Separate and unequal

In 2015 I took early retirement from primary school teaching after 22 years working at the same inner-London school.  Moments, incidents and conversations with particular children remain hard-wired in my head. Like the one that involved Olima, a serious and determined Bangladeshi girl I taught when she was seven years old. I had taught one of her brothers earlier and later would teach other siblings. There were ten children in the family. Her parents dressed quite traditionally but none of the girls wore hijabs. They were absent on Eid but seemed relatively secular. One Friday afternoon, heading out to the playground, I noticed Olima  on her own, frowning, and generally looking fed up. I asked her what the matter was, and she said:
“I wish I was a boy.”
“Why is that?” I asked?
Quick as a flash she said: “Cos it’s crap being a girl!”
We talked about it more, and she described situations at home, out and about, and at school, where she felt boys were advantaged or treated themselves and others as though they were superior. Now I was drawn to teaching, above all, to fight for equal opportunities. Before I trained as a teacher, in my early 30s, I worked in the voluntary sector for around 8 years, more than half of them at the Runnymede Trust – a research and information body challenging racism and discrimination. As their Publications Officer I saw through and promoted dozens of reports, resource materials, books and pamphlets. As more an more of these highlighted racism in schools and education I became convinced that the real fight for equality needed to be done face-to-face rather than mediated through the written word.

I taught Olima in my first few years of teaching, when I used much of my mental and physical energy working to establish a classroom that all  children, of whichever gender, cultural group, or socio-economic background, felt that it completely belonged to them; where all felt valued, and everyone felt they could participate on equal terms. I paid special attention to those who were quiet, and seemed to lack confidence, to girls and those from visible minorities who knew that, out there, society doesn’t value or treat them equally.

There was absolutely nothing that I asked boys to do that was not open to girls too. I was committed also to the children’s voices, recognising that they often know better than their parents what they really feel and want. To the extent that it was possible I tried to make it a democratic classroom. And I made discussion of all manner of equalities part of my teaching regardless of whether it was “in the curriculum” or not.

That is the lens that I look through at the appeal court case which has just found against the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, who had a policy of educational apartheid – segregating boys and girls within this voluntary-aided co-educational state school when they reached year 5 (9-10 year olds). Girls and boys were taught in different classrooms, they had to use separate corridors and play areas, and attend different school clubs and go on different school trips.

The school’s spokespersons defended their practice as “separate but equal”. Take a moment to think of the different contexts where you have heard that phrase before, and you know it is invariably “separate and unequal”.

There was only one time we segregated pupils when I was teaching:  during one of our series of sex education sessions where we provided a girls-only session with a female teacher, and a boys-only session with a male teacher, where particularly sensitive matters could be more freely discussed. We felt it really important that in other sex education sessions boys and girls were actually together learning about each other and what happens as they each go through puberty and through their adolescence.

Many anti racists will be tempted to see this case purely through the lens of Islamophobia and disregard or push to the far margins other equality issues it raises. I think they are wrong.

In the period of the mid-1990s when I was taught Olima, there were certainly racist attacks in the neighbourhood – her family suffered one. One reason there were few Bangladeshis at our school at that time was that they were chased off the nearest estates by racist gangs, and made extremely unwelcome by residents associations dominated by white racists. It took a while for the Bangladeshi community to establish itself in numbers. But the word “Islamophobia” did not figure then.

The right wing newspapers at the time, in time-honored divide and rule manner played  minorities off against each other. They claimed to “admire” the moral values of Asian communities, especially Muslims. They concentrated more on attacking and undermining the Caribbean community. The Mail and the Express  wrote nausea-inducing features urging Black youth to be more like their “hardworking” Asian counterparts who lived quiet “family and community oriented” lives.

That’s was then, this is now. The oppression and discrimination suffered by Caribbean youth has not receded, but a specific anti-Muslim racism has come obsessively to the fore on the mainstream right. The far right groups, though, have not forgotten the others they hate and despise, though sometimes it seems the anti-racist movement does.

the-sun-never-sets-on-the-british-empireIslamophobia and the colonial mindset was certainly present in an earlier instance where al-Hijrah school hit the headlines, condemned by OFSTED for not teaching “British Values”, which the last time I looked were more rooted in empire, slavery and racial superiority. The values of democracy and equality were born more in the communities around the world that resisted this oppression. Defending Muslim schools from that kind of attack does not mean endorsing their practices, especially when it is to the detriment of significant numbers of Muslims who happen to be female and children. if we are principled in our stand for equality for Muslim communities in the face of anti-Muslim racism (Islamophobia), then we will also stand with those oppressed within their own communities and fighting for equality. The fight against educational apartheid is right  whether it occurs in Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other schools and the judgement made it absolutely clear that schools from each community were now obliged to end educational apartheid.

And before anyone holds up the straw-person of “but there are other single sex schools in Britain”, I don’t approve of them either, but here we have one school, one institution, not single-sex, treating half of its school population differently.

I don’t know what Olima is doing now but I hope we are fighting for a world where we don’t let down the young Olimas of today by saying “yes, but the main thing is Islamophobia.” We can and must challenge racist oppression and sexist oppression together, and simultaneously, for the benefit of all who need equality in every aspect of their lives.

Advertisements

“This Jew Business” – a taste of the 1930s

Antisemitism in 1930s Britain is most commonly associated with the aristocratic politician Sir Oswald Mosley (6th Baron of Ancoats), and his Blackshirt movement – the British Union of Fascists, which mobilised its mass base in working class areas. But the negative and hostile attitudes to Jews that he expressed were more widely shared within British society’s upper echelons. perhaps they still are. These views are illustrated in an extract from my book Battle for the East End  that I was was very proud to launch six years ago today at a festival held at Wilton’s Music Hall just off Cable Street at which we were celebrating the 75th anniversary of a momentous day of struggle against the fascists. 

In 1930s Britain… there were people holding high positions in political or social life, or renowned through the arts, who were widely respected and reported… Several of them explicitly pledged their allegiance to the cause of combating antisemitism and fascism, such as Vera Brittain, Cecil Day-Lewis, Margaret Storm Jameson, Henry Nevinson and Naomi Mitchison. There were others, though, whose role in relation to antisemitism was ambivalent at best and often they displayed hostility.

ill_wells

H G Wells

The author HG Wells engaged in a series of polemics with the Jewish Chronicle in which he consistently denied the legitimacy of Jews as a self-defined group. He claimed that Jewish culture was narrow and racially egotistical, and that Jewish insistence on separation provided a justification for antisemitism. “It may not be a bad thing,” he argued, “if they [the Jews] thought themselves out of existence altogether.” The playwright George Bernard Shaw, in an interview in the American Hebrew, offered the following advice for Jews: “Those Jews who still want to be the chosen race – chosen by the late Lord Balfour – can go to Palestine and stew in their own juice. The rest had

priestley

J B Priestley

better stop being Jews and start being human beings.” Fellow author JB Priestley became embroiled in a controversy over the participation of Jews in enterprise and finance. In an article entitled “This Jew Business”, which was ostensibly a reply to antisemitism, he suggested instituting a quota system through which there would be one Jew in every business, but, he added as qualification, “not at the top”.

Elsewhere in the publishers’ lists was Douglas Reed, a former foreign correspondent of The Times, who emerged as a prolific and popular writer with a set of searing social commentaries, such as Insanity Fair, Disgrace Abounding, All Our Tomorrows, and Lest We Regret, which were eagerly devoured by a growing readership. Each of these eminently readable books, which ran to several reprints, typically contained at least one colourful chapter incorporating a multi-faceted attack on Jewry.  Reed would attack Jews’ foreignness, make allegations of clannishness, and denounce their corporate action,

AVT_Douglas-Reed_6292

Douglas Reed

which, he claimed was not merely inimical to the national interest, but expressed their striving for power and dominance.  “When you give Jews full equality,” he argued, they “use it to become a privileged group, not to become equals”. Such arguments registered with non-Jewish readers feeling economic hardship and looking for someone to blame. Through his journalistic role as a foreign correspondent he knew Berlin and other German cities  very well, and although he had a low opinion of Adolf  Hitler, whom he regarded as crude and unsophisticated in his propaganda, he nevertheless attempted to justify  the pre-war actions of the Nazi party that had stripped Jews of their place in German society.

Among political figures, Norwich MP George Hartland alleged and then attacked “Jewish control” of the cinema.  He claimed that: “There are millions of boys and girls in  this country… [whose] …souls are being taken from them  as blood money for a syndicate of dirty American Jews –  the Hollywood magnates.”

Admiral George Cuthbert Cayley, a patron of the British Israel World Federation – a very

400px-Cayley,_1917,_IWM_ART_1727

Admiral Cuthbert Cayley

right wing body claiming to defend “Christian constitution and divine destiny”  – was addressing a fête held by the Berwick  Conservative Association when he commented on the  aspirations of Herbert Samuel by asking: “Why should we  want a Jew to lead our party?” He added for good measure,  “Hitler is quite right to a certain extent in getting rid of some of the Jewry of Germany. I am inclined to think we may have to do the same at home.”

Other political figures focused on the popular antisemitic theme of linking Jews and communism. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kerr, the National Liberal Chief Whip, claimed  that there were “many influential people in this country  supporting the Communist Party, the insidious propaganda  of which is backed by the Jews”. Lady Ninian Crichton-Stuart, wife of Captain Archibald Ramsey, MP for  Peebles and Southern Midlothian, put a similar message  even more emphatically: she believed that there was “an international group of Jews behind world revolution in  every single country at the present time”. When challenged through the Jewish Chronicle, she reiterated the charges with full backing from Captain Ramsey.

Ramsey himself, an aristocrat deeply involved with fundamentalist Christian organisations, became convinced that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were true.  He was unabashed by the accusation of being anti-Jewish, although he considered the terminology used by his accusers often lacked rigour. He openly acknowledged and justified his oppositional attitude to the Jews:

NPG x152544; Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay by Bassano

Captain Archibald Ramsey

“The only correct term for the mis-called ‘antisemitic’ is ‘Jew-wise’. It is indeed the only fair and honest term. The phrase ‘antisemite’ is merely a propaganda  word used to stampede the unthinking public into dismissing the whole subject from their minds without examination: so long as that is tolerated these evils will not only continue, but grow  worse. The ‘Jew-wise’ know that we have in Britain a Jewish Imperium in Imperio, which, in spite of all protestations and camouflage, is Jewish first and  foremost, and in complete unison with the remainder of World Jewry.”

The instances of discrimination and expressions of  ideological conviction described above testified to the  existence of a widespread belief, though held to different  degrees, that Jews were an alien and disruptive force in  society. The essence of their threat was seen as being rooted in Jews’ corporate action. When Jews shared an  activity it was evaluated differently from a group of  Gentiles engaged in exactly the same activity. This was particularly the case in relation to Jews entering the professions.

The Nobel Prize winner Sir Henry Hallett Dale, Director of the National Institute of

Sir-Henry-Hallett-Dale

Sir Henry Hallett Dale

Medical Research, unwittingly caused a few eyebrows to be raised during  his guest of honour speech to the 10th annual dinner  hosted by the Jewish Hospital Medical Society at  Piccadilly’s Trocadero Restaurant in December 1937. He  argued forcefully against Jews “crowding” the professions,  claiming that he did not believe it more healthy for  a predominantly non-Jewish people to receive all or most  of their medical attention from Jews, “than it would be  for a Gentile nation to be subjected to a wholly Jewish  government.

41hZ4VmFjXL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s, is published by Five Leaves Publications, 12.99. You can order it here to avoid going to Amazon: https://inpressbooks.co.uk/products/battle-for-the-east-end-jewish-responses-to-fascism-in-the-1930s

 

Northern Lights shining over Cable Street

I am indebted to Richard Burgon, MP for East Leeds, one of the rising stars of the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, for highlighting an important moment in Britain’s anti-fascist history that took place in Leeds, which was overshadowed by the iconic clash a week later 200 miles south in London’s East End.

Yesterday he tweeted: “81 years ago today – Labour party, Communist party and others stood in solidarity with Leeds Jewish community and sent fascists packing.” This tweet linked to an article in the Yorkshire Post recalling the day in late September when 1,000 members of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts had planned to march right through the Leylands, a working class Jewish district of Leeds, later demolished in slum clearances . Leeds, of course was much smaller than London, but whereas Jews comprised around 3.5% of London’s population at the time, they comprised more than 6% of Leeds’ inhabitants.

The Yorkshire Post article recalls that the night before the march “swastikas and slogans were daubed on the area’s Jewish owned shops”. The article described how Mosley marched his supporters to Holbeck Moor for a rally but: “Waiting for them were 30,000 Leeds residents, many of them Communist Party members who had been mobilising in local pubs during the previous week.” It went on to describe how they sang the Red Flag as Mosley began his speech and pelted him and his bodyguards with stones. One apparently hit him, and  in total 40 fascists were injured during the clashes. The report says “Only three people were arrested, and all were given light sentences.”

imageI can add some detail to this story. When I was researching my book Battle for the East End, published in 2011, I found other reports of this event. What interested me most was the story of one of those who ended up in court. His name was John Hodgeson, a 19 year old, non-Jewish warehouse worker. He was charged with throwing a stone at Mosley, which sadly missed. In my book I wrote:

When magistrate Horace Marshall asked Hodgeson which words of Mosley’s annoyed him, he said that Mosley “made a reference to the ‘Yids’ and referred to the crowd as ‘socialist scum’, to which Marshall replied: ‘I do not in the least understand why these remarks offend you if you are none of these things.’

Hodgeson was fined £2. Clearly the magistrate had no concept of empathy or solidarity. What was also interesting was that the police, with the support of the local authority, chose to redirect the fascists’ march away from the Jewish area. A week later 7,000 police, including every mounted policeman in London descended on the East End precisely to facilitate Mosley attempting to march right through the the most heavily Jewish-populated streets of the area.

Remembering John Hodgeson, and the lessons of solidarity.

If you want to know more about how Mosley fared on 4th October, come to my Anti-Fascist Footprints guided walk on 8th October. Further details and booking at http://www.eastendwalks.com

 

 

,

Always with the oppressed

My speech at the public launch of Jewish Voice For Labour, at a fringe meeting of the Labour Conference 2017, attended by more than 200 people.

A few weeks ago I was in Poland. My fifth visit to a country that many describe simply as the biggest Jewish graveyard. Three million of its 3.3m pre-war Jewish population were exterminated by the Nazis. Today it has a very right wing government and active far-right groups. You see antisemitic graffiti on some walls.

And yet in 15 Polish cities Jewish communities are reviving and growing. In Kazimierz, Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, there are several very old synagogues. Two function as synagogues; others house exhibitions, bookshops, cultural initiatives. Their doors are open. There is no grafitti on them. Yet none of them are bristling with CCTV, high fences, or hyped-up, walkie-talkie bearing Israeli guards.

A Jewish community centre founded in Krakow in 2009, offers cultural activities that appeal across the Jewish spectrum from secular to religious. It positively welcomes visitors. Many non-Jews come to events there. It also hosts Roma Gypsy community meetings and refugee support groups.

In Warsaw I revisited the remarkable Polin Museum which opened in 2013. It depicts

8a400850d71576f426b39654bd6bd334

Bund poster 1919

1,000 years of Polish Jewish history and culture – golden ages and times of danger and crisis. One display depicts the range of ideologies competing for support among Jews at the turn of the 20th century: assimilationism, cultural autonomy, religious orthodoxy, integration, territorialists seeking a national home, somewhere; Zionists seeking one too, but only in Palestine, and then, the movement which towards the end of the 1930s commanded the largest political support among Polish Jews, Bundism. The Bund rejected God and nationalism; Their slogan in Yiddish was “Dortn vu mir lebn – dort is unzer land” – “Where we live, that is our country”.  The Bund promoted socialism, multiculturalism, secularism, and internationalism. For them, the liberation of Jews was tied to the liberation of all who are oppressed, exploited, and discriminated against, and all who fight for equality, human rights and social justice. They physically defended religious Jews attacked by antisemites but supported free thought and enlightenment.

Whichever of those ideological paths you would have chosen, just contrast that vibrant, open-minded, political debate then, with Jewish life in Britain today, where our self-proclaimed spokespersons – the Board of Deputies, the Chief Rabbi, the Israeli Embassy, the Jewish Chronicle – try to constrain us within a narrow range of conservative orthodoxies and imperatives, centered on Zionism and religion, and even Zionism as religion, as they label critics “self-hating Jews”.

How can we rebuild open-minded debate in the Jewish community today? How can we strengthen left-wing and liberatory ideas in a community taught to be fearful and paranoid? How can we rebuild Jewish support for Labour, which took a battering during what was mostly a manufactured smear campaign about antisemitism and the Labour Party, a campaign that targeted the Labour left, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, despite Corbyn’s total commitment to human rights, and his lifelong opposition to all racism and discrimination?.

Of course, we are far from the times when solidly labour- supporting working class Jews formed the bulk of our community, but there are still some struggling working class Jews, unemployed Jews, Jewish single parents just getting by, pensioners whose living standards are falling. Many Jews work in the underfunded and threatened public sector as teachers, college lecturers, social workers, health workers, community workers. There are Jewish cab drivers who have been undercut by Uber’s disgraceful work practices, small shopkeepers squeezed by bigger enterprises, and Jews who suffer racist and fascist abuse, threats and violence…

All of those Jews would benefit from a Labour government that has a manifesto for social justice and is serious about tackling racist and fascist threats. Should their needs and interests be sacrificed, because our more comfortable so-called “community leaders” are discomfited by critical words from the Left about Israeli policy, Israeli military actions, the settlers, the occupation? Should the real needs and interests of diaspora Jews be sacrificed because they conflict with the priorities of Israel’s leaders who insist that they put Israel at the centre of Jewish life, and make defence of Israel their biggest political priority? Should we cut ourselves off from allies in other ethnic minorities, because Jewish leaders don’t like what they say, or might think about Israel?

These questions have been raised sharply for American Jews in recent months. They now have a president, who combines pro-Zionism with racism towards Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks and refugees, and has an open door for fascists and antisemites. Even some centre-right Jewish bodies there have become alarmed. Jews on the left have been active in the protest movements and very supportive of Black Lives Matter and refugee support campaigns, but right wing Zionists and some orthodox Jewish religious bodies have embraced Donald Trump.

Trump’s election adverts included a picture of Hilary Clinton in front of stacked up dollar bills, with the words “Most corrupt politician ever” encased in a Star of David. Another, which promised to rescue America from powerful global interests, fingered three wealthy Jews. Trump’s appointee Steve Bannon, said he didn’t want his daughters to go to school with Jews. Yet the day Donald Trump took office, our Board of Deputies President here, Jonathan Arkush, was one of the first to congratulate him.

A bit of personal biography to amplify these points. I became politically active in the mid-1970s aged 16. I was in a kibbutz-oriented Zionist youth group that encouraged us to see our future in Israel. But I also started attending anti-fascist demonstrations. The National Front, led by Nazi antisemites, was growing and marching through immigrant areas. In 1978 a huge anti-fascist initiative was launched – the Anti-Nazi League. The impetus was from the left.  Its sponsors and supporters encompassed trade union leaders, Labour MPs, footballers, musicians, actors, academics, and grassroots activists, and included several Jewish names. Alongside it, a brilliant campaign called Rock Against Racism, attracted youth from all communities, including young Jews.

IMG_2856In April 1978, 80,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the East End for the first Rock Against Racism Carnival. I was already active in the Jewish Socialists’ Group by then. As we left Trafalgar Square, members of left wing Zionist groups, Habonim and Mapam, marched near us.

But we were flouting the wishes of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle, who used all their energies to persuade Jews not to join with other minorities and the labour movement against the fascists because they might mix with people they disagree with over Israel.

I remember Jewish Socialists’ Group founder, Aubrey Lewis, a veteran anti-fascist from Manchester, telling us: “This has actually got nothing to do with Israel or Zionism. The Jewish establishment just want to keep young Jews away from the left.” And I can’t help thinking that, alongside a desire to shield Netanyahu’s government from criticism, some very similar plain anti-left motives have been at play in the last couple of years, as Jewish community spokespeople have jumped on the anti-Corbyn bandwagon.

Take for example Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who does not actually represent secular, Reform, Liberal or ultra-orthodox Jews, though the media treat him as if he does.

How many Jews here voted for him?

Last year, when the Tories ran a filthy Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan for London Mayor, anti-racist activists from all communities were livid. The day before that election, Chief Rabbi Mirvis was handed a front page slot in the Daily Telegraph. He wrote not a single word about that racist Tory campaign. How would Muslim communities receive that? I don’t think he cared. Instead, he devoted his article to a full-on attack on Labour, smearing them as antisemites, claiming ridiculously that Zionism was an essential part of Judaism.  He obviously has not been to the Polin Museum. He described anti-Zionists and, effectively, all critics of Israel, all Palestinians, as antisemites. But the point of his intervention was not just to defend Israel – it was to strengthen a political alignment of the Jewish community with the Tories.

So who can challenge this? Left wing Jews surely. Up until now, though, the sole representative of Jews within the Labour Party has been the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). They turned out in force on the march and rally marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street last year, but I haven’t seen them on any other significant anti-racist or anti-fascist protest for years, decades even. What prevents them participating is their fear of standing alongside those with less generous views about Israeli policy and Zionism. The JLM cannot lead that challenge, but perhaps a broader, more inclusive, more open-minded group – not fixated on defending Israel – can do so. I hope that is what Jewish Voice for Labour is starting to build.

To return momentarily to the 1970s and early 1980s: two other significant events that cemented my personal rejection of Zionism and highlighted its negative effect on diaspora Jewish communities.

In 1976 I joined the Anti-Apartheid movement. I protested outside South Africa House, gave out leaflets, boycotted… The idea of a country passing specific laws to make the majority of its inhabitants second and third class citizens, was an outrage. South Africa’s apartheid regime had very few friends. But the Israeli government was one… And the Israeli politician most deeply involved in collaborating with South Africa was not even a far right fanatic like Netanyahu, Sharon, or Begin, but Shimon Peres of the Israeli Labour Party.

nelson3

Jewish ANC members Joe Slovo (left), Ronnie Kasrils (middle)

Apartheid was defeated in South Africa. Many white ANC activists who were part of the Black-led struggle for liberation, were Jewish communists and socialists, descended from Bundists. I don’t think they thought much of Shimon Peres. Several of those Jewish ANC veterans have since condemned the apartheid-style policies of the Israeli government today as very similar to what they were fighting against.

In the late 1970s, Israel was a major arms supplier to another despicable right wing regime – the junta in Argentina, where 30,000 people “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983. Jews comprised 1% of the Argentine population: they made up more than 12% of those that disappeared. So were those arms to defend Jews from the junta or defend the junta from the Jews? You know the answer.

These are very stark cases, where Israeli policies are diametrically opposed to the interests of diaspora Jews. Most cases are less extreme but if we allow ourselves, as Jews, to examine the relationship between the Israel and the diaspora, we will then be more able to rebuild the association of Jews with progressive politics, human rights, and anti-racism. And our community will also speak out more against the daily human rights abuses committed by Israeli authorities against Palestinians – and support a growing number of young Israelis who are doing so too.

So, in Jewish Voice for Labour, we are about reviving Jewish radical thought and action today. But people don’t abandon previously held positions overnight, especially those so tied up with their identity and sense of self. What helped me and others in the Jewish Socialists’ Group, was having a very positive attitude to Jewish culture, being proud of our progressive Jewish identities and heritage and keen to rediscover and renew radical Jewish culture, I hope Jewish Voice for Labour will reflect that too.

My talk started in Poland. I want to finish with the words of two outstanding Polish Jewish socialists from rival political groups in the 1930s. One was in the Polish Communist party – albeit its left opposition. The other was in the Tsukunft, the Bund’s youth organization. But there is a symmetry to their philosophy that still applies to this day.

deutscherThe first is Isaac Deutscher who died in London in 1967: He asked what makes a Jew.  He answered: “Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.”

The second is Marek Edelman The last surviving commander Marek_Edelman_Polen_polennuof the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, whom I met briefly in Warsaw in 1997. He died in Poland in 2009. This hero was persona non grata in Israel for remaining an anti-Zionist, and for saying about that incredible Uprising: “We fought for dignity and freedom. Not for a territory, nor for a national identity”. But the very most important thing he said was: “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.” Never with the oppressors.

The last straw

My philosophical engagement with religion did not last long. Despite going to a Jewish Primary School in Hackney, and attending kheder (Jewish supplementary classes) two nights a week and on Sunday mornings until I was 14, I can’t remember believing in God. My synagogue attendance – decided by my family rather than me, tailed off rapidly after my barmitzvah. From the age of 8, going to football on a Saturday afternoon was the ritual I really looked forward to on a Saturday, and the only place where I actually  prayed – though I am not sure to whom. Of course I was not alone. When I stood on the terraces at West Ham on a Saturday afternoon I would see faces I had seen two or three hours earlier in shul (synagogue). For those who think synagogues – even those that are nominally orthodox  – are places purely of worship, let me disabuse you. While prayers were being alternately sung and mumbled, at least as far as the khazan (cantor),the rabbi and other synagogue officials believed,  I would be listening in to some of the conversations going on around me in the men’s section – family gossip, work troubles, horse racing and football news. My late friend and comrade Charlie Pottins used to describe the United Synagogue (mainstream orthodox) the kind which I attended as a place where “Jews pray in a language they don’t understand to a God they don’t believe in, for the security of a state they don’t want to live in.”

But, I had a sense of family obligation, and even in my early 20s, when it came to the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashona (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) I would return to my parents’ home and go with them to the synagogue. That all ended after Rosh Hashona 1982. that was The. Last. Straw.

In addition to a bizarre prayer for the Royal family intoned every shobbos (Sabbath), the state whose security we prayed for was Israel. Only by now I was no Zionist. Just a few weeks before I had marched, in a large contingent, behind a large yellow banner of the Jewish Socialists’ Group in a demonstration some 25,000 strong, to protest the horrendous war Israel had unleashed in Lebanon that summer, its tanks roaring through the homes of terrified Lebanese and Palestinian villagers, heading for Beirut where Yasser Arafat and Palestinian forces were concentrated. It was the first time our group had taken a banner on a Palestine Solidarity demonstration, and it was the sole Jewish banner there.

Just days before Rosh Hashona that year, there was the most sickening event of this whole war of destruction. Israel had allies within Lebanon – right-wing Phalangist Christian forces who hated the Palestinians with as much vigour as the Israeli commanders. Israel had asked local Phalangist forces to “clear out” any PLO fighters based in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The Israeli army stationed troops at the exits of the camps and, at night they lit flares to assist the Phalangists in their task. Over a period of 36 hours a gruesome massacre of the residents of the camps children, women, men took place.  Israeli officials acknowledged that there had been 700-800 deaths. The Palestinian Red Crescent estimate was 2,000. More than 1,200 death certificates were issued to survivors. Horrific photos in the aftermath showed indisputable evidence of mass executions.

_1779713_massacre300

after the massacre

It could not but be on the minds of those attending synagogues that Rosh Hashona. At that time the Jewish community where my parents lived, in Redbridge, was still expanding, and we went to High Holy Day services in a makeshift synagogue in a large room of the Redbridge Jewish Community Centre, nearer to our home than Ilford’s main purpose-built synagogue. Perhaps we came in a bit late but I remember sitting right at the back in the corner.

It was a period of transition in many branches of the United Synagogue. Those leading the services, and longstanding rabbis of some congregations, were being replaced by young, and sometimes charismatic adherents of an entryist, more orthodox, fundamentalist, movement, the Lubavitch. One of their rising young men, “educated” at a yeshivah (seminary) in Gateshead, was taking our service.  Three-quarters of the way through the service came the sermon. This moment was usually marked by a few older people deciding they needed a toilet (actually cigarette) break, some temporarily taking their hearing-aids off, others gently closing their eyes for a few minutes. But most of the congregation would at least give the appearance of listening.

Having heard so many anodyne, safe sermons over the years, with stock religious platitudes that meant nothing to me, I was mentally switching off, when my ears pricked up. In his sermon this young Lubavitcher had started to comment on the war in Lebanon and the massacre that had just taken place at Sabra and Shatila. His words are still burned into me. “Jews have suffered 2,000 years of persecution. We should worry about a few hundred Palestinians who would grow up to be terrorists?” There was an audible intake of breath, then his sermon meandered off and people relaxed again. I wanted to run out screaming but was stuck right at the back in the corner with rows of people in front. I felt sick inside and my head was thumping. I struggled to sit through the rest of the service.

That was the last straw for me. Judaism, Jewishness, Israel, are all separate phenomena. You can appreciate Jewish culture without being religious. You can be a pious Jew and reject Zionism and so on… but what this person did was manipulate his position of power in a local Jewish community to tangle things together, in a religious context, to propagandise his racism, his fascistic variant of Zionism, his utterly inhumane political position.

I made a vow to myself never to return to synagogue for a service, save weddings, barmitzvahs etc. that I am invited to, which I’ve kept to. Many people are still fooled by the Lubavitch movement, who present themselves as vibrant, and charismatic in contrast to the more staid, conservative rabbis. But they are a cult of true fundamentalists, enticing people into their narrow ideological world which incorporates support for the most revanchist, intransigent, elements in Israel.

2012-06-05-L

Israelis of “Yesh Gvul” (There is a Limit) protesting agaisnt the Lebanon invasion, 1982

The 1982 war in Lebanon, though, was also a watershed moment. The honeymoon period of diaspora Jewish support for Israel was starting to come to an end, and support for Israel among diaspora Jews has slowly declined since then. Within Israel itself, the Yesh Gvul movement of army refuseniks began in earnest during that war. Huge demonstrations of a wider peace movement condemned Ariel Sharon – Israel’s military chief – for his role in that war. A small but growing number of young people are now refusing all army service for Israel on political grounds and expressing their open support for justice for Palestinians. Two more of them – young women – have recently been thrown in jail. The times they are a-changing.

 

 

 

Paradoxes in Poland

In Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, a throng of visitors of many nationalities look round a set of beautiful 16th and 17th century synagogues that miraculously survived Nazi occupation. Some have begun to function again as synagogues servicing a revived community – others have been turned into museums, exhibition sites, and bookshops. A lively, outward-looking Jewish Community Centre, opened in 2009, runs a range of activities that appeal to secular and religious Jews, and curious non-Jews, and welcomes visitors warmly without fear. Restaurants serving traditional Jewish food are thriving and some have klezmer musicians regularly performing. The paranoid, heavy-handed security industry, typified by threatening, walkie-talkie-bearing Israelis in sunglasses, at the doors of Jewish institutions in Western Europe, is completely absent in a country in which neo-Nazi movements are supposedly thriving. Interesting.

synagogue wall

Stripped back walls of an old Krakow synagogue now used as an exhibition space about Jewish families from Krakow during the Holocaust

A couple of streets away is Plac Nowy – a small market area shared by pigeons and customers in the day and younger people in the evenings buying their beers and zapiekanki (pizza-style long breads). The stalls offer a mixture of food, clothes, souvenirs and cheap jewellery, including Stars of David. Also present are weather-beaten, middle-aged and older stall-holders, selling antiques and memorabilia. Old Jewish items, such as menorahs (candlesticks for Chanukah) surface here. You can’t help wondering about their provenance, or how comfortable those menorahs feel  standing a couple of feet away from Nazi medals and paraphernalia. There are other items bearing Stars of David – facsimile armbands of the type Jews were forced to wear by Nazis in the wartime ghettoes. Who makes those? Who on earth would want to buy one? The odd bit of antisemitic graffiti adorns Krakow’s walls, typically a Star of David with a diagonal line through it – indicating the intention to eliminate a Jewish presence. And yet Jews in Krakow go about their everyday lives, some in full ultra-orthodox garb, looking relaxed, comfortable, and at home.

ghetto memorial2

Warsaw Ghetto resisters Monument erected in the late 1940s

In Warsaw, where in contrast to Krakow, there was massive destruction of the city during the war, there are few synagogues but many memorials associated with the Nazi ghettoisation, oppression and deportation of the Jews, a task that some Poles enthusiastically assisted with, while others stood by, and some resisted and helped the Jews. The memorials are not hidden away. You encounter them in everyday places. Some were put there by the Soviet-controlled authorities in power until 1989, others have been erected more recently. Both sets indicate Poland’s willingness to face its past. You perhaps see more antisemitic graffiti in Warsaw, and yet there is no special security around memorial sites and no signs that they have been attacked.

My partner and I have just returned to Britain this week from a summer trip, more than half of which was spent in Warsaw and Krakow. We spoke to Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, among them Polish Christians whose academic studies have led them to learn Yiddish and delve into the history of the Bund, (the Jewish socialist workers’ movement), and also Poles brought up as Catholics who are delighted to have relatively recently discovered some Jewish heritage.

Given these experiences, and the impressions we were formulating, I was struck by two news reports we came back to, which both relate to the far right and antisemitism in Poland today. One, in the latest issue of the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, focuses especially on the NOP –  Narodioewe Odrodzenbie Polski (National Rebirth of Poland) – which it describes as “one of the largest and most violent Nazi groups in Poland.” The implication that they are part of a flourishing wider neo-Nazi scene in Poland is clear.

The article focuses mainly on the small number of NOP activists who have been coming to Britain under EU freedom of movement – a right they no doubt oppose ideologically while taking full advantage of it.  But Searchlight also describes the movement in the opposite direction – fascist activists from Britain First (a splinter of the fast imploding British National Party) – heading to Warsaw to find their counterparts and especially to seek out very right-wing, antisemitic Catholic church figures to invite to stir up trouble in Britain. That they can find such people testifies to a politically unhealthy climate in Poland. The individuals we spoke to on our visit were certainly alarmed at the tendencies within the mainstream right, who hold power, to provide a more favourable climate for those pushing far-right ideologies. But there are also countervailing tendencies. These are found not just in antifa activism – which also came up in our conversations, and whose graffiti work was also prominent. It was also in the clear evidence of a reviving Jewish life in both cities we visited.  Jewish communities are now  firmly established in 15 Polish cities.

The second report was from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) who were describing an apparent rift within the reviving Jewish communities about whether or not antisemitsm is growing, and whether the government is doing enough about it. The JTA quoted Anna Chipczynska,  President of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland describing  far-right circles acting with impunity, an increase in racist rhetoric online, antisemitic remarks by lawmakers and even Cabinet ministers, as well as expressions of revisionism by historians. One of her examples was Bogdan Rzonca, a prominent politician in the Law and Justice Party  who recently tweeted: “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.”  Chipczynska accused certain leading Jewish individuals such as Artur Hofman, the President of the TSKZ, Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organisation, and representatives of the ultra-religious Chabad movement, of cosying up to Poland’s very right-wing government rather than being openly critical of it when they needed to be. Last week, the JTA reported that the European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concern over the dramatic rise in antisemitism in Poland.”

This dispute cuts across other battles waged among Jewish tendencies internationally. Chabad for example, is very pro-Zionist, and Zionists are usually determined to prove how bad things are in terms of antisemitism, in order to bolster support for Israel and encourage emigration there, but Chabad also wants to expand its influence and grow within Poland, and here its local empire-building overrides its Zionist imperatives.

We found more nuanced thoughts on these issues through individuals we talked to

brodnostones

The devastated Brodno cemetery which served the Praga district of Warsaw

, such as Andrzej, a young man who didn’t know of his family’s Jewish identity until he was around 10 years old. He now works on a long-term reconstruction project and exhibition at Warsaw’s devastated Brodno Cemetery on the poorer east of the city. He identified how the very socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee right-wing policies of the governing party open up more space to those even further right while simultaneously blurring the space between them. But he was cautious about accepting that there was an upsurge in antisemitism.

He felt the far right were concentrating their sights more on attacking gays and Muslims, and even the antisemitic graffiti was more directed at one set of football fans by another rather than being directed at Jews per se. Though it is surely a worry that “Jew” is used as an insult between non-Jews. That needs to be tackled, and the case for solidarity between the targets of the far right – gays, Muslims, refugees, Jews – surely makes sense. As one of Warsaw’s heroes – Marek Edelman, the Jewish socialist who was the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto –  said: “To be a Jew is always to be with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.”

edleman

Mural of the Bundist Ghetto Resistance commander Marek Edelman in the garden area of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Krakow

Like other people we met, Andrzej expressed an optimism about the renewal of Jewish identity and life in Poland, which  was advancing more quickly and deeply than the antisemitic tendencies. Let’s hope he is right, and let’s hope that in the not too distant future, Poland’s rightward drift can be reversed.

Freedom of movement in the EU – what have the suffragettes got to do with it?

Quite a lot really. The demand for freedom of movement seems axiomatic not just for socialists, but also for a wide range of liberals who share concern for human rights, and know of the injustices that occur when that freedom is restricted, when some are considered undesirable and discriminated against purely through an accident of birth that prevents them accessing equal rights. How could that demand for free movement not be seen as progressive?

Here’s another progressive demand: “Votes for Women” – popularised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903. The WSPU were known from 1905 as Suffragettes – a term intended originally as an insult hurled at the movement by Charles Hands, a Daily Mail journalist. He was comparing activists from this new movement, which was prepared to engage in civil disobedience, unfavourably with its law-abiding suffragist predecessors. But the WSPU embraced the term, pleased to have found a name to distinguish them from the more longstanding section of the movement which restricted its activities purely to constitutional methods .

Votes_for_WomenThe WSPU originally called its own newspaper Votes for Women, but soon changed it to Suffragette. (It had one more name change during World War One. Emmeline’s eldest daughter, Christabel, insisted on changing it to Britannia to underline the movement’s patriotic credentials.) The Women’s Freedom League, which had splintered off from the movement in 1907, and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, expelled from the WSPU in early 1914,  certainly wouldn’t have supported that change as leading lights in both these organisations opposed  the War,

But let’s return to “Votes for Women” as a slogan. There was an Anti-Suffrage League that opposed it, claiming that men make political decisions based on robust intellectual arguments, while women do so on the basis of emotion. It is depressing to acknowledge that Mary Ward, who made her name as a late 19th century campaigner fighting to expand women’s education and employment opportunities accepted this argument and promoted the Anti-Suffrage League. But the WSPU also faced more principled opposition to its approach, from the left,  especially from socialists rooted in working class communities.

Why would they oppose “Votes for Women”? It was because “Votes for Women” was only half the sentence. The rest was: “on the same basis as men”. At that time barely 60% of men had the vote,  strictly on a property basis – property owned or rented at a high enough value. The poorest 40% of men, with the least access to the property that counted, remained disenfranchised after three 19th-century Reform Acts. If that was equalised, which women exactly would be enfranchised?

Rose Witkop, an immigrant Jewish anarchist among the precariat living in sub-let accommodation in London’s East End asked: “How shall we benefit if instead of electing our master – as we do today –  we elect his wife to govern us?” Dora Montefiore, active in the Marxist SDF (Social Democratic Federation) joined the WSPU, but did most of her women’s suffrage campaigning through other groups committed to enfranchising the working class. Dissident activists such as those within the East London Federation of Suffragettes characterised the WSPU’s demand as “Votes for Ladies”. They believed instead that women’s political rights would be advanced best through the introduction of universal suffrage, which would enfranchise the whole working class: women and men.

Female trade union activists, such as Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, were equally underwhelmed by the WSPU’s demands, and stayed aloof from it. Alongside other prominent female trade unionists, she argued that a partial, middle and upper-middle class-based franchise for women would merely strengthen Conservative forces in society, and potentially act as a barrier to the wider goals of women’s equality.

This may seem a harsh assessment of the WSPU, which was undoubtedly a courageous, rebellious movement. No doubt many of its own members saw through the limitations it imposed on its demands, but nevertheless chose this vehicle because it had a chance of at least partial success, and held out the prospect of additional gains later. Women, after all were working from the baseline of zero votes.

In the last two weeks I’ve been encouraged by several people to sign a statement prepared by the “Labour Campaign for Free Movement”. I probably will, very critically, but then try to apply political pressure from within and without for something bolder and more progressive. The ghosts of Mary MacArthur, Dora Montefiore, and East London suffragettes are stirring my discontent.

Let me be completely clear. I believe totally in free movement of people, and asylum and real support for those forced to flee the lands of their birth. I grew up in an immigrant family . One of my parents and all of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters were immigrants. My attitude of disrespect for national frontiers, but seeing the world as my border, is hard-wired into me and represents my earliest strong political opinion. I feel very comfortable with the “No Borders” position in the spirit of the No One is Illegal manifesto published in the early 2000s. When people scapegoat immigrants for social problems or tell me that immigrants undercut wages of indigenous workers, I give them examples like the dockers in 1889 supporting immigrant Jewish tailors in strike to create a win-win situation for East End workers, and I remind them that bosses cut wages and undermine conditions, not migrants.

I have been active for decades in anti-deportation, and pro-refugee campaigns and, at a professional level in the 1980s, as Publications officer at the Runnymede Trust,  I oversaw the publication of many reports,  pamphlets and books such as Divided Families; Undocumented, Lives, Fortress Europe… that exposed and countered the racist and narrow nationalist philosophy behind the  panoply of anti-migrant, anti-refugee legislation. At Runnymede we also argued that in addition to treating large numbers of migrants as undesirables, and humiliating them and oppressing them, this approach also strengthened racist attitudes to all minorities within our society.

So what exactly is wrong with the Labour campaign for Free Movement statement? It is certainly good to have a strong group in Labour arguing for migrant and refugee rights and challenging any accommodation to anti-immigrant arguments. But I searched the statement in vain for a crucial two-word phrase: “Fortress Europe”.  Free movement for EU nationals is undoubtedly a good thing in its own terms, allowing people to come here to work and enabling British citizens to work in other European countries, plus all the benefits of enriching each others’ cultures and breaking down stereotypes. But it takes place within a wider discriminatory system that makes it increasingly hard for non-EU workers to come to work in Britain.

FORTRESSS-e1459782581752The Tories slipped through legislation in recent years raising the amount very considerably that non-EU migrants need to be assured of earning if they are going to obtain the right to work here. Those who want to come, but are most affected by this happen to be Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans. I have  heard British-born black people describe the experience of travelling to central and eastern Europe for work under EU free movement. They met such a level of racism in their countries of destination that they felt compelled to return to Britain.

A recent Morning Star editorial  put it quite sharply: “…we effectively have a ‘whites-only’ free movement policy… For anyone living in Asia or Africa it is almost impossible to join family members settled within EU boundaries unless you have significant wealth or high qualifications. As in Britain, police across the EU are required to search for ‘illegals.’ Almost all will be from Africa and Asia… the EU Border and Coastguard Agency will now take increasing responsibility for ensuring uniform enforcement Last year it forcibly deported 10,000. This year the figure is likely to reach 20,000. This is the other side of the EU ‘free movement’ coin.”

My friend Sue Lukes, who has dedicated her adult life to anti-racist, pro-migrant and pro-refugee causes is also skeptical of this new campaign. In a recent discussion on social media she wrote: “Free movement as offered by the EU is very conditional and that is what is being defended here. Roma have been deported from France within those rules, Dutch citizens of Somali origin denied benefits and EU citizens deported from Britain for being homeless. I don’t want to defend any of that.” I agree.

I also searched in vain in the Campaign document for a critique of the freedoms for people-trafficking – or more precisely workforce trafficking – that are extended to capitalists to move workforces, deprived of rights, from low wage economies to higher wage economies, engage in super-exploitation while helping to undermine conditions won by workers in those higher wage economies. A true defence of freedom of movement must also be a defence of the rights of all workers.

These issues are bringing divisions within the Labour Party and the labour movement. I have a nagging doubt – and I hope I am wrong – that this issue is being exploited in a particular way by some people using it as a proxy for replaying the Brexit Referendum and taking a pot shot at the Labour leadership who have navigated a difficult path under pressure from many sides and from the right wing media who are still attempting to destroy that leadership.

By all means let’s have a Labour Campaign for Free Movement but let it target Fortress Europe and let us make sure that it will seek to equalise access for would be migrants workers wherever they currently reside.

 

 

 

 

Burning like a volcano under our feet

“Fascists resemble nothing so much as the Death Watch Beetle. Tirelessly they attack the great timbers of our society until the whole fabric is so riddled and honeycombed that the structure crashes on the heads of the people. As long as the are allowed to work, the Death Watch is in our own homes and in our own futures. They are capable of pulling down the whole of civilization in their effort to grab power.”

It is such a powerful metaphor. And astonishing too when I discovered that the author was barely 23 years old at the time it was written, in 1946. I found his pamphlet the other day, rummaging through archive materials on Post-war fascism at the Bishopsgate Institute Library.

The author continues: “Throughout Europe and Asia gas-chambers and mass graves were opened, families were torn apart, trade unions and hard-won freedoms were bloodily stamped out, our cultural inheritance was defiled and burnt. The trees in the parks of beautiful cities were turned into gallows, jackboots passed up and down under the windows at night”

In this searing account of the global destruction that fascism wreaked, it is the image of the trees transformed into gallows that is etched most powerfully and painfully in my mind. The writer’s own brother was brutally killed by fascism. He was on a parachute mission in Bulgaria during the war but was captured and executed by Bulgarian fascist forces. In the new post-war Bulgaria they erected a monument to him.

The writer of the pamphlet makes visible the combination of methods that bring fascist groups to power, as they opportunistically utilise any democratic outlet offered to them: “Fascists,” he says,  “have no use for the democratic rights which they demand for themselves. They prefer to gain power by lies, rumour-mongering, forgeries, intrigue, lead-piping and jackboots, assassination by terrorism, than by straight political argument. Once they seize power the whole force of the state is turned to organised gangsterdom.”

In 1946 he was recording the manner in which the British far right was beavering away,  reorganising itself, making one or two ostentatious appearances but keeping most of their activities “quiet and underhand”. He states, “…old supporters in business and political life, in the high ranks of the Services, on national and local newspapers and among spivs and drones of high society have been contacted once again. Chains of ‘study groups’ or ‘ex-service groups’ of dupes and criminals established.”

11e9ae26d492cff11a46fbbe83cb90cbHe notes that Britain’s pre-eminent fascist leader of the 1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley, who had led the British Union of Fascists, had formed a new “British Union” and was ready to work openly to rekindle his thwarted dreams, so rudely interrupted by a war with fascism.

In common with more than 1700 other suspected fascist fifth columnists, Mosley had been imprisoned for much of the war under a piece of quite draconian legislation – Rule 18b – but let out early protesting health problems. He feared that he would need to have a leg amputated because of thrombo-phlebitis, In December 1945, just months after fascism was defeated, the writer informs us that an 18b Reunion Dance had taken place at the Royal London Hotel.

He goes on to warn of the threat that a new fascist movement posed to Britain’s “glorious freedoms” which he reminds us, “were not written into the Magna Carta or granted from on high. They were wrested from the capitalists after bitter struggle by the people. By men like Thomas Hardy the shoemaker and Richard Carlile the bookseller. The right to vote was won by the Chartists and their successors, by the workers from the cotton mills of Lancashire, who met in torchlight demonstrations on the Moors”.  He adds that “these freedoms we have won are worth our care. We should defend them with inflexible purpose. We should deny them to fascists.”

The pamphlet closes with a call to action through a dire warning: “As long as capitalism and big business remain, and are threatened by the people, fascism burns like a volcano under our feet. We may block it here and there. But it will burn up again in another place.”

Who was this young writer?  Some readers may have guessed by now. I first knew him through his incredible work published in 1963 which I was reading in my student days in the late 1970s: The Making of the English Working class. His other great works included a biography of William Morris published in 1955, subtitled From Romantic to Revolutionary.

cndmarchIn addition to his written output, I admired him for his work in the peace movement, especially through CND.  I recall seeing images of him on a CND march (I was on the same march but sadly in a different section) where he and his close colleagues are parading under a banner with a slogan against nuclear destruction that only radical historians could have dreamed up: “We demand a continuing supply of history”

He is, of course, E P Thompson, the gifted writer and great campaigner who died far too young in 1993. He had begun his history studies at Cambridge, and was elected President of the Cambridge University Socialist Club at the age of 19 in 1942. He joined the Communist Party that same year.

IMG_2895Within the Party he added considerably to the work of an emerging group of brilliant historians who were Party members, who were articulating a “history  from below” that told the story of Britain through the struggles of ordinary people for social change. He left the Party in 1956 in the wake of the revelations about Stalin’s crimes and the invasion of Hungary, and then contributed much to the more radical New Left movement, that filled an intellectual vacuum as the Party declined. It was such a pleasure reading this incredible pamphlet penned when he was so young.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 years after Powell predicted rivers of blood

People remember Enoch Powell’s chilling “Rivers of Blood” speech delivered inpowellL0411_468x825 Birmingham on 20th April 1968, which happened to be on Hitler’s birthday. At that time Powell was a Conservative politician, and through that speech he deliberately set out to embolden already growing racist and anti-immigrant forces and spread fear through ethnic minority communities working all hours to eke out a living and provide better opportunities for their children. Intimidation and violence against those minorities inevitably followed in the weeks and months after that hair-raising speech. People, though, are far less familiar with Powell’s speech at a public event in Billericay, Essex, a decade later, on 10th June 1978. By then, of course, he was outside the ranks of the Conservatives and was representing Ulster Unionists in South Down. What happened the very next day may have just been a coincidence but on that occasion he talked explicitly about violence: “Violence,” he said, “does not break (out)… because it is willed, or contrived… but because it lies in the inevitable course of events.” He predicted that, within 20 years, “one third of the inner metropolis of key cities will have passed to the control of a population which by reason of the strongest impulses  and interests of human nature, neither can, nor will identify itself or be identified with the rest.”

He continued menacingly: “…those who foresaw and feared they would be swamped will be driven by equally strong impulses and interests to resist and prevent it.”

east-end-people_tonybock_05

Local NF leader Derrick Day and some of their followers at the corner of Brick Lane

For several months during 1978, there had been a regular National Front (NF) presence on Sunday mornings on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane, right outside a shop selling camping equipment, which was owned by a middle-aged Jewish couple. The NF sold papers – usually National Front News and sometimes Holocaust News. They set up a bookstall with choice titles such as Did 6 Million Really Die? and shouted abusive racist slogans. All within a stone’s throw of two Jewish-run beigel shops and the groceries and cafes that the newly-settled Bengali population had established in this section of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End.

Many of the fascists who gathered on that corner were relatively local, from Hoxton and Shoreditch. And their threatening mob included more and more young skinheads as the numbers grew generally and as their own influence among skinheads increased. But fascist supporters were also coming there from out of the area – from Hackney, Tottenham, and into Essex.

On 11th June, 1978, just 24 hours after Powell’s incendiary Billericay speech, the NF concluded their gathering that day with a terrifying rampage down Brick Lane. Some 150 skinheads, grabbing  bottles, bricks and rubble as they went, smashed windows, threw bottles and lumps of concrete, and chanted hate slogans while attacking people in their way. In a manner reminiscent of the response to the outrage against worshippers near two Finsbury Park mosques very recently, some of the attackers in June ’78 were kettled and held by the community until the police arrived. The police made a tiny number of token arrests.

_89559344_a0ff0223-204a-4757-835f-bdef6757bb53

Altab ali

This was just five weeks after Altab Ali, a 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker had been stabbed to death on his way home from work by a teenage gang whose minds had been poisoned by the NF’s racism. After Ali’s death, protesters held a huge march to Downing Street behind his coffin. A range of Bengali and anti-racist organisations were created especially among the youth, and they challenged both the fascists and the wider racist atmosphere the fascists were benefiting from.

Just two days after the rampage, anger was expressed not just on the streets, but in a public hall – the Montefiore Centre on Hanbury Street off Brick Lane. The anger was directed that night not principally at the NF but at a harebrained scheme to make Bengalis safer from racist attacks, dreamed up quite a distance from the East End  in County Hall by the Conservative controlled Greater London Council (GLC). They proposed to create Bengali-only estates. Bengali organisations and spokespersons had certainly demanded better, safer housing and had expressed a wish to live near each other, but no Bengali organisation had asked for segregated or ghettoised housing. They wanted to live on multi-racial estates building good and lasting relations with their neighbours.

These explosive situations occurred in a tumultuous decade of East End history. During that decade, as around 15,000 new Bengalis immigrants supplemented the 3,000 or so who had already settled by the end of the 1960s, the overall population of the borough of Tower Hamlets plummeted to its 20th century low – just 139,000 people. The boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, which were amalgamated into Tower Hamlets in 1965, were home to nearly 500,000 people in the late 19th century, when the wealthy Victorian businessman-cum-social researcher Charles Booth was tramping the streets gathering demographic data.

From the 1980s that population grew again, not least as the fairly recently settled Bengali population had children, and more families were reunited. But the social, economic and cultural dislocation of that decade – white flight to Essex and Kent as the Bengali population grew substantially; the loss of half the remaining jobs on the London docks; the closure of longstanding local firms – created an environment in which groups like the NF with their scapegoating methods could flourish, and malevolent politicians within the mainstream, such as Powell added to the incitement.

brick-lane.jpg

Brick Lane late 1970s through the eyes of the artist and activist Dan Jones

Fast forward to today and the very recent penchant for acid attacks which has included those in East London, some of which have been carried out for reasons of Islamophobic race hate. And the police, for all their experience of race attacks, still remain so slow to acknowledge that element when it is obviously there. Though, it is true that the majority of attacks are not on Muslims specifically but on a wider category, the poor and economically marginalised of all communities black, brown and white, including for example Latin American migrant workers most likely raised as Catholics, who are compelled to take risky precarious work as moped-riding delivery drivers. Other victims have been white middle-class moped riders using them as a lifestyle choice. Many attacks are being used to steal mopeds which are favoured vehicles by drugs gangs for quick sales and quick getaways.

And, Tower Hamlets residents continue to face housing problems. Bangladeshi Muslims in East London make up a significant proportion of those who face a housing crisis today, but it is  one that is less concerned with physical safety from racists than a crisis fuelled by increasing gentrification of the area’s prime sites, with its knock-on effects on the prices of everything and the reduction of public housing stock.

altab_ali_1978_demo

Demonstration 1978: youth in the forefront

However, as we face our current troubles, we still have so much to learn from the experiences of those populating the streets in and around Brick Lane in the 1970s, not least about the spirit of resistance, solidarity and determination to bring about change that was so much in evidence then and ultimately pushed the fascists away.

The story of this dramatic decade is the subject of my newest walk, which will be having  its third outing on the morning of Sunday 30th July. Further details and booking information are here:

Battleground Brick Lane 1970s is a 2.5 hour guided walk through a dramatic decade in the life of the East End and London as a whole, taking place next on 30th July. Fee £8 (£5 unwaged). Book online at: http://www.eastendwalks.com/?page_id=82

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entering the House with honest intentions?

It’s an important political anniversary today. Exactly 125 years ago, on 4 July, 1892, voting began in the General Election that saw the first two socialist MPs elected to Parliament. They were James Keir Hardie in West Ham and John Burns in Battersea. Both came from backgrounds vastly different to most of the puffed up toffs they would be sitting among. The moment they both entered parliament was captured in a beautiful observation by the extraordinary socialist and feminist activist Charlotte Despard. I will come back to that later as it has a bearing on current political arguments.

IMG_4832So who were these two new kids on the Westminster block? John Burns was one of 16 children born in Lambeth to a Scottish father and English mother. After his father disappeared from the scene, John Burns’ mother moved the family into a basement in  Battersea. Burns left school at 10 to be apprenticed as an engineer.  One of his fellow workers was Victor Delahaye – an exiled Paris Communard who became Burns’ early political mentor.  In the early 1880s Burns helped form the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF was Britain’s first Marxist organisation.

Henry Snell described Burns as “one of the SDF’s best speakers…(whose) power as a popular street-corner orator was probably unequalled in that generation. He had a voice of unusual range… and he possessed great physical and nervous vitality. His method of attracting a crowd was, immediately he rose to speak, and for one or two minutes only, to open all the stops of his organ-like voice. The crowd once secured, his vocal energy was modified, but his vitality and masterful diction held his audience against all competitors.” The trade unionist Tom Mann said Burns’ voice “could fill every part of the largest hall or theatre, and, if the wind were favourable, could reach a 20,000 audience in the parks”.

Burns took up many causes and was especially committed to demonstrations about unemployment. In 1887 he began leading processions of unemployed workers to Sunday services at fashionable London churches. In my book Rebel Footprints I highlighted an  occasion in St. Paul’s Cathedral where Reverend Gifford began preaching against socialism at a service when John Burns was present. According to reports, “Burns promptly rose to his feet and sang a socialist parody of a well-known hymn. A ‘disturbance’ inevitably followed.”

When Burns stood for parliament in 1892 he had the backing of local socialists and trade unionists but also the local Liberal association: what some might call a “progressive alliance”.

Unlike Burns, Keir Hardie had no formal schooling at all, bHardie_electut his mother taught him to read and write. His working life also began at the age of 10 – down the mines. Just like  Burns, though, he became a well-respected orator at a relatively young age, highlighting the grievances of miners in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. As he began exploring political parties and groups he initially hoped that the Liberals would be able to enact social change that would benefit workers, but came to the stark conclusion that “we need a Labour Party to replace the historic Liberal Party”.

So what did Charlotte Despard actually say on that day in July 1892? She had been less impressed than many others by Burns’ claims that he stood above all for the needs of the “common people” and his declaration that “I am not ashamed to say I am the son of a washerwoman”. He had also stated “The better the dress and position, the bigger the snob and the greater the rogue.” And yet, as Despard observed, while they were filing into the newly elected Parliament in that summer of 1892, Keir Hardie wore plain simple clothes and a cloth cap, whereas “Burns wore an exclusive suit paid for by his supporters”. This surely told us something. In the years that followed Keir Hardie consolidated the Independent Labour Party with its principled ethical socialism, but Burns edged closer and closer to the Liberal Party hierarchy, finally accepting a Liberal Party Cabinet post in 1906. Despard was neither shocked nor surprised by this “development”.

by Mrs Albert Broom, cream-toned velox print, 1900-1925That 1892 election did hold one surprise though. In Finsbury Central the liberals beat the Tories by a whopping majority of three votes and returned the first Asian MP to Westminster – a Parsee named Dadabhai Naoroji who had been one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. When Naoroji chased a seat in a neighbouring constituency at the previous election, Lord Salisbury had said, “I doubt whether we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency will take a black man to represent them.”  This time around, in a letter to The Times, Sir Lepel Griffin, a former colonial administrator in the Punjab, described Naoroji as “an alien in race, in custom, in religion, destitute of local sympathy or local knowledge,” and claimed that “no more unsuitable representative could be imagined or suggested.” Griffin described Parsees as “the Jews of India”. That was not intended as a compliment.
dadabhai-naoroji

Naoroji stood for the Liberals when Parliamentary elections were principally a two-horse race of Tories and Liberals. Burns and Keir Hardie broke the mould with openly socialist programmes. Naoroji had close associates well to the left of the Liberals, but was unlikely to get anywhere near succeeding without the endorsement of a more mainstream party.

What to make of the Liberals or as they are now – Lib Dems. In the last two months some of my friends have been urging me to see them as potential partners in a “progressive alliance”. Unlike John Burns I have recoiled from that, basically not trusting them as far as I could spit (not very far these days). Just after the election I told these friends to expect the Tories to stitch up a new grubby deal with the Lib-Dems. Instead we had an even grubbier deal with the DUP, but just this morning it has emerged that the Tories have indeed also been having behind the scenes talks with the Lib-Dems. I am about as surprised as Charlotte Despard was about Burns throwing in his lot with that band of opportunists.