First time as tragedy, second time as farce

When Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in November in the face of rapidly rising COVID infections, there was relief that he had finally taken some action but dismay among many, especially among teaching unions, that he had excluded schools from this lockdown. Not that Johnson came under any pressure at all from his opposite number Keir Starmer to do so. On the contrary, Starmer insisted that any pause in children’s education would be a sign of a government that was failing. Whether lives might be saved by such a pause was, it seemed, outside of Starmer’s frame of reference.

The teaching unions had been sceptical about the full return to classrooms last September. In June they had released a 10-point-plan aimed at making schools safe and challenging the educational inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-crisis. By September, so little of what they had demanded had even been acknowledged by the Government or, indeed, the Opposition leadership, let alone put in place.

Unsurprisingly, within the first two weeks of term there were outbreaks of COVID in hundreds of schools. Children contracting the virus were taking it back with their homework. In poorer inner-city areas this often meant taking it back to overcrowded, multi-generational home settings. PPE for school staff was inadequate and there was poor ventilation in most schools. The government did not care because, for them, children back at school meant parents available for work again, meant the economy would be boosted, and rates of profits revived.

For four and half years from September 2015 Labour was led by politicians with humane and explicitly socialist values, who put people before profit, who made the health and welfare of ordinary people and especially the most impoverished and marginalised, their litmus test of a successful policy. When the establishment succeeded in defeating Corbyn they knew then that Corbynism had not been vanquished. Their favoured candidate for the new Labour leadership, fawned over in the establishment’s media, could only achieve that victory by promising that he would take forward radical policies himself.

It was a cruel deception. There is barely a single one of the 10 pledges that Keir Starmer made, in order to win the popular vote of Labour members, that he has even gone near to fulfilling. The biggest price for that failure has been paid by families and individuals devastated by a COVID crisis which could have been mitigated by a real opposition in parliament that challenged the terrible choices made by the Johnson government, and simultaneously validated and encouraged opposition to government policy within the base of society.

If Johnson was recklessly sending children back to educational settings that were effectively incubators of COVID, he was egged on mercilessly by Starmer who was not merely demanding that children be back in school in September, he was expecting children to return: “No ifs. No buts. No equivocation.” Starmer was thus complicit with Johnson in the infections, illnesses and deaths that had their origin in educational settings from September onwards.

Despite feeling pressure from so many within communities who were experiencing or observing the unfolding tragedy, Starmer still could not bring himself to call for a lockdown, but eventually he asked for a limited “fire-break” . When Johnson did act at the beginning of November, he outflanked Starmer and went for a four-week lockdown. But with Starmer having been so gung-ho about children not missing any education, by physically being in school, (and ignoring union proposals for blended learning and a shift to online teaching), he was in no position to call for schools to be part of the lockdown. The consequences have been so dire and devastating.

Of course Johnson holds an 80-seat majority, so he could have simply dismissed Starmer if he had indicated a change of policy, but Starmer was mainly caught in a trap of his own making. Or was it? Was anyone else implicated? Let’s go back to the early days of the pandemic hitting Britain and the first lockdown in March and April. While communities on the ground were busy setting up Mutual-Aid networks to ensure that the most vulnerable were being supported with practical help in the face of a government influenced by eugenicists obsessed with “herd-immunity”, Starmer spoke up enthusiastically in Parliament in mid-April about the need to get children back into schools with the knock-on effect of boosting the economy. This was just days after Tony Blair’s Global Institute had published a report with the very same prescription in very similar words. To close observers, the new Leader of the Opposition was beginning to sound like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

By early December the unions were publishing compelling updated evidence that, within the wider population, infections had been rising especially rapidly in Primary and Secondary schools. When some local authorities expressed a desire to close schools a week earlier than normal before Christmas they were threatened with legal action by Johnson’s government. And any parents tempted to take matters into their own hands by withdrawing children were threatened with fines.

The teaching unions were fuming, knowing that they and their pupils would be forced to re-enter workplaces at the beginning of January that were completely unsafe. Decades of aggressive anti-union legislation that Thatcher had bequeathed, made industrial action, especially in schools, extremely difficult. Any ballot would require a period of around six weeks to enact. The virus was not about to take a winter break while that process played out. And the teaching unions were given no confidence whatsoever that the Labour opposition had their back. It didn’t. So the unions did it for themselves by holding mass Zoom meetings, and taking every opportunity to put their case on News reports. The result was that 48 hours before the enforced return to schools they had huge numbers of teachers willing to defy the government and assert their rights under Section 44 of the Health and Safety Act to refuse to work in a hazardous environment.

The Government were not going to give any ground to unions. While exempting a number of schools in London and the South East, where it seemed the new variant of the virus had taken hold strongly, and allowing a delayed start of up to two weeks to secondaries, most primary school children were expected to return to their classes, and mix in them, albeit in huge “bubbles”, on 4th January, though many teachers would be absent.

Even after a huge NEU zoom meeting that tens of thousands of teachers participated in, (streamed to more than 100,000 people), where the union set out its defiant position around using Section 44, Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer and Shadow education minister, Kate Green, were stressing the importance of returning to school on Monday. By mid-afternoon there was a leak that Johnson was going to speak to the nation and would most likely announce a new lockdown including schools.

Starmer could see which way the wind was blowing and he began to give interviews in which he said he supported a new lockdown, but he kept hedging and deflecting on schools, merely saying it was “tragic” but “inevitable” that more schools would have to close. Still not a word of support for teachers, support staff, premises managers, administrative staff, cleaners and others, expected to return to unsafe sites. Not a word of acknowledgement or support for the leadership that unions had shown on behalf of their members.

The interviews with a squirming Starmer as the afternoon wore on were painful to watch. A total farce. And so lockdown has come. The vaccinations are beginning to take place. I’m typing this against the constant background noise of ambulance sirens. But schools still have not got any solid government commitments to any of the constructive plans that their unions offered last June, plans that any Labour leadership that had the real human interests of children and parents at heart, let alone workers in schools, should have already embraced. That, unfortunately does not seem to be their priority.

Old ideas for new times: Jewish self-determination in the Diaspora

Talk given as part of a panel of speakers at the Red Labour “Celebration of Jewish Radicalism” on 15th December 2020 on Zoom


In 2013 a remarkable museum called Polin opened in a location that 80 years ago was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve visited several times.

The history most Jews around the world have been taught is that Poland is nothing but a Jewish graveyard. A thousand years of continuous presence collapsed into six years of utter destruction, when 90% of Poland’s 3.3 million, largely Yiddish-speaking, working class, Jews, were wiped out by the Nazis, with operations to find hidden Jews carried out by auxiliary Polish police.

Today, under Poland’s ultra-reactionary government, admired by Johnson in Britain and Netanyahu in Israel, you can be punished for exposing Polish wartime collaboration.

And yet, a pluralist Jewish life is reviving in 15 Polish cities today. They don’t have one central Jewish body, like our Board of Deputies, who arrogantly declare what the community believes, and they’re not susceptible to Israeli pressure on their priorities. If Keir Starmer visited, he would be flummoxed, having to consider several Jewish opinions, instead of one.  

The Museum showcases 1,000 years of Jewish life, culture, interaction with non-Jews, intellectual creativity, periods of terror and hardship but also long-lasting golden ages.

Only part of it focuses on those 6 years of annihilation.

One compelling display marks the late 19th century, when most Polish Jews lived under Tsarist rule, but new radical ideas promising liberation and self-determination were spreading.

The Zionist idea – territorial self-determination in Palestine –  was one among several. It was challenged from day one by Jews who advanced alternative ways to build equal lives for Jews, as a minority, wherever they lived, whether centred on religious identity, secular cultural autonomy, or integration strategies.

So when you next hear some shmendrik (that’s Yiddish for fool) say “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, remind them: anti-Zionism was invented, first used, and developed by Jews for positive reasons (though we don’t own the copyright).

Today, when people discuss “Jewish self-determination” – not least in the dubious IHRA definition and examples – our notion of it is so impoverished. It refers only to territorial self –determination in Israel – a fortress state, built on dispossessing and expelling so many Palestinians in 1948, and then denying self determination to Palestinians who remained.

Twenty one percent of Israelis today are Palestinians who endure multiple discrimination. Israel also rules brutally over 2.2 million Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinian refugees, whether from 1948 or ‘67 cannot return.

Under Israel’s 2018 Nation State law, only Jews are entitled to national self-determination in Israel. Not indigenous Palestinians, migrant workers or refugees. That law was passed during a state visit by Netanyahu’s chum, Victor Orban, who used antisemitic propaganda targeting George Soros to help him win the Hungarian election that year. You couldn’t make it up.

If Israel doesn’t want to be labelled an apartheid state, it can repeal the Nation State law and Law of Return, dismantle discrimination, confiscate arms from illegal settlers, make Jewish–only roads available to all. It could make laws to ensure that Israel/Palestine is a state for all its citizens equally, whether in one state or two.

Despite repression, growing numbers of left-wing Israelis and human rights bodies are working for that goal by protesting, publishing, refusing army service, making illegal solidarity visits. Here in Britain we can support justice there, by amplifying activities by progressive Israelis Jews, as well as exposing brutality towards Palestinians.

Zionism proclaimed the ingathering of Jews in one nation state. Yet, 72 years after independence, a majority of Jews (including many Israelis) choose to practice Jewish self-determination elsewhere – in London, Paris, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Melbourne, Kiev, Warsaw…

Those who shout loudest about defending “Jewish self-determination” are not talking about enhancing the creative, diasporic Jewish self-determination which already exists, but about defending an ethnocracy in Israel. The Israeli ruling class, and their supporters among Jewish so-called “leaders” outside, don’t like other Jews using their self-determined voice to denounce Israeli racism.

Emanuel Scherer, a Polish-born member of the Bund, a secular, left-wing, anti-Zionist Jewish movement, once wrote:

“Rights and Justice for Jews everywhere without wrongs and injustice to other people anywhere”.

Political Zionism and Bundism were both born in 1897, the first at a plush conference in Basle, the other in an illegal house gathering in Vilna (Vilnius). The Bund sought to link the struggles of Jews with those of workers throughout the Russian Empire for socialism.

Bundism and Zionism had opposite values: Optimism versus pessimism; internationalism versus nationalism; Integration versus isolation and evacuation. The Bund accused Zionists of worshipping the same nationalist values as regimes that oppressed Jews and other minorities

The Bund threw itself into Russia’s revolutionary upheavals in 1905 and 1917 but also engaged very critically with Lenin and warned about the Bolsheviks anti-democratic tendencies. The Bund’s socialism was from the bottom up.

Its heyday as a mass movement was in 1930s’ Poland, where it had a daily Yiddish newspaper and other publications in Yiddish and Polish, organised strikes, built a world of institutions – libraries, schools, sports clubs, cultural projects, a Bundist women’s movement, youth movement, and children’s organisation, a sanatorium funded by trade unions, for children at risk of TB, run on the most democratic, children’s rights principles.

As Poland slid into semi-fascism the Bund and Polish Socialist Party activists jointly led the political and physical struggle against antisemitism. Apart from one small faction, Zionists and religious Jews abstained from that fight in the 1930s, while Communists were too obsessed with a trade union turf-war with Bundists to defend Jews.

In the last municipal elections before the Nazis’ invasion, the Bund won massive victories among Jewish voters in major Polish cities where Jews comprised a third of the population. Many religious Jews voted for secular socialists – the Bund – who defended them from antisemites.

In the ghettoes, in the early 1940s, Bundists, Communists and left Zionists united in armed anti-Nazi resistance. The Holocaust decimated the Bund. Its post-war presence has been marginal but its philosophy of diasporic self-determination and its fundamental critique of Zionism, remain absolutely pertinent today.

Zionism represses Palestinians daily, but also, through insisting on the centrality of Israel to Jews, undermines Diaspora Jewish lives, dividing us from other minorities, and other allies, with grave consequences:

In semi-fascist Argentina, late 1970s, thousands of political opponents disappeared. Jews were 1% of the population but more than 10% of those that disappeared, under a regime armed to the teeth by Israel.

In apartheid South Africa, the most progressive Jews joined the ANC. When I interviewed a Jew who had worked in the ANC’s armed wing, he told me that Jewish establishment bodies handed over names and addresses of Jewish activists to the Apartheid authorities.

I will end back in Poland. Last year, 12 Jewish Socialists’ Group members went to Warsaw. We met left activists, historians, a socialist choir, and visited museums and the grounds of Treblinka death camp. On our final day, we joined hundreds of local anti-racists and anti-fascists (some Jewish) in an alternative Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration. We were stunned by the symbolic presence of the Bund on banners, placards and slogans; in Yiddish songs sung by a non-Jewish school choir. Those same Polish anti-racist and anti-fascists are in the frontline today defending Roma and Muslims while also fighting homophobia and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.

Poland’s reactionary government and Britain’s Conservatives are main partners in a Council of Europe grouping that now include the ultra-right AfD in Germany, Vox Party in Spain, Salvini’s Northern League. If those in Britain, who claim to care about antisemitism, were serious, they would turn the heat on these parties abroad, and Tories at home. But they don’t make a peep about this, partly because those parties support Netanyahu.

Jews and other minorities deserve much better.

Who is serious about tackling antisemitism and other racism and who is not?

One year ago today, less than a week before the 2019 Election, I was very pleased to be part of a short film made in front of the Cable street mural with the Labour candidate for Poplar and Limehouse, Apsana Begum

We spoke of the links between antisemitism, Islamophobia and other bigotries. Apsana getting elected was one of the few bright moments of that election held against the incessant and rising background noise of wild claims and accusations against Labour of antisemitism. And while there certainly have been incidents involving a tiny fraction (much less than 1% of Labour’s then huge membership), most of which were down to ignorance and could and should in the first instance be dealt with by education, there never was a “crisis of antisemitism” in Labour. It existed only in the minds of the pro-Tory media – and some of the liberal media who should have known, and did know, better. It was a term used liberally by right-wing non-Jewish and Jewish political actors/organisations largely to beat the Left.

If any of them were serious about tackling antisemitism and other racism, they would have surely concentrated their political attack on the party of the Hostile Environment, the Windrush Scandal, where Islamophobia is commonplace, who had a candidate for Prime Minister in Boris Johnson who wrote a novel several years back replete with antisemitic stereotypes. The same party whose MEPs were formally linked through the Conservatives and Reformists Group in Europe with a range of Islamophobic, antisemitic and anti-Roma parties and government.

Unlike many of the accusations against Labour which fell down when you looked for hard evidence (and the EHRC Report, for example, makes bold generalised claims but offers little in hard evidence, relying, after 17 months of investigation, on two cases – one already well known, one not well known – both of whom were expelled under Corbyn-led Labour), those Tory links with antisemitic and Islamophobic political parties and government are clear and verifiable.

As if to rub it in, while Britain no longer has Tory MEPs to maintain that frequent contact with European antisemites and Islamophobes, it still has 12 Tory representatives in a similar group in the Council of Europe. Since March 2020 they have been allied within their Council of Europe group with the Far Right AfD, in Germany, Vox in Spain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, United Patriots in Bulgaria, the Danish People’s Party, Salvini’s Northern League and others.

The other party with whom the Tories share the biggest representation in this grouping are the Polish Law and Justice Party who have engaged in Holocaust Revisionism and played up antisemitic themes in the run up to the recent Presidential election in Poland.

What have we heard about this from those leading the charge in the Jewish community against Corbyn or those supporting him within Labour, such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the misnamed Campaign Against Antisemitism? Not a peep. Why is that?

Meanwhile, left wing Jews in the Labour Party, myself included, are getting seriously alarmed at the number of Jewish members apparently being profiled and suspended by the “new leadership” of Labour. That, together with Starmer and Rayner’s stereotyping of the Jewish community as holding one homogenous “official” political view, which they approve of, and helping them to delegitimise other Jewish views, is starting to feel like institutional antisemitism.

Lessons for today from our history in London of combating racism

My talk as a panellist on 25th November at the AGM of Barnet Stand Up To Racism

Thank you for inviting me.

I was asked to discuss what lessons anti-racist campaigners today can draw from our history in London of combating racism.

It’s a huge subject. I will focus on the area I know best and have written about – London’s East End – where my own grandparents arrived from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1900s.

I will start in 1895, when Tory Politicians and newspapers were railing against Jewish immigration. They weren’t alone. That year, Jewish and non-Jewish workers published a pamphlet called Voice of the Aliens, addressed to Trade Unionists. The TUC demanded immigration control. The pamphlet explained that capitalism was to blame for economic problems not migrants. It urged unions to organise migrants instead of excluding them. Sadly, that struggle persists in some areas.

That year the East End had a new MP in Bethnal Green – Mancherjee Bhownagree, the second Indian MP in the British Parliament.  But anti-racists were not celebrating. He was a pro-Empire Tory who won on an anti-immigrant manifesto. A warning about identity politics.

In 1901 a populist, anti-immigrant movement called the British Brothers’ League was formed. Its leading figure was Major William Evans Gordon, Tory MP for Stepney. Their propaganda spoke of “floods” of immigrants, “swamping” our cities, when of course, the relevant water reference is that immigrants and refugees are still drowning.

There was resistance though – an Aliens Defence League led by Jewish and non-Jewish socialists, anarchists and progressives held rallies and heckled British Brothers League speeches. Sadly, two Jewish Tory MPs backed the league’s demands.

Its campaign resulted in the Tories passing Britain’s first peacetime immigration law – the Aliens Act of 1905 – which massively reduced Jewish immigration.

The liberals opposed it. But when the Tories lost a general election the Liberals implemented the act they had opposed. The lesson? Not just “don’t trust liberals”, but don’t place faith in politicians. Keep up the pressure from below.

That Aliens Act created Britain’s first Hostile Environment. Even those permitted to enter, if they were found later wandering the streets with no visible means of support, could be arrested and deported. More than 1,300 were deported in the Act’s first 4 years. The number of refugees allowed to get asylum rapidly decreased.

The most dramatic clashes in the East End over antisemitism took place in the 1930s with the rise of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Many people know of the Battle of Cable Street when through sheer numbers, blockades and barricades, Jewish and Irish minorities stopped Mosley’s fascist from invading the East End. A real Prevent strategy! The key lesson? Unity in action. The Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth, trade unionists, and a militant local grassroots body, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and antisemitism, combined to keep the fascists out. They didn’t need to all be in the same organisation but they needed to act in complementary ways.

The reason that the Jewish People’s Council was created was because when Jewish people were under siege from fascist violence and they were let down by two institutions. The police – who often sided with the fascists – and let down too by the complacency of the self-proclaimed leaders of the Jewish community based in the West End – the Board of Deputies. These days the Board of Deputies fails us through its right wing political agendas.

The Jewish People’s Council sought to mobilise the Jewish community into anti-fascist activism and simultaneously create alliances with non-Jewish anti-fascists in order to build an antifascist majority in the area.

It helped to unite the two impoverished minority communities that the fascists sought to divide – Jews and Irish –not through moralistic slogans but by showing how those communities could benefit through working together. They embedded the fight against antisemitism and fascism within a fight for jobs, housing, and better lives for all.

On outdoor platforms the Jewish People’s Council always had both Jews and non-Jews speaking. They fought to change hearts and minds, but not through approaches such as “Zero Tolerance” which entrenches rather than challenges divisions.

Anti-fascists, especially from the Communist Party, helped create the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League which brought divided communities together against common problems of bad landlords through successful rent strikes between 1937-39.

The fascists were defeated on the streets and estates, but their ideas still had influence and helped to encourage the government’s harsh refugee policies especially against those fleeing Nazi persecution. A few thousand children were brought here – not their parents.  All the work supporting them fell to voluntary groups not the state.

Fast forward to the 1960s and ‘70s. Around 15,000 Jews still in the East End but gradually dying out and moving out. Asian immigrants were moving in, especially from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971.

Many people will know of the 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali, attacked and stabbed by three youths whose minds were poisoned by the National Front, as he walked home from work in May 1978. The resistance to the National Front, led by Bengali youth movements, assisted by trade unionists, anti-fascists, progressive church people and others, marked a real turning point, but it wasn’t the first racist murder there. That happened 50 years go in 1970.

Tosir Ali, who worked in a West End wimpy bar, was making the short walk back home from Bromley-by-Bow tube station around midnight when he was attacked and stabbed by two 18-year-old skinheads.

There were community meetings and protests. At one, a veteran Jewish anti-fascist and Communist local councillor, Solly Kaye, said: “The purveyors of racialism can be defeated by united action… it would be the greatest error and worse, if the struggle were left to the immigrant organisations to bear the brunt of the fight… the fight against racial discrimination and violence is part of the fight for a new and better society.

We can learn so much from that quote – racism can be defeated, no minority under attack should feel isolated – their fight is our fight, and we don’t wait for a better society before we combat racism but we tackle it right now as part of building a better society”

The responses eight years later when Altab Ali was killed owed a lot to these ideas. In 1978 when Altab Ali was killed, there were placards saying “Who killed Altab Ali?” The simple answer was three young people. The more substantial answer implicated adults – the National Front propagandists, the media with their constant anti-immigrant headlines, the police who failed to deal with racist incidents,  and the government who largely ignored racism.

I want to finish on a positive memory from 2016 when we were celebrating our history. Working with a team of organisers and volunteers, I was overall convenor of two rallies and a 3,000-strong march marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. That was the first time I met Apsana Begum – on that day a volunteer from the local Bengali community – today an East End MP.  We brought together Jewish, Irish and Bengali, organisations, black and white trade unionists and politicians, anti-racist and anti-fascist groups, and a Yiddish marching band!

Our platform included 101 year old Max Levitas, a Cable Street veteran. But we gave the final speaking slot to one of the most honest, principled and committed anti-racists and anti-fascists I have ever met, whom I am fortunate to regard as a personal friend, my MP – Jeremy Corbyn. Total solidarity with all fighting any racism and bigotry from whichever quarter, and total solidarity with Jeremy.

Sadness and rage in the face of lies

I’m grateful I was talked down from putting some angry thoughts on Twitter after midnight last night about the war against the left that is raging in the Labour Party. That war has been further fueled by the Tory press, and the BBC. And they in turn have been aided and abetted by a set of rightward leaning Jewish organisations, whose importance has been very conveniently and falsely distorted by powerful media and political figures outside of the Jewish community, who do not possess a reputation as friends of the victims of racism

The indignant sense of self-importance of those particular right-leaning Jewish individuals and organisations (Chief Rabbi Ephriam Mirvis , Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council, Community Security Trust, and the extremely right-wing  Campaign Against Antisemitism) has never been in doubt. But, let’s be clear: their agendas and loyalties have never been, nor will they ever be, the wellbeing of the Labour Party.

Neither are they focused especially on the people and the interests the party represents – the working class, the marginalised, exploited and oppressed (even though these categories certainly include a proportion of the Jewish community). Their right to pronounce with authority on what the Jewish community thinks or says is seriously contested by many Jews of various backgrounds, generations and outlooks.

For bodies that stress the vital need for and protection of a concept of “Jewish self-determination”, they really don’t like it when other Jews individually or collectively, express their self-determined opinions!

In the last two to three weeks this war has claimed its casualties. It has been driven by cynicism, defence of the indefensible, protection of narrow interests, petty jealousies and hypocrisy. The weapons of choice have been powerful lies and distortion, and abuse of institutional power.

Perhaps the most painful casualties have been caused by two phenomena:

–  the emptying of the meaning of antisemitism by its misattribution and deliberate obfuscation, when real antisemitism, real hatred, driven by its traditional proponents on the Right and Far Right, continues to flourish here, in America, in Poland and Hungary, along with its best buddies, Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice, discrimination on the basis of colour, and hostility towards migrants and refugees;

– the political character assassination, institutional and psychological war against a left-wing political figure who captured the imagination and loyalty of millions with a message of hope, combined with his absolute determination to redistribute economic and political power in favour of the exploited and oppressed: Jeremy Corbyn.

The continued trail of destruction under a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich, failing miserably to deal with a virus that disproportionately impacts on Black and minority ethnic communities, poorer people, older and disabled people, has had to compete for front page headlines with this theatre of war. Despite this crisis, the Opposition has diverted its energies into fighting its left flank.

Without seeking to personalise it, we cannot underestimate Keir Starmer’s intense jealousy of the leader he displaced. Jeremy Corbyn attracts a personal affection and a deep identification around the country that a wooden establishment figure such as Starmer will simply never know and never be able to emulate. That hurts him.

So I sat there, after midnight last night, catching up with the Facebook and Twitter posts that articulated the sadness and rage that many Corbyn supporters have been feeling.

“I’m utterly heartbroken that Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting in front of a panel justifying himself for telling the truth… I detest what Labour has become. The corruption that brought us to this moment. It’s unforgiveable.”

“He has stood for decades in the cause of anti-racism, at times when it was far from popular or convenient.”

“I have decided that it is the end of the road for me as a Labour member for 34 years… Keir Starmer has declared a civil war within the party. This is on him. Shame on him for doing so. Shame on me for for having voted for him as leader.”

 “Tonight I attended my branch meeting and resigned my membership of the Labour Party… I will continue to work for the many not the few.” Those were the words of Thelma Walker, a Labour member for 40 years, a much admired former teacher and headteacher, who won the marginal seat of Colne Valley in the Corbyn surge of 2017, but lost it in 2019. There were heartfelt messages to her underneath her tweet from so many people she had supported.

Some councillors in Lancaster have resigned from the Labour Party and will now sit as independents in order they say “to continue to fight for socialist principles.” Some councillors in Kirklees have followed suit. I have chosen to remain in the party, and I encourages others to do so, but I make no judgment of those who have decided to fight for what’s right through other avenues. As one tweeter remarked in response to someone saying with regret they had left the Labour Party: “No you haven’t – the party has left you!”

In the seven months since Starmer became leader, there has now been an exodus of around 60,000 members.

The trigger to this war was the EHRC Report on 29th October and Jeremy Corbyn’s measured but honestly stated response. Putting to one side the fact that the main complainant demanding the investigation – the self-proclaimed “Campaign Against Antisemitism” – has been mired in its own controversies about racism on its platforms, the Report is a substantial piece of work (129 pages including annexes). But it is not the Ten Commandments. Not every word within it is a pearl of perfect wisdom. It is repetitive in places, and its record of the history – and analyses of it – are of variable quality in different sections.

In terms of exposing explicit hard-core antisemitism that took place in the Labour Party (that was dealt with very inadequately), you will find much more detail of that in Labour’s Leaked Report, not least in the years when Labour’s Law and Governance Unit was firmly in the hands of a bureaucracy under Iain McNichol’s leadership, which held power internally until early 2018.  Some of those cases go back well before Corbyn ever thought of himself being a contender for the leadership.

The Labour Party did not itself send that document to the EHRC, but other individuals did. Nevertheless, the EHRC should have acknowledged and drawn on its information much more than they did. Their failure to do so seems to reflect a political decision.

The Report’s main difficulty, because of the legalistic framework the EHRC operates in, is that it needed to prove something greater than the occasional use of offensive, provocative, hateful words in a range of incidents that had occurred over the years. It had to prove unlawful prejudicial conduct that necessarily had an adverse effect on Jews throughout the Party. In attempting to do this it relied on an elastic and imprecise concept of “harassment” which is not very convincing. It also talks about a culture where this was tolerated, but struggles to justify this vague claim.

You would never guess that, though, from the grand claims made by the Labour leadership on the day it was released. The Report makes further claims of “political interference” in cases, though it is only on a careful and patient reading of the Report that you discover that several of these instances of which the Corbyn leadership is accused, were actually cases where they were trying to expedite action more quickly against those who had significant charges of antisemitism laid against them.

I have read the Report twice. I seriously doubt that many of the commentators so vociferous in their condemnation of this “damning” report, loudly proclaiming it as Labour’s “day of shame”, have read it even once. Though they are very familiar with the spin on it by the Labour leadership and right wing press.

Corbyn called for the implementation of the Report’s recommendations regarding processes and training, and removing possibilities of political interference, but he did not accept all of its findings. He exonerated the vast majority of Labour members from the stain of antisemitism by suggesting that the claims of antisemitism had been exaggerated in the media and by political opponents. By stating this Corbyn said nothing that has not been said before by left-wing Jewish Labour members, including stalwarts of the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement, who know a thing or two about challenging antisemitism. His claims are backed up by published studies.

I have personally been a strong advocate of the principles of the Chakrabarti Report, and the processes it proposed when it was launched by Shami Chakrabarti and Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. Partly due to events at its launch (which I attended and witnessed), a very distorted account of the proceeedings was dreamt up and tweeted by Ruth Smeeth, for the gullible anti-Corbyn press. As a result, bodies such as the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council went into overdrive, angrily dismissing the report as a “whitewash”. And yet several of Chakrabarti’s recommendations are reinvented here as EHRC recommendations, which those same bodies now wholeheartedly welcome. Work that one out.

One of the problems for the rightward-facing Jewish establishment bodies is that many Jewish left-wingers know their history. They know how in 1936 the Board of Deputies, 90% of whose London members lived outside the East End at the time, deigned to instruct Jewish East Enders to stay indoors rather than confront Mosley’s fascists in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. Thankfully East End Jews completely ignored them. They know too, how when the fascists re-emerged after the Second World War, the Board condemned the 43 Group who courageously organised against them.

They remember how the Board of Deputies tried its utmost to dissuade Jews from participating in the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, when the National Front was marching menacingly through immigrant areas and attacking the Asian and Caribbean communities, on the basis that Jews who participated would be rubbing shoulders with those who might also criticise Israel. And that is a pattern that has profoundly influenced the Jewish establishment’s response to racism and fascism in Britain and the alliances they make or don’t make. They seem to prioritise defence of Israel “right or wrong” above other considerations – and never extend their anti-racist antennae far enough to detect racist practices inflicted daily by the Israeli state on Palestinians. And it seems unlikely that Starmer is testing them on this matter in their frequent discussions.

Fast forward to 2016. Around 70% of the American Jewish community voted against Trump (a number that held up impressively in the 2020 elections despite Trump increasing his vote share in the country). In 2016 many Jewish Labour members were shocked to witness the then President of the Board of Deputies rushing to tweet his congratulations to Trump, a man who had surrounded himself with white supremacists, Islamophobes, homophobes and  misogynists, and whose right hand man Steve Bannon had opined that he wouldn’t send his daughters to a school with Jewish girls.

The Jewish Labour left have good reason to be mistrustful, to put it charitably, of the Board of Deputies political perspectives and priorities. Their mistrust was reconfirmed just weeks ago. The Board had made encouraging noises earlier in the year in support of Black Lives Matters, but it showed how shallow that commitment was when it then offered a platform to Priti Patel, the continuity Home Secretary of the Tories’ shameful Hostile Environment policies that produced the Windrush Scandal. And she has already shown as callous an attitude to migrants and refugees as her predecessors. On the very day that the Board joined the chorus berating Corbyn’s comments on the EHRC report, its current President praised Donald Trump’s interventions in the Middle East.

The new Labour leader’s fury at Corbyn’s careful assessment of the Report, and his insistence that Labour fully accepts the report, was conveyed in a manner that discouraged any thoughtful and critical discussion of its contents by members. Their only task was to help to implement its recommendations. That message was amplified by Labour’s General Secretary in heavy-handed letters of warning to CLP officers, which many members rightly interpreted as an attack on their freedom of speech.  

Of course Starmer could not have predicted the chain of events two weeks later, which could accurately be described as “days of shame” for the EHRC. A Joint Parliamentary Committee, chaired by Harriet Harman, published a report on Black people, Racism and Human rights which lambasted the EHRC’s failings in this area especially with regards to leadership and representation. It stated that: “…something is  wrong with the architecture  which is supposed to protect human rights and promote racial equality. We find that the EHRC  has  been  unable  to  adequately  provide  leadership and gain trust in  tackling  racial  inequality  in  the  protection  and  promotion  of  human rights.  For the EHRC to be, and be seen to be, effective Black people must be represented at the top level of the organisation, including as commissioners.”

Worse followed the next day. Its report clearing the BBC of gender discrimination in pay was excoriated by women who worked for the Corporation, as superficial and a “whitewash”. The Bad News week continued with, a spectacular own goal. On 13th November the EHRC announced the appointment of four new Board members. One of these was David Goodhart, who is known for his strong views deprecating immigration and greater cultural diversity. In 2018 he described the Windrush Scandal which devastated many black families as “an error of over-zealous control”, which “must not lead to a watering down of the Hostile Environment.”

It was indeed fortunate for the EHRC that the media was so obsessed with the Starmer-Corbyn-EHRC battle, and so uninterested in any discrimination and racism against other communities, that the EHRC’s own troubles and failings were barely reported. But that is certainly no excuse now for Labour continuing to create its own a Hostile Environment for members who wished to engage in an honest critical assessment of the Report.

Indeed as the report states so clearly on page 27:

“Article 10 will protect Labour Party members who, for example, make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, or express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law. It does not protect criticism of Israel that is antisemitic.

It didn’t protect Corbyn, though, from what are, on the face of it, illegitimate sanctions against him by the Party for doing just that, expressing a view on the scale of antisemitism. And despite the rage of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish members of Corbyn’s own branch who have worked with him week in week out for years, have signed collective statements in support of him personally and in support of the comments he made on the real state of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Starmer may not want to tolerate such opinions from someone he regards as a political opponent but if he is serious about engaging with the Jewish community, the very least he can do is recognise different shades of Jewish opinion, and pay particular attention to Jewish Labour members.

Time to widen your dialogue with Jewish people, Keir Starmer

When Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, American Jews voted 70:30 against him. That didn’t stop the then leader of the UK Board of Deputies gushingly congratulating him “on behalf of British Jews”. It was a kick in the teeth to the American Jewish community. He was roundly criticised by many Jews here for his hasty and embarrassing action.

Two nights ago, the current Board of Deputies President, Marie van der Zyl praised Trump, saying, “he has increased peace in the Middle East”. In doing so, she aimed a similar kick at Israeli peace activists who regard the Abraham Accords (with human rights abusing Arab states) as based cynically on normalising the 53-year long illegal Israeli occupation.

Van der Zyl “balanced” her praise of Trump with a mealy-mouthed statement that he was divisive at home because “he has not sufficiently disavowed white supremacists”!

“…not sufficiently disavowed…” is an incredible understatement.

What is the truth? Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists since he took office. He claimed that they included “fine people” after hundreds of them marched, chanting: “Jews will not replace us” at Charlotttesville in 2017; he has echoed their conspiracy theories, about the “great replacement”, frequently attacked George Soros, labelled refugees, Muslims, Mexicans, LGBT people as a threat to America, and called Black Lives Matter supporters “looters”, “lowlife” and “scum”.

Did Van der Zyl not listen to any of Trump’s words at his rally less than three weeks ago, just after he came out of hospital?

Using classic Far-Right conspiracy theory, he said Biden had “handed control to the socialist, the Marxist and left wing extremists”, and then said “Biden is also owned by the radical globalists, the wealthy donors, the big money, special interest, who shipped away your jobs, shut down your factories, threw open your borders and ravaged our cities, while sacrificing American blood and treasure in ridiculous endless wars.”

Who on earth does the Board of Deputies President imagine he is fingering here?

But it also begs some questions for the Labour Party’s new leadership who have placed so much trust in the political judgements of the Board of Deputies.

Do you agree with the Board of Deputies’ praise of Trump’s Middle East policy (which accords completely with Netanyahu’s)? Yes or No?

If you don’t agree with Marie Van der Zyl on this, is it not possible that other political assessments by the Board of Deputies might be very wrong-headed too?

Is it not time for Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, more than six months after taking office, and after approaches to do so, to open a dialogue with the large number of Jewish members of the Labour Party who profoundly disagree with many of the Board of Deputies’ political perspectives past and present (let alone those of the rabid right wingers of the “Campaign Against Antisemitism” who motivated the EHRC investigation)?

In his Rosh Hashona (new year) message to the Jewish community Keir Starmer stated: “I have been proud to strengthen existing friendships whilst also establishing new ties right across the Jewish community and its organisations” (my emphasis). The first half of the statement is true, the second half is not.

Surely the time to open the dialogue to make that statement true is now, starting with Jewish Labour Party members and organisations who take a very different perspective to the Board of Deputies, the (unelected) Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Labour Movement.

It is also time he heard the voices of left -wing Jews, young and old, who are very active in anti-racist, anti-fascist and human rights work locally and globally, and the voices of Jews who advocate justice and equality for Palestinians, and support the Israeli anti-Occupation activists who share that perspective.

The enemies of America’s ruling class and who Donald Trump thinks they are

My talk at the plenary session of the International Anti-Racist Conference organised by Stand Up To Racism this afternoon

Anti-fascist greetings!

Two questions: “Who are the enemies of Donald Trump and the White supremacist American ruling class?”

And “Who does Donald Trump believe them to be?”

The answers to both questions are not necessarily the same.

When Trump returned to the campaign trail last Monday we heard the answers straight from the horse’s mouth – no disrespect to horses. He picked out two elements. First, he said:

“Biden made a corrupt bargain in exchange for his party’s nomination. He’s handed control to the socialist, the Marxist and left wing extremists. God help us if they ever got it…we would never have the same country back again.

Then, the other element. He said:
“Joe Biden is also owned by the radical globalists, the wealthy donors, the big money, special interest, who shipped away your jobs, shut down your factories, threw open your borders, and ravaged our cities while sacrificing American blood and treasure in ridiculous endless wars.”

As he spoke his hands made the white power symbol. You don’t have to be an expert on white supremacy, and their so-called “Great Replacement theory” to hear the antisemitic dog whistles, and know who he is talking about.

He tells his supporters: We are the ones standing in their way. We are the ones standing up for the American workers, the American family

He does not mention Black Lives Matter in these quotes, a movement whose powerful demands for justice and equality, absolutely challenge the entrenched institutional power and privilege of the white middle and upper classes.

But when he does, he portrays Black Lives Matter as the street manifestation of the international conspiracy he imagines he is up against. Remember how he described Black Lives Matter protesters immediately after George Floyd’s murder by police: “looters, thugs, Radical Left, Lowlife and Scum”, and he name-checked “antifa”.

Make no mistake, Trump and his backers are frightened of Black Lives Matter precisely because it is so large, so multiracial and so multi-generational. When they demand Justice they reflect the immeasurable depths of historical injustice Black people endured through slavery, and simultaneously speak to the issues of all the oppressed, exploited and marginalised in America, who want to overturn the existing economic and political power structures and build a country run for all citizens equally.

Boris Johnson showed the same fears when he issued guidance to schools here not to use resources of so-called “extreme” organisations that want to challenge capitalism. He has Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion in his sites. How is it extreme to analyse the economic system that underpinned slavery and Empire and traps billions today in global poverty?

Trump and Johnson join the dots in a certain way. We have to join the dots conceptually and practically between Black Lives Matter, the anti-fascist movement and movements for social justice globally – that challenge Trump, Orban, Modi, Netanyahu, Johnson.

We have to defeat conspiracy theories that exist on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain Tory complacency and failures over the COVID-crisis have provided fertile ground for an alliance of COVID deniers, anti-vaxxers, Trump supporters, organised fascists and dangerous conspiracy theorists, like David Icke. Icke has long pushed wild antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Don’t try to reason with him but do engage in persuasive conversations with neighbours, friends and workmates, who parrot conspiracy nonsense.

As a Jewish socialist here, I am proud of the activism of Jews of Colour in America, and of the solidarity with Black Lives Matter and call to action shown by 600 American Jewish organisations in an advert in the New York Times a few weeks ago. I’m even prouder of my friends in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Boston Jewish Workers Circle who have engaged in solidarity work for several decades.

But I am ashamed of groups here like the Board of Deputies who one week make the right noises in support of Black Lives Matter and the next week provide a platform for for the Islamophobic and racist Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Some of them feigned surprise when she abused that platform to showcase her anti-Traveller racism. I wasn’t surprised.

As the Warsaw Ghetto fighter Marek Edelman put it, to be a Jew should mean always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors!  

Solidarity!

Donald Trump wheeling out his conspiracy theories about “radical globalists…wealthy donors…special interestssacrificing American blood

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

IMG_3749

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.

IMG_3754

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!