One of the prophets?

I was approached earlier this year to write a chapter for the 4th volume of the Jewish Lives Project – a six part book series celebrating the Jewish contribution to British Society throughout history published by the Jewish Museum in London. This volume focuses on influential thinkers and I was asked to write about ‘Karl Marx and Anglo-Jewish Thought”. Volume 4 has now been published. This is my essay.

Karl Marx never went to shul (synagogue) despite both his parents being descended from a long line of rabbis. I blame his father, the lawyer Herschel Marx, born in Saarlautern in 1782, who later settled in Trier, a town of 12,000 people by the Moselle, where his brother Samuel was the senior rabbi. In 1817 Herschel the Jew became Heinrich the (Lutheran) Protestant, to sidestep barriers blocking his career. Why did Herschel choose Protestantism in heavily Catholic Trier? Perhaps he still enjoyed being a minority.

Herschel and Henrietta Marx had nine children. Only four survived to adulthood. Karl marxMarx was born in 1818. Since Judaism is passed down by the mother, and Henrietta postponed her baptism until after her father’s death in 1825, Karl was officially born a Jew. Not for too long, though. Karl was baptised at the age of six. Then, as a young adult, Karl dispensed with both Lutheranism and Judaism and declared himself an atheist. He memorably described religion, In 1844, as “the opiate of the masses”. It comforted people, he said. It relieved pain in their lives, and gave them temporary euphoria and pleasant illusions. But he wanted people to ditch their illusions, confront reality, and change the world.

I was never offered opiates in shul I when I was young. We were lucky to get a boiled sweet from the shammas. I don’t recall much praying either. Instead I heard sotto voce discussions of football, horse-racing and business worries, interspersed with the congregants standing up, singing like an unruly football crowd, or muttering Hebrew words at lightning speed. “In shul”, one Jewish Marxist told me, “people pray to a God they don’t believe in, in a language they don’t understand, for the security of a state they don’t want to live in”.

On my wedding day, though, Karl Marx the Jew was proudly name-checked by Rabbi Bayfield, head of the Reform Synagogue Movement as he generously described me and my partner, Julia, as social justice campaigners within a “Jewish prophetic tradition”, stretching from Amos and Mica via Marx to the present. The mere mention of Marx provoked nervous coughs among some relatives.

But Marx was indeed a prophet, who argued that major historical changes resulted from the struggle for ascendancy between antagonistic socio-economic classes. In 1818, when Marx was born, the old landed aristocracy were being challenged by a rising industrial bourgeoisie. Once the bourgeoisie triumphed though, they could only sustain their dominance through economically exploiting the class that filled its factories –  the “proletariat”. It was inevitable, Marx believed, that one day the proletariat would revolt, seize power in the name of the majority, and establish a society based on equality and justice.

IMG_7209

Communist manifesto in Yiddish published by the Bund in Warsaw

When Marx first visited London in 1845 he met German migrant workers and leaders of radical political groups. On his second visit, in 1847, one group – the Communist League – commissioned him to distill his revolutionary ideas in an accessible pamphlet that would inspire the proletariat to fulfil its historic role. He collaborated on this with Friedrich Engels, and in 1848 they published The Communist Manifesto. It has never been out of print. I possess a Yiddish copy, published by the Jewish Socialist Bund in 1919 in Warsaw. It begins: “A ruakh, a shotn geyt arum iber ayrope – der shotn fun komunizm” (A spirit, a spectre, is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism). The pamphlet urges workers to launch themselves into the struggle: “You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win”. It closes with the rallying cry: “Workers of the World Unite!”

The Marx family settled permanently in London in 1849, living temporarily in Camberwell and Chelsea before renting a two-room flat in Soho, an area full of exiled revolutionaries. Later, they lived in Kentish Town.

Most Jewish Londoners at that time would have scoffed at his manifesto. A small influx of poorer Jews from Holland and Germany scraped a living as clothing and cigarette makers, small traders or petty criminals, but heads of Jewish households were more typically bankers, stockbrokers and entrepreneurs living in capitalist comfort, though barred from standing as MPs until 1858, and their children could not study at Oxford or Cambridge universities until 1856.

By the time Marx died in London, in 1883, having written Das Kapital, pauperised Jewshome_trouser_yiddish_banner1 from the Russian Empire were pouring into Britain, fleeing pogroms and persecution. Marx’s vision of a just world, where the downtrodden and persecuted would turn the tables, spoke directly to Jewish migrants working 14-18 hour shifts for subsistence level pay in dingy East End sweatshops. They came to view their situation not as a misfortune but as an injustice that they could remedy through forming unions and striking for better conditions against the sweatshop owners. The banner of the Jewish Trouser Makers’ Union, formed in 1882, was emblazoned with Marx’s slogan: “Workers of the World Unite!” in English and Yiddish.

Marx had his greatest influence on British Jews between the 1880s and the 1930s. Some joined the early radical and revolutionary groups, such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League and studied his economic teachings. Bundist exiles in London campaigned in Yiddish, keeping workers informed about developments in Russia while preparing them for struggle in their workplaces here. East End anarchists organised around a Yiddish newspaper, Arbeter Fraynd which embraced Marx’s economics but leaned closer to utopian political thinkers such as Proudhon and Bakunin.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor admired her father’s work and was active in the Bloomsbury Socialist Society that met in the “Communist Club”. She proudly reclaimed the family’s Jewishness that her grandfather and father had rejected. Her happiest moments, she said, “are when I am in the East End amidst Jewish workpeople.” A talented linguist, drama teacher and recruiter for trade unionism, she learnt Yiddish, avidly read Fraye Velt, a radical Yiddish newspaper, and taught adult education classes at a workers club in Whitechapel established by Yiddish–speaking revolutionaries.

In 1890, when she was invited to address a large indoor rally protesting against the persecution of Jews in Russia, she wrote to the organisers: “I shall be very glad to speak… the more glad that my father was a Jew.” She was living in Jews Walk, Sydenham when she committed suicide aged 42,. Eleanor had told her sister, “I am Jewishly proud of my house  on Jews Walk”.

Endorse_workersciorclejewish-easeendtradeunion-cpIn the 20th century, two organisations provided a sustained Jewish engagement with Karl Marx’s ideas. The Arbeter Ring (Workers’ Circle) was a Friendly Society, founded in 1909 by Yiddish-speaking Bundists and anarchists, later joined by communists and left-wing Zionists. Its membership peaked in the 1930s. It closed in 1984. Circle members had sharp polemics with each other but all shared Marx’s basic philosophical outlook.

The other organisation was the Communist Party, established nationally in Britain three years after the Russian Revolution. In Jewish working class enclaves in Manchester, London, Leeds and Glasgow in the 1930s, Young Communist League branches were brimming with idealistic Jews, proud that so many Jews sat on the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks who made revolution in Russia.

In 1933, on the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death in the city where he had spent the largest portion of his life, a memorial committee purchased a building in Clerkenwell Green and set up a Workers’ Library and Trade Union school. The Marx Memorial Library boasts a hall downstairs called the Simcha Hall. Upstairs the bookshelves bear tags honouring book donors, many of them with Jewish names.

Between 1934-37, the Communist Party (CP) doubled its membership nationally, but its largely Jewish East End branches increased five-fold. The Communist Party led militant opposition to Mosley’s fascists in that period. When Oswald Mosley told a 15,000 strong rally at Olympia that the principal enemies of fascism were followers of “the German Jew Karl Marx”, he was telling the truth for once.

Some historians dismiss Jewish involvement with Communism as a brief flirtation reflecting the convergence of Jewish and communist opposition to fascism. Yet, every conversation I have had with Jews who joined the Party in that period, even those who later left feeling bitter and betrayed, revealed a deep identification with the Party’s Marxist beliefs. Jews whose school lives were cut short by poverty told me how they expanded their education  by devouring the Marxist political literature the Party encouraged them to read.

Several of my Jewish teenage friends had erstwhile communist relatives. One friend’s father, Ken, had replaced his youthful attachment to communist internationalism with Jewish nationalism – Zionism – and joined the Jewish Male Voice Choir. He visited America which Party comrades described as an Evil Capitalist Empire, but he came away impressed. Ken did not move far, though, from his working class roots. He urged me to read Man’s Worldly Goods – the bible of economics that the Party had introduced him to as a youngster, written by Leo Huberman, an American Jewish Marxist.

The classic representation of that period in Jewish working class life when many Jews 9781408156605felt that affinity with a party that embodied Marx’s ideals, was written in the late 1950s by Arnold Wesker. His play, Chicken Soup with Barley, centred on a Jewish communist East End family. Scene one begins on the day of the “Battle of Cable Street”. The family are confident they will see off Mosley, fascism will recede and communism will advance. Sarah, the play’s matriarch, is ready to deal Mosley a blow personally with her wooden mixing spoon. By the final scene, set in 1956, both the family and their ideals are disintegrating. Soviet tanks are quelling a popular rising in Hungary. Sarah’s son Ronnie urges his mother to open her eyes. But Sarah defends the ideals that brought her into the Party and turns angrily on him: “You want me to give it up now? You want me to move to Hendon and forget who I am?”

That last sentence illustrated the sharpening divide between East End working class Jews, many influenced by Marx, certain of the place of Jews in the collective struggle for a better world, and those rushing to the suburbs, happy to swap Marx for bourgeois comforts and individualism.

As the Jewish exodus to the suburbs accelerated in the 1960s and 70s, Marx was largely cast aside by those enjoying new prosperity. Their children would be the first in their families to go to university, rather than serve apprenticeships, drive cabs, work the markets or become secretaries. Ironically, in the universities, some of their offspring would encounter Jews for whom Marx remained pivotal.

I was taught by the political theorist Ralph Miliband who fled to Britain from Nazi occupied Belgium, Lou Kushnick a radical Brooklyn-born scholar of race and class in American politics, and the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, exiled from his native Poland in 1968, with many other Jews, when antisemitism was weaponised in a bitter power struggle within the Communist Party.

British universities boasted outstanding Jewish proponents of Marx’s thinking such as the North American philosophers David-Hillel Ruben and Gerry Cohen, the political scholar Norman Geras, and historians Eric Hobsbawm and Raphael Samuel. Samuel’s communist aunt Miriam was married to the Jewish Studies professor, Chimen Abramsky, whose personal library included books with Marx’s own handwriting in the margins.  The New Left of the 1960s and ‘70s included many suburban Jewish students whose parents were moving rapidly in the opposite political direction.

deutscher

Isaac Deutscher

Jewish scholars talk of lomedvovniks – righteous fighters for social justice who appear in each generation. Rabbi Bayfield had his line of prophets. The Polish Jewish marxist, Isaac Deutscher, who died in London in 1967, identified common traits among the most radical Jewish thinkers.

“Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky… all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfilment beyond it… yet I think in some ways they were very Jewish indeed… as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilisations, religions and national cultures… they lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations… in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies… to strike out mentally into wide new horizons”.

Marx  is long dead. For most British Jews the struggle against poverty has receded. Jewish institutions have a decidedly conservative face. And yet new Jewish radical movements are springing up today, proving that a bond between part of Anglo-Jewry and Marx’s revolutionary ideas continues to renew itself.

Jewish Lives Project: Thought is published by the Jewish Museum, £25
http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk

 

 

Advertisements

It is not only on racism that the far right are mobilising

My speech at the first plenary session of yesterday’s international conference at Friends House, London: “How do we defeat the rise of fascism and racism?” 

Here is a quote:

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world. They are not generous but vengeful, and always attack the heart.”

It sounds like classic 1930s Hitler antisemitism.

It is from an election campaign in March this year in Hungary. That was Victor Orban whose party Fidesz won the election, talking about Georg Soros a Hungarian Jew, successful businessman and supporter of human rights, especially pro-refugee campaigns. When Orban won the election Boris Johnson sent a gushing tweet of congratulation.

20171115134852

Poland, 2018

The same antisemitic anti-Soros themes are spreading in Poland, country where last November 60,000 ultra nationalists took to the streets with slogans calling for a “jew Free Poland” alongside those saying “Pray for Islamic holocaust”.

Our government meanwhile has very good relations with the governments of Poland and Hungary. The Tory’s main partner in their European Parliament group is the ultra nationalist Polish Law and Justice party.

When the European Parliament recently passed a motion against Hungary over several issues including antisemitism – Europe’s main far right parties supported Hungary. As did Tory MEPs and their newest recruits to the Tory-led group – the far right Swedish Democrats

In February this year Theresa May’s former close advisor Nick Timothy wrote a column in the Telegraph accusing Soros of leading a plot to stop Brexit.

More recently, Donald Trump claimed that protesters against his dubious Supreme Court nominee were paid by Soros.

For far right groups, antisemitism is still the glue that holds their economic world view together. It’s becoming more brazen. Our solidarity between Jews and Muslims facing racism, often from the same sources, and with Jews and Muslims, must be total.

People in Britain today agonise about our future relationship with Europe. The far right meanwhile just get on with it, building links, visiting each other, sharing ideas. We need to catch up. In Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and anti-refugee sentiment all ride in tandem. So do other forms of bigotry – especially homophobia and misogyny. Each of these countries has a big attack on women’s rights and they promote defence of the “Christian family”.

Orban in Hungary has recently been moving to close down Gender Studies in

macaristanda-halkin-ofke-gunu,DvdKdHYmgUSUp217l_XFLA

Anti-orban protesters, Budapest

universities. These forms of bigotry are being used just as surely to garner working class support as racism and anti-refugee themes.

The far right grows in times of economic crisis but in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic there is no crisis. Something more deeply ideological is happening and we need some new thinking.

In each of these countries union membership is very low, and also some unions support their right wing governments. We are fortunate here that union membership is higher and closely aligned to a Labour party led by the left.

The unions and the Labour Party must both be part of broadening and deepening of our movement here against racism and fascism, because they are organised in every part of the country. Whatever stunts the far right pull in big city centres, their real goal is to build a base in local areas. That’s where we need to build.

Last week we saw only a segment of the far right – DFLA. In June we saw the more frightening alliance that is forming.

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 19.29.27

Gerard Batten speking up for Tommy Robinson

Remnants of small hard-core Nazi groups, large groups of Islamophobic football thugs, some Polish fascists and UKIP. UKIP’s Gerard Batten makes speeches indistinguishable from the BNP. There were also sharply-dressed young men from the American Alt-Right and the European based Generation Identity movement – educated middle class fascists. Far right politicians from Euro from Holland and Belgium were there too. They had hi-tech equipment – flash screens, powerful PA systems – all bankrolled by the American white supremacist Steve Bannon.

I want to finish with a comment about the Jewish community and antisemitism. We know antisemitism is growing, that it cannot be fought on its own but is part of the fight against all racism, and it’s the left that has that understanding and that capacity.

But those who self-define as leaders of the Jewish community, egged on by the right wing press, have taken increasingly anti-left positions. They look at antisemitism through the prism of Israel and Palestine, but Netanyahu’s government is best mates with Donald Trump and the antisemitic and Islamophobic regimes in central and eastern Europe.

In the 1930s the Board of Deputies told Jews to stay indoors when Mosley was invading the East End in the 1930s. Thankfully people ignored them, and joined with non-Jewish allies in standing up against antisemitism and fascism. We need to ignore those voices now, and concentrate on building alliances on the ground with ordinary Jewish people and grassroots Jewish groups in fighting our common enemies and in building an anti-racist and anti-fascist majority in society.

No Pasaran!

The conference was organised by Stand Up To racism

Tommy Robinson – sharing the hate

My speech at the counter-demonstration organised by Stand Up To Racism to the Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance march in support of Tommy Robinson

IMG_7095

I was lucky enough to be almost born an anti fascist. Before I learned to ride a bike I had heard about the Battle of Cable Street from my grandad – a boxer in the East End – and his escapades fighting Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s.

The fascist, Oswald Mosley, once told a dinner party. “Every successful movement needs someone to hate.”

And that is the only lesson that Tommy Robinson – the two-bob Oswald Mosley – the lummox from Luton – has learned from history. How to hate and get others to hate.

In Mosley’s case he hated was the Jews. In Robinson’s case he hates Muslims.

But racism gets lonely when it is on its own, and is much happier when it extends that hate to other groups.

And what we have witnessed with every far right group in Britain is the opposite of “sharing the love”. It is sharing the hate. Racists and fascists don’t replace targets, they accumulate them, and can attack them simultaneously.

Racism thrives among those who feel neglected, unjustly treated, and hopeless, who become embittered and look for easy scapegoats.

18-Tommy-Robinson-GetRobinson may be a pretty hopeless and embittered individual but he is far from neglected. He has big over-privileged backers like Steve Bannon, who has set up an office in Belgium aiming to strengthen the far right across Europe. He is supported by the well-heeled, university-educated racists and fascists of Generation Identity, and the very comfortable leaders of UKIP who are not exactly representative of foodbank Britain, zero-hours-contract Britain, homeless Britain.

But if Tommy Robinson and his privileged allies have only learned one lesson from history, then I will help them learn a bit more. That the people who you hate, who the National Front hated, who Oswald Mosley hated, will fight back. Every time you share the hate, you also tell us about the kind of alliance we need to build against you and your followers.

And we can see that alliance here today. Trade unions, Labour MPs, Muslims, Jews, black, white, all ages, all genders, and we can win. But we won’t win unless we build an anti-racist and ant-fascist majority in society.

That means not only saying racism is evil. Of course it is. It means, though, that we must link the fight against racism with the fight against neglect and hopelessness; the fight for housing, health, education, real jobs: a better world where none are scapegoated, where refugees are welcomed, and there is social justice for all.

No pasaran!

He didn’t get to first base

October 1934: The British Union of Fascists celebrated the launch of their first branch in London’s East End. Oswald Mosley, writing in The Blackshirt could barely contain his excitement:

Thursday October 4th… The Blackshirts marched in procession from Bow Branch premises … into Stepney Green, where a large crowd … had gathered which later increased to well over 1,500. The Blackshirts had a very noisy reception as the larger part of the audience were aliens who resented British people holding a meeting in what they considered to be their own territory… October 4th will go down in Blackshirt history as a memorable day

But October 4th became our memorable day. Two years later it fell on a Sunday. By then the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had four well organised branches in the East End, with Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse augmenting its Bow branch. Together they formed a horseshoe around the 60,000 strong, beleaguered Jewish community of Whitechapel, which bore the brunt of sickening verbal abuse from BUF street orators and physical violence from those they incited. Half the BUF’s national membership was in those four East End branches.

Two major parliamentary debates on antisemitic terror in the East End took place in 1936.  MPs detailed the wave of attacks on their Jewish constituents, but the only response Home Secretary John Simon could muster was to call for “all sides” to behave reasonably. Pathetic, though perhaps better than the sniggering of Tory backbenchers in the House in 1934 after violence erupted at a 15,000-strong fascist rally at Olympia in June that year.

The rally audience included 150 MPs looking for political inspiration, while some Tory

00ramsay1

Captain Ramsey – Tory antisemite

House of Lords members turned up in black shirts. The violence at Olympia was one way. Eighty anti-fascists needed medical treatment, yet Tory MPs parroted the BUF line that anti-fascists had attacked Mosley’s thugs. William Greene, Conservative MP for Worcester asked in the House: “Is it not a fact that 90 per cent of those accused of attacking Fascists rejoice in fine old British names such as Ziff, Kerstein and Minsky?” Frederick MacQuisten, Conservative MP for Argyll enquired: “Were some of them called Feigenbaum, Goldstein and Rigotsky and other good old Highland names?” A fellow Tory MP, Captain Archibald Ramsey frequently railed against what he called the “Jewish imperium in Imperio (empire within an empire),” claiming that the correct term for “antisemite” was “Jew-wise”.

On October 4th 1936, Mosley planned to show that his movement could dominate any Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 07.56.47streets they wished. Beyond the Jewish enclave Mosley supporters set up four platforms where their triumphant leader would make successive speeches after his invasion. The following week Mosley was due in Berlin for his second marriage, this time in the home of Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, with Hitler an invited guest. Mosley relished the prospect of boasting to the Fuhrer how he had invaded fearful Jewish streets.

He didn’t get to first base. The anti-fascist majority of Eastenders turned up in force to repel the Blackshirts. They blockaded Gardiners Corner at Aldgate, built barricades in Cable Street and engaged in hand-to-hand combat at Tower Hill where Mosley’s troops assembled and police were more thinly deployed. The fascists had tried hard to mobilise Irish Catholics against the Jews, but on the day, dockers and railway workers came from the Irish end of Cable Street to assist Jews building barricades at their end.

The front ranks of those blockading Gardiners Corner endured savage beatings from the mounted police but held firm. In Cable Street, police eventually dislodged the first barricade (an overturned truck), and ran through to check it was safe for the fascists. They were halted at a second barricade where they endured resistance on the ground and an aerial barrage of kitchen implements and slops including the contents of chamber pots thrown by women in the flats above Cable Street’s shops. The police had to retreat.

People came from beyond the East End to support local anti-fascists. The Independent Labour Party published a pamphlet: 300,000 workers say no to Mosley. They and the Communist Party, could take most credit for the mobilisation, but the Labour League of Youth (at odds with Labour Party elders), and a local grassroots movement – the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC) – played a huge part too.

It was the JPC that attracted nearly 100,000 signatures (Jews and non-Jews) that week on a petition demanding that the Home Secretary ban Mosley’s invasion. Local people’s desire to be free from fear was counterposed to Mosley’s “right” to invade an immigrant area, threaten, abuse and intimidate its population – in the name of his free speech and movement. The Tory government privileged Mosley’s rights, and sent 7,000 police, including every mounted policeman in London to uphold those “rights”. The JPC produced a further leaflet, addressed to “Citizens of London”, declaring “This march must not take place.” If the government refused to ban it then the people would, through force of numbers, which they did. Eighty four demonstrators were arrested, 79 of them anti-fascists, of whom 13 were women. Many were fined. Charlie Goodman and Jackie Shukman served custodial sentences, but then went to Spain to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s forces after being released.

Facing overwhelming resistance, Mosley was eventually ordered by the police to turn round, march his troops in the opposite direction, and disperse. He condemned the Government for surrendering “to Red violence and Jewish corruption.” The Blackshirt newspaper said “Jewry had humiliated Britain for a few short hours.”  The BUF swore revenge, and promised to rid the country of the ”unclean influence of alien contamination.”

But they were not the only people who were humiliated that day. Leaders of mainstream political parties who told people to stay indoors and let the fascists pass, were shamed for their cowardice. Apart from the fascists, though, none suffered greater humiliation than the arrogant, right-wing “leaders” of the Jewish Community. From the relative comfort of the West End, the Board of Deputies sent messages to be read out in synagogues the day before the fascist invasion, instructing the East End’s working class Jews to stay off the streets.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 08.27.07Their echo chamber, the Jewish Chronicle, published an “URGENT WARNING” advising Jews to “KEEP AWAY” from the Blackshirt march. Those who “become involved in any possible disorders”, it said, “will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting.” Middle-class leaders of Jewish youth clubs put on extra football matches that Sunday to divert Jewish youth from the counter-protest but the young people preferred to tackle fascists that day instead of each other. When the Board and the Jewish Chronicle finally roused themselves in the weeks following the people’s victory over the fascists, they directed most of their energy to attempting to undermine the Jewish People’s Council who had played such a crucial role in mobilising Jews and allying with non-Jews to defeat their opponents.

As recent political interventions have shown the “advice” offered to the Jewish community from its self-defined “leaders” has not improved in the decades since. The current Board of Deputies president, Marie Van der Zyl displayed either political ignorance or amnesia when she told an Israeli news channel recently that the Conservative Party have “always been friends of the Jewish community”. Meanwhile, anti-fascists must face up to the renewed threat to minorities, not just here, but elsewhere in Europe and America. We still have much to learn from those who united in resistance and built an anti-fascist majority in their communities in 1936.
image
 

 

Feigenbaum and the Yom Kippur feast

Tonight, at sunset, the highest holy day begins. The Fast of Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement, when religious Jews and many less religious Jews spend the day in synagogue, praying to God, so they will be inscribed in the book of life for another year at least.

Cards on the table. I am not a religious Jew, but an atheist one, and I haven’t been to synagogue on Yom Kippur for decades, but I usually fast, I also usually work, but manage to find some time for reflection during that day on the last year and what I might try to do better. How I might contribute in different ways over the next 12 months to making a better world.

Atheist Jews who don’t go to synagogue are not a post-millennial invention. We have  been around for many generations. When the majority of Jews came to Britain as immigrants from the Tsarist Russian Empire, they didn’t come as a homogenous community. They did not all think or believe the same things as each other. They ranged from complete atheists through to ultra-orthodox and every grade between. Worth keeping in mind when many mainstream media outlets still tend to homogenise minority communities, and marginalise, riducule or make invisible the dissenters within them.

Tomorrow, during the day of Yom Kippur I will be taking some new students at Queen Mary University of London, studying  History, Politics and International Relations, on a walk of the Radical Jewish East End, and I’ll be telling them, among other things about how Benjamin Feigenbaum, a Yiddish-speaking anarchist, marked this Holiest of Holy Days.

He had been born in Warsaw into a hasidic family, but in his teens had become a passionate atheist. He emigrated from Poland to Belgium in the 1880s, working in sweatshops, and planning ways to ensure better lives for the workers. He had the idea of creating a  radical newspaper in Yiddish to popularise his beliefs among his fellow wage slaves. But one person he shared this idea with told him there already was one – in London – called Arbeter Fraynd, established by socialists and anarchists in 1885 (it would become distinctly anarchist from 1891). Feigenbaum wrote to Krantz, the editor, who invited him to London. Long story short; he came to London, joined the Arbeter Fraynd collective and spent three years here agitating, organising, educating and satirising.

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 10.46.35

Arbeter Fraynd newspaper

Feigenbaum’s comrades dubbed him the master of anti-religious satire. He wrote and published The Passover Hagaddah: According to a New Version, taking the book that Jews read on the Seder Nights at the beginning of Passover, telling the stories of their exodus from slavery in Egypt and subverting it. His version was a parody of religion and ritual, a serious commentary about contemporary political and industrial struggles, and a call to arms. He knew his way round the bible like the back of his hand and many of those who were the audience for his materials  were very familiar with the religious sources and idioms he referenced to emphasise political points.

He parodied the official Yom Kippur liturgy which said: “Repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree” and offered a more insurrectionary take: “Brutality, rebellion and force will avert the evil decree”. He took out: “The Lord reigns for ever and ever” and replaced it with a truth and a hope: “Mammon reigns – but not for ever”

But in his short stay in London, before he took his anarchist ideas and energy to New York, his most (in)famous piece of activism was a lecture he gave at 22 Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane on Yom Kippur in 1890. It was in Christchurch Hall – named after another Jewish boy who strayed from the orthodoxy he grew up with. The lecture, on this Holy Day, was entitled: “Is there a God?” well, if you are going to challenge, upset, annoy, and anger the coercive religious establishment of the local Jewish community, you might as well go the whole hog, so to speak.

Thomas Eyges, an eye-witness to this extraordinary event, described Feigenbaum (of whom unfortunately I haven’t tracked down any  photo) and what followed:  “He was of medium height with broad shoulders and gesticulated as he spoke.”

Eyges describes Feigenbaum speaking for one hour, parsing the philosophical questions.

…What is god? It is an abstract word coined to designate the hidden forces of nature, while the belief in God is but a  mechanical habit of childhood, a prejudice handed down from father to children…”

“Then he shouted: ‘If there is a God and if he is Almighty as the clergy claims he is, I give him just two minutes’ time to kill me on the spot, so that he may prove his existence!’ Two minutes passed, Feigenbaum exclaimed: ‘See! There is no God!’ The band struck up a revolutionary song. Then he announced a Yom Kippur ball – where pork was to be eaten…”

Sadly, for the radicals, freethinkers, anarchists and socialists of London, Feigenbaum left for America in 1890, but continued to be active in anarchist and trade union movements there. The Tradition of Yom Kippur balls continued though, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In subsequent years, others followed in Feigenbaum’s footsteps. Saul Yanovsky who ended up in New York too, also gave Yom Kippur lectures at the anarchist-inspired International Workers’ Education Clubs. In one, Yanovsky identified other hands writing  and editing the “Book of Life”:

“It is not the Supreme God who determines the kind of year you should have. It is a different god, an earthly one and his name is Mammon… He writes down that before the year is over… there will be widows and orphans swollen with hunger, cast out, barefoot and naked into the cold dark streets.”

Yanovsky described the interior of the synagogue on the High Holy Days as a classic representation of class distinction — “the rich overdressed and overfed in seats set aside for the sheyne layt  (the beautiful pampered ones), “while the poor are “pressed together by the door, hungry and ill-clad, with no prospects of a sumptuous fast-breaking meal to return to.”

From 1898, the Arbeter Fraynd was edited by a remarkable individual called Rudolf Rocker, raised in a Catholic orphanage in Mainz, Germany, who had arrived as a political exile in 1895, fell in love with Milly Witkop, a Yiddish speaking sweatshop worker from Ukraine, and dedicated his life to liberating the sweatshop workers, (and then the world), from exploitation and oppression.

RJEE_rocker_and-_anarchists-300x217

East End anrchists. Rocker, second form left, Witkop first left , front row

Rocker had learned to read and write Yiddish (it is written in Hebrew characters), in order to agitate among the local workers for whom that language was their mame-loshn (mother tongue). In 1906 he was the leading figure in founding the most successful of the radical workers’ club in  the East End  the Jubilee Street Club, which was closed down by a repressive government in 1916, during the First World War.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the East End anarchists developed another tradition on Yom Kippur: standing opposite prominent synagogues, eating sandwiches on this fast day…  well not just any sandwiches, but ham sandwiches. For the local Jewish anarchists this was a popular activity, a day on which they would enjoy themselves while asserting their resistance to the rabbis, who not only tried to coerce the community and enforce strict moral codes on Jewish behaviour, but also, whenever there was a strike, would use their sermons to berate the workers for taking unjustified industrial action against those they portrayed as fine upstanding members of the community. The rabbis knew which side their baygel was buttered, and who was really contributing most for the upkeep of the synagogue. It wasn’t the workers.

But there was a dissenting voice among the dissenters. It belonged to the non-Jewish anarchist, Rocker, who said: “The place for a believing Jew on Yom Kippur is in the synagogue. The place for anarchists should not be in the streets trying to deny someone else’s right to do what he wishes on that day.” He believed that even if the targets for the action were the coercive rabbis, their stunt was actually insulting everyone who walked through the doors of the synagogue that day, many of whom were ordinary workers who the anarchists were trying to influence in their everyday campaigning. But Rocker was over-ridden. Personally, I like political stunts but, speaking as a vegetarian, their choice of filling was appalling!

One enthusiastic member of the Arbeter Fraynd group, Rose Robins, described strange goings-on at Jubilee Street club, during the Yom Kippur fast:

“Shul (synagogue)-goers would creep furtively into the club to snatch a meal with their taleysim (prayer shawls) under their arms. On that night, we were kept really busy preparing the extra food required, while Kaplan (editor of the ArbeterFraynd]) took advantage of the situation to lecture the invaders on the falsity of religion. It was a profitable night — for the khaverim (comrades)!”

Whichever way you are marking Yom Kippur, keep it real, keep it meaningful and fast well if you are fasting. And let us pray to a deity or to ourselves, for a better year ahead for the 99%, struggling now, in whichever part of the world, against exploitation and oppression!

 

Don’t be disappointed, get angry!

Even if you feel internationally minded, and you like to move in cosmopolitan circles, here is a group of people you might choose not to socialise with: Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Italy’s League, Ukip, the French National Front, the Sweden Democrats, and Austrian Freedom Party. The common factor among all of them is of course that commentators regularly refer to them as “extreme right”, “far right”, or “right wing populist”.  The last three have a further similarity. They all have their roots in post-war pro-Nazi circles formed by people either didn’t think the Holocaust happened or that it was no bad thing. But they have sought to rebrand and present themselves now in a more respectable way. Nevertheless, they are still described by commentators as “far right” especially for their extreme nationalism and very negative attitudes towards migrants.
180405-victor-orban-mc-14313_866751dacde861b3e6e6ec706dcd5c37.fit-560wThese are also the main unsavoury groups that Tory MEPs had no scruples about lining up with, in a whipped vote, to defend the populist Hungarian regime, led by Viktor  Orban from censure and possible sanctions. Like those movements listed above, his regime draws support from those who appreciate its Islamophobic and viciously anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric and actions, and are equally happy when he adds open antisemitism and anti-Roma prejudice to the mix.
You could say that this hasn’t gone down too well with some of the Tories’ loyal supporters. Marie Van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who just a couple of weeks ago was telling an Israeli news channel that the Conservative Party has “always been very friendly to the Jews”, (pause for hollow laugh) issued a statement yesterday that fell short of “condemnation”, but nevertheless expressed “disappointment”, and found it “concerning” that Tory MEPs voted to support Hungary in this vote.

Clearly Van der Zyl cares about the sensitivities of the Tories much more than she does about those sitting in power in Hungary. She didn’t mince her words about them: she attacked Orban’s description of migrants as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” and decried his “vivid antisemitism” expressed in a “relentless campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.”

I am rather hoping she will copy this statement to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who recently hosted his good friend Viktor Orban on a state visit, but never seems to draw any official criticism from the Board, whether for his apartheid policies within Israel, repression in the West Bank and Gaza, or his very cosy alliances with far right governments. It’s a funny old world.

On the day before the vote happened, Orban arrived in Strasbourg later than scheduled, and then made a bullish speech saying Hungary was being punished simply for not becoming a “country of migrants”. He reminded MEPs (and no doubt the minority populations in their countries, such as Muslims and Jews,) that Hungary had been part of the “family of Christian nations for a thousand years.” Appeals to Christianity and defence of the Christian family are going down well with white working class voters in central and eastern Europe.

Our Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, regularly stretches Britain's Prime minister Theresa May attends the One Planet Summit at the Seine Musicale center in Boulogne-Billancourtcredulity when claiming anti-racist credentials, and she knows it, do, but what does she do when she sees her MEPs taking the side of the racists and fascists? She refuses to take any responsibility for the way her MEPs were voting to defend such a man, and such a regime.

She insists it is nothing to do with her. But who then is it to do with? Her predecessor David Cameron clearly had enough authority to remove the Tory MEPs from the Euro group they previously inhabited, and place them in a new group (Conservatives and Reformists) that the Tories were fashioning together with the Polish Law and Justice Party. Why doesn’t she have the same authority? And if not now when? (in the words of someone probably dismissed by Orban as “not national, but international… not generous but vengeful.”)

While any distance that appears between the Board of Deputies and the Tories, over matters of antisemitism and other forms of racism, is welcome, it is hard not to notice a very stark contrast between the gently expressed “disappointment” with their “friends”and the much more strident, even rabid attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when allegations of antisemitism surface. He is incidentally believed to be responsible and castigated for every person around the globe who says something stupid but claims to be a Corbyn supporter. She gets away with saying that the Conservative Prime Minister has no say on what Conservative MEPs do.

And while Labour’s press team have rightly contested allegations of antisemitism where any hard evidence is wanting, these real and verifiable links between the Tories and antisemitic and Islamophobic parties in Europe are plain for all to see.

Even apart from the way the Tories’ MEPs voted to defend Hungary, they (with their partners in crime, the Polish Law and Justice party) are also guilty of welcoming  the Sweden Democrats into the Conservatives and Reformists Group  and of using this group to build alliances with a range of ultra nationalist, populist, far right parties that stretch back several years, with none of the media establishment batting an eyelid.

A previous slightly left-leaning president of the Board of Deputies, Vivian Wineman, expressed concern in 2010 about David Cameron’s decision to link with the Polish Law and Justice Party in founding the Tories’ current Euro Parliament group. Unfortunately that seems to have been the very last time the Board commented negatively on Tory behaviour and alliances in Europe. There is really no excuse for the Board of Deputies’ shameful silence that has persisted until this week’s events. And there are certainly no excuses now, having expressed concern, for the Board of Deputies not to demand some action by the Tories now that the vote has taken place .

It was discontent with the Board having the temerity to speak out in 2010 that led a group of Jewish businessmen and professionals to announce the formation of the (unelected) Jewish Leadership Council as a rival source of authority in the Jewish community.That Jewish Leadership Council, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who all enthusiastically waded into rows over Jeremy Corbyn and alleged antisemitism have been strangely quiet since the Tories lined up with some of the ugliest right-wing forces in Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament. Maybe it has been a Jewish holiday that I didn’t know about where you are not allowed to criticise Tories – or maybe it is just the case that their concern about antisemitism is more politically selective, and they certainly haven’t wanted to upset either the Tory Party or their friend Benjamin Netanyahu.

Diane+Abbott+David+Lammy+cu6YCX5TtvumLabour meanwhile, in keeping with its traditions, has reiterated its opposition to all racism. Its MEPs voted unanimously against Hungary this week, with the same determination that their MPs in Westminster, led by Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Dawn Butler, are chasing down  the treatment of minorities and migrants in Britain, be they the shamefully treated and destitute citizens of the Windrush generation or the brutally treated inmates of immigration detention centres.

At least momentarily our national debate over racism, which has taken some very weird pathways recently, has returned to normal and we can see all too clearly who is on which side.

Britain’s first anti-fascist street battle?

A long neglected piece of radical working class and anti-fascist history was  movingly celebrated at a ceremony in the Market Square of Stockton this morning. In September 1933, it was one of several small towns in the North East of England devastated by the economic depression that was targeted by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists for recruitment to his street army and political project. The 30 or so members of the fascists resident in Stockton were joined by 100 more drawn from other northern towns and cities. They planned to march along the high street and then rally in the Market Square by the Town Hall. Local anti-fascists had got wind of this but the police hadn’t. Barely a handful of police were present when the BUF  were ambushed by more than 2,000 anti-fascists drawn from the Communist Party, Independent Labour Party, National Unemployed Workers Movement, Labour Party and trade unions. It was a violent clash. The BUF rally was closed down and their activists chased out of the town.

IMG_6805This morning a plaque was unveiled, by Stockton’s mayor in that same Market Square, who spoke of her pride as a trade unionist in the anti-fascist spirit of resistance that day. She was one of several platform speakers, which included local MP Alex Cunningham, Jude Kirton-Darling an MEP for the North East region and granddaughter of a Czech-born Holocaust survivor, and Marlene Sidaway, of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, born locally, whose late husband fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

I was the final speaker. This was my speech:

I am so honoured to be here for this commemoration of the people of Stockton who understood so early on the danger posed by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and showed by their collective action that they had no use for fascism.

Mosley could only hope to build a movement at a time of crisis and the key to that crisis was unemployment. In 1929 Britain’s unemployment reached an unprecedented total of 1.5 million. 2 years later doubled 3 million – 20% of the workers nationally, but we know it was not evenly spread. Everywhere was hit badly, but nowhere worse than the northeast where in some parts it 80% of the workforce were out of work.

In October 1932, the same month that Mosley created the British Union of Fascists, there was a conference in East London about unemployment, organised by father Groser, an Australian born Anglo-Catholic priest, who studied theology in Yorkshire and would go on to play a key part in the anti-fascist movement. In his earlier days Father Groser acknowledged that his political ideas were conservative and imperialist. All that changed with his first placement – in a slum parish in Newcastle. And everything he learnt in Newcastle about supporting the poorest people, he brought with him to London’s East End.

In his conference invitation Groser described the effects of long-term unemployment: “physical depression, ill-health, frustration of personality, the loss of proper self-respect, which created an embittered and hopeless section of the community.”

People devoid of hope were ripe for receiving fascist messages that promised to make them feel good about themselves and their country again. Mosley denounced the political system of democracy that, he said, had created the crisis and given us the tired old gang of politicians who could not navigate their way out of it. He promised strong and effective government unencumbered, as he put it, by a daily opposition.

Like other fascist leaders in Europe – he portrayed himself as a saviour and redeemer who would fight for the disempowered and disenfranchised, and make the country great again. The day his party was formed he launched a book called The Greater Britain, but it was really about the greater Mosley.

He made a special appeal to youth, saying his party alone would offer young people a chance to serve their country in times of peace, not just as fodder in times of war. he promised a party of action that would mobilise energy, vitality and manhood to save and rebuild the nation.

Between 1932-34 the BUF built a national infrastructure of 500 branches and that included fascist groups in Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead, Durham and here in Stockton.

In the North East and in south Wales, Mosley’s movement made an appeal to miners; in Lancashire they sought support from Cotton workers, in south-west England it was farmers. In many small towns Mosley sought support from small shopkeepers and the lower middle class. He appealed to the unemployed, especially those who served in wartime but were now on the scrapheap.

In London, by contrast, he sought out the wealthy and powerful. In late 1933, three months after the events in Stockton, that he won the support of one of the most powerful people in the land, Lord Rothermere – the publisher of the most widely read newspaper in Britain the Daily Mail.

Unlike other political movements who tried to capture town halls and parliament they

siroswaldmosley

Oswald Mosley

tried to capture the street. Mosley told his followers that they were invincible, that the streets belong to them, and that is why the courageous actions of people in Stockton were important. You recognised what his movement was about very early on and showed that Blackshirts were not welcome here. Other parts of the country took longer to wake up to the menace of fascism. They thought Mosley had something to offer.

In London in 1934 he held a huge rally in London’s Olympia Exhibition Centre. It was packed with 15,000 people. Among them were 150 members of parliament looking for inspiration. Members of the House of Lords came in Blackshirts. They had already been inspired. But there were also protesters – thousands of them outside the venue – mobilised by the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, but also protesters inside, who obtained tickets in an interesting way. The Daily Mail ran a competition and you could win £1 and a ticket to a Mosley rally if your letter was published in the Daily Mail but for the purposes of this competition your letter had to begin with the words: “why I like the Blackshirts”. Anti-fascists wrote spoof letters, got tickets and forged more.

When Mosley walked up to the platform through a guard of honour with a spotlight on him he had no idea demonstrators were inside as well as outside, but he had 1,000 uniformed, jackbooted, stewards, just in case.

Just three minutes into his speech a protester stood up and shouted “Down with Mussolini, down with Hitler, down with Mosley, fascism means hunger and war” and sat down again. Every three minutes a protester stood up with a similar heckle, until Mosley gave a sign. The next time it happened the heckler was yanked out of their seat by 15 fascists who beat the living daylights out of him in front of everyone Mosley wanted to impress. It was a chaotic and violent evening –  80 protesters needed hospital treatment. And amid the violence, Mosley made his most anti-Semitic speech to date.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 19.26.33It needed both a physical and ideological response. Stockton had shown the way in terms of a physical response. That was repeated in three other northern towns – Liverpool Manchester and Leeds. But the biggest confrontation would come in October 1936 in London’s East End, when a march and show of strength by 4,000 fascists, protected by 7,000 police, was stopped by around 200,000 people taking to the streets mounting a mass blockade of the streets the fascists wanted to march through then putting up barricades in Cable Street the alternative route.

In Cable Street two remarkable things took place. The first two-thirds of Cable Street was mainly Jewish the last third mainly Irish. Two poor communities bordering each other. Mosley tried to win Irish catholics against their Jewish neighbours. The anti-fascists had tried to unite both communities against the fascists. On the day Irish people came from their end of Cable Street to help Jews building barricades against the fascists.

The second remarkable thing  – the first barricade was a truck on its side. The police could not see beyond it, but other barricades were built behind reinforced with furniture. Eventually the police dislodged enough of the first barricade to run through and check if they had a clear path, but they got stuck between that barricade and the next one. Women in flats above the shops saw this, picked up everything to hand in their kitchens, and rained down on the police. With resistance from above and at ground level they had to retreat and tell Mosley he could not march.

Stockton was a battle, Cable Street was a battle, but the war against fascism in 1930s rentstrike_langdaleBritain was ultimately won on housing estates, especially in East End, where anti-fascists helped  to set up tenants defence committees to bring the communities that Mosley had tried to divide with hate – the Jewish and the Irish – into a common fight for better housing. The unity and solidarity they forged made it much harder for the fascists to get a hearing among them.

In an age of plenty when each person felt secure and valued and none experienced pangs of hunger and resentment, Mosley’s malicious sentiments would have floated away with the wind. The beliefs of his movement could only manipulate people’s consciousness when there was profound and pernicious social inequality, in a society beset my mass unemployment, low pay, poor housing, poor access to education, neglect by those with power and wealth, a widespread hopelessness, and a longing for personal and national salvation. Such problems though are not confined to the past.

The fascists were beaten back in the 1930s but they have returned with new names, new flags; Britain First, English Defence League, The Football lads Alliance, National Action… If we are to stay true to the traditions of resistance established in Stockton and in Cable Street we must  stand not just against fascism but every manifestation of racism and authoritarianism that feeds it, and work to  strengthen an anti-racist and anti-fascist majority in our society. No Pasaran! They shall not pass!

IMG_6818

As the speakers finished a male voice choir dressed 1930s style crossed the road  into the square to sing songs of resistance

You were never my Chief Rabbi, bruv

There is a queue of people waiting patiently in line: long forgotten Labour and Conservative figures, one-time respected journalists who have gone sour, barely repentant former racists and warmongers…

Yesterday, the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, reached the front of the queue. It was his turn to put the boot in to Jeremy Corbyn, as the crude attempt to weaken and isolate Labour’s leader continues, and Theresa May is surely pondering a snap election.

In a New Statesman “interview” – well, platform, really: interviewers are

images

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

supposed to probe and challenge – Rabbi Sacks thundered: “The recently disclosed remarks by Jeremy Corbyn are the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.” These were so significant apparently, and so offensive, that, as one commentator put it yesterday, they only took five years to notice them! They also needed to splice out two minutes from the video of Corbyn’s 2013 speech immediately before the allegedly offensive remarks, in order to completely distort the context.

Sacks condemned Corbyn’s remarks about Zionists and chose to read them instead as being about Jews. Either he was shown the ubiquitous doctored version of the speech by those who knew better, and he didn’t bother to look further, despite Labour’s Press Team pointing out the discrepancy within 24 hours, or he saw the full version and deliberately spun it as antisemitic for nefarious political purposes. Either way he owes Jeremy Corbyn a big apology.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 11.09.43

Corbyn being arrested on an anti-racist protest

Corbyn was clearly talking about certain Zionists who had berated the Palestinian Ambassador at a meeting in Parliament shortly before the event where Corbyn spoke. In those spliced out two minutes, Corbyn talks about Balfour in more depth, cites the progressive Jews who opposed the Balfour Declaration, and discusses Jewish progressives who played such a crucial role in the Labour Party and the trade union movement in London before Zionism became politically ascendant. It is absolutely clear that Corbyn is referring to Zionists not Jews in general. Ironically (and a lot of this incident hinged on understandings of irony), Corbyn may not have been aware that these particular Zionists, who specialise in disrupting pro-Palestinian events, include individuals who are friendly with, and freely mingle with, activists of the English Defence League and Britain First on Islamophobic protests – two organisations that still parrot Powellite slogans .

Who brought Corbyn’s speech to light? Step forward the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has done more than most to ensure that the poisonous legacy of Powell’s remarks endures in the current day.

Sacks described Corbyn’s alleged remarks as divisive and hateful. This, coming from the man who, as Chief Rabbi of the United synagogue – the largest movement of orthodox Jewry in Britain – refused on principle to attend the funeral of a much-loved and admired coScreen Shot 2018-08-29 at 11.11.30mmunal figure, the Reform Judaism rabbi, Hugo Gryn.  Rabbi Gryn served for 32 years at the West London synagogue – one of the largest Reform congregations in Europe (and incidentally where I was married).

Gryn was an Auschwitz survivor from Berehevo, then in Czechoslovakia, today in  Ukraine. His family arrived in Auschwitz in 1944 when he was 14-year-old. His 10-year-old brother was gassed to death on arrival. He and his mother survived. His father, weak and ill, died a few days after liberation.

Why did Rabbi Sacks refuse to honour Hugo Gryn? Because, a leaked letter revealed, Sacks saw Rabbi Gryn as part of a “false grouping” of “those who destroy the faith”. Gryn was a mentsh (a real human being). Sacks’ non attendance at the funeral and his “justification” for this action was hateful.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 11.15.03As Chief Rabbi he talked a lot about “unity” in the Jewish community but sowed the opposite. One of his first initiatives as Chief Rabbi was a Jewish unity walkabout in Hyde Park, only he got into hot water for his decision to exclude the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Helpline, which supported marginalised and discriminated against Jews, from participating in it. Nothing, if not consistent, he spoke out later against the right of gay men and lesbians to marry.

Earlier this year Sacks was criticised by many within and beyond the Jewish community for helping Donald Trump’s right hand man, Mike Pence, write a speech delivered in the Knesset coinciding with Trump’s disastrous and provocative decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Pence is an evangelical Christian, who holds hardline positions on gender equality, gay rights and abortion, demanding that public funds for HIV/Aids be redirected to “conversion therapy” for LGBT people.

It wasn’t Sacks’ most embarrassing moment in relation to Israel and Palestine. Those would come in 2012 and 2017. As Ha’aretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported, at the height of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012, in which 174 Gazans were killed by Israeli bombing and many hundreds more wounded, Sacks completed another “Thought for the Day,” on Radio 4. Then this happened: “BBC presenter Evan Davis, addressing him familiarly as Jonathan, asked ‘any thoughts on what’s going on over in Israel and Gaza at the moment?’ Sacks sighed and said ‘I think it’s got to do with Iran actually.’ At this point, co-presenter Sarah Montague quickly whispered ‘we’re live.’ Sacks immediately reverted to a reverential tone offering a ‘continued prayer for peace, not only in Gaza but the whole region.’”

Cynical or what?

For many years, tensions in Jerusalem have reached a pinnacle in May/June when the

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 11.20.14

March f the flags in East Jerusalem

annual “March of the Flags” (Israeli flags) takes place. Ha’aretz’s correspondent Bradley Burston describes it as “an annual, gender-segregated extreme-right, pro-occupation religious carnival of hatred, marking the anniversary of Israel’s capture of Jerusalem by humiliating the city’s Palestinian Muslims”, in which marchers have “vandalized shops in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, chanted ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘The (Jewish) Temple Will Be Built, the (Al Aqsa) Mosque will be Burned Down,’ shattered windows and door locks, and poured glue into the locks of shops forced to close for fear of further damage.”

Last year Rabbi Sacks extended a “personal invitation” to Diaspora Jews to join him on a trip to Israel which includes “leading” the March of the Flags on Jerusalem Day and “dancing with our brave IDF soldiers” in the  settler enclave inside Hebron.

Ha’aretz pleaded with Rabbi Sacks not to attend, saying, “one of the world’s most respected rabbis sends a message of normalization and acceptance of the occupation by the mainstream Jewish community. Many Jews in the Diaspora work hard to emphasize that being Jewish is not synonymous with supporting the Israeli government, and that supporting Israel’s right to exist is not synonymous with supporting the occupation. Rabbi Sacks’ actions risk undermining these messages.”

He ignored them and did help to lead the March of the Flags, together with the new Chief Rabbi Mirvis, who also enjoys putting the boot into Corbyn regularly, and whose dinner guests on the night before Theresa May became leader of the Conservative Party, were indeed Mrs May and her delightful husband.

That description of Sacks as “one of the world’s most respected rabbis”, certainly jars with me, given the hatred and division he has himself sown. You were never my Chief Rabbi.

So who did he draw respect from? Forty  years after Powell’s hateful “Rivers of Blood” speech, in 2008, Sacks made it up to number 30 in the Daily Telegraph‘s top 100 right wingers, a full 47 places above Theresa May (before she invented Hostile Environment), and well above John Redwood Lynton Crosby, Norman Tebbit, and that rising star for all Islamophobes, Douglas Murray.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 11.22.15When asked last year what were his four favourite books of 2017, Sacks included Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, which the “respected rabbi” described as “unsettling” and “disturbing”. Sacks continued: “Murray weaves a tale of uncontrolled immigration, failed multiculturalism, systemic self-doubt, cultural suicide and disingenuous political leadership. Accurate, insightful and devastating.” Lots of Powellite themes there, which Sacks found strangely attractive. Needless to say Murray included an apologia for and re-interpretation of Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.

But then again it wasn’t the likes of Rabbi Sacks, and the cushioned middle classes who experienced on the streets the fallout from Powell’s hate speech. It was predominantly the Asian and Caribbean communities facing vicious racial violence, including racial murders, and the anti-racist movements, abused and attacked by the far right forces Powell encouraged. Those communities, the anti-racist movements, the refugee communities today, in the face of brutal attacks, have continued to resist. And through those years of resistance they have known they can rely on solidarity from allies beyond their own communities. One absolutely constant and ever-present ally, at their side then and now, is Jeremy Corbyn.

 

 

Staying close to our friends?

While the mainstream newspapers have tried to fill every space in the last few weeks with false and ever more ridiculous allegations against Jeremy Corbyn, and claims that he is an existential threat to Jews(!) , there is another story about racism that can’t help but push its way back into the crevices between some of those headlines, one that they can’t put a lid on because it is based on shocking truths, and it is about people who have faced, and continue to face a real existential threat.

A few days ago we read that 18 members of the Windrush generation will be receiving formal letters of apology from Home Secretary Sajid Javid for being “removed” (deported), “detained” (in the appalling network of detention centres that have a high suicide rate), or stopped (humiliated) at the border after returning from a visit abroad. Most of these 18 cases occurred under Theresa May’s racist hostile environment.

Read a little further beneath the headlines and you find these are merely the 18 clearest cases out of 164 that have been identified and are being seriously investigated at present. There are many more potential cases arising from complaints yet to be properly investigated.

The deep racism of Theresa May’s deliberately hostile environment is of course completely of a piece with the growing number of blatant cases of Islamophobia emerging from the Tory Party. But Boris Johnson’s hateful burqa remarks were only news because of who said it; many statements of this sort and worse have been said by  ordinary members of the Tory Party, including several candidates who were suspended just before the May local council elections. Yet every call for an investigation into Islamophobia in the Tory Party, whether from large Muslim organisations, lists of imams, or prominent Muslim personalities within the party, such as Baroness Warsi, has been swiftly rejected. May and her gang know they can get away with it. There is hardly going to be a daily media storm about it from the overwhelmingly pro-Tory press.

Marie-Boris-2-300x300

Marie Van der Zyl and friend

When pressure was building up around this earlier this year, I tweeted Marie Van Der Zyl, who had just been elected (by its members, not the wider community) as the new President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, asking if she will be adding the BoD’s name to those organisations demanding such an investigation. No reply. No action. That in itself was a very clear message.

I was thinking about this especially this week, as now that Van der Zyl has fully settled into the her post, she felt confident enough to give an interview to the i24 Israeli news channel, and was asked some searching questions about British political parties. Apart from saying the most disgraceful, slanderous things about Jeremy Corbyn (without resorting to any hard evidence), she answered one question by saying: “The Tories have always shown themselves to be friends to the Jewish community”. (My emphasis)

It was an outstanding display of either utter ignorance or historical amnesia. After all, was it not the same Tory Party who passed the Aliens Act to keep Jews out of Britain when they were fleeing pogroms and persecution in Tsarist Russia? The same Tories whose harsh immigration and refugee policies stopped many German and Austrian refugees from Nazism getting sanctuary in the 1930s, and deported those who did not have the papers to prove their entitlement, with the same ugly determination as shown toward the Windrush victims? The same Tory Party whose backbenchers’ contribution to a debate about violence between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1930s was to say: “is it not a fact that 90% of those accused of attacking fascists rejoice in fine old British names such s Ziff, Kerstein and Minsky?”

Could it be the same Tories whose former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, complained when Mrs Thatcher elevated three Jews to her Cabinet, that there were more old Estonians than old Etonians? The same Tory Party where an aspiring Jewish member, and later Home Secretary, called Michael Howard (original family name Hecht), had to traipse around 40 local Tory branches up and down the country, before he could find a branch (Folkestone and Hythe), that did not object to being represented in parliament by a Jew?

Was it the same Tory Party, whose members were giggling along with the Daily Mail’s BRITAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-ODD-CAMERONantisemitic jibes about Ed Miliband’s clumsy incident with a bacon roll, an incident referenced in the run-up to the 2015 General Election with a posed photo of David Cameron eating a hot-dog with a knife and fork?  Or, indeed, to bring things right up to date, could it be the same Tories who remain very closely allied through the European Conservatives and Reformists Group to the antisemitic and Islamophobic Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the Fatherland and Freedom Party in Latvia who enthusiastically support an annual parade to commemorate the Latvian Waffen SS members who lost their lives fighting for Hitler in world War 2?

Extraordinary. But also very disturbing. Many Jews I grew up knowing, and not just political contacts, had a hard-wired sense of affinity with other minority ethnic groups in this country, interested in their experiences and their wellbeing, and expressing their solidarity by a disproportionate Jewish involvement in anti-racist campaigning, and also in professional work as inner-city teachers, social workers, and immigration lawyers. The idea that the President of the Board of Deputies, who holds a pivotal place in the eyes of key political and media movers and shakers (even if we know their claims to “represent Jews” are extremely dubious), can state such a thing about the Tory Party and the Jewish community without any qualification regarding the treatment they dish out to other minorities, and to view this apparent friendliness, while others are clearly being treated so badly, as so unquestionably a good thing, is quite chilling.

At what stage did our “official” representatives become so insular, so unfeeling, and so forgetful? Has Conservative support for Israel (with everything that Israel has become under Netanyahu, and the seriously unpleasant political friendships it has consolidated with populist right-wing leaders in central and eastern Europe and in America), so powerfully trumped the affiliated Jewish community’s longstanding historical and psychological links of empathy with other minority communities? If so, that is not only very sad, but they truly are on a dangerous path.

A counterweight, though, is growing, especially among layers of younger Jews, who are finding ways to fight for social justice and support refugees and homeless people. Perhaps it is time for the more liberal, less insular Jews to really step up our practical work with other minorities and other struggling communities against the real threats, not the phantom threats, that ought to unite us in Brtiain today, and in a wider world where the likes of Trump, Orban and Netanyahu are making the running.

 

Who is stepping over a line?

Last night I was outraged by Margaret Hodge’s disgusting abuse of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust to shield her appalling behaviour over a political difference with labour leader jeremy Corbyn on how the Labour Party combats antisemitism.

Today I’ve been getting more and more wound up by her outrageous assertion in the same interview (or rather “platform” – because in an interview you might be challenged), that there is “a very thin line” between supporting Palestinian rights and antisemitism.

Margaret-Hodge-Jeremy-Corbyn-1004616She claimed that Jeremy Corbyn had crossed that line ( slandering him again as an antisemite, with the same lack of evidence but more self-control).

What an insult to the Palestinian people, living as refugees in exile or under occupation for so many decades, to believe that their assertion of their rights and their campaigning for human dignity might, at any moment, tip into antisemitism.

What a clear example of how the dubious IHRA examples will work in the Labour Party should they be accepted – any open campaigning for Palestinian human rights among Labour members will be forensically scrutinised, and have to continually prove that it wasn’t antisemitic. Guilty until proved innocent.

The only line connecting support for Palestinian rights and antisemitism should be a linewest-bankpalestinian-woman-israeli-soldiersrtr23635 of solidarity – for one, and against the other – as the fight against antisemitism and for Palestinian rights are actually part of the same fight… if you believe in equality.

But then again, I’m not convinced that advocates of Labour Friends of Israel such as Hodge and her backing vocalists Berger, Smeeth and Austin, and their transparent propaganda to defend the indefensible actions of the Israeli military under both Labour and Likud governments, have any conception of equal rights for Palestinians.

The Holocaust clearly features high in Margaret Hodge’s consciousness. It must do  because she keeps mentioning it in her political squabbles. I wonder, then, if she has heard of Marek Edelman, Jewish socialist, internationalist and anti-Zionist, second in command in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising?

He fought against fascist hooligans in Poland before the war, was incarcerated by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, fought in the guerilla battles of the Uprising for three weeks, escaped through the sewers after the Nazis burnt the ghetto to the ground, and hid with non-Jewish Polish socialists in Warsaw until the end of the war.

He came out of hiding to fight alongside other ghetto survivors and with fellow socialist Poles in the ’44 Warsaw Uprising.

Staying in Poland after the war Edelman held fast to his principles of equality and internationalism and was a fighter for human rights not jsut for Jews but for all, for freedom and dignity for all peoples, until he died in 2009.

And he absolutely detested Zionism – what it did to the Palestinians and how it continued to oppress them. He made contact with Palestinian students in Poland, and through his professional life (as a cardiologist) with Mustapha Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian doctor and human rights activist in the Occupied Territories.

edlemanEdelman saw no distinction and no contradiction at all between fighting for peace with justice and full equality for Palestinians, and fighting to his last breath against any expression of antisemitism. He did both courageously to the best of his ability at every stage of his life.

His motto for Jews was “Always with the oppressed. Never with the oppressors”.

I wonder if Hodge would have dared to suggest to this Holocaust fighter and survivor that his support for Palestinians might at any moment cross “a very thin line” into antisemitism?