One anniversary that passed us by

Anti-racists and anti-fascists have long memories. I can recall graphic details of how we were suddenly, forcefully, pushed to the back of Trafalgar Square by thick ranks of police, arms linked,  on my first anti-fascist demonstration in 1975, so that the plinth could be reserved for “race”-obsessed, Hitler worshipping, anti-immigrant agitators to practice their free speech.

I still have haunting memories of a march through south Hackney and Hoxton in 1977

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Hoxton NF activist, Derrick Day

where we were outnumbered by National Front members and supporters pouring on to the streets from the estates we walked through and the pubs we passed, to scream abuse and threaten us on the streets. One of them targeted myself and a group of young Jewish socialists. At spitting distance he was shouting, “You’re going to the gas chambers.”

I was out of London when the powerful Black People’s Day of Action march took place in 1981 following a fire at a house in New Cross where young people were partying. Thirteen black teenagers died in what is widely believed to have been a racist fire-bombing, Friends who marched that day have described that day of action to me relatively recently, as clearly as if it had happened last week.

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Enoch powell

Our memories are punctuated by anniversaries. In April this year we will recall the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Enoch Powell’s poisonous “Rivers of Blood” speech. It will be the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder by racist thugs as he waited a bus stop in Eltham south London, with his friend Duwayne Brooks. We will once again recall the appalling behaviour of the five police who arrived on the scene and treated Duwayne as the suspect. While Stephen Lawrence struggled for his life, not one of them attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation. We know why.

Later that same year, myself and other family members, were among the 60,000 who were attempting to march on the  bookshop/HQ the British National Party had established in Welling, not that far from where Stephen Lawrence was murdered and a host of other horrific racist attacks had occurred.

I have no doubt these anniversaries will be marked this year. But one 40th anniversary on this theme, just a few days ago, seems to have passed us by. It didn’t take place on the streets. People experienced it in their living rooms, watching World in Action on television. On 30th January 1978, Gordon Burns interviewed the leader of the opposition at that time, Margaret Thatcher, in a period when the National Front were holding provocative marches on the streets aiming to intimidate minority communities and using every opportunity to push the propaganda line Enoch Powell popularised 10 years earlier: Stop Immigration Start Repatriation.

In the interview Thatcher expressed her fears and encouraged her white British viewers to share them:

“… by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth

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Margaret Thatcher

or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay people’s’ fears on numbers.…we cannot go on taking in that number…
there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this… as much as we should… that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems…  we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened.”

Burns interjected: “So, some of the support that the National Front has been attracting in recent by-elections you would hope to bring back behind the Tory party?”

Thatcher replied: “Oh, very much back…”

altabalimetpoliceappealOn 4th May, less than 100 days after that interview was broadcast, Altab Ali,a 24-year-old Bengali immigrant, on his way home from a hard day’s labour making clothes in a workshop on Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, was attacked, and stabbed to death, by three teenagers. They were two 17- year-olds and one 16-year-old. In court, they acknowledged they did it because he was “a Paki”. His assailants were not born racists – and one of them was himself of mixed-race heritage – but they had their minds poisoned by racist and anti-immigrant ideology that they imbibed from several sources, not least the National Front. May 4th 1978 was also the day of local council elections. The National Front were contesting 41 of the 50 council seats being fought over that day in the borough where Altab Ali was killed. They knew they wouldn’t get elected but it gave them a chance to spread their venomous propaganda and hatred.

This afternoon I will be taking nearly 30 young activists for social justice fromstop10_004 marginalised communities in South London, on a walk in the East End focusing especially on, immigration, anti-racism and multiculturalism. They are part of the Advocacy Academy, a brilliant and imaginative project that works with them for one year through residential retreats and fortnightly gatherings. I have taken two previous Advocacy Academy groups on this walk. When we visit Altab Ali Park, the small green space between Aldgate and Whitechapel named in his memory, I will tell them his story and show them a poster of the time that says “Who killed Altab Ali”. I will put that question to them, and I expect, perhaps with a bit of prompting they will be able to tell me who it was that killed Altab Ali – beyond the three teenagers who stood trial and served their time.

Because there were surely a number of adults who should have been in the frame too:   National Front organisers and propagandists; the police, who had been failing to deal with racial violence against the local immigrants community; the press with their repeated and sensationalist anti-immigrant headlines… and mainstream politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who was cynically seeking to  win votes for the Conservative Party that were heading the National Front’s way, not by challenging their philosophy but by  legitimising it.

Let us remember Altab Ali, Stephen Lawrence, Martin Luther King and all victims of racist murders,  but let’s not forget the parts played by Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher.

 

 

 

 

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The Suffragettes who fought for equality within their own movement

Teresa Billington was a self-motivated rebel born in Blackburn in 1877.  She ran away from her very strict Catholic working class family. While apprenticed as a milliner, she went to night school after long days at work, to train as a teacher. She worked at a school in Crumpsall, Manchester, but was hauled up in front of the local Education Committee and faced the sack, because she had refused to teach religious instruction. One of her responses to her own strict religious upbringing was to become an agnostic. One outspoken member of the Education Committee was really impressed by Teresa’s spirit and arranged for her to be transferred to a Jewish school where she would not herself be obliged to teach religion. That Committee member was Emmeline Pankhurst. They became firm friends, and before long Teresa had joined Emmeline in two political bodies that she had become involved in consecutively – the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), later known, of course, as the suffragettes.

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Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst founded the suffragettes with close family and political friends in Manchester, in 1903, as a new kind of suffrage movement in Britain,  unafraid to take on the authorities with militant methods of civil disobedience. When Emmeline wanted to spread the organisation beyond Manchester and make it national, she sent Teresa Billington down to London with another fiery working class activist, Annie Kenney. A bit later Teresa was chosen to replicate this work in Glasgow. There she met and married a local socialist, Frederick Greig. Her feminist principles were expressed in their pre-nuptial agreement which bound them to take each other’s surnames rather than replace her identity with his surname. They both became Billington-Greigs.

Her close political and personal friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst reached breaking point though, at a delegate conference of the WSPU in 1907. The movement was four years old. It had established a recognised style with its purple green and white sashes and flags, had launched its own newspaper – Votes for Women  –  later renamed The Suffragette, and forced its way into the headlines of the mainstream press. It was growing rapidly, but still had no rules governing how it ran its own affairs. Teresa was pleased to have been asked by Emmeline to draw up a constitution for the WSPU that would be discussed and voted on at this delegate conference. What followed on the day profoundly shocked her. In her own words:

“The meeting where this was to be discussed was dramatically and unexpectedly turned from its intended purpose by Mrs [Emmeline] Pankhurst who …announced that there was not to be a constitution or any voting membership, but that she… had assumed dictatorship and would direct-govern … through her selected colleagues or subordinates”.

Emmeline Pankhurst then physically tore up the draft document, theatrically trampled it underfoot, announcing that the WSPU:

“was not a society but a volunteer army enrolled by her and her officers for one purpose only and that no interference from the ranks could be contemplated.”

In notes held at the Women’s Library collection at LSE, Billington-Grieg describes

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Teresa Billington-Greig

“stunned surprise and confusion… the meeting broke up in disorder”, with delegates wondering how they could “claim the right to vote as citizens of the country and agree to be voteless in the management of our own society”.

Seventy of the 350 delegates walked out of the meeting and many of them became founder members of a splinter group of suffragettes called the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). In sharp contrast with the WSPU this splinter group democratically elected its officers at an annual conference and made policy decisions by majority vote. It built its own independent suffragette campaigns for example, around Tax Resistance, and published its own newspaper, The Vote. The WFL had charismatic leading figures too, its most prominent one being a vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist socialist-feminist called Charlotte Despard, who lived in Battersea, but Despard and her colleagues were democratically elected to their positions on a regular basis.

The WSPU, dominated by Emmeline Pankhurst and the eldest of her three daughters, Christabel, is credited by history with conducting the most militant suffragette campaigns – which involved many courageous confrontations with the police, window smashing and arson attacks. But militancy should not be confused with political radicalism. Rather than being collective actions by what had originally been a movement rooted much more among working class women, many militant actions were carried out by well-to-do individuals, who could risk imprisonment knowing there would still be many nannies to look after their children  and an income still coming into their households. Christabel Pankhurst consciously pushed working class suffragettes to the margins, by insisting that actions be taken by “picked women”. Christabel wrote:

“No militant could go to prison merely for her own sake…. It is for the sake of other people more helpless and more unhappy than themselves that the militant women are prepared to pay a heavy price”.

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Pankhursts: Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia

The WFL, however, remained a cross-class movement committed to collective action. Its critique of the WSPU was not just about the democratic deficit in its own internal workings; it was also a critique of the limited framework of their political demands. Emmeline Pankhurst popularised the slogan “Votes for Women” but the full sentence read “… on the same basis as men” and this was at a time when barely 60% of men had the vote, on a property basis that privileged the most wealthy. The WFL saw this “on the same basis” demand as a bare minimum and increasingly spoke of “universal suffrage”. Teresa Billington-Greig argued that:

“The vote cannot secure of itself any single woman’s emancipation. It is a tool; and the kind of work that can be done with it depends first upon the nature of the tool, and second, upon the capacity of the person who uses it. Large areas in which emancipation is needed lie entirely outside the scope of the vote… a slave woman with a vote will still be essentially a slave.”

The WFL articulated  a wider feminist agenda:  “equal rights, equal opportunities; equal reward for our work; equal justice”. And these principles were also at the heart of the work of another democratically organised section of the WSPU that was forced out of the movement in early 1914 – its East London Federation. East End suffragettes were typically factory workers, laundry workers, cleaners, barmaids and shopworkers. They had a handful of middle-class members, though one who was very influential was Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia, who settled in the East End in 1912. The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) developed their own newspaper – Woman’s Dreadnought – after being expelled from the movement, and like the WFL, they maintained close connections between suffragette vote-oriented struggles and women’s industrial struggles for better pay and equal opportunities.

The clearest example of the cleavages within the movement came as Britain went to Warwomens-tax-resistance-league-banner in 1914. The WSPU dramatically scaled down its operation to demonstrate that it was patriotically behind the war effort, and the Government responded by releasing suffragette prisoners. The WSPU even changed the name of its newspaper from The Suffragette to Britannia in wartime. In contrast, the WFL and the ELFS, (both groups led by opponents of the war) stepped up their activities, focusing especially on trying to enforce a cap on rocketing food prices, and supporting women’s employment struggles. Many factories closed down in the early period of the war. Later in the war women were recruited to fill posts that had generally been reserved for men, but were given just a third to a half of the wages. Both the ELFS and the WFL  campaigned and marched to Westminster for equal pay and equal opportunities.

The suffragette struggle as a whole was undoubtedly a very successful rebel movement, but it was the success of an incredibly determined but divided movement.

In all the coverage I have seen in the build up to 6th February, the 100th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Representation of the People Act (which overnight granted the vote to more than 8 million women),  Emmeline Pankhurst has featured very prominently. The Act gave the vote to all men who had reached the age of 21, save those incarcerated in prisons and mental health institutions, and to married women over 30 who met a very minimal property qualifications, as well as university graduates. One militant suffragette, Lilian Lenton who had taken part in widow-smashing and arson activities said, “Personally, I didn’t vote for a long time, because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”

In Victoria Gardens, next to Parliament, there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst which was unveiled in 1930 in a ceremony where, unbelievably, the Metropolitan Police’s marching band had enthusiastically played Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women”. Emmeline had died in 1928, just weeks before the further Act that would enfranchise all women and bring full political equality with men. Had she lived until 1929, she would  herself have stood for Parliament. She had been adopted as the candidate in an East End constituency by the Conservative Party!

f5af8edabec5a7aebe246f01f4df5462In the 1950s, the statue was moved closer to the main road, and side sections were added which celebrated, by then, Dame Christabel Pankhurst, and also acknowledged the women who went to prison in the suffragette cause, with a representation of the brooch/medal that the movement gave to prisoners on the morning they were released. It doesn’t credit the artist who designed that medal though. It was Sylvia Pankhurst. And there is no mention either of the Women’s Freedom League on the statue.

In the wake of Parliaments decision on 6th February 1918, the WSPU declared its job done and began to formally close down. It knew that full political equality was just a matter of time. It took another 10 years. But the ELFS, with Sylvia Pankhurst still playing a pivotal role, continued their work into the 1920s. By then they had transmuted into the Workers Suffragette Federation, then the Workers Socialist Federation. The WFL, though, outlived them all, not closing down until 1961, having fought and won many battles on its wider women’s equality agenda. The cudgels would soon be taken up by the new generation of “second-wave feminists”.

Teresa Billington was still alive in 1961 (she died in 1964), and spoke at the winding down ceremony of the Women’s Freedom League. She said that the campaign for votes for women was “only the first stage of political emancipation”. She praised the WFL for the way it had conducted itself internally as well as externally, “rejecting dictatorship as a false means to a good end“. She added, “I feel its death as a tragedy. It was born of the spirit of democracy and rebellion.” That rebellion, in London had included a rebellion within the suffragette movement. It is time that all of those rebels got the recognition they deserve too.

 

Find out more about the movements and personalities involved on my guided walk “Fighters for Equality: Suffragettes, anti-racists and enemies of Empire” on Sunday 4th March. Details and booking: http://www.eastendwalks.com

 

 

Falling out among history’s thieves and gatekeepers

An interesting little spat has developed between two very right-wing governments over who gets to say what in narratives about the Holocaust.
Poland’s ruling Law and (in)Justice Party are getting hot under the collar about negative references to the behaviour of Poland and its (non-Jewish) population during the Nazi genocide, and are trying to pass a law criminalising references to “Polish Death Camps”.
They have a point on that – the camps were set up on Polish soil by Nazi occupying forces. Only, they want to go further and silence people who claim that any Poles collaborated with the Nazi forces, which undoubtedly a number did.
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Two of the most powerful books I’ve read by left-wing Jewish resistance workers and survivors, The Stars Bear Witness by Bernard Goldstein and On Both Sides of the Wall by Vladka Meed, are replete with tales of courageous solidarity from non-Jewish Poles at great personal risk, but also many tales of betrayal.
Then there is the well-known case of Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941 where hundreds of Jews were rounded up by their non-Jewish neighbours, forced into a barn and then the barn was set on fire. Although previous generations of Polish politicians have acknowledged and apologised for this massacre, the newly ascendant right-wingers are trying to muddy the historical waters by asserting either that it was the Nazis who did it, or who encouraged the local people to do this, or they make an even worse excuse saying that this was some kind of local revenge for the Jews being too friendly to communists.
When you consider the scale of the slaughter of Poland’s Jews – 90% of a population of 3.3 million, spread over many areas, it is inconceivable that a total this high could have been reached without the active cooperation of local elements or, at best, the passive acceptance and lack of serious resistance from the non-Jewish Polish population in many places.
The Law and Justice Party’s motives are not clean, but they are not alone. Similar attempts to revise the accepted histories – and even to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators – continue apace in Lithuania and Ukraine, where there was clearly considerable cooperation with the Nazis against the Jews.
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Irena Sendlerowa

What Poland can rightly claim is that, across the whole territory of western, central and eastern Europe, though there were remarkable efforts to help Jews in Denmark, it was only in Holland and Poland that specific organisations among non-Jews were set up to assist the Jews in their time of greatest need. In Poland it was ZEGOTA, in which Irena Sendlerowa was very active.
But the moves by Law and justice in Poland have come under fire from another very right-wing  government; one that practices racism, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation on a daily basis.  This is Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which oppresses Palestinians, especially in the Occupied Territories, but also inside the Green Line, at the same time as it falsely presents itself as the legitimate guardian and gatekeeper of Holocaust memory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah

Netanyahu, of course, comes from the Jabotinskyite Zionist political tradition that was very influenced by, and friendly to, the concept of fascism in the 1930s. It had members seeking to make deals with the Nazis on the basis of common ultra-nationalist and anti-British sentiment in the 1940s.  Netanyahu would happily damn almost all Poles today as antisemites (one of his late associates – Itzhak Shamir – did just that, claiming that Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mothers’ milk), although Netanyahu would surely make exceptions for  very right wing Poles who praise Israel.

One of his big fans here, Stephen Pollard, editor of the increasingly dreadful Jewish Chronicle, got himself in hot water a few years back with his fulsome praise of the Law and Justice politician, Michal Kaminski. Kaminski had condemned the Polish president at the time for apologising over Jedwabne, saying there was nothing to apologise for – at least not until Jews apologised for the role  Jewish partisans and Jewish communists had played in this period alongside the Red Army. Kaminski had earlier been involved with Fringe far-right groups beyond Law and Justive, but was pro-Israel.

Israel’s claim to being the legitimate spokespersons on the Holocaust predates

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Eichmann on trial, 1961

Netanyahu and the Israeli-right wing’s hold on power. The Israeli Labour Party which held power from 1948-1977 assumed this role and offered their own distorted narrative about the Holocaust.  in the 1950s Israeli educators, supported by their government, propagated the lie that during the Holocaust, Jews had ‘gone like lambs to the slaughter’ – a slap in the face to the dead as well as survivors who had performed incredible acts of resistance. The story of resistance did come out, partly at the Eichmann trial of 1961 but a new lie was built – that it was the Zionists alone who were responsible for resistance and they did so because they could see a future; they had a dream of building a Jewish future in Palestine.

An anti-Zionist, Polish Jewish socialist, Marek Edelman, one of the surviving commanders of the Uprising in Warsaw, Poland’s largest ghetto, had written The Ghetto Fights –  the most searing, heart-wrenching description of the three-week long resistance there in the most unequal of battles – in Polish, in 1945. It was translated and then published in Yiddish and English in 1946. The Israeli state did not even invite Edelman to give evidence in Israel to the Eichmann trial. He was treated as persona non-grata because he  remained true to his anti-Zionist principles.

It is disgraceful that the proceedings of the Eichmann trial were translated into dozens of languages, but not Yiddish – the main language of the victims of Eichmann and his fellow Nazis and their local helpers. Shamefully, The Ghetto Fights remained untranslated into Hebrew for 56 years, finally getting published in Hebrew in 2001, even though Edelman had made rights available to all.

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Edelman’s book gave the lie to the Zionist narratives and claims about ghetto resistance both in terms of who was involved (anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Bundists and Communists as well as socialist Zionists) and what they believed they were fighting for. In an  interview recorded in a later book, Edelman said  “We fought for dignity and freedom. Not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”

Netanyahu’s government has also been doing pretty much what it accuses the Polish government of doing, with regard to Palestinian perspectives on history. It has written its own laws regarding “acceptable” historical memory. Since 2011  Israeli legislation has made mourning the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) publicly difficult for Palestinians and others in Israel. It authorises Israel’s Finance Minister to revoke funding from institutions that mark the country’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. Everything is done to make organisations fearful of doing so. I guess, with Netanyahu we should not be especially surprised at his hypocrisy.

While these two very obnoxious right-wing governments argue head to head, perhaps, in the 75th anniversary year of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, grass-roots activists should plan for how we can honour the memories of those who stood up to hatred, fascism and authoritarianism. How we can remember those who wanted to build, instead, a world of social justice, that respected freedom and equal rights for all. How we can link them to struggles for freedom in other places at other times, and how we can use use their specific struggle as an inspiration for our battles today.

Which side are you on?

Here is an interesting list of people:
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian Far Right Freedom Party, now entering government; Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far right Party for Freedom. He is perhaps best known for his openly Islamophobic comments; Nicolas Bay, General Secretary of France’s Front National since 2014 and leader of its youth wing from 1992 when it was led by the more openly antisemitic and fascist Jean Marie Le Pen; Tommy Robinson, who in recent years has led a number of far right groups in Britain, notably the English Defence League, famed for its provocative and threatening marches to push its Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist agendas.  Before forming the EDL, Robinson was a member of the British National Party. Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister for the very right wing BJP and longstanding member of its parent organisation the RSS; Jair Bolsonaro, described as “the Donald Trump of Brazil”, and that is not meant as a compliment. Bolsonaro is well-known for his pro-dictatorship statements.

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Tommy Robinson

Not the kind of group I feel inclined to invite to a tea party. They all definitely have something in common. But before you say, “they all subscribe to modern-day far right political philosophies, and some of them, at least, have more than a little liking for some older far-right philosophies”, I will interrupt you and say, no, that’s far too obvious. I’ll throw in one more, that might help: Csanad Szegedi. 

Szegedi was one of the founders of the Hungarian Guard, an extreme nationalist group whose members wear black uniforms and see themselves as worthy descendants of the “Arrow Cross”, a Hungarian fascist party, which happily collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. The Hungarian Guard have operated as a para-military auxiliary to the far right Jobbik party, which has targeted its hatred and violence mainly towards Roma Gypsies,  Jews and refugees.

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Hungarian Guard on the streets

But Szegedi found out something acutely embarrassing a couple of years ago: no only that his grandparents on his mother’s side were actually Jewish, but his grandmother had been incarcerated in Auschwitz. He began learning about Judaism, observing Shobbos (the Sabbath), keeping kosher, and going to synagogue. Oh, and he quit all his office posts in Jobbik, though he said that was nothing to do with discovering his Jewish roots, but because of some corruption scandal in the party. Whatever. Later he announced his intention to settle in Israel.

And Israel, currently led by its most far-right government, is the connection. The Israeli government, which in the tradition of Zionism, still talks of the “ingathering of the exiles” (It treats Jews who are happily living in the diaspora as ‘exiles”) published its own list yesterday, of those it does not want to “gather” in its homeland. It was essentially a list of organisations that have been prominent in supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign – a campaign utilising peaceful, grassroots activism from around the globe, among people as consumers, tourists, professionals, academics, artists and musicians, and more, to pressurise Israel to meet its human rights obligations, to end its repression in the Occupied Territories, and end discrimination.

Having casually dismissed BDS campaigners as marginal and ineffective, Israel’s government has now just paid them the biggest compliment possible. Most of the organisations listed were American, and one particularly stood out in the list: Jewish Voice for Peace – one of the fastest growing Jewish groups in America among different generations, but especially among young people. They support BDS and other non-violent actions aimed at achieving peace with justice for the Palestinians. As far as the Israeli Government is concerned they are definitely not welcome. But what about the “ingathering…”? Never mind that. From Netanyahu’s standpoint there are “good Jews” and bad Jews. The joke is that he think he is a good one.

Some British groups also made the list – the Palestine Solidarity campaign, (I think Netanyahu probably didn’t like the name), and also the  highly respected charity, War on Want, which focuses on human rights and the roots of global poverty. They have addressed Israel’s daily human rights abuses in imaginative and sustained ways. The Israeli government denies such abuses take place. There is a simple way they could prove it – allow groups in to monitor the situation. But that is why they have banned them. There is way too much to hide.

But, hold on, what about my list at the top of this blog? Keep those names in particular, and the values they stand for in mind, whenever you hear Israeli politicians discussing the list of groups Israel has excluded, because my list contains purveyors of hatred, discrimination, and division. It contains who have indulged in racism against several differnt groups including Jews. These are people who, in recent years, have not only visited Israel, but in most cases have been enthusiastically invited to come by its government. Shameful.

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Architect of apartheid Vorster, with shimon Peres, left, and Yitzhak Rabin , right

Back in 1976, when the Prime Minister of apartheid South Africa was invited to Israel by its “labour” government, there was uproar both in Israel and the diaspora. These days, hardly a murmur in the mainstream. Now that Israel’s current excuse  for a government has become more explicit about who can come through the door and walk on a red carpet,  and who gets turned away, the spotlight ought to to be shone brightly on its rogues gallery of welcomed guests  I look forward to the comments about them by the Board of Deputies, Labour Friends of Israel, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish News. I won’t hold my breath though.

 

 

 

The spirit of youth across the Green Line

It has been quite a while since I found anything to make me feel a bit more optimistic about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but just before 2017 closes, two actions by young people provide a chink of light.

The first is Ahed Tamimi, at 16, already a veteran of defiant protests against the Israeli occupying forces in the village of Nabi Saleh. She was recently handcuffed and arrested in the middle of the night in an operation involving 30 soldiers. The day before, Israeli soldiers had used tear gas to quell protests in the village, and Ahed was in an altercation with two well-armed soldiers in front of her family home during which she kicked and slapped the soldiers. During the raid soldiers confiscated the family’s phones, computers and laptops and were violent towards Ahed’s 14 year old brother who was refusing to surrender his phone.

Ahed’s courageous defiance has made her a symbol of the renewed resistance that has mushroomed in the Occupied Territories after Trump made his deliberately provocative announcement over Jerusalem, with the connivance and encouragement of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Her act of defiance has now been supplemented by 63 other teenagers, only these are youngsters on the other side of the Green Line: young Israelis publicly declaring through a joint letter that they will refuse to be drafted into the Israel army,

 

The letter they sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and the Defence and Education ministers, stated: “We have decided not to take part in the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people… The ‘temporary’ situation has dragged on for 50 years, and we will not go on lending a hand… The army is carrying out the government’s racist policy, which violates basic human rights and executes one law for Israelis and another law for Palestinians on the same territory… We refuse to be drafted and to serve in the army out of an obligation to values of peace, justice and equality, with the knowledge that there is another reality that we could create together”.

The resistance by Ahed and her family (other family members have been arrested and detained) is receiving considerable media coverage here – as it should. The subversive and politically challenging action of the 63 Israeli teenagers, so far, has not beyond a few  Israeli newspapers. Unfortunately, that is part of a pattern. Many courageous actions by Israeli human rights and anti-occupation activists face a news blackout in the West. And unfortunately many pro-Palestinian campaigns from outside do little to amplify the important struggles by Israeli oppositionists.

Activists here need to recognise that the actions of these oppositionists are as crucial to the injustices of the Palestinians being resolved as the daily acts of resistance in the Occupied Territories. Continued Palestinian resistance in the face of 50 years of occupation, daily humiliation and human rights abuses, testifies to the strength of the Palestinian people – much of it continuing despite political impotence. But the military balance of forces are weighted massively against them. An Israel, armed to the teeth, will not be pushed back from its Occupation by military force. The hope must be that continued resistance finds an echo within Israel that can challenge the pillars that maintain the status quo in Israel from within. Refusal to join up for Israel’s army is a powerful statement of intent that should be celebrated and amplified by all who are seeking positive change. This week young people on both sides of the Green Line have been leading by example. All power to them.

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Hebrew graffiti in Tel-Aviv calling for the release of Ahed Tamimi and all political prisoners

 

 

Time for humanity to win through

IMG_4289Home for a family of Afghan refugees with two young children we met in Dunkirk this afternoon. They have been here in a makeshift camp since October. A few tarpaulins, a small tent and an improvised kitchen stove. They invited us to sit on their “sofa” – a few stacked up planks which they place a thin mattress on. The police raid it every week and destroy their home, chuck it out as rubbish, and so they start making it again. The authorities want to prevent any permanent camp being established.

The father, in his mid 30s with very good English, tells IMG_4297us of their former lives in Afghanistan, where he worked in building and construction, and how they fled from a situation of complete lawlessness and constant danger where local mafias rule the roost. His wife – who doesn’t speak any English – looks desolate and dejected. Despite their desperate circumstances their children are energetic and look well cared for.

There are 150 or so refugees camped in similar makeshift ways here, in fields, and between trees. Conditions are less than basic. Quite a lot of rubbish is strewn about, and human faeces.

The refugees here are mainly young men in their teens, twenties and thirties, though there are also some families and at least one pregnant woman – all with impressive survival skills. It is a cold December day when we visit and, as the temperature is starting to drop further, many of the men are huddled around a generator which they are using to charge their phones. It is their only means of staying in touch with their far-away families and with the events of the world. A charity, “Mobile Refugee Support”, comes in every afternoon for a couple of hours with its generator, some who have already charged their phones start small fires to warm themselves

IMG_4285.jpgWe have come here on a visit organised by Stand Up To Racism, working in conjunction with Care4Calais.  We get on the coach in central London at 6.30 in the morning and are moving by 7am. Our coach is full, with the largest number among us being young people, many of them students. The coach hold is also full with vital supplies based on a list provided by Care4Calais collected by the people on this visit from among their friends and local communities. A very impressive amount of money has been raised too by them.

IMG_4276 (1)On the way some of the participants come to the front of the coach to say why they are coming on this visit and what they have been doing. One student from Queen Mary University in the East End tells us that her parents are Afghan refugees. Others talk of raising money in their workplace, even from workmates who are not convinced about the argument for growing the number of immigrants and refugees. Their humanity wins through and they are starting to think more about the issues.

We stopped first outside a Care4Calais distribution warehouse in Calais here we were briefed by long-term volunteers and allocated roles for when we get  to Dunkirk. some will spend the afternoon litter-picking, others distributing pack of supplies sorted in the warehouse into bags. We are spending time with this particular family at their “home” before coming back to the main area of the makeshift camp and mingling and chatting to the refugees there.

We met refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Somehow they maintain their spirit,IMG_4299 their sense of humour, and their hope.  We hope that the sleeping bags, food, and clothing that our visiting group brought will be of practical use. We arrive back in London at 10pm. It is very cold and we are thinking of the people we met and how they are coping in the night.

Congratulations to Care4Calais for all they do, and for Stand Up To Racism for partnering with them and arranging this visit. We came back determined to take up the arguments about refugees within our communities,  and to challenge the daily media assault on a set of human being whose current situation compounds the traumas they have already lived through in their young lives.  The visit will undoubtedly strengthen us in communicating the urgency of stepping up  pressure on our government to let in refugees, and enable them to use their skills and obvious resilience for their own benefit and the benefit of us all.

 

A reckoning with the past and present: Auschwitz 2017

tracksI’m feeling physically drained but mentally uplifted and energised having just returned today from the 2017 Unite Against Fascism visit to Auschwitz/Krakow. It was an immensely powerful, life-affirming experience that provided a chastening reckoning with the past and a confrontation with racism and fascism in the present. Just a few days before our visit 60,000 ultra nationalist Poles, with neo-Nazi groups and their special visitors from abroad in the forefront, had marched and rallied in Warsaw.

We were based in Kraków, where, before the Holocaust, 26% of the city’s population were Jews, and where synagogues and other buildings in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz remain intact and a community is gradually and successfully renewing itself (the same is happening in more than a dozen other Polish cities).

We were a cross-generational, multicultural group of 48 anti-racists and trade unionists, from those in their teens to those in their mid-70s; from Caribbean, African, Asian, Scottish, Brazilian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, and other backgrounds. Among the Jewish participants were children, grandchildren and relatives of both Holocaust victims and survivors.

The richness of the casual, friendly conversations across these backgrounds and affiliations, and in responses to the organised educational programme of talks, discussions and walks, is impossible to convey. Just to say that many hugs, tears but also moments of laughter were shared every day of the trip.

barracksOn the third day, we visited Auschwitz 1 camp – whose solid brick buildings have been turned into an excellent but horrifying museum – and then the much bigger expanse that was Birkenau, where gruesome ‘selections’ were made every time trainloads of deportees arrived. Most were selected for imminent death in the gas chambers located within this complex, while a minority were selected for work within the camp, and others temporarily housed in the indescribable conditions of the camp barracks before being transported to slave Labour camps in Poland and Germany.

This was my third visit – my second as one of the group ‘leaders’ – and each time I learn much that is new to me. This time I was able to gain new information and insights about the lives of those selected for slave labour, and reflect on their circumstances. Between the longstanding slavery of Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean which ended in the 19th century, and the story of contemporary slavery currently keeping around 30 million people globally in bondage (despite every country declaring it illegal), there is the slave-labour story principally but not exclusively of Jews during the Nazi period, which remains to be examined and told in more depth – with the potential to be linked more closely to both historical and contemporary examples in our understanding and campaigning today.

At every stage in the trip the past was living in the present as we talked of modern daybirkenau processes of stereotyping, labeling, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation of various communities – and also resistance then and now.  We recognised some of the key continuities too, such as with antisemitism. It was refreshing to hear participants from a range of ethnic/cultural backgrounds perceive and condemn the current growth in antisemitic conspiracy and Holocaust denial propaganda and say how dangerous it is.  It was even more refreshing to see that those activists calling it out felt no need to qualify their condemnation of antisemitism with statements about the separate issue of Israel/Palestine.

IMG_0243Equally welcome was the recognition of the role of culture in resistance to the Nazis in the 1940s. Many participants remarked how moved they were, in Auschwitz Birkenau, when we stopped by a stone plaque in Yiddish that was part of a monument and members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group sang “Zog nisht keynmol” – the Yiddish hymn of the partisan resistance fighters – whose first and last verse ends with the defiant words of struggle: “Mir zaynen do” – “We are here”.

Farewell Slaven – you were not to blame

I feel sorry for Slaven Bilic, sacked as West Ham’s manager today, after two and a half years at the helm of the team. He is probably feeling relieved and liberated.

In his first full year managing the club in 2015-16, West Ham finished 7th playing exciting football, and scaring the elite. They won away from home convincingly at Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool – in the latter case, where they hadn’t won away for more than 50 years. In the final home match that season, they beat Manchester United 3-2 in one of the most dramatic games played at Upton Park since I first went there in 1966.

We, the fans, were ecstatic at the victory, but, when we should have been feeling that “the only way is up”, we knew, and Bilic must have known too, that a terrible downward spiral was likely to follow because of a cynical decision that had been taken long before he took over.

Bilic was an unusual Premier League manager, with a law degree, fluent in several languages and happy to describe himself politically as a socialist and an anti-racist. I have haven’t heard any comments from him since the sacking but I would so love it if he has the courage to say what he must really be feeling. My fantasy Bilic speech is this:

bilic-playing“It was a dream come true to return to Upton park to manage a club I once played for, to hear the roar of the East London crowd again, breathing down the neck of the players, willing them to put in maximum effort, a roar that intimidated away teams. It was a beautiful experience once more to walk in Green Street and Barking Road among ordinary West Ham fans and feel part of the bigger West Ham family again, but the moment that those with more money than sense, who are making even more money from the club with rip-off seat prices and tacky commercialism, decided to throw away that tradition, to spit in the faces of the fans, and say, ‘we don’t care anything for you, we have just seen a great financial opportunity. We are moving to Stratford to the Olympic Stadium,’ the club was on a downward spiral.

It is not a football stadium. It has no atmosphere. We do not play at Home any more, there are just two away teams on the pitch. When the teams walk out a few minutes before kick-off nobody notices. The players look uncomfortable, nervous, unmotivated and slow. The clubs owners have presided over a disaster, a catastrophe, entirely of their own making. I regret that I ever felt obliged to talk up the opportunities of the new stadium, and how we could supposedly take the club on to a new level. It was bullshit. I never believed a word of it. I hoped I could mitigate it and over time and we would improve, but now the only way is down. I genuinely fear for whoever takes over. This club had been murdered. I am so sorry for the true fans.”

Of course, this whole scenario it is of a piece with a club where two of the three owners made their money in the sex and pornography business while the third grew up in a wealthy family after her dad did very well producing top-shelf magazines. That’s modern football. Bilic probably won’t find a club to manage run by left-wing intellectuals, but he might find one that still cares to some extent about its fans and community.

Myself and four friends were regulars at Upton Park. When the club moved to Stratfordbilic-managerone of our consortium gave up, on principle. Then there were four. I had grave reservations but tried it for a year and hated it (with the one exception of the evening we beat Spurs). At the end of last season I gave up my ticket as well. Then there were three. I am sure this pattern is repeated among season ticket holders around the ground. In a way I hope we go down and get used to being a small club again. Maybe, some years down the line we will rebuild a community club that cares about its real fans, and will play in a proper football stadium again. I might even come back. Until then I am happier living on my beautiful memories seeing our team playing the “West Ham Way” and hearing the  Upton Park roar, beating some of the big clubs, losing to some of the smaller ones but always keeping that two-way dialogue between the players  and fans and sharing the love, the heartbreak and the successes.

Farewell Slaven. You tried your best. Good luck!

 

 

Too many turned a blind eye

Speech given on a panel at a Stand Up To Racism national conference, 21 October 2017

Greetings from the Jewish Socialist Group. And solidarity with those kept busy week in, week out, tracking the new configurations among our enemies and their new offensives. Just keeping up with who Tommy Robinson’s latest friends are, is a task in itself.

We would have been even busier if Donald Trump had visited this month. Thank you for being part of the reason he didn’t. We must credit him though with one unwitting, achievement. In a world where many want Muslims and Jews to be enemies, Trump’s rampant Islamophobia and his open door for antisemites have generated beautiful and defiant acts of solidarity between Jews and Muslims.

When Trump threatened to create a register of Muslims, thousands of Jews said they would sign that register too. When a Texas Mosque burnt down the night after he was elected, a rabbi gave his synagogue keys to the local Imam. When Jewish cemeteries were attacked several months ago, a Muslim, Palestinian, American, raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay the repairs and restoration.

There are hopeful signs that unity is spreading. A couple of weeks ago a synagogue in Leeds was daubed with swastikas and the message. “Kikes go home!” The next day four Muslims representing local organisations brought flowers and messages of condolence to the synagogue and they were warmly welcomed.

501466-610x402Some of you are too young to know the old anti-Jewish term “Kike”, but the far right are into retro. It is more than 50 years since anyone in Britain dared to unfurl a banner saying “Hitler was Right”, but that has happened on several occasion within the last two years.

This may surprise those who think antisemitism is past history, that other victims have replaced them, but racists and fascists don’t replace, they accumulate. They switch targets quickly, attack many at once. One moment Muslims are in the front line, another moment it is Roma, its Poles, its refugees. And young black men dying at the hands of the police show us that institutional racism persists.

But our resistance also persists. There are only two things though that can weaken our resistance. One is a feeling of helplessness, that it’s always getting worse. The other is a kind of “oppression olympics” where different groups vie with each other over who is the greater victim. We need to challenge both these mindsets.

We must of course recognise that the attacks and injustice each group suffers differs in scale, specifics, and histories, but we must also be clear that the perpetrators of each are enmeshed in the same system of domination that keeps victims from many communities in fear, and privileged white supremacists at the top. We can only challenge that through unity and unconditional solidarity with all victims of racism, and confidence that we can, and we will, win.

I know many Jews who fear antisemitic attacks. Statistically they are more likely to be attacked if they were Muslims or recent refugees – but the fear is there and antisemitic attacks are also growing from verbal abuse to physical assaults on synagogues and individuals. Much of the verbal abuse when I was younger used to be about Jews and money. Today it is about Hitler, the Holocaust and gas ovens. And what is worrying is that this kind of abuse today emanates from individuals in a range of communities. Despite the examples I gave earlier, there are currently some Jewish people using Islamophobic arguments to try to prevent an Islamic charity establishing itself in Golders Green. Let’s not get defensive but instead face up to the educational task we all have in our own communities.

Finally, next month I will be contributing to that education as one of the group leaders on img_0177a trip to Krakow and Auschwitz organised by Unite Against Fascism, and what I will emphasise is that Auschwitz was the final destination. But for several years preceding it, there were processes that far too few noticed and far too many turned a blind eye to: scapegoating, discrimination, exclusion, dehumanisation, desensitisation of the perpetrators. This is going on around us right here, right now in Britain, in Europe, in America, every day. Don’t be a bystander – be an up-stander for the rights of all. Solidarity!

 

Separate and unequal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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