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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

Tale of two cities

When Jeremy Corbyn visited the community around Grenfell Tower and comforted  survivors of what his fellow Labour MP David Lammy has called “corporate manslaughter”, he said, “Kensington is a tale of two cities – it is among the wealthiest parts of this country but the ward where this took place is one of the poorest… residents must be rehoused, using requisition of empty properties if necessary in the community they love.”
0yntjsyje6ufcgtpabudkactnrnxbhld-smallThere is a history of demands to requisition empty properties in this locality and use them to address housing injustice and housing needs that goes back to 1946.

At the end of July that year, a squatting campaign by homeless and inadequately housed people began in several locations. At first they took over disused army camps but soon empty flats and houses were entered.

In London, hundreds of homeless people, organised through the Communist Party (CP), temporarily took occupation of empty residential flats owned by the wealthy, and this took place particularly in Kensington and Marylebone in estates such as that owned by the Duchess of Bedford.

A year after the war ended, 3.5 million soldiers had been demobbed and absorbed into industry but wages were declining, there were 300,000 unemployed, and a housing crisis. in 1946, the number of families needing homes exceeded the number of suitable dwellings by 9 per cent nationally. In London, a city that had endured the Blitz, that figure was up to 21 per cent.

The Labour government set about a crash programme of temporary housing such as prefabs. They concentrated new-build in local authority hands by increasing subsidies for local authority housing. They also extended the  powers to requisition properties for war purposes, to peacetime purposes, so there would be more properties available for those who were inadequately housed.

But some local authorities reacted slowly to this urgent need. In the Westminster district of Marylebone there were 3,360 people on the housing waiting list but they had rehoused only a handful of families. In Kensington, the local council returned properties requisitioned in wartime to their wealthy private owners, who would attempt to re-let them at steep rents.

The Communist Party in London held an internal meeting on 6th September, a Friday night. The next day CP members got in touch with people they knew living in bad conditions, who were mainly non-Party members, and told them to meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon and bring whatever bedding they had with them.

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Moving on to the Dutchess of Bedford estate

On the Sunday night the CP held a meeting at the Palace Theatre, central London where  their London District secretary, Ted Bramley, read out a BBC report:

“Between 2 and 3 o’clock, about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas”

Over a period of 24 hours they contacted families from several boroughs, and got around 400 families involved. Communist Party spokespersons described it as a “shock for the government, landlords, private exploiters and their profits”, and a shock too “for their dear, objective, impartial friends in press.”

It was a powerful piece of direct action, though they knew they would not be able to hold out long. Within a few days writs and possession orders were issued and police arrested the party ringleaders, such as Ted Bramley, who had organised the actions. The state disinterred the Common Law offence of Conspiracy. There was discussion within the Party and among the squatters about how to respond. Some wanted a forcible stand against ejection; many others felt that given the number of young children among the squatters that would be a very risky course of action for the families involved. They had made their point very effectively and this would affect the national debate and public policy.

IMG_1240In contrast to Corbyn today, Labour ministers then did not display much human sympathy for those involved, but nevertheless promised there would be no further action against squatters who left peacefully, and reassured them that none of them would lose their existing place in the housing queue.

The squatters left with their dignity intact. They marched out holding banners aloft and with bands playing music. They issued a public statement that said:

“We came in here not for ourselves alone but for the hundreds and thousands of others in a similar plight… Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless… We came in together and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. Those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed. When we march out … we expect the authorities to show us that human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We ask that a rest centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated and that we take our place with the other Londoners fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight… for all local authorities to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of decent homes for London’s people.”

squattersMany of the squatters went to halfway houses and all were eventually rehoused. In the aftermath, there was much more movement by local authorities to house homeless families in requisitioned properties.

Those who were prosecuted for leading the action gave a very good account of themselves in court. They were convicted but merely bound over  to keep the peace for two years to a sum of £5 – a token gesture. Hopefully those deemed responsible by the Public Inquiry for the appalling outcome at Grenfell Tower will have the law falling upon them much, much more heavily.

Reasons to be Cheerful: part 3

Back in 1997 when Labour swept to power in a tidal wave of sentiment against Thatcher, its theme song was D: Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Of course they did, temporarily, and then Blair and his New Labour cronies took us steadily rightward, took the country into unjust and unnecessary wars, ignored the desire in the country for real and radical change, and, over time, threw away the several millions of votes Labour had gained.

THE-VERY-BEST-OF-IAN-DURY-AND-THE-BLOCKHEADS-REASONS-TO-BE-CHEERFULAfter last Thursday’s election, the song in my head is classic Ian Dury: “Reasons to be Cheerful: Part 3.” May said Corbyn would take us back to the 1970s. The song was released in 1979.  Parts 1 and 2 were clearly the two leadership elections Corbyn had to fight to establish himself as leader, and Part 3 was this incredible General Election we have just experienced. While the most ostrich-like commentators will try to pretend that Labour lost the election, they know the truth only too well.

This election was called opportunistically by a Tory PM who believed the lazy propaganda of the media commentariat (with the honorable exceptions of the Daily Mirror and the Morning Star) that there was a strong likelihood of a Tory-landslide that would humiliate Jeremy Corbyn and destroy the Labour Party; that May was a “credible leader” and Corbyn wasn’t; that the Conservatives were poised take seats where they hadn’t before in traditional Labour strongholds such as Wales.

The result was a net loss of 13 Tory seats, which meant they had completely squandered their parliamentary majority, and net gains by Labour of 30 seats, gaining in seats in Wales and also including several that would have simply been described as “impossible” never mind unlikely (think Kensington or Warwick Leamington). Labour gained 3 million more votes than its last effort just two years ago, and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings have been shooting up. He calmly brushed aside every ridiculous smear that the Tories, the Blairite remnants, and the compliant media tried to throw at him, and they will have none left to offer next time around. Far from being humiliated, Corbyn is now secure and admired by a much wider spectrum of people. It is May who looks isolated, friendless and demoralised.

In the weeks leading up to Polling Day, I had the occasional wobble, including on election2605c6e63a3c06e3e7ea39f1dcd1c846 day itself, when I woke up and asked myself, “What if they are right? What if I am living in a left bubble?”. But despite everything I had read in mainstream media outlets, from Jonathan Freedland, Andrew Rawnsley, to Paul Dacre, during the campaign, a couple of weeks ago  I was confident enough that they had so seriously misjudged the real picture, that I put my money where my mouth is and placed a bet at 11/1 odds on a hung parliament. Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell are driven by a redistributive principle, and even before they have taken office it seems they have already helped me to redistribute some of William Hill’s excessive profiits.

The Tories are in crisis, with Theresa May just about clinging on. Back in 2010, Cameron could be a bit more choosy and take in Lib-Dems as his dupes to prop up his coalition. May has been forced to be less choosy. Her only option left was to call on the swivel-eyed loons (climate change-deniers, homophobes, creationists, fellow-travellers of Loyalist terrorism) of the DUP, for Christ’s sake, for a “confidence and supply” deal. The DUP will surely try to extract a price that will be unpalatable for significant numbers of Tories. Then what?

Boris Johnson claims he is 100% behind Theresa May. I’m sure he is (with a 6-inch steel bladed knife). Another  possible replacement, Amber Rudd, is effectively out of the contest after her own majority in her constituency was reduced from several thousands to a few hundred. Rudd only just survived this election – she knows she won’t survive the next. And while they are tearing bits out of each other, the clock is ticking for their EU negotiations. It’s not pretty. There are no strong and stable leaders in sight among the Tory ranks.

Labour, meanwhile, is bouyant. It has instantly gone up five points in polls taken since the election, while the Tories have dropped five, and the leaderless UKIP have enjoyed a slight recovery. The feelgood factor across the Labour Party is palpable. Labour has already recruited an astonishing 150,000 new members since the polls closed, and if it was people-power and the ability to mobilise armies of activists for canvassing in marginal areas that was so crucial to the result, Labour will have already enhanced its capacity to do that next time with even greater impact. All those young people who registered before the deadline, are now registered for the next election, which surely will not be more than six months to one year away. The party has an exciting new, popular, coherent and costed manifesto, which fundamentally breaks with the failed Blair agenda. It will not need much tweaking before the next election. And finally the simple figures in the results themselves reveal where the Tories’ most marginal constituencies are and where canvassing, public meetings and events should continue now. Just a very small swing will bring another 20 seats and Labour would have high hopes of  gaining in several others.
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Make no mistake. This is a crisis, and a nightmare, not just for the Tories, but also for the Labour Right. More right-wing Labour MPs may have been elected, but they owe their majorities to Corbyn’s campaign, and the centre of gravity among the Party membership has shifted leftwards. Any actions of sabotage and serial disloyalty to the leadership this time round will surely merit re-selection procedures. They will have no desire to risk that when the Party is poised for power. Meanwhile Several centre-Left Labour MPs who had opposed Corbyn in the last two years are now openly and honestly acknowledging his achievements in this election, which further isolates the right. The old Chinese curse of living in interesting times is surely upon us. Theresa May and Tony Blair are running into the obscure wheat field of history, and we really do have many reasons to be cheerful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy must answer back to terror and Theresa May

A woman holds a placard as they take part in a vigil for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena, in central ManchesterIt was surely right to pause national election campaigning in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack in Manchester. It gave us time to absorb and respect the incredible responses by ordinary people in Manchester as the tragedy unfolded, and to acknowledge the vital role of emergency services cut to the bone by Tory austerity policies. We have witnessed outstanding examples of solidarity and support. Full credit too to Jeremy Corbyn for his deeply humane public statements, which got a short-lived full airing by the media before they reduced them drastically to a single sentence.
Theresa May, who had looked so weak and distraught in the face of the press posse on the day of her u-turn on social care, did not miss a trick in hogging the limelight with confident, belligerent and unchallenged pronouncements in front of Downing Street about security and the national interest, while the Tory-supporting press had a campaign-free day to continue spreading their smears attempting to link Corbyn and McDonnell to terrorism.
As May unleashes a narrow and transparently militaristic response, with soldiers on the streets, she is simultaneously trying to suspend national campaigning until Sunday – in the middle of the Bank Holiday weekend (even though her canvassers were already back on the streets in some areas yesterday evening, including within Manchester itself).
The last thing she wants is Corbyn and his team continuing to address mass outdoor meetings reviving the themes that were biting so hard into the Tory polling lead last week. Nor would she want Labour to be able to amplify its critique, expressed early in the campaign, of the Tories’ hypocritical approach to national security, centred on an aggressive foreign policy, arms sales to murderous dictatorships and intimate friendship with Donald Trump. While she was talking about security, her new best friend was completing more arms sales and strengthening reactionary political alliances in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
If the Manchester outrage was an attack on democracy then democracy has to answer back, and Labour must revive its national campaign no later than tomorrow. If May is forced back on to the campaign trail, rather than being able to hold forth in front of Downing Street as a stateswoman, she will try to make the debate in the next few days all about terrorism. Labour has the arguments to deal with that, and then park it, as it returns to the themes the election is really all about – poverty, the NHS, education, housing, zero hours contracts, foodbank Britain, etc.
She had already tried earlier in the campaign to make the election solely about Brexit (aided and abetted by some sectarian sections of the left/anti-racist movement), but Corbyn’s team exposed and destroyed that cynical manoeuvre when they unleashed their brilliant and exciting manifesto, which took on the full range of failures of the Tory administrations since 2010, well before Brexit was even dreamed of.
Yesterday I was feeling sickened and numbed by the horrifying details of what occurred in Manchester, and also by the crashing halt to the momentum Labour built up last week. I felt despair about their prospects of reviving that campaign in the post-terror attack atmosphere, with a little over two weeks to polling day. I will leave it to the conspiracy theorists to speculate about this attack happening in the immediate aftermath of a full-blooded media assault alleging that Labour’s leaders were friendly to the IRA, in a city where a major IRA attack occurred back in the day, and to ask how much the security forces knew about the person identified by them as the perpetrator. We won’t know the truth of that for many years to come, if ever. But we cannot afford to dwell on that today. Our response has to be to seize the initiative once more and be out on the streets canvassing and campaigning on the real issues of this election. We know what they are.
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And this morning I feel a little more positive having read that some 622,000 people registered to vote on the deadline day, 22 May. They included 246,000 in the 18-24 age bracket and 207,000 who were 25-34 year olds. A luta continua!

A Holocaust victim who died in London

When I heard recently of an academic researcher questioning the number of Jewish Holocaust victims, I felt enraged, and if I was honest, perhaps a little murderous. But my reaction was misplaced. This was not someone trying to hide, erase or deny Nazi crimes, but someone who thought that actually the iconic figure of six million Jewish deaths may actually be an underestimate. One thing I am sure of is that revised figures should include one Holocaust victim, a Polish, Jewish, anti-fascist, who died far from the death camps that the Nazis established on Polish soil. He died here in London. Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of  Szmul “Artur” Zygielbojm, who committed suicide at his Paddington flat on the night of 11/12 May 1943 as the heroic Warsaw Ghetto resistance was finally extinguished. His story was a remarkable one.

A factory worker at 10 years old, and apprenticed as a glove maker at 12, Zygielbojm became a renowned trade union figure in Poland. He was a leading member of the Bund, the Jewish socialist party that was active throughout Poland but especially in Warsaw and Lodz, where, in the 1930s, one in three residents were Jews. At that time, antisemitic, pro-fascist forces flourished in Poland, and the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party-Left (PPS-Left) led the anti-fascist resistance. Zygielbojm helped to organise a half-day general strike by Jewish and non-Jewish workers protesting a pogrom in Przytyk in 1936 in which three people died and many were wounded.

When the Nazis invaded in September 1939, Poland’s right wing political establishment fled, but the Bund and PPS formed workers’ battalions, which tried to repel the invaders. Zygielbojm was central in this resistance. To ensure Warsaw Jews’ acquiescence, the Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council). In November 1939 they commanded the Judenrat to create a walled ghetto. When they heard this decree many Jews descended on the Judenrat building. Zygielbojm, a reluctant Judenrat member, could not convince his fellow councillors to oppose the decree, and resigned. But he seized the opportunity to address the crowd from a balcony, urging defiance: “Don’t go voluntarily to the ghetto. Don’t lose courage. Remain in your homes until you are removed by force.” He was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters “to discuss important matters”. But instead his Bund comrades hid him, then organised a daring escape in which he travelled in disguise through Nazi Germany on a false Dutch passport. They entrusted him, though, with a formidable task: to tell the world what was happening to Poland’s Jews and mobilise for their defence and rescue.

Zygielbojm emerged in Belgium and attended a meeting of the Socialist International. He shocked delegates with eye-witness reports of the atrocities the Nazis were already committing. But when the Nazis sent their occupying forces westward as well as east, Zygielbojm had to flee once more, eventually reaching America. He told Jewish and labour movement audiences there about the barbaric nature of the Nazi occupation and urged exceptional action to rescue the Jews.

In early 1942, the Polish Parliament in Exile invited Zygielbojm to join their National Council in London. From here he maintained a network of clandestine contacts – Jewish and non-Jewish – relaying detailed information on the tragedy unfolding in his homeland. In May 1942 he received a report from Warsaw Bundists that contained a list of mass murder sites. It estimated that 700,000 Jewish civilians had already died through starvation, shootings and gassing. Zygielbojm released this report to the Daily Telegraph and several other newspapers before giving it to the Jewish press. He believed this would ensure it reached a wide audience. Given the antisemitism that existed among the British establishment, he feared that, had it surfaced in a Jewish newspaper first, there would be many who would question its authenticity.

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Szmul Zygielbojm

He sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders and conveyed information to the general public by broadcasting on the BBC, addressing public meetings, and bombarding the press with letters and information. At a packed Labour Party meeting in Caxton Hall in September 1942, Zygielbojm revealed gruesome facts that, would, in his own words, “make blood curdle in the veins”. He asked the audience to “imagine the people who see their nearest ones being dragged away to their death every day.” Each one, he said “knows that their turn must come. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.” He called on people of all nations to “force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people.”

Three months later, Zygielbojm was visited at his Paddington flat by Jan Karski a remarkable figure in the Polish underground, whose promising diplomatic career was halted when his country fell under Nazi occupation. Karski smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay messages between underground resisters. In London he handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto. The letter asked Jewish leaders in the West to go on hunger strike outside British and American Government offices until they obtained guarantees of action to save the Jews. “Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.” Zygielbojm promised Karski he would act on this letter.

In spring 1943 Zygielbojm wrote a sombre letter to his brother Fayvel in South Africa. He expressed frustration that his strenuous efforts had failed, and grief for his wife Manya their sons Yossel and Artek, and other close relatives he presumed had perished. He never knew that Yossel had actually survived and was a Red Army partisan fighter.

Two crushing events coincided on 19th April 1943. While Nazi tanks and soldiers entered the Warsaw Ghetto to destroy it and massacre its remaining inhabitants (most had already been deported to death camps), American and British leaders convened the Bermuda Conference where they ruled out taking significant numbers of Jewish refugees. The conference concluded on 30th April. Inside the ghetto, though, Bundists, Communists and Zionists under a joint command, boosted by a small number of weapons received from the Polish resistance outside, fought a courageous three week guerrilla campaign to defend the ghetto. It was the most unequal of battles but the Nazis paid a high price for their eventual victory.

On the night of 11th/12th May, 1943, Zygielbojm gassed himself at his Paddington home. He left letters – one to his landlady apologising for the shock she would experience; others to political leaders and to his Bundist comrades and friends, confirming that his suicide was a premeditated act of political protest:

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 Extract (Yiddish) from one of Zygielbojm’s suicide letters – this one addressed to the Polish President and Prime Minister

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

Zygielbojm’s suicide was a protest not against the Nazis – he condemned their atrocities daily – but against the allies’ failure to help the Jews in their moment of greatest need. Newspapers across the world reported his suicide. It had a powerful public impact, but the allied governments did not change their policy. Zygielbojm’s son, Yossel, learned of his father’s death when his partisan unit took over a former Nazi base on the River Vrbas in Yugoslavia that same month. A newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, was left behind. It contained an article mocking his father’s suicide.

In Warsaw today, where the ghetto once stood, an artistic memorial is etched in glass on a building in Zygielbojm Square. Montreal has a Zygielbojm Memorial Park. In Israel, a Tel Aviv street is named after him. Here in Britain, where his life ended, there was no memorial. But in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in April 1993, Jewish Socialists’ Group activists and several elderly Bundist survivors established a Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee to campaign for a local memorial. With endorsements from writers, historians, rabbis, trade unionists and MPs, the committee requested Westminster Council –a notoriously right wing council – to mount a plaque to honour a Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist resident.

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IMG_2189.jpg Bundist committee members gave me a Yiddish biography of Zygielbojm

A young council officer responded enthusiastically but met repeated hurdles. It took three years to succeed. The committee established contact with Zygielbojm’s surviving family. Yossel (now known as Joseph) had settled in California with his wife Adela, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They had two sons, Arthur and Paul. Joseph was determined to attend the ceremony. Sadly, he died a year before the plaque was unveiled. But other family members flew over. Adela Zygielbaum unveiled the plaque together with Britain’s then Polish ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, in front of 200 supporters. The elderly Jan Karski, still alive then but very frail, and living in America too, sent a handwritten message regretting that he was “not strong anymore” and could not travel, much as he would like to.

The unveiling was followed by a celebration of Zygielbojm’s life at the nearby Yaa Asantewaa African Community Centre, where Paul Zygielbaum spoke movingly of his grandfather’s sacrifice.   “Zygielbojm’s sacrifice,” he said, “was not for the Jews alone. His words and deeds embodied vital lessons for mankind about what it means to be a human being. About compassion, dignity, commitment and courage. About the ultimate value of life and of each human culture… with his death he invoked the vision of a world of freedom, justice and peace, in which brutality would have no place… Let us look ahead  with determination to the building of a world in which all people can live in peace and mutual respect. This is what Szmul Zygielbojm would have wanted.”

wpfe54aaeb_05_06Sadly, only one of the Bundist survivors who were part of our Memorial committee, is still alive, Wlodka Blit-Robertson, whose father Lucien Blit was a prominent Bundist activist in Warsaw. But with the plaque in place, Zygielbojm’s memory here lives on. You can find it on Porchester Road, near the corner with Porchester Square. Go and visit, celebrate his life, reflect on his sacrifice, and rededicate yourself to the struggle for freedom and against fascism wherever it shows itself.