Preserving the memory of a martyr

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On 9th May 2018, I spoke at a seminar organised by PUNO – the Polish University Abroad – to mark the 75th anniversary of the suicide as political protest of the Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist Szmul ‘Artur’ Zygielbojm. My paper was about “The Struggle to Memorialise Zygielbojm in London”

 

In April 1991 I was chairing a meeting organised by the Jewish Socialists’ Group in London, to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Our speaker was one of our older members, Majer Bogdanski, born in Piotrkow Poland in 1912. We had asked Majer to speak specifically about his comrade Szmul Zygielbojm. Majer recounted Zygielbojm’s life up to his escape from Poland with a mission to tell the world what was happening under Nazi occupation. He then described Zygielbojm’s crucial work in London between 1942 and 1943 when he served on the Polish National Council in Exile, how Zygielbojm bombarded political leaders, diplomats and the press with first-hand information from the ghettoes collected through underground resistance networks, until his final courageous act of suicide as political protest, prompted by two simultaneous events: the failure of American and British politicians and diplomats to offer any plan for rescue and refuge of Jews being slaughtered in Poland, and the news that the incredible Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had finally been extinguished.

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Majer Bogdanski

Majer came to Britain as a refugee in 1946 and lived in East London till he died in 2005. He and Zygielbojm had been active in the same left wing organisation– the Jewish Workers’ Bund – in Poland. in Lodz, in the late 1930s, Majer saw Zygielbojm almost every day.

In 1991, ours was the only Jewish group in Britain that identified itself closely with the Bund’s political philosophy. Today, as both the left of the Jewish community and further right wing are both growing, there are other Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Labour and a younger group jewdas, who openly embrace some key Bundist ideas.

The Bund was secular, socialist, committed to Yiddish culture, and to full equality for minorities. It was thoroughly anti-nationalist – especially territorial nationalism – so it was a strong opponent of Zionism. The Bund believed that Jews should strive for equal rights in the lands where they lived. Its slogan in Yiddish was: “Dortn vu mir leben, dort is undzer land” – There, where we live, that is our country.

8a400850d71576f426b39654bd6bd334In the 1980s/90s, the JSG held annual meetings to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Majer often spoke. We ourselves only become familiar with the details of Zygielbojm’s story in the early 1980s. We wrote about him in the second issue of our magazine, Jewish Socialist, in 1985, to inform a wider Jewish and non-Jewish public.

The audience at our meeting in 1991 were captivated not only by Zygeilbojm’s dramatic story, but also by the authenticity of Majer’s delivery as someone who had personal recollections of Zygielbojm. As the meeting formally closed and people stood chatting, Majer asked me: “Should there not be some kind of memorial to Zygielbojm in London?” I said, “Of course there should, and I will do what I can to make it happen.” Some time  later, I was speaking with another Bundist, Esther Brunstein, who used to visit Zygielbojm’s home in Lodz as a child – her best friend at school was one of Zygielbojm’s children. Esther told me that a visiting Canadian professor of Yiddish had asked her recently whether there was any memorial for Zygielbojm here. (There is a prominent memorial for Zygielbojm in a park in Montreal)

How odd it is that a person who had committed such a dramatic act of self-sacrifice in London, as a political protest during the Holocaust, had not already been commemorated here, and remained barely known even within Britain’s Jewish community.  But that reflects the dominant narratives within that community that were established by the early 1950s.

Zionism had been a small minority opinion within Jewish communities everywhere

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DP Camp Germany 1947

before the second world war and found more traction among the middle class when many Jews were working class. By the mid-1950s the social class formation of Jews was definitely changing making them more amenable to it, but the two biggest factors were the Holocaust, which wiped out so many of the people who believed in diaspora, and also the terrible situation after the war, where hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languished in DP camps with no country wanting to take them. Zionists who organised within DP camps, persuading people of the possibilities of reaching Palestine, won sympathy for their position among Jews in Britain and elsewhere. In Zygielbojm’s last letter to his brother Fayvl in April 1943,  he excoriated Zionists for “exploiting the Jewish tragedy for their political ends”, paraphrasing their spokespersons: “Another 100,000 Jews murdered. Give more money for Palestine.”

Within Jewish youth and educational organisations here, the  Zionist narrative about the precariousness of diaspora, of redemption and security through Israel, became hegemonic. Their telling of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance – in which Bundist and communist anti-Zionists and non-Zionists fought alongside left-wing Zionists in a united Jewish fighting organisation – elevated the role of Zionists fighters and conveniently airbrushed out the communists and Bundists, and Zygielbojm.

Very few Holocaust survivors were allowed to settle in Britain compared with other western European countries or the US and Canada, but there was a group of around 25 Bundists and children of Bundists in London shortly after the war. They lived mainly within its poorer quarter – the East End. Many joined the Labour Party, and were active in local Yiddish cultural groups.

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Bundists in London around 1950: Front Row (from left) Perec Zylberberg, Majer Bogdanski, Esther Brunstein. Just behind Majer , Leon Kuczynski

There was no Holocaust memorial in London at all until 1983. The Holocaust Education Trust was founded in 1988 and their focus was on education packs, exhibitions, schools work rather than physical memorials. The Holocaust Galleries in the Imperial War Museum did not open until 2000. The statues at Liverpool Street station to mark the kindertransport were unveiled in 2006, so when we we began contemplating a public memorial for Zygielbojm in 1991 this was quite novel.

How did we start? With a meeting of the Bundist survivors in London, their spouses, and a few people in the Jewish Socialists’ Group especially interested in Bundist history.

In 1991, there were four surviving Bundists in London, Majer Bogdanski, Leon Kuczynski – a strong, thick set man – in Yiddish a shtarker – who had been very active in the Bund’s self-defence group in 1930s Warsaw; Wlodka Blit-Robertson – whose father was Lucien Blit, a well known Bundist in Warsaw. Wlodka’s mother was a left-wing Zionist. Wlodka and her twin sister were smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto a few weeks before the uprising and hidden by catholic family. Wlodka’s father had already escaped to Russian and later to London, her mother and other family members were killed by the Nazis. And, finally, Esther Brunstein, a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, who came from a Bundist family in Lodz. Her brother, Perec Zylberberg, who lived in Montreal and was active with Bundists there, would join us if we met when he was visiting. We usually met in Esther’s house. Of those Bundists, only Wlodka is still alive today.

At our first meeting we named ourselves the “Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee”, and agreed that the most appropriate and realisable form for a permanent memorial would be a plaque preferably on the building where Zygielbojm lived. It ended up in a more prominent position. We wanted something less ephemeral than a conference, more public than an artefact locked in a museum, something that could raise awareness and encourage people to reflect on its relevance today.

I sought advice from Dan Jones, part of a group that successfully campaigned for a plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street – a seminal anti-fascist event of the 1930s. On his advice we sought endorsements for our project – from historians, academics, writers, rabbis, cultural figures, and MPs. We wrote to around 80 people, and got replies from 40-50, mainly very enthusiastic.  A tiny number were wary of commemorating a Bundist. Despite several attempts, we got no reply from Greville Janner, former president of the Board of Deputies, involved in several Holocaust–related initiatives, but also a staunch Zionist.

Where did Zygielbojm live? In Porchester Square, Paddington. In 1991 this was a Porchester Sq_signConservative flagship Council, unsympathetic to socialists and trade unionists, and not keen on immigrants and refugees. It was this council we had to approach to ask:  “Would you please commemorate a Polish, Jewish refugee who was a trade union, socialist and anti-fascist activist!”

My initial letter to the relevant Council officers, copied to the leaders of the major political parties on the council, described Zygielbojm’s life and death, explained that a monument had recently been unveiled in Warsaw on the 50th anniversary of the Ghetto uprising, and added “yet there is no memorial to Zygielbojm in London where he carried out his most important work.” We listed some supporters: the historians David Ceserani and Bill Fishman; the Polish Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman; three rabbis; two MP’s, Barbara Roche from Labour and Alex Carlile from the Liberal Democrats. Carlile had been born in 1948 to post-war Polish Jewish immigrants; Colin Shindler, editor of the Jewish Quarterly magazine (a respected cultural journal); and Esther Brunstein, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz.

We received encouraging letters back and the matter was passed to Westminster plaques scheme coordinator Gillian Dawson, who was extremely helpful. Within a relatively short time we had agreement in principle for the plaque and details of the likely costings. At this stage the exact wording wasn’t required but that was a very interesting discussion on the committee, with some urging caution to ensure the council’s planning committee would rubber stamp it, others wanting it to  be as politically explicit as possible within a limit of 28 words. The maximalists won. Our final wording:

“Jewish Workers’ Bund leader. Representative to the Polish Parliament in Exile… Took his life in protest at the World’s indifference to Nazi extermination of the Jews”

The Council’ agreed it and we began fundraising to cover the costs of the plaque, approximately £375, and our ongoing administrative costs.

We updated the surviving organisation of the Bund on our progress. After 1945 the remnants of the Bund – many of whom were Holocaust survivors – were scattered in several countries but affiliated with a World Bund Coordinating Committee in New York, which produced a monthly Yiddish journal – Undzer Tsayt (Our Times). The Jewish Socialists’ Group had contact with the Bund from the mid-1980s. They were overjoyed about our initiative and put us in touch with the remnant of Zygielbojm’s family. When he committed suicide, Zygielbojm believed all his immediate family had been wiped out, apart from any who got out before the war. His brother Fayvl got to South Africa. But one of Zygielbojm’s children, Joseph survived.

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Joseph and Adele

A Red Army partisan during the war, he returned to Poland, married Adele, who had survived a Nazi concentration camp and several slave labour camps, and then they came to America. Joseph was excited about our plans and looked forward eagerly to coming to England for the unveiling. Then we hit problems.

 

The plaques officer, informed us that the building Szmul Zygielbojm lived in was now occupied by five private renters. We required consent from all five households. We feared encountering one antisemite who would refuse. Ironically, the one refusal was from a Jew – a Holocaust survivor who feared that the plaque would attract fascist vandals. We detailed the historian David Ceserani to approach him but he couldn’t persuade him. We had to look elsewhere.

Behind the flats there is a very nice garden, part of it a children’s playground. The council investigated but told us that the garden could not be used for any “racial, religious, political or memorial” purposes.

library_Porchesterr RoadAt the end of the terrace, Porchester Square meets Porchester Road, just opposite there was  a beautiful library building with a white façade. A plaque would stand out prominently. The library were keen, and later we held further Zygielbojm memorial events there, but Council officers informed us that a library plaque could only celebrate an author. Zygielbojm was a factory worker at 10 years old, making boxes, before being apprenticed as a glovemaker. In the 1930s he was a drama critic for the Bund’s newspaper, and wrote several articles but he was not a recognised as an “author”.

Meanwhile we developed further contacts. Zygielbojm’s surviving family shared his strong identification with Poland, and put us in touch with Jan Karski . They encouraged us to approach Polish bodies here. We contacted the Polish Embassy, the Polish Cultural institute, and some elderly Polish socialists here in Britain, including Lidia Ciolkosz. We also had contact with one of the founders of the new Polish Socialist Party, post -1989, Piotr Ikonowicz, whom the Jewish Socialists’ Group had already encountered when he visited London to meet socialists here in the early 1990s. He expressed warm support for our initiative.

In May 1994, a year from our first contact with the council we received the welcome news that the side-wall at the end of the terrace opposite the library was in full council ownership. The planning committee was unlikely to object to the plaque being mounted there. So by chance we ended up with a much more prominent position. But there would be a delay. The terrace was due for refurbishment towards the end of the year. If we put the plaque up in the autumn it would soon be covered with scaffolding and sheeting for several months. We reluctantly accepted this delay. Our new target date was May 1995. However, it transpired that the refurbishment works were more extensive would take much longer. So we had to push the date back a further year until May 1996.

During this delay we received the saddest news from Adele Zygielbojm, that her husband Joseph had died. She assured us though that she and other family members would come for the unveiling. Indeed, in those three years it took from our initial approach to the unveiling itself, Zygielbojm’s brother Fayvl died in Israel, as had two members of out committee who were husbands and wives of Bundists.

zyg-brochureFast forward to Sunday 12th May 1996, a beautiful sunny day, 53 years after Zygielbojm was pronounced dead, when the plaque was finally unveiled. We hoped that 100 people would attend. Nearly 200 were present. We gave out a 4-page memorial brochure we produced through donations from the Bund, the 45 Aid Society (a London-based society of Holocaust survivors), and several individuals. The brochure contained a brief biography of Zygielbojm, newspaper cuttings reporting his suicide from 1943, a quote from Jan Karski from an article he had sent us, and Zygielbojm’s suicide letter address to President Rackeiwicz of the Polish Government in Exile.

We gathered, initially, on the opposite side of the road to the plaque, where the Lord Mayor of Westminster officially welcomed us. I spoke of Zygielbojm’s life and death, his enduring messages urging practical international solidarity for the oppressed, and reflected on why no memorial for Zygielbojm in London existed. Zygielbojm, I suggested, cast “an uncomfortable shadow over how Britain’s military objectives were defined and prioritised. For the allies it was a costly victory, for the Jews of Europe it was an irrecoverable loss.” What about Jewish leaders’ lack of interest?  I suggested that: “Zygielbojm, and the philosophy of the movement he represented did not fit with Anglo-jewry’s post war self-image and values. Too often in our community, material success, high academic achievement, support for Israel, are more prized that contributions to humanity as a whole.”

Esther Brunstein, one of the Bundists on the Zygielbojm committee, read Zygielbojm’s suicide letter in Yiddish, and Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists’ Group read it in English. We crossed over and gathered under the plaque. Adele Zygielbojm and the Polish Ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, pulled the curtain rope to unveil the plaque. We invited people to join us at the Yaa Asantewaa African-Caribbean community centre, a mile away, for a reception and celebration of Zygielbojm’s life.

An all-women klezmer band, Royte Klezmoyres (Red Musicians) greeted guests IMG_5662with Yiddish tunes. There were speeches. Perec Zylberberg, who had flown in from Canada, spoke on behalf of the Bund about Zygielbojm’s importance to their movement; Polish Ambassador Ryszard Stempowski paid tribute to Zygielbojm’s courage and recalled the Bund’s significant role in Polish political life. Majer Bogdanskl offered personal memories of how Zygielbojm interacted with Bundists in Lodz. David Cesarani described Zygielbojm’s extraordinary efforts to spread first-hand information and demand action during the Holocaust. Adele Zygielbaum and her two sons Arthur and Paul spoke of the legacy of ideas and values that he left.

“By his death ,” Adele said, “he wanted to express the importance of every human being’s right to live, no matter who they are or what their beliefs.”

Arthur Zygielbaum said his grandfather’s message was still current. “People are still being exterminated today because of an accident of birth. Because they are identified with one ethnic group or another. His death is not resolved. His message is still unanswered. His cry is not silent.”

Arthur’s brother Paul affirmed that “Szmul Artur Zygielbojm’s labour and sacrifice were not for the Jews alone… amid his anguished pleas for the salvation of a people, he wrote of his belief that a better world would come… a world of freedom, justice and peace.”

jan-karski1-720x340Messages of support were read from absentees, including Jan Karski who wrote:  “Much as I would like to come I cannot. I am over 82 years old and not strong any more.” He sent an article he had published and invited us to quote from it. We chose a paragraph where Karski says: “Taking one’s own life violates the Judaic-Christian tradition but a distinction should be made,” between someone “who takes his life because he cannot handle any longer his personal misfortune, or to escape from the responsibility of his acts”, and on the other hand, Zygielbojm, who “took his life out of compassion for the suffering of his people hoping that his death will help or save those he loved.”

After refreshments we ended with a cultural programme of poems and Yiddish songs including the partisan song, traditionally sung at commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and di Shvue – the hymn of the Bund.

For several years afterwards we gathered by the plaque on the nearest Sunday to Zygielbojm’s yortstayt (death anniversary) for a ceremony with speeches and songs, and there would always be a presence from the Polish Embassy or Polish Cultural Institute.

On the 70th anniversary of Zygielbojm’s death in 2013 we held a big meeting and cultural event with music and poetry, in central London, at which Wlodka Blit Robertson spoke about her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and when she was hidden afterwards, Esther Brunstein spoke of her childhood recollections in Zygielbojm’s home and Mr Szaniawski spoke on behalf of the Polish Embassy.

We hope that our efforts to mount the plaque, and the consciousness we raised about it, have contributed to telling the story of an extraordinary person and the values both he and the Bund embodied.
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“One large Group was positively welcomed in by the Tories this week…”

My speech at the Windrush Generation demonstration 5th May, 2018 IMG_5580

Greetings from Jewish Socialists’ Group and on behalf of Jewish Voice for Labour. We are here today because we always stand against injustice, and because we know that an attack on one minority is an attack on all, and that minorities must stand together to resist. But for once the minorities of this country really know that we do not stand alone. We know that the majority of British society is as outraged as any of us at the disgraceful, cruel and heartless treatment of the Windrush generation, and that is what is making the government become scared.

The inhuman rules and regulations of the Home Office with regard to incomers go all the way back to 1905 when my grandparents came as Jewish migrants and refugees. The key principle established by the Aliens Act in 1905 was to divide people into two groups: not black and white, not Jewish and non-Jewish, but “desirable” and “undesirable”. After 1905, pauperised Jews from the Russian Empire were put in the “undesirable” category.

In the 1950s the Windrush generation were positively welcomed as desirable. How cruel is it that after they have worked their whole lives, contributed so much, paid their taxes, they are now treated as undesirable?

While years and years of such cruelty towards Commonwealth citizens has been exposed in recent weeks – people losing their livelihoods, their rights and benfits, held in detention centres – one large group of people has been positively welcomed in by the Tories this week: they have welcomed hundreds of thousands of UKIP voters and UKIP supporters.

Do we even need to ask ourselves why the Tories are their main destination of choice.

Some people have hopes that Sajid Javid will be better on this issue. But one of the first things he did this week was vote to keep the government’s Windrush papers hidden from scrutiny.

What else are they hiding?

When the Tories try to take the moral high ground on opposition to racism by throwing their voice behind what are almost entirely manufactured allegations of antisemitisn against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, as a Jewish anti-racist I feel sick.

I say to Theresa May: “Anti-racism is not a pick and choose activity. If you are an anti-racist you are against all racism.”

I will not hear lectures on opposing antisemitism from a Tory government that is allied in Europe through the Conservative and Reformists groups to the most openly antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-Roma, anti-refugee  parties in Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Denmark and others.IMG_5578

I say to Theresa May: “Get your own house in order!”

And you can start doing that by scrapping the appalling racist laws that are mistreating and oppressing the Windrush generation victims.

 

The carnival is not over

Who can say with any certainty what exactly they were doing 40 years ago? I can today. It is the evening of 30th April 2018 . Forty years ago, on this day, and at this time, I was feeling so tired but so exhilarated. Several hours earlier I had been one of tens of thousands of anti-fascists filling Trafalgar Square and the streets around, holding lollypop-style placards with ‘Anti-Nazi League’ (ANL) and an arrow printed in black and red on a yellow background, or on punk-pink Rock Against Racism stars. I was 20-years-old but already a seasoned marcher who had trailed from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park or the other way around several times waving our placards and banners, shouting our IMG_2856slogans, mostly towards bemused West End tourists. But this day was different. We were heading out of the centre and going five miles east to Victoria Park, on the Hackney/Tower Hamlets border, where a stage had been set up by ‘Rock Against Racism’. Many of the new wave artists who had shaken the music scene – the Clash, X-Ray Specs, Tom Robinson – were going to be there to show their followers that their allegiance was to the cause of anti-racism and anti-fascism.

As we got close to the park we were walking through streets where I had walked in fear on an anti-fascist demonstration just a few months earlier, when we were easily outnumbered by waves of fascists crowding on to the streets from the estates we walked through, pouring out of the pubs, sieg-heiling, spitting and shouting. There was no doubt these streets belonged to them.  They were the community and we were interlopers making a temporary incursion on their territory .As our Jewish Socialist banner passed, they paid us special attention, screaming that we were “going to the gas ovens”. The National Front (NF) was at its peak, claiming 20,000 members. Like Mosley’s movement before it, its London heartland was in the decaying, deprived areas of East London.

But today, on 30th April  it was our turn. By the time we reached Victoria Park, the crowd had swollen to 80,000. The streets in which we had been so abused and terrified a few months earlier, were ours on that day.  The march was so dense that we filled the whole road and both pavements.

On almost every anti-fascist demonstrations I had been on up to that point, we had ucjsbt_1dsj_mshouted “Black and White – Unite and Fight”, but the marches had been predominantly white. This one was different. Especially when we were in the park it was clear that this was a black and white demonstration. We were physically expressing our demand for equal rights for all. Our unity across ethnicity and also sexuality was reflected on the stage too where Steel Pulse’s reggae riffs and the Clash’s punk/new wave sounds combined beautifully, and the whole crowd rocked to Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad to be Gay’, and joined in the chorus.

I was there with other Jews… but not without a fight. Our ‘leaders’, the Board of Deputies, had pulled out all the stops to try to prevent Jews from supporting the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation in Britain since the 1930s. Why? They claimed that the ANL’s leading figures were anti-Zionists and therefore the Jewish community should have nothing to do with them. Effectively they were saying that it was more important to keep out of range of comments someone might say about a conflict 2,000 miles away in the Middle-East than to unite here and now with communities that were bearing the brunt of racist attacks, having their homes firebombed, being beaten up on the streets, by the same forces that were daubing swastikas on Jewish gravestones. It seemed a callous and narrow attitude, then, as well as a self-defeating one.

For several weeks the letters pages of the Jewish Chronicle were filled with argument and counter-argument about this issue. When the ANL held a public meeting in the Jewish heartland of Golders Green, and with Jewish speakers on the platform, it was forced to hold it in a Unitarian church because the Board had told synagogues not to let their premises to the ANL. I remember Aubrey Lewis, who cut his political teeth in street battles against fascism and campaigns against poverty in Manchester in the 1930s, and was one of the founders of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, telling us that the Board were not really worried about young Jews becoming enticed by anti-Zionism, they wanted, above all, to keep young Jews away from the Left.

Like the East End Jews of the 1930s before them, lots of suburbanised young Jews from Ilford, Southgate, Hendon and Finchley  ignored the Board. When we arrived in Trafalgar square on that day, some of the first people we encountered were other Jewish youths from left-Zionist groups – Mapam and Habonim –  who knew exactly why they were there.

That day was a crucial step on a political journey for many people. Some of those young Zionists will have pondered on the contradiction of a Zionist movement that told them that you can only escape from antisemitism, not fight it, while they marched within a huge multi-racial crowd, that was optimistic that it could defeat racism and fascism and build a truly equal multi-cultural society, as they chanted: “Here to stay, here to fight!”

05scenepunk02There were non-political youngsters who went to the carnival to see their favourite bands only to find these bands, in this context, had strong political messages too, messages that may have conflicted with the ideas and sentiments these young people heard at home from their parents and neighbours. Their heroes were imploring them to make a choice, to take a stand. It opened my eyes – and ears – to the crucial need for politics and culture to  mix and strengthen each other.  Yet, looking back now, we were still in the early days. That day the stage had white bands, it had black bands, following each other, but they still hadn’t caught up with their audience, who were already uniting with and embracing each other. It was a year later, and 100 miles away from Victoria Park – in the Midlands – that two-tone music burst on the scene with bands with both black and white members such as the Selecter, the Specials, the Beat.

So how did I mark the day 40 years on? I joined a protest and spoke on a multi-racial

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Photo: Jess Hurd

platform outside parliament in support of the Windrush generation. I brought greetings to the demonstration from the Jewish Socialists’ Group and Jewish Voice for Labour, remarking that minority communities know the importance of supporting each other, but adding that, “What is really striking over the last two or three weeks, and what is really unnerving Theresa May and her government, is the solidarity shown by the majority of society for the Windrush generation.”

And I know that one of the reasons I was there tonight was because of where I had been and what I had been doing 40 years earlier. Later tonight I will put on some music, from the late ’70s, and hear the rebellious voices of Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson on my favourite Selecter Album, Too Much Pressure, and hoping those words also mean something for Theresa May and her disdainful and heartless band of racists, nationalists, and imperialists on local election day this Thursday.

 

Recognise who was behind Powell too

I once had the opportunity to do serious physical harm to Enoch Powell and it still shocks me that I even contemplated it. It was around 1987. I had arranged to meet a Palestinian friend outside Gloucester Road tube. She would be taking me to a meeting nearby of other Palestinians and supporters of their struggle for justice. As I waited for her, I saw an old man, fairly smartly dressed and wearing a hat, who was having to make quite an effort to climb the stairs that led up to ground level from the tube. He was definitely familiar. It took no more than a few seconds to recognise Enoch Powell. I felt rage inside for so many victims of racial violence, including young people with their lives ahead of them who had died, their attackers ultimately inspired by his hateful words. I fleetingly, but seriously, contemplated turning and “accidentally ” bumping into him as he reached the top of the stairs, making him tumble down them.

I am a socialist because I choose love over hate and believe in the capacity for (almost everyone) to become fully human, cooperative, and imbued with a desire to live equally with their fellow human beings. I hate the policies that cause such misery and impoverishment for many, but I rarely personalise that. In Powell’s case I make an exception, and still feel 50 years on from his Rivers of Blood speech, that the BBC have been marketing with such tabloid sensationalism, (just responding to everyone’s deep interest in the phenomenon, you understand), I can feel hate, although I know it is a different kind of hate to that which he admitted harbouring as a young man.

Last night I hurt my back digging in corners of my office space so that I could rummage through a couple of boxes of old pamphlets for one I knew was there somewhere. Sure enough I found it. Published in June 1969, by the Labour Research Department (LRD), Its title, Powell and his Allies, was printed in a suitably Gothic font. I have never thought it a coincidence that his searing and poisonous “Rivers of Blood” speech was delivered on Adolf Hitler’s birthday, a date on which small groups of far-right activists have not only held memorial ceremonies but often committed outrageous acts. Hitler would have been celebrating  his 81st birthday that day, had the Nazis succeeded and his own health been sustained.

I remembered correctly that the LRD pamphlet began with a short verse written by Powell as a young man, which gave a clue to the values that would shape his later life:

“I hate the ugly, hate the old
I hate the lame and weak.
But most of all I hate the dead
Who lie so still in their earthen bed,
And never dare to rise”

IMG_5421The pamphlet exposes the typical features of Powell’s speeches that inspired admiration among those susceptible, and hatred among those who saw it plainly for what it was: the sense of foreboding, the harsh and threatening language, the wildly exaggerated statistics plucked from thin air, meant to scare and enrage his audience, the cynical attempts to personalise his arguments with made up characters, which also betrayed his sexism – the helpless “little old lady” – the sole white inhabitant in the street, terrorised by her black neighbours, trailed by “wide grinning piccaninnies” who can’t speak the language properly  except for the word “racialist” which they chant; the little old lady who is made to feel “a stranger in her own home” by her new and unwelcome neighbours, painted in the least flattering way.

The pamphlet says: “His metaphors and adjectives are almost exclusively ugly and cruel; his speeches are splattered with ‘evils’, ‘insane’, ‘mad’, ‘lunacy’, ‘tyranny’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘filthy’, etc.” it draws attention to violent and military associated phrases that pepper his speeches too: ‘invasion of our body politic’, ‘alien territory’, ‘occupied’, ‘detachments from … the West Indies or India and Pakistan encamped in certain areas’, ‘whip hand’, ‘blood’, ‘national disaster’.

In telling us about his allies – the key purpose of the pamphlet – it reveals an important point lost on too many anti-racists, who often imagine the kind of people who would respond positively to these hateful messages as poor, uneducated, hopeless, and embittered; an underclass looking for someone to blame for their own condition.

We know that Powell generated active support from low paid workers – dockers in an industry that was rapidly declining, Smithfield Market porters, who got up to do their hard physical work at unearthly hours. When those porters joined dockers on a political strike to march to Parliament in support of Powell, they were led by Danny Harmston, a bodyguard for the veteran fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1960s. Harmston himself stood as a parliamentary candidate in Islington for Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Union Movement in the 1966 General Election. But the great strength of this pamphlet is how it shows the support Powell got from the highest echelons of society especially in the business world

And Powell gave something back to them. Alongside his well-known racist views, Powell 6a0120a58872a6970b013480715be5970c-800wisaid “When I see a rich man I give thanks to God.” He described how, when he was kneeling in church “i think to myself  how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost for the gift of capitalism”. Powell attacked the concept of council housing as “immoral and socially damaging”. He condemned the “work-spreading, profit-hating, almost Luddite attitude of trade unionists”, and called for “denationalising industries. All of them”. In a very candid moment, interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in October 1968, he describes himself as “a virus. I am the virus that kills socialists.”

One group of key Powellite supporters organised themselves in the “Society for Individual Freedom”. They enthusiastically lapped up his racist messages which they married with their absolute commitment to free enterprise and shrinking the state. At the time they had 35 MPs and several members of the House of Lords among their members. They were captains of industry such as Sir John Rodgers, MP for Sevenoaks and director of the world’s largest advertising agency; Lord Lyle, simultaneously a director of Tate and Lyle and of Rhodesian Sugar Refiners; and Lord Renwick who chaired the institute of Directors and sat of the board of British United Industrialists, which gathered huge amounts of money from companies to hand over as donations to the Tory Party. In other words, he had a lot of support from the upper and  upper-middle classes who have inflicted so much capitalist damage on people’s lives as well as through their influence in politics. And these people were racist through and through, supporting the vestiges of white supremacy in Rhodesia and South Africa. The Tory Monday Club, on the far-right of the party was another home for these types, and their strongest period was in the decade after Powell’s speech.

At the other end of society it did indeed give strength to that underclass who felt disenfranchised and disempowered, and who drew a simple conclusion from Powell’s words – to go “Paki-bashing”, to put bricks through the home of African-Caribbean neighbours. Almost a decade on from Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech there was a spate of vicious racist attacks especially in East London which resulted in the deaths of a young Sikh, Kenneth Singh, in Newham, a Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali, in Whitechapel,  Micheal Ferreira, a young man from a Caribbean family in Hackney, and another young  Bengali, Ishaque Ali. But the first murder victim in East London was Tosir Ali in April 1970 – a Wimpy Bar worker – attacked by two skinheads as he walked home from work. They slit his throat and left him to die.

That violence was commonplace in the febrile atmosphere created by Powell and the far right organisations he gave a boost to, such as the National Front (NF) formed in 1967. In the next few years the NF was able to recruit many of those young skinheads and give them a fuller ideological “education” about who their enemies in society were. And while we remember the names of those whose lives were actually ended, we are less familiar with the catalogue of young people who suffered life-changing, life-limiting, injuries that can be traced back to the speeches of incitement by Enoch Powell.

Ten years after his Rivers of Blood speech he briefly returned to the limelight to give a speech in Billericay, Essex, in which he spoke of the “swamping” of inner cities. Inciting his audience not just to anger but to action, he told them “Violence does not break upon such a scene because it is willed or contrived … but because it lies in the inevitable course of events… those who foresaw and feared they would  be swamped will be driven by… strong impulses and interests to resist and prevent it”. The very next day 150 NF-supporting skinheads did just that, as they rampaged down Brick Lane attacking Bengalis on the street and in their shops, injuring many.

It was those victims, and the often powerless but poisoned perpetrators, who were deep in my consciousness as I saw Powell slowly ascending the stairs of the tube station I was waiting at, but I also had in mind those very well placed in high society who easily marry deeply racist ideas with commitment to their gods of profit, property and economic 7d721f7c-6a75-4252-ba53-37fff9e648e9_mw1024_n_spower and control. Several years after Powell was booted from the central political stage and regarded as a bitter has-been, his admirers such as Margaret Thatcher were elbowing their way to the top. Today, in the era of Theresa May, the vestiges of the Monday Club and Powellism are found in the Traditional Britain Group, a deeply racist and dangerous organisation, filled with people from the most economically privileged sectors of society, led by Tory members Gregory Lauder-Frost and Lord Sudely. They regularly  provide a platform for alt-right antisemitic, Islamophobic, white supremacists from several countries. Our struggles against racism and fascism must always be a struggle simultaneously against capitalism and the upper eschelons of society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Labour’s leaders to call their opponents’ bluff

30530954_10156227870123320_5400229481258418176_nJewish families in Dollis Hill, north-west London, woke yesterday to find they had been the targets of a horrifying antisemitic attack. This was not an unpleasant Facebook post, or a garbled report of what someone said to someone else about what was said at a meeting, but huge swastikas and Nazi SS symbols painted on the pavement outside houses in a street where many Jewish people live, on the window at a bus stop and on street signs. It was similar to a spate of incidents that targeted Jewish families in another part of north west London in January 2017. On that occasion the attacks included a brick with antisemitic messages arriving through one family’s window. The victims of this weekend’s outrage must have been thinking, if only there was an organised campaign against antisemitism that would come down immediately, give support to the families, tell them who they think the perpetrators might be, and offer them a plan of action.

Well, it turns out there is such a campaign, but it was too busy to help yesterday. The self-styled “Campaign Against Antisemitism” (CAA), was instead standing in the rain holding Union Jacks as it demonstrated outside the national office of the political party that has brought in almost every single piece of equalities and race relations legislation in Britain, and whose MPs can regularly be found addressing anti-racist and anti-fascist gatherings. The crowd the CAA attracted booed the name of Labour politicians, and at least one speaker compared Jeremy Corbyn to Adolf Hitler.

If there was one crumb of comfort for rational, sane people from this Alice in Campaign-Against-anti-Semitism-1298387Wonderland scenario, it was that despite many thousands of pounds being spent on targeted advertising  for this “national” demonstration, all they could muster was a few hundred. The Jewish Chronicle, whose reporters are no Corbynistas, put the figure as low as 500 demonstrators. Even if these were all Jews – and evidence provided by photographers of faces in the crowd and placards of Christian Zionists organisations who were bussed down from Scotland belies this –  we are talking about a mobilisation of, at most 0.2% of Britain’s Jews. Other observers who took panoramic photos of the crowd at its height put the figure at no more than 150-200. The organisers, used to inflating their own importance, naturally inflated the figures as well – to 2,000, a figure repeated in Israeli newspapers. Our domestic newspapers, which failed to report a considerably bigger demonstration in central London the day before, to protest the killings of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, nevertheless reported yesterday’s flop uncritically.

If the larger protests in Parliament Square led by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council on 26th March, alleging “endemic” antisemitism in the Labour Party, could draw a thin veil over a patently pro-Tory agenda, by offering speaker slots to anti-Corbyn Labour representatives, there were no pretences yesterday. One invited speaker, a former Labour Party donor who quit the party last month, who spoke of the need to rebuild relations between the Jewish community and the Labour Party, was shouted down with cries of “Off! Off! Off!” and “Vote Tory!”

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Flowers outside Finsbury Park mosque after murderous islamophobic attack

Nobody can or should seek to deny that antisemitism has deep roots in many European societies, including Britain, but to imagine it arises disproportionately within the party which has the strongest record of opposing all racism, is perverse (and contradicted by the latest You Gov analysis). Antisemitic attacks should never be downplayed. Unfortunately there are elements within the left who mistakenly do that. But it is also important to keep matters in perspective. It tends to rise and fall in tandem with other forms of racism that have been fuelled in Britain in very lean years economically that have heightened social stresses. Islamophobic hate crimes in London soared 40% in 2017 from 1,205 to 1,678. The perpetrators, where identified, are usually white racists. National figures last updated in March 2018 show Black people and especially Black youth, are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Roma people and Poles have also been targeted in viciuous racist hate crimes.

So, who can turn this racist tide around? The party whose Foreign Secretary talks of piccaninnies, led by the former Home Secretary who introduced the infamous “go home” vans, targeting migrants who had “overstayed”? A party whose policies on every reliable measure have increased poverty, despair and homelessness, leaving increasing numbers of people prey to those who will seek to turn their anger, hopelessness and frustration into scapegoating of immigrants? Really?

There is an opportunity on 3rd May to answer this question by electing committed anti-racists and anti-fascists as councillors, from a Labour Party that has unequivocally positioned itself, under its current leadership, as an anti-austerity party. Less than a month ago, the Tories were on the ropes and fighting with each other over Brexit. Many Tories wanted Theresa May to quit but feared an even more divisive and incompetent successor. The polls were showing that they would struggle to hold on to their flagship councils in London such as Westminster and Wandsworth, and that they could even be in trouble in Barnet, where Jewish voters, conditioned by constant propaganda to see Labour as the home of the “new antisemitism”, make up 20% of the electorate.

But that palpable sense of panic in Tory ranks has been pushed out of the news by an opportunist campaign that has latched on to a tiny number of real incidents involving Labour members and antisemitism that need to be addressed. That campaign has wildly and deliberately exaggerated their overall significance, thrown in ambiguous historical incidents as if they are of burning significance today; and completely obscured the bigger picture of rising racism against a range of communities that has occurred on the Tories’ watch and with Tory complicity.

Those pushing that campaign – right wing dominated Jewish bodies, falsely claiming to be representative of the politically and economically diverse Jewish community in Britain –  have acted predictably. But the real culprits are the mainstream media, from the “quality“ broadsheets to the tabloids (with a couple of honourable exceptions), who have willingly fallen into line behind this campaign, and have ignored or marginalised other critical Jewish voices. The media are quite cynically betraying the victims of Tory misrule over the country – people from all communities, including the Jewish community – who are experiencing the Tories’ heartless attack on health, social services and social care, the working families forced to use food banks, the spiralling numbers of young workers on zero hour contracts, and the growing numbers of homeless.

It is time for the Labour leadership to call the bluff of these newspapers and of the opportunistic campaigns promoted by puffed-up but unrepresentative Jewish “leaders”. Labour needs to set rather than follow the agenda here, and state boldly that it understands exactly what is at stake for the most vulnerable sectors of society in these elections, sectors which include many members of ethnic minorities.

Labour must declare that between now and those elections, it will not be diverted by negative headlines and accusations of being soft on antisemitism, from the task of delivering a result that will bring many more anti-austerity and anti-racist councillors into office, who will make a profound material difference on the ground in their local communities. Labour should state that it expects every single Labour politician at national and local level to make this their number one priority. It was a good sign that no Labour politicians joined the CAA rally yesterday.

Labour should declare that it will take no lectures on this from the Tory Party that, at the

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American white-supremacist Richard Spencer

European level, happily works with openly xenophobic, anti-migrant and antisemitic parties, while here in Britain it maintains fluid boundaries with antisemites, Holocaust deniers and revisionists, alt-right eugenicists and identitarians, through the Traditional Britain Group which is led by the active Tory members, Lord Sudeley and Gregory Lauder-Frost.

And Labour needs to demand something of its own supporters and activists: that they should be wise to provocations, and refuse to be drawn into any more petty confrontations with those perpetuating diversionary debates.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize – an overwhelmingly positive result in the local elections that will be the springboard for defeating the party of privilege and division, and their cynical supporters, at the General Election.

There will be a vigil in Dollis Hill from 7-10pm Tuesday 10th April: https://www.facebook.com/events/435612193528744/

So who are those Tories cosying up to?

If you were feeling a bit overpowered by the whiff of hypocrisy coming off the large number of Tory MPs, and their DUP friends, including Norman Tebbit and Ian Paisley Jr, who joined the “anti-racist” protest against Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square last Monday, to say “enough is enough” about alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party, then I would strongly advise you to be very careful where you travel in Europe.

In particular, I would recommend that you avoid Strasbourg and Brussels where you might find yourself inadvertently hanging out with Tory MEPs, and their close friends, who certainly have a whiff of something unpleasant about them.

At David Cameron’s behest in 2009, Tory MEPs left the centre-right grouping they had formerly been part of to form a new, more right-wing alliance. The Tories are the largest group in that 72-member alliance, the next biggest faction being the Polish  Law and Justice Party (PiS). Yes,you have heard of them. They made headlines lately with their new law which is attempting to rewrite Holocaust history. They are making it illegal to suggest any complicity by Poles in the genocide of Jews during the war.

As the ruling party in Poland they are also trying to rehabilitate the honour of the ultra-nationalist, antisemitic, right-wing Polish parties active before the war. Hot on the heels of the controversial Holocaust history bill, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lit a candle and laid a wreath at the Munich grave site of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, a Polish

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Polish ultra-nationalists

underground military unit who collaborated with Nazi Germany against communists during the Second World War. These kinds of actions are giving increased confidence to Poland’s neo-Nazis who were the leading forces among a 60,000 strong ultra-nationalist march through Warsaw last November.

The alliance’s junior partners include the  Danish People’s Party (DF) described by some commentators as “right-wing populist” by others simply as “Far right”. Islamophobia is the DF’s main racism of choice, one of their spokespersons opining “Muslims should live in a Muslim country – not here”. I doubt, though, if that would put off Jonathan Arkush, the Tory-supporting-Trump-supporting, President of the Jewish Board of Deputies, fronting Monday’s rally in the Square, since the DF are very enthusiastic supporters of Israel under its leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wonder how Arkush and his counterpart at the rally, Jonathan Goldstein, of the Jewish Leadership  Council, feel about other members of this Tory/Law and Justice-led alliance, such as the Latvian National Alliance  made up of “All for Latvia”, which  describes “international globalism” and “multiculturalism” as its chief enemies, and its partners, “For Fatherland and Freedom”. This National Alliance takes part in an annual event commemorating the Latvian Waffen-SS, and some years back reprinted a book seeking to justify the crimes committed by the Latvian Waffen-SS against Jews and Russians.

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Marching to remember Hristo Lukov

Another member of this right-wing European grouping who, also, it seems, enjoy a good march, are the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO). In February, for the 16th consecutive year, they held a march through the centre of Sofia to honour Hristo Lukov, an army general who led the pro-Nazi Union of National Legions during the war. The march ended by the house where Lukov was assassinated by communist partisans. Neo-nazis from several other parts of Europe flew in to take part in the march. IMRO also express racist sentiments against Bulgarian Turks and Roma communities.

While it is true that a number of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs were present last Monday, and Luciana Berger spoke for them at the rally in Parliament Square, the collusion between the Tory Party, the Tory supporting press, and the right-wing self-proclaimed leaders of the Jewish community, this week, has been plain to see. No doubt a number of protesters came there in good faith to protest against antisemitism, having been conditioned by constant right-wing press stories, including those by the Jewish Chronicle, to believe that instances of antisemitism only occur in the ranks of Labour (and, of course, there have been real instances), but others would have taken part knowing the damage this could inflict not just on Labour’s leader, but on the Labour Party in general in the forthcoming local elections. One Tory activist, David Thomas, a former Conservative parish councillor was honest enough to tweet “It’s an actual stroke of genius we’ve been able to pull this off, perfect timing heading into the elections too” (My emphasis). He has since deleted the tweet.

It appears that those Jewish “leaders” who are cosying up to the Tories for mutual benefits can only look in one direction as they seek to uncover antisemitism. Have we heard any of them speak out against, let alone even question, the highly dubious alliance the Tories have built and are sustaining with Islamophobes and antisemites in the Tory-led Group in the European Parliament? Why ever not?

Theresa May now plans to take advantage of the febrile atmosphere around the theresa-may-an103106230epa05433683question of antisemitism by earmarking April 17th for a parliamentary debate about it. All racism is serious. It is surely one of the main failures of May’s Government, and Cameron’s before her, that antisemitism has been rising as have other forms of racism and bigotry against African-Caribbeans, Muslims, Roma, refugees, and members of the LGBT community on their watch. This has multiplied further  since the Brexit Referendum. Minorities who face much more frequent instances of abuse and attack by racists than Jews do, and encounter institutional racism on a daily basis, might be angry that the Tories sudden desire to spend an afternoon discussing racism is limited to only one kind. They surely have a point. Nevertheless, Labour should absolutely welcome this debate.

Not only will it give parliamentarians the chance to explore the issue in depth and share their understandings, it will also provide Labour with the opportunity to put the Government on the spot about their institutional links to antisemites and other racists in Europe. For all their bluster when confronting Labour, the Tory-supporting leaders of the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council seem much too coy to do that to their own side. I hope Jeremy Corbyn and other members of the Labour Party can show them how it is done!

 

 

 

 

 

Enough is Enough: What would Mandela have said?

A towering clay figure stands in the North Western corner of Parliament Square – Nelson Mandela – whose statue was unveiled in 2007. I was there when it was unveiled, feeling a personal as well as political connection. The Anti-Apartheid Movement was the first political organisation I joined. Many years later, as a primary school teacher, I taught an 8-year-old boy called Levi, who was immensely proud of his grandfather, Ian Walters, who made the statue. Levi brought in a framed photo of the unveiling to show off to his classmates.

Nelson-Mandela-statue-in-Parliament-square-by-Prioryman-on-Wikimedia-CommonsMandela, 89 at the time of the unveiling, was typically modest. He said: “The history of the struggle in South Africa is rich with the stories of heroes and heroines… All of them deserve to be remembered. We thank the British people once again for their relentless efforts in supporting us during the dark years.”

It was a very generous comment.  Although the Anti-Apartheid movement won enormous support from the British public – hundreds of thousands took part in protest marches and rallies, and millions boycotted South African goods – among the mainstream political parties, only Labour and the Liberals emerge with credit. The Tories, under successive leaders, and especially Thatcher, argued forcefully against sanctions on this brutal racist regime, which murdered children protesting on the streets. Her husband, like many other leading Tories, had investments in South Africa.  In that final decade before the fall of apartheid, while those Tories were busy guarding their investments, and a section of the Young Tories were producing posters and t-shirts saying “Hang Nelson Mandela”, many Labour politicians were present in the front ranks of demonstration activity, especially the newly elected member for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, who was arrested for his efforts.

Britain was also home to exiled South Africans, who continued to contribute to the struggle politically from Britain, such as the Jewish ANC activist Ben Turok, born to to Russian Bundists (anti-Zionist Jewish socialists) in South Africa in 1927. Turok stood with Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others in the Treason Trial from 1956-60. He later served three years in Pretoria Prison, on at least one occasion alongside Mandela. When I interviewed him in 1986, he told me that although he felt very attached to Yiddish culture (he showed me a poem in Yiddish his mother sent him when he was imprisoned with Mandela), he and  other Jewish activists felt compelled to choose between the Jewish community and the liberation struggle.

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Ben Turok

Politically, the Jewish community was closely policed by the South African Board of Deputies. In a literal sense. While the main government-supporting Afrikaans press were producing classic antisemitic cartoons about Jewish financiers, Turok told me that the Board of Deputies were busy informing on Jewish anti-apartheid activists to the SA authorities, handing over personal details.

Turok had a private meeting with Gus Seron, leader of the SA Board of Deputies, encouraging the Board to at least give some indication of support for democratic and anti-racist positions: “We wanted the Jewish Board to give some recognition to the fact that the Black people of South Africa had legitimate aspirations. We were not asking them to get guns and fight. We were asking them to make some gesture of recognition. They refused to do that.”

Our own Board of Deputies are little better. Their appalling record in the 1930s, when they seemed to spend more time criticising Jewish anti-fascists than combating Oswald Mosley’s hooligans, and famously advised Jews to stay indoors and pull down the shutters rather than confront the fascists at the Battle of Cable street, is well known. Thankfully the Jewish public ignored them then. Grassroots activists explained the reason why: they regarded the Board as the old establishment and thoroughly unrepresentative.

Always a socially conservative force in the Jewish community, they continue today to be led and dominated by supporters of the Tory Party that defended apartheid South Africa. They still pursue a relentless anti-left agenda, and frequently identify internationalist left movements as antisemites. Mandela’s statue must have thought he was in an “Alice in Wonderland” world as he stared down at the current Board of Deputies president, Jonathan Arkush, addressing a crowd of several hundred Jews who welcomed into their ranks that evening non-Jewish guests, such as DUP luminaries, Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley jr, the veteran far right Tory Norman Tebbit who famously talked of a “cricket test” for immigrants to show how patriotically British they were, and Zac Goldsmith who ran the most appallingly Islamophobic campaign for Mayor against Sadiq Khan in 2016. In the name of anti-racism, and especially the fight against antisemitism, Arkush was ranting against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose record on anti-racism and on support for human rights, among the current crop of parliamentarians, is second to none.

Anti-racism is not a pick and choose activity. And nor is support for human rights. Jeremy Corbyn knows that. Arkush, however, has never criticised the terrible human rights record of the Israeli Government towards the Palestinians. He is a firm supporter of the most right-wing, racist and pro-settler government Israel has ever had. The Board of Deputies, and their co-sponsors of Monday’s demonstration, the self-proclaimed Jewish Leadership Council, had not a word of criticism for Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle mayoral campaign.

Antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism rise in tandem, as we have seen in Donald Trump’s America, and are seeing today in central and eastern Europe, where far right forces are growing in strength and entering government. Most  commentators would have little difficulty in making the connection between government policies in these countries and the very congenial atmosphere that they have engendered for racists, white supremacists and fascists.  Just this week it was reported that here in Britain, there was a 28% increase in referrals to the Government’s Prevent programme of young people influenced by far right ideology. This is happening on the watch of Prime Minister Theresa May. Jewish bodies report a significant increase in antisemitic abuse and attacks in 2017. Where the perpetrators and their moitives have been identified, most of these incidents are connected with far right ideology. Again on the watch of Theresa May. And yet, bizarrely, Jewish leaders are trying to damn Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, the very party responsible for practically every piece of anti-discrimination law in Britain, laws which were first put in place while many Tories were investing in apartheid South Africa and condemning anti-apartheid activists as communists and extremists.

If the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, and their bigoted DUP friends, want to belatedly take a stand against all racism, they might want to look instead at the groups attached to the Conservative party who are developing ever closer relations with the Alt-Right and Identitarian Movement, and who are promoting white supremacism, opposition to multiculturalism, and state-assisted repatriation of immigrants to their “natural homelands”, such as the Traditional Britain Group (TBG). This group was founded by Tory Party member Gregory Lauder Frost (currently its Vice-President), and presided over by Tory peer Lord Sudeley.

In the 1990s Lauder Frost happily shared a platform with Holocaust revisionists and deniers such as David Irving and Ernst Zundel. He has described the Nuremberg trials as a “farce”, and said he was opposed to Britain declaring war on Nazi Germany. Much more recently he was taped by an undercover reporter calling Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Baroness Lawrence, a “nigger”, and radio presenter Vanessa Feltz, a “fat Jewish slag”.  Of Nelson’s Mandela’s continent, Lauder Frost says: “we owe Africa nothing. it owes us… for lifting it out of barbarism.”

Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg gave a talk to the Traditional Britain Group in 2011 and

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Jacob Rees Mogg and Gregory Lauder Frost at a meeting of the Traditional Britain Group

chatted amiably with Lauder Frost who was sitting next to him at the event. In 2013 the TBG gave a platform to key figures from the Alt-right/White supremacist movement internationally such as Richard Spencer from America, and also to Alex Kurtagic, a far right identitarian. Last year TBG welcomed Dr Thomas Hubner from the extreme right Austrian Freedom Party which has now entered a coalition government there, and Bruno Gollnisch an MEP of the French National Front

The TBG is determined to educate its members in its ideology. Its “recommended reading” on its website includes My Life, the autobiography of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, Revolt against the Modern World, by Julius Evola who is regarded as an inspirational philosophical thinker by many fascists, Heredity and Humanity, the work of the “race scientist” Roger Pearson, a retired British anthropologist, and fierce defender of “Aryan” racial superiority, who has maintained ties to numerous neo-Nazi groups and individuals. And, to bring us back to southern Africa, the TBG also encourages you to sample The Great Betrayal, by Ian Smith about the apartheid country he governed, then called Rhodesia.

The Traditional Britain Group, led by Tory members,  have called for the  removal of one monument from Parliament Square – the statue of the great anti-racist fighter and leader Nelson Mandela. Why am I not surprised?

 

Shout-out to Warsaw anti-racists

My speech Whitehall at the March Against Racism, London 17th March 2018, as part of the UN Day Against Racism

Greetings to anti-racist London and a special shout-out to our comrades marching in

speaking at March v Racism 2018

David Rosenberg speaking. Photo: Julia Bard

Warsaw today. Next month is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising when 220 Jewish fighters, the youngest just 13 years old, resisted the armed might of Nazi occupiers for three weeks.

But any commemorations in Poland this year are overshadowed by the current Polish government’s disgraceful attempt to rewrite Holocaust history and deny any Polish involvement. These actions give more confidence to Poland’s ultra nationalists and neo-Nazis, who don’t need any encouragement.

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Protesters on the march from the Polish organisation KOD

When the Polish Far right held a 60,000 strong march through Warsaw Last November, they shouted for a “Jew-free Poland”. Their banners said “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”. In Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, racists are targeting Muslims, Roma and Refugees as well as Jews.

The last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Marek Edelman, said: “to be a Jew means always being with the oppressed never with the oppressors”. The Jewish Socialists Group completely agree. Wherever people face oppression, live under violent occupation, suffer racial, sexual or homophobic discrimination and violence, their struggle is our struggle. As Jews, we stand unconditionally with our sisters and brothers in Muslim, Roma and Refugee communities.

In early May, there is another anniversary that is very meaningful for us. The 40th anniversary of the racist murder of Altab Ali, a young Bengali immigrant clothing worker in the East End, who lived and worked in the same streets where our families lived in the 1930s, when they were fighting poverty and Mosley’s fascists.

Altab Ali was stabbed to death in 1978, as he walked home from work. Killed by three teenagers whose minds had been poisoned by racism. Those teenagers werealtabalimetpoliceappeal not born racists. They learnt it from National Front propagandists, from mainstream newspaper editors who constantly wrote anti-immigrant, anti-refugee headlines, from police who ignored racial violence, and from overnments who treated immigrants as a problem, as an irritant, to be controlled or removed.

And those teenagers bought into the idea of nationalism, that spuriously divides people, that thinks majorities are superior and should have more rights than minorities, that offers the poor and exploited “White pride” Instead of jobs, houses, and social services.

As anti-racists we fight for a true multiculturalism that supports our languages, our identities our cultures, but also unites all our communities against poverty and exploitation. Nationalism can never be our friend. Nationalism can never be the answer.

Labour Party exclusions: we need justice for the many not just for the few

Iain McNicol , the departing General Secretary of the Labour Party, was determined to end his ignominious reign by going out with a bang. Yesterday his final act was revealed. He had extended Ken Livingstone’s two-year suspension indefinitely so that there could be further internal investigations, more hearings and possibly stronger disciplinary action. Livingstone’s suspension had been due to end on 27 April, this year.

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Iain McNicol

McNicol had clearly tipped off his friends – the right wing Labour MP Wes Streeting, and the pro-Zionist, anti-Corbyn, Jewish Labour Movement (JLM)  – so that, yesterday morning, both could be heard loudly expressing their fears that Labour would fail to win certain councils in May’s local government elections, if they did not take decisive action against Livingstone when his suspension ends. Voila, in the afternoon, comes the news of McNicol’s last exercise of his power. The JLM, which has its own internal crisis, after the sudden resignation of its leader Jeremy Newmark, and with the police starting an investigation relating to possible misuse of funds, can pretend to its supporters that it has its fingers on the pulse and can get results.

McNicol’s underhand, manipulative, unjust practices that manifested themselves in the period when he exerted control over the Labour Party’s inner rules and procedures, are remembered by the mainstream media mostly for the expulsion of veteran socialist, Professor Moshe Machover, the long suspension of Livingstone, and the expulsion most recently of Tony Greenstein. Each of these cases began with accusations around antisemitism, before their prosecutors shifted tactically to more winnable lines of argument.

Machover, a principled socialist who refrains from gratuitous abuse, never casually throws an accusation that he can’t back up, and who just happens also to be a professor of logic, outwitted those seeking to implement McNicol’s rules and methods. Having been summarily expelled, he won his case. In contrast, both Livingstone and probably even more so, Greenstein, have arguably been their own worse enemies, frequently setting out, it seems, either to offend or be as controversial as possible, whatever the collateral damage.  While claiming to have the interests of the Palestinians and Labour’s left leadership at heart, both have repeatedly provided ammunition on a plate to those who would dearly love to undermine Corbyn and smother the articulate and growing pro-Palestine and non- and anti-Zionist voices within the Labour Party.

In spite of Livingstone and Greenstein’s crass interventions, these critical voices have grown louder also

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Ken Livingstone

among Jewish Labour Party members who reject the policies of the Israeli government and are appalled at the daily abuses of Palestinians’ human rights by Israeli military forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They now have an organisational form in Jewish Voice for Labour, launched at a Labour Conference fringe meeting last September with 300 in attendance.

When we assess McNicol’s reign we should not simply mirror the mainstream media and crude tabloids’ obsession with the likes of Livingstone. More than anything McNicol’s rule needs to be remembered for the unjust ways that thousands of ordinary members, not seeking infamy, were mistreated, especially in the periods around the two leadership elections that Jeremy Corbyn won.

Loyal members, who had given a lifetime of service to the party but who don’t have a high media profile, or have not cultivated a Facebook “fan” base,  found themselves, summarily suspended and, in some cases, expelled for five years on the most trivial and ridiculous grounds: making pointed but fair remarks about the attitudes and behaviour of right wingers in their branches and in the wider party; an NUT member on strike,  tweeting that it was good to see the Green Party supporting their demands; previous involvement with other parties – such as Greens or Lib-Dems. The list goes on. The Labour Party was recruiting rapidly in this period. Of course many new recruits would  have had previous political convictions but, in any case, there is a world of difference between being previously a member of the Greens and being previously a member of the Tories, UKIP or the BNP.

In many cases members were suspended, expelled, or excluded from voting in the leadership contest, with no proper reason given. An estimated 4,000 Labour members/supporters were deprived of a vote in the first leadership battle that Corbyn contested, and it is widely believed that these were overwhelmingly people who were intending to vote for Corbyn. Even larger numbers of potential Corbyn supporters were deprived of a vote second time round. But the real scandal of the second leadership battle was the decision, after the contest had been announced, to arbitrarily impose a voting qualification. This excluded at a stroke between 125,000-150,000 members, who had been in the party less than 6 months from the day the contest was formally declared. These were Labour’s newest enthusiastic recruits, and this was how McNicol and Co. welcomed them. Above all, though, this was a blatant attempt by McNicol and his close circle to rig the election against Jeremy Corbyn.

After a deluge of protests, a loophole appeared. People could cancel their membership and pay £25 for the privilege of voting as Labour supporters. Many did. Others who couldn’t  afford to do so remained excluded. These are examples of the kinds of practice in the Labour Party that must be investigated in Labour’s Democracy Review and never be allowed to happen again under its future General Secretaries.

Of course, there were small numbers of people who were rightly disciplined under McNicol’s regime, for antisemitism, other forms of racism, or extremely abusive behaviour to other members, but they would have been a tiny, tiny fraction compared with the numbers unjustly excluded.

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Shami Chakrabarti

Between the two leadership contests, Shami Chakrabarti led a Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism – the charge that received the most plentiful media coverage. But her report, thankfully, went a lot further and included a series of recommendations for handling disciplinary cases, highlighting the need for transparent processes, evidence-based investigations, natural justice, and proportionality with any disciplinary actions that result. She emphasised the need for cases to be dealt with speedily and fairly, and where possible to look for educational solutions rather than suspensions and exclusions.

Although the inquiry report, with its crucial recommendations, was posted on the Labour Party website, McNicol has done everything possible to delay or prevent its implementation. Last December, it mysteriously went missing from the Labour Party’s website altogether. Fortunately, that was spotted by an eagle-eyed member of Jewish Voice for Labour. After an outcry, it was restored. It is the Chakrabariti Inquiry Report that needs to be the central focus of our campaigning right now, if we are going to win justice for the many suspended and excluded by Labour, not just for the few.

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.