise through Nazi Germany on a false Dutch passport. They entrusted him, though, with a formidable task: to tell the world what was happening to Poland’s Jews and mobilise for their defence and rescue.

Zygielbojm emerged in Belgium at a meeting of the Socialist International. He shocked delegates with an eye-witness report of Nazi atrocities. But when the Nazis occupied Belgium, Zygielbojm fled again, eventually reaching America. He told Jewish and labour movement audiences there about the barbaric Nazi occupation and urged action to rescue the Jews.

In early 1942, the Polish Parliament in Exile invited Zygielbojm to join their National Council in London. So he came here as a political refugee. The one other Jewish delegate to that council, politically dominated by the right but with some more liberal representation, was Schwarzbard, a Zionist with whom Zygielbojm had an antagonistic relationship. Zygielbojm represented the Bund but was, by extension seen as representing Poland’s ghettoised Jews under Nazi occupation.  He maintained a network of clandestine contacts – Jewish and non-Jewish – who relayed detailed information from Poland through underground resistance channels.

In London Zygielbojm lived alone in a bedsit in Paddington. His closest contacts in London were other exiled émigré socialists – Polish, Czech, Austrian, German, Belgian, who met within small circles, with some overlap. Among them was Camille Huysmans, a Belgian who was a key figure for émigré socialists liaising with the Labour Party.

Zygielbojm sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders, broadcast twice on BBC radio (July and December 1942), addressed public meetings, and bombarded the press with letters and information.

At a packed Labour Party international meeting in Caxton Hall, Westminster in September 1942, on the third anniversary of the start of the war, Zygielbojm was the opening speaker. He revealed gruesome facts about the first use of poison gas as a weapon of mass slaughter. Around 40,000 Jews were exterminated in 7 weeks in Chelmno, northern Poland. He asked the audience to “imagine the people who see their nearest ones being dragged away to their death every day.” Each one, he said “knows that their turn must come. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.” He called on people of all nations to “force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people.”

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Jan Karski

Three months later, Zygielbojm was visited at his Paddington flat by Jan Karski a remarkable figure in the Polish underground. Karski had smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay messages between underground resisters. In London he handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Warsaw Ghetto Bundist, which asked Jewish leaders in the West to go on hunger strike outside British and American Government offices until they obtained guarantees of action to save the Jews. “Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.” Zygielbojm knew that Britain’s Jewish leaders would not act on it, but promised Karski that he would do something about this letter.

Two separate events began on 19th April 1943. Nazi tanks and soldiers entered the Warsaw Ghetto intending to destroy it completely and massacre or deport its remaining inhabitants (most had already been deported to death camps). A world away American and British leaders convened the Bermuda Conference where they spent 11 days ruling out taking significant numbers of Jewish refugees. Inside the ghetto, though, Bundists, Communists and Zionists under a joint command, boosted by a small number of weapons received from the Polish resistance outside, fought a courageous three week guerrilla campaign to defend the ghetto. The Nazis paid a high price for their eventual victory over a few hundred fighters aged 13-40 years of age.

On the night of 11th/12th May, 1943, Zygielbojm ingested poison at his Paddington home. He left letters to political leaders and to his Bundist comrades and friends, confirming that his suicide was a premeditated act of political protest:

“My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto perished with their weapons in their hands in their last heroic battle. It was not my destiny to die as they did, together with them. But I belong to them and in their mass graves. By my death I wish to make the strongest possible protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people … perhaps … I shall help to break down the indifference of those who have the possibility now, at the last moment, to save those  Polish Jews still alive from certain annihilation … I wish that the surviving remnants of the Polish Jews could live to see, with the Polish population, the liberation that it could know in Poland, in a world of freedom and in the justice of socialism.”

He also left a letter for his landlady to apologise for the shock she would experience.

In Warsaw today, where the ghetto once stood, an artistic memorial is etched in glass on a building in “Zygielbojm Square”. Montreal has a Zygielbojm Memorial Park. In Israel, a Tel Aviv street is named after him. Here in London, where his life ended, there was no memorial. But in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in April 1993, I helped to found a Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee (which included Bundist Holocaust survivors) to campaign for a local memorial.

We sought and received endorsements from writers, historians, rabbis, trade unionists and MPs, and then requested the notoriously right wing council Westminster Council to mount a plaque honour a refugee Polish, Jewish, socialist, anti-fascist resident.

A young council officer responded enthusiastically but met repeated hurdles. It tookIMG_2546 three years to succeed in mounting the plaque. When Zygielbojm committed suicide he believed that all his immediate family had been wiped out. But one son Yossel (Joseph) survived, fought as a Red Army partisan, and settled in California after the war with Adela, also a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor.

Sadly, in those three years in which we worked to get a plaque mounted, Yossel died, but Adela and other family members came for the ceremony. They unveiled the plaque together with the Polish ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, in front of a crowd of 200 people. The elderly Jan Karski, living in America too, and a close friend of Zygielbojm’s surviving family, sent a moving handwritten message regretting that he was “not strong enough” to travel, but assuring us of his joy that Zygielbojm would be finally honoured here in London.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.

W is for Wesker and for Workers’ Circle

The year 1926 recalls the 9-day General Strike in May that year, in solidarity with miners who rejected employers demands to work longer hours for less pay. But in London, strikes were in the news as early as January that year. Newspaper hoardings advertising the Daily Herald  announced: “Trouser workers strike for a farthing a pair.” The story inside described events at Goodman’s factory in east London where an all-female workforce had walked out, led by a 25-year-old trouser machinist named Sara Wesker.

banner_trousermakers1882Sara Wesker lived with her sister Ann and her invalid mother in the Rothschild Buildings tenements in the Jewish immigrant area between Brick Lane and Commercial Street. After the strike at Goodman’s she organised women and helped to lead important strikes about working conditions and piece-rates at Rego’s factory in 1927, Pollikoff’s in 1929, and Simpson’s factory in Hackney in 1930.

She was described as “a ferocious speaker”, as if “the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers.” Fluent in Yiddish as well as English, she could relate to the older women in the sweatshops as well as younger workers.

In 1929, she helped to found a new union, the relatively short-lived United Clothing Workers’ Union (UCWU), in which there was a significant cross-over of leading members with Communist Party militants. Early on, Sarah was the only female member of UCWU’s Executive Committee. By 1933 she was appointed as the full-time women’s organiser of that union.

The year before that she had been elected to the British Communist Party’s Central Committee – something of an all-boys club previously. She remained active in the trade union movement and Communist Party her whole life, until she died of a stroke in 1971.

The name “Wesker”, though, has been more commonly associated with her nephew Arnold, the9781408156605 playwright, but it is Sara’s personality and beliefs that impose themselves on his most famous play Chicken Soup with Barley, first performed in 1958. which focuses on an impoverished left-wing Jewish family, the Kahn’s, in London East End. Scene 1 opens in 1936 – the day of the Battle of Cable Street.

The play highlights the pressures which result  in the  disintegration of the family relationships and political ideals which once bound them. A matriarch, Sara Kahn, who tries to hold the family together and is steadfast to her beliefs, is an amalgam of Arnold’s mother and his aunt Sara.

The poster promoting Chicken Soup with Barley, when it was revived 50 years later, for a run at the Royal Court Theatre, summed up Sara Kahn and Sarah Wesker. She is defiantly holding a red flag in one hand and a mixing spoon in the other, that she personally wants to klop Oswld Mosley’s head with.

In 1936 her family are worried by fascism but convinced that the forces of progress will win and deliver a better world. By scene 2, in 1946, the Kahn’s are living with the outcome of World War 2 and the devastation that fascism wrought before the Nazis were defeated and Sara is fighting a losing battle against her husband’s indolence. Scene 3 is set in 1956, as Soviet tanks are rolling into Budapest, to repress an uprising against “communist” rulers. One of Sarah Kahn’s grown-up sons visits her and challenges her to open her eyes see what is happening in the name of the the ideals she holds dear.

But she answers back powerfully: “All my life I worked with a party that meant glory, freedom and brotherhood. You want me to give it up now? You want me to move to Hendon and forget who I am? [my emphasis for my favourite line!] If the electrician who comes to mend my fuse blows it instead, so I should stop having electricity? I should cut off my light? Socialism is my light…”

A couple of years before Arnold died I briefly interviewed him by email. I asked him to describe his aunt and the flat where she lived (134 Rothschild Buildings).


Rothschild Buildings

“…a small lounge, a toilet to the left, a door into a bedroom where she and her sister, Ann, slept.  An alcove where her mother slept.  A small kitchen. A warm hissing gas fire in the lounge.  Cosy but very small, small enough for one.  No bathroom. But bookshelves bursting with classics: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, historical novels, editions of the left Book Club. Photographs in frames of all the beloved nephews and nieces and their even more fussed over offspring!

He described Sarah as “feisty, loyal, affectionate, generous and a a vehement feminist, a dedicated Communist who thought Stalin could do no wrong.”

Sara and her sister Ann never married. In much of their spare time outside of work and political activity they cared for their invalid mother. But in the 1930s Sara had a boyfriend, 10 years younger, from the same block of flats, also a CP member and a trade unionist in the tailoring trade. His name was Mick Mindel. Eventually their relationship floundered. Mick married Sylvia – also a Mindel – a distant relation. But when Mick spoke at Sara Wesker’s funeral, he broke down as he addressed her coffin, and said “I always loved you Sara and always will.”

W is for Worker’s Circle.

Mick was brought up in a socialist household, and though he joined the Communist


Young Bundists in Vilna

Party, his father retained allegiance to the Bund, formed in Vilna in 1897, who were less keen on Lenin, and much preferred the “democratic” part of “Democratic Centralism”. But the regular commitment that Mick and his Vilna-born father, Morris, shared was to a friendly/mutual aid society that his father had helped to found among the East End’s Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jewish workers.

It was called the Arbeter Ring (Workers’ Circle). Many of the early meetings of the Workers’ Circle took place in the Mindels’ flat at 184 Rothschild building. By the 1930s it had nearly 4,000 members in 19 branches (divisions), mostly in London, but also two in Leeds, two in Glasgow as well as divisions in Manchester, Liverpool, and Cardiff.

workerscirclebadgeThe  Circle was especially strong among tailors and cabinet-makers. It played a powerful role in giving East End Jewish workers dignity, strengthening their cultural lives, and broadening their education. It provided practical support when they faced the hardships of unemployment and illness, and helped them to organise against fascist threats.

Synagogue-based friendly societies were common, though these often had some richer benefactors starting them off. The Workers’ Circle was secular and socialist. On principle it would not accept charitable money. Everything they did was built through the collective contributions of their members.

The first attempts to create such an organisation in the East End was in 1903 by a group called the Fraye Arbeter Ring (Free Workers Circle) but they found it hard to sustain. After the attempted revolution in Russia in 1905 more revolutionaries went into exile. Experienced Bundist activists such as Mindel, Weinberg and Birenbaum, and anarchist activists such as Kramer and Kapitanshik arrived here and they aided the process of building a continuously functioning Workers’ Circle.

Its first official meeting took place on 17th July 1909 in the home of Nathan Weiner, an immigrant cabinet maker, on the Shoreditch/Bethnal Green borders. Its members were generally trade unionists. They didn’t replicate what unions did in individual workplaces but joined together in wider initiatives such as assisting workers’ cooperatives and developing cultural and educational projects.

At a basic economic level the Circle provided a kind of pre-welfare state insurance. For a small weekly contribution workers could draw benefits if they were long term unemployed through illness. They received bereavement benefits and burial rights. If they were on strike, the Workers’ Circle often supplemented their strike pay. For members with pressing financial problems there was a no-interest loan club.

In 1913 they opened a voluntary building fund. in 1924 they purchased a large house in


Circle House

Alie Street, Aldgate, for £2,000 and converted it into Circle House, a social and cultural centre with a hall, a library, meeting rooms, a café filled with people enjoying food at workers’ prices, lemon tea, chess, draughts, dominoes, conversation and arguing over politics.

The Hall at the back of Circle House hosted lectures and discussions  sometimes with international speakers. A “propaganda committee” organised a series of Friday night lectures in Circle House’s library with speakers such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Fenner Brockway, and also study classes.

On Sunday nights there were classical concerts and Yiddish theatre productions, though younger members expressed a preference for dances. On Thursday nights, two brothers – Alexander and Frank Fine – both of them law graduates, keyneynehora, gave free legal advice to members. A weekly Yiddish supplementary school was set up for members’ children.

In the late 1920s a group of recently arrived young Polish Jews used a room on the top floor to establish the “Progressive Youth Circle”. They invited trade unionists, activists and academics to discuss topics ranging from communism and free love to women’s rights and Zionism. They questioned them closely and then dramatized what they had learned. The result was Proltet, a Yiddish-speaking agitprop theatre group, which played at various venues, raising money for causes locally and also in Poland, Romania and Spain.

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Banner of the Naftali Botwin Company in the Spanish Civil War

There were members of the the Workers’ Circle who fought in the Spanish Civil War. The Circle targeted its Spanish aid  especially at the Botwin Company which mainly comprised Yiddish speaking combatants from Poland. They sent 6,000 cigarettes to them and a two ton lorry.

As a class-conscious organisation the Workers’ Circle were wary of being drawn into the forums of more bourgeois sections of Jewish life but in the crisis years of the mid-1930s they sent two delegates to the World Jewish Congress in Geneva 1936. After their delegates returned they were asked: “What’s the situation like in Switzerland?” One delegate replied: “Terrible – lemon tea is 9d a glass!”

In those years the Workers’ Circle ran an appeal to aid starving Jewish children in Poland and also took responsibility for looking after 19 children who came over from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia on the kindertransport.

During the 1940 blitz, Circle House suffered severe bomb damage. After the war, the Circle relocated to Hackney where it stayed until it closed in 1984. It held a farewell dinner for 400 people in February 1985.

The post-war welfare state and the NHS had taken over many of its basic economic functions. Over the decades the original political base – Bundists and Anarchists  – widened to include other socialists, communists and left wing Zionists. The twin births of Israel and the Cold War increased political factionalism within the circle and sapped its earlier tolerant and united spirit.

After its farewell dinner, files were deposited with the local history museum, its Yiddish book collection was donated to specialist libraries and museums, and a Yiddish sign outside the building was tea-leafed by a souvenir hunter. A chapter of secular Jewish working class history closed, in which people used to the full their cultural and political awareness to create meaningful lives in which, despite differences, the values of mutual aid, solidarity and socialism prevailed.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.

V is for Victoria Park

A sign in Victoria Park in East London tells you that this park was created by the generosity of Queen Victoria. A petition among East Londoners had certainly attracted thousands of signatures. But this was a request that she was only too happy to comply with, as one of her advisors, the epidemiologist William Farr, had warned her that the unhealthy, impoverished population of the area were increasingly choosing the West End’s more refined and exclusive green spaces for their recreation. So, at the outset Queen Victoria’s act of “generosity” was actually tainted with social cleansing.

The Crown Estate purchased 218 acres which began to be landscaped using architect Sir James Pennethorne’s drawings from 1842. It is a beautiful park that has served the radical movement well.

It was opened to the public in 1845 in a period when Chartists were agitating to extend democracy. The East London Democratic Association was a particularly active and militant Chartist section. They held outdoor meetings in Bonner’s Field in Bethnal green, part of which was later incorporated into the park. They were probably the first political activists to use it.

Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, a major landowner in East London paid for an elaborateVictoria-Park-Speakers-Corner-1024x1311 drinking fountain to be built in the park. The area around it became known as the Victoria Park Forum in the 1870s, an East End rival to Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner, which was established in the same decade.

At the forum, anyone could become a soapbox speaker, but the biggest crowds would flock towards “stars”, such as the atheist-feminist-socialist Annie Besant, the libertarian communist William Morris, the Dublin-born Fabian George Bernard Shaw, or the trade union militant and later syndicalist, Tom Mann. An article in Harper’s magazine in the politically charged year of 1888 listed the different ideologies you could be exposed to at the Forum:

“Malthusianism, atheism, agnosticism, secularism, Calvinism, socialism, anarchism, Salvationism, Darwinism, and even, in exceptional cases, Swedenborgianism and Mormonism.”

The bandstand, a relatively short distance from the fountain, was a venue for agitational meetings organised by political groups, such as as the No Rent Campaign. This campaign  was promoted by Charles Mowbray, an anarchist from the North East who moved to London in his 20s. He lived with his family on Boundary Street on the Bethnal Green/Shoreditch borders, along the northern edge of the notorious Old Nichol slum. Nearly 6,000 people were crammed into barely 650 houses in 20 very narrow streets in the Old Nichol. In a quarter of the houses there the foundations had collapsed and sunk down, so their living rooms seemed more like a cellar.

Mowbray printed leaflets inviting people to a meeting at the bandstand at 3pm


Charles Mowbray

on July 26 1886. The leaflet was headed “MURDER!” It spoke of the “slow murder of the poor… poisoned by thousands in the foul, unhealthy slums from which robber landlords exacted monstrous rents”. It reminded people that they had already “paid in rent the value over and over again of the rotten dens” they lived in. He urged them to join a rent strike: “Pay no rent to land thieves and house farmers, who flourish and grow fat on your misery, starvation and degradation.”

In the second decade of the 20th century, the park was frequently used by the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). They began a tradition of Women’s May Day marches which took place at the end of May. They marched from East India docks to Crown Gate at Victoria Park and would often hold rallies just inside Crown gate, near the boating lake. At these rallies they sold their newspaper, Woman’s Dreadnought.

On one occasion in June 1913 they got their messages across in a novel way to the crowds who gathered there. Dozens of suffragettes entered the park each holding an umbrella. They hired boats and, when they were safely in the middle of the lake, far from police who often harassed them, they unfurled their umbrellas with suffragette slogans painted on them!

On one of the Women’s May Day marches, Sylvia Pankhurst advanced towards Crown


Young suffragettes at a gathering in Victoria Park

Gate with a circle of female bodyguards. As they got near the entrance, the police attacked the bodyguards to try to re-arrest Sylvia who had time on a prison sentence still to serve, having been released early following a hunger strike. But their initial attempts to get near her were repulsed as the police discovered that the security circle were all chained to each other. The police sent some of their number off to bring hammers and other tools to smash the chains, in order to get to Sylvia, which they did, but only after a fierce struggle.

In good weather the ELFS also used the park to run training session for a mixed-sex group known as the People’s Army which would protect the suffragettes from police brutality.

A few hundred yards west of the park, closer to Bethnal Green station, was a road called Victoria Park Square which ran between Old Ford Road and the section of Roman Road  then called “Green Street”. In the 1930s the Bethnal Green branch of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) had established a local headquarters in Green Street and held intimidating weekly marches through the area. One of their favourite speaking pitches was in Victoria Park Square, and a group of BUF thugs were guarding the platform from the morning of 4th October 1936 to hold it securely for Oswald Mosley. He had planned to appear consecutively on East End four different platforms in the after his Blackshirts had stormed their way through the East End that afternoon.


Mosley inspecting his Blackshirts

But on that day Mosley’s 4,000 Balckshirts, and the 7,000 police that were gathered to facilitate him, were repulsed by mass blockades at Gardiner’s Corner, Aldgate and barricades in Cable Street. The BUF’s platform guards in Victoria Park Square were removed by large numbers of anti-fascists who led a hastily organised victory march through the East End after Mosley was sent packing back to the West End.

One of the anti-fascists, Reg Weston, describes it: “Hundreds joined in. Thousands stood on the pavements and in the roads, clapping and cheering as we marched on… We sang the traditional working class marching songs and anthems: the Internationale; the Italian revolutionary Bandiera Rossa…  the Berlin workers’ song Rote Wedding; the Polish Varshavianka, and the old Wobbly song ‘Solidarity Forever’, with the appropriate words: ‘We’ll hang Oswald Mosley on a sour apple tree … when the red revolution comes’.”

Another Cable Street veteran Ubby Cowan enjoyed the irony that anti-fascists had appealed to the Home Secretary through a petition with nearly 100,000 signatures, to stop the fascists marching that day. the Home Secretary refused the appeal and gave the fascists permission to march. But in the end the people stopped the fascists from marching, and then went on a march to celebrate. Cowan commented: “The Home Secretary said there could be a march so we (the anti-fascists) gave him one!”

For me personally Victoria Park will always be associated with the colour, excitement IMG_2856and exuberant atmosphere of the first Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League Carnival on 30 April 1978. I had marched with so many others to be part of an 80,000 strong multicultural crowd that filled one section of the park with people while the performers on stage blasted out positive anti-racist, anti-fascist messagesalongside their powerful riffs.

I want to finish with another post-war moment that involves Oswald Mosley and anti-fascism. In 2010 I was invited to talk to a local history group that met in Notting Hill, West London. They asked me to speak about the build up to a key moment in the history of Mosley’s fascist party. This was not 1936, but 1934, and a 15,000 strong rally at Olympia – geographically much closer to Notting Hill than Cable Street. It was a night when the thuggishness of Mosley’s fascism revealed itself. Some 80 anti-fascists who had heckled “the Leader” at the rally required medical treatment after taking a beating from Mosley’s stewards. One detail I described in my talk was Mosley’s entrance to the hall. Lights were dimmed with a sole spotlight trained on Mosley. He walked slowly towards the platform. between two lines of flag-bearers, emphasising his leg-wound from the First World War,

Among these 25 or so local history enthusiasts there, I was paticularly aware of Leon, an older man at the back, with glasses and white hair, listening intently to every word. In the Q&A after the talk he said: “I want to tell you something about Mosley 15 years after the war, in 1960. Leon explained that he used to live in the East End. One Sunday morning his friends rang him up, urging him to come to meet them at “the park” (Victoria Park) as there was “something we need to do”. He couldn’t get his friends to say more. He went and met them and questioned them closely about what they would be doing. “You’ll see,” they said.

Eventually as they moved more deeply into the park they could see in the distance, an elderly man on a platform speaking to a small assembled crowd. It was Mosley, in his mid-60s, still spouting fascist and antisemitic nonsense. Feeling brave, Leon and his friends rushed the platform. Mosley’s audience scattered for safety. They tipped the platform up and confronted Mosley. But he got away, running for his life. There was no trace at all of that alleged war wound!


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.

T is for Tillett and Thorne,

U is for Union of Women Matchmakers

In his book The Anarchists, set in London in 1887, the Scottish-German writer John Henry Mackay described London’s East End as “the hell of poverty” and the “Empire of Hunger”. This district bordered the City of London where enough wealth was made to build an Empire, then more fortunes were amassed from that empire. But they did not trickle down. How was it possible for grinding poverty and immense wealth to rub against each other without eventually sparking rebellion?

But Karl Marx’s comrade and sponsor, Friedrich Engels, thought the prospects of revolt were slim. In early 1888, He wrote to the writer/social commentator Margaret Harkness: “Nowhere else in the civilized world are the people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to their fate than in the East End of London.”

Suddenly, it all kicked off, first in a match factory in Bow, among the most exploited and disadvantaged sections of the labour force: girls and women, many of them also of Irish heritage – a community struggling to be treated as equals.

Their example was taken up by male workers in the Gas Works and Docks. In the struggles of 1888 and ’89, a “New Unionism” was born – one of its early products was the Union of Women Matchmakers established during a successful two-week strike at the Bryant and May factory that employed 1,400 women. After the spark was lit, a key role was then played by two trade union leaders, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, whose personal experience of workplace exploitation began at the ages of 6 and 7 respectively.

The strike by women at Bryant and May’s  factory was precipitated by the management’s zealous matchwomenmarchingover-reaction after exploitative and unhealthy conditions there had been exposed in a small circulation left-wing newspaper. The author, Annie Besant, struck a nerve because Bryant and May were Quakers who cast themselves as slave abolitionists and enlightened employers. Besant told of long shifts, paltry wages, and petty fines frequently imposed on the flimsiest basis.

Foremen asked the workers to sign notes confirming they were happy their conditions. They met mass refusal. A gaggle of alleged “ringleaders” were sacked. Despite the absence of a union, as word got round the plant, women walked out spontaneously on strike. They picketed to stop any scab labour, held open-air meetings on free speech pitches; marched to parliament, forced the media to notice them, and rallied material and political support for their cause.

Managers threatened to import unemployed girls from Glasgow to replace them, or relocate to Scandinavia. The workers knew this was bluster. They formed a Union of Women Matchmakers and demanded that the sacked “ringleaders” were reinstated; that the whole system of fines was binned; and that management commit to building a separate eating area, as their food was getting contaminated on their long shifts by unhealthy work materials, and women were going down with “phossy jaw”.

They fought – and they won.

The match factory closed in 1979, and its 275 remaining workers made redundant. In 1988 its building started to be converted into a gated community of luxury flats. On the outer wall a plaque celebrates Annie Besant implying that she led the strike. She didn’t. That was led by the workers themselves such as Mary Driscoll, Alice France, Eliza Martin, Kate Slater and Jane Wakeling, who apparently had been involved in earlier unsuccessful strikes.


Will Thorne

Further east from Bow were London’s largest gas works at Beckton. Employees there were unionised by Will Thorne, a worker and agitator in his early 20s who had to overcome a major personal barrier. Neither he nor his wife could sign the marriage register on their wedding, as they were illiterate. He was working a 12-hour day at 6-years-old at a rope-makers in Birmingham. But he had great organisational and oratory skills, honed in open-air speeches for the Social Democratic Federation. He learned to read in his mid-to-late 20s with help from a union colleague, one Eleanor Marx!

At Beckton Gas Works there were two 12-hour shifts generating power round the clock. When management introduced a technological advance, instead of it easing the work burden, workers had to meet new targets and, on a rota basis, they were working occasional 18-hour shifts as well.

While low wages made life hard, Thorne believed that workers’ time was ultimately more valuable to them than money. His union committee him convinced them to fight collectively for an 8-hour day. He welcomed colleagues to a a huge workers’ meeting on 31 March 1889 as “Fellow Wage–Slaves”. Thorne promised them that if they “stand firm and don’t waver, within six months we will claim and win the 8-hour day, a 6-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country.”

This unionisation drive came at an apposite moment. The electricity industry was growing and beginning to challenge gas. When Thorne knew they had thousands of workers unionised his committee petitioned their employers saying that they had the strength to go on strike but they would rather negotiate a new deal for workers. Ultimately their employers, fearful of a strike, agreed. Negotiations took several weeks as productivity matters were ironed out. In the resulting deal, two 12 –hour shifts became three 8-hour shifts as more workers were taken on, and shorter hours were gained at no loss of pay.

Despite Thorne’s struggles with literacy, he later became the Labour MP for West Ham and went on to write his autobiography, My Life’s Battles. 

Meanwhile, a former navy junior, then shoemaker, called Ben Tillett,was making a


Ben Tillett

name for himself locally as a trade unionist. In contrast to Thorne, Tillett’s working life began later – at 7-years-old – in a Bristol brickyard. His home life was abysmal. His birth mother died young, replaced with stepmothers who served the demands of Tillett’s alcoholic father, while neglecting or mistreating him. On his third attempt, he successfully ran away from home, joined a travelling circus and learned acrobatics. One of his five sisters tracked him down and took him to stay with relatives where he gained two years’ education before resuming his working life.

While Thorne was organising Gasworkers, Tillett, who had moved to Bethnal Green in east London where one sister lived, was attempting to unionise dockers in a largely casualised working environment, where workers endured the humiliating daily call–on. If they got work that day they were only guaranteed 2-hours. Tillett graphically described the atmosphere in the shed where the call-on happened in a pamphlet – The Dock Labourers Bitter Cry. He kept a diary. His last entry in 1888 read: “Cold worse than ever. Went to chapel. Old year out. Like to live next year a more useful life than last”.

He did. In mid-August 1889, the growing Tea Operatives and General Labourer’s Association made links with the Amalgamated Stevedore’s Union and, in response to a set of disputes that had begun with their employers, announced that the dockers were on strike. Tillett was the key figure among a collective strike leadership. In the first week, 10,000 workers were on strike. That grew massively as other dockers and workers in factories and warehouses, especially in dock related areas came out.

By the beginning of September, the local newspapers described (in disapproving terms) the East End as infected with “strike fever”. Workers across the board “found some grievance real and imaginary” to come out on strike. The dockers listed their demands: the dockers tanner (six old pence) an hour and 8d for overtime; a minimum 4-hour call-on, and the right to organise a union throughout the dock. Organising strike pay for such large numbers was logistically impossible so they distributed meal tickets redeemable at supportive shops and cafes. The Salvation Army supplied thousands of loaves a bread each day and dockers’ wives organised rent-strikes to minimise outgoings.

dockstrike_marchThey held huge marches, and spectacular community parades to Hyde Park, appealing for support form the West End. According to Thorne, Tillett possessed “a spark of genius”, as he organised a picket system of the whole London docks.

Four weeks in, the main dock employers, who had tried to starve the workers back to the docks, offered some enticing deals to small groups of employees, but at this critical moment with the strike becoming shakier,  help suddenlyarrived from far away. Many of the dockers were Irish Catholics (neighbours and families of matchwomen), as were many of the dockers in Australia. On hearing of the strike they collected for their brothers and began cabling over huge amounts of money to keep that strike going.

The employers were forced to negotiate. In negotiations mediated by Cardinal Manning a widely respected churchman, the dockers won their demands. Their union, renamed itself the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union and emerged from the strike with 18,000 paid up members.


Meeting to form a matchwomen’s union

In each of these cases – the matchworkers, the gasworkers, the dockers all created or developed thier unions, but instead of the old “craft unions” of highly skilled  workers, these were general unions, cheap to join, meeting the needs of the unskilled and low-skilled. This was the New Unionism.

Tillett and his close colleague Tom Mann wrote a pamphlet describing this phenomenon. In their new conception the work of trade unions went beyond just sorting out their own workplace “It is the work of the trade unions to stamp out poverty from the land.“ They would “work unceasingly for the emancipation of workers. Our ideal is the Cooperative Commonwealth.”