Dangerous times when forces of hate commandeer our language

My talk on a panel at the Midlands TUC/Stand Up To Racism summit 18 September 2021

Thanks for inviting me .

In two weeks’ time I will be march with other anti-racists through East London, then co-chair a rally marking the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street – a famous victory for people’s power when Jews and non-Jews, including many trade unionists, formed a mass blockade and put up barricades to stop Oswald Mosley’s Fascists violently invading the streets where 60,000 Jews were living. Our side pushed back against thousands of police who tried to clear a path for the fascists. 79 anti-fascists were arrested; some served custodial sentences.

Our commemoration happens every five years. Sadly, this will be the first one without the living voices of brave veterans from 1936. That sadness, though, will be offset as we will hear from relatives, who share their parents lifelong anti-racism.

We will hear especially from Jewish and Bangladeshi speakers, celebrating a shared heritage of resistance, whether in the ‘30s against Mosley, the 1970s and ‘90s against the National Front and BNP, or more recently EDL and Britain First.

That resistance, and our victories were achieved through unity in action. We did not have to agree on every political issue to unite against a common racist enemy.

Despite those victories, though, racist beliefs, discrimination violence still scar our society. Whether from individuals, organised groups, police or government, racism threatens and diminishes the lives of longstanding minorities as well as recent migrants and refugees.

Yet, this summer there was massive support for England’s footballers defiantly taking the knee. Right now there is widespread sympathy for Afghan refugees, far beyond the ranks of activists for refugee rights. But less appetite to reverse the whole hostile environment.

We need to seize this moment in ways that are challenging and persuasive, to say all migrants and refugees to Britain, deserve support, friendship and dignity in their lives. 

We have to push wide open a debate about how a hostile environment can be transformed into a welcoming environment, and fight for our demands against what Shami Chakrabarti rightly described recently as a “Far right” Tory government, that is happy to polarise society through racist and nationalist culture wars, and, by doing so, give oxygen to small and splintered openly fascist groups waiting in the wings.

We need to shed some of our own comfortable myths. I often hear anti-racists say: “Britain has a proud record of welcoming refugees.” It hasn’t. My Jewish grandparents were not welcomed by the British state. They got in and survived despite being targeted by Britain’s first hostile environment that led to Britain’s first peacetime immigration law with its ugly name: the Aliens Act. That act, and others passed in that same mean spirit, made it so hard for refugees fleeing Nazism to enter. The British state did nothing for them; determined individuals and voluntary groups did everything.

Britain took very few Holocaust survivors from DP camps. In the ’50s British citizens from the Caribbean were invited for their labour, but their presence was soon condemned by organised racists. They faced abuse, discrimination and violence. The case for migrants and refugees is not about  tolerance but because they are human beings with human rights. We fight to protect free movement, sanctuary when needed, for all human beings, at all times.

We live in dangerous times, emerging slowly from the worst of the COVID crisis, into an economic crisis, where fear, scapegoating and conspiracy theories gain traction. Disparate groups are being convinced by these theories and mobilised. I saw that in early summer as my partner and myself were leaving a People’s Assembly demo in Parliament Square. Just at that point a far, far bigger, noisy, demo of anti-vaxxers was passing. Mainly white, multi-generational, some clearly aligned with the far right, real hatred in their eyes.

We were stuck there for quite a while. I heard later that an Indian friend also trying to get home was shouted at for wearing a mask, then punched, by a man wearing a t-shirt that said “freedom”. It is when the forces of hate commandeer the language of rights, freedom, liberation, and say they are oppressed, that they become so dangerous.

I read a report this week on antisemitic incidents in Britain between January and June 2021. It had a photo of a very striking but sickening example: a billboard advert showing two people enjoying a beautiful view defaced with a swastika and  graffiti saying: “COVID is a lie. Holocaust is a lie. Fuck the Jews.” Similar incidents have happened elsewhere, not just in Britain.

Anti-Vaxxers marching in Western Poland in July, were chanting: “Jews are behind the pandemic”, “Jews rule the world”. Similar mobilisations have occurred in Hungary where people are being influenced by conspiracy theories presenting themselves as “anti-elite”, or “anti-Western” but suffused with antisemitism. In both countries antisemitism flourishes alongside Islamophobia, anti-Roma, anti-refugee sentiment.

Our Tory government has the closest, warmest relations with their counterparts in Hungary and Poland who enable far right ideas to flourish. They will never challenge them on the antisemitism they enable, any more than on their Islamophobia.

We need convincing counter arguments to these lies and conspiracy theories, exposing the role of the far-right within these movements, and build real solidarity with anti-racists and anti-fascists in Hungary and Poland.

I know, as a Jew, that the light sleeper of post-war antisemitism, wakes up in dangerous times. The incidents we meet are far fewer than attacks on Black and Brown minorities, but they are growing and must be countered with the same determination. In the first six months of 2021, antisemitic incidents in Britain were higher than similar periods in previous years.

Threats and abuse glorifying the Holocaust and Hitler are growing. Physical assaults especially on visible ultra-orthodox Jews have increased significantly, with perpetrators sometimes using stones, eggs, bricks and bottles.

Two patterns should especially concern us: Most antisemitic incidents are usually done by adults. This year, incidents involving younger people – school students – have increased (against pupils mainly, but in some cases, teachers).

Secondly, the proportion of threats and assaults on Jews by those who themselves face racism has grown – each of us needs to counter that by explaining that the only safety for all minority communities is in solidarity with each other.

A final word – we can get very depressed about all of this but we must never lose sight what are we fighting for: justice and equality for all, in a world without fear and without borders.

Extending Labour’s purge to trade union leaders really takes the biscuit

“The Labour Party was formed out of the trade union movement to give working people their own political voice. The link from the workplace to the party through the affiliated trade unions is what makes it unique to this day. This link is more important than ever as we work together to tackle the urgent problems we face as a country, from stagnating wages to failing public services.”

That’s not me speaking, but the Labour Party’s own website in 2021.

Only the Party now seems to have such little respect for some of its own statements. One of the latest targets of its purge of left-wingers is the National President of one of the oldest unions who have traditionally organised among very poorly paid workers. He is Ian Hodson of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), currently in receipt of a letter threatening him with potential expulsion dressed up in the Orwellian euphemism “auto-exclusion”.

Hodson’s union can trace its lineage back to the “Manchester Friendly Association of Operative Bakers” established in 1849. By 1854 it was led by another Hodson – Thomas Hodson. No relation, Ian tells me, but he’s pleased by the coincidence and has a picture of his namesake on the wall of his union office.

In 1861, the first Hodson led the formation of the Amalgamated Union of Operative Bakers (AUOB), bringing together unions in Bristol, Cheltenham, Hanley, Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Warrington and Wigan, along with his Manchester society. The union relocated its headquarters to London back in the 19th century, but the majority of its members then were still from Lancashire. The current Hodson – Ian – worked formerly as a biscuit baker at Symbols Biscuits in Blackpool.

The AUOB was one of the earliest unions to give financial support to the fledgling Labour Party, cementing that crucial industrial and political linkage in 1902. The key period that prefigured the Labour Party coming into being as a political expression of the trade union movement is seen as 1888-89 when there were epic struggles by female matchworkers at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, East London in June/July 1988, Gasworkers at Beckton in the spring of 1889 and the Great Dock Strike of late summer and early Autumn 1889. East London was the cradle of these struggles for shorter hours and better pay in safer workplaces, though the first burst of militancy in that district in those years, a few weeks before the Matchworkers strike, barely registers a footnote.

This was a strike led by immigrant Jewish bakery workers who had fled persecution in the Russian Empire, and were now fighting in their new adopted land against 16-20 hour shifts with few breaks. They took spontaneous strike action, marching from bakery to bakery with a few musicians playing stirring music, to call workers out. Some 300 bakery workers were eventually involved, winning support too from German immigrant bakers in the East End. Their gains were minimal but the example of workers organising collectively left its imprint.

In the wake of the successful Great Dock Strike a year later, involving many tens of thousands of East End workers, two of its leaders, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann wrote about the “new unionism” of the ultra-exploited unskilled and low skilled workers that had been born through these struggles. They wrote:

“The real difference between the old and the new unions is that they do not recognise, as we do, that it is the work of the trade unions to stamp out poverty from the landWe are prepared to work unceasingly for the emancipation of the workers. Our ideal is the Cooperative Commonwealth – for families to procure not merely the necessaries of life as ordinarily understood but everything that conduces to the elevation of humanity”

One important strand that emerged was syndicalism which stressed that economic and political change could be brought about by militant industrial struggles by workers, but the more enduring expression was in the idea of forming a political party that would give a powerful collective voice to the needs and demands of working class communities.

Pledge number 7 of Keir Starmer’s “10 Pledges” to Labour members on which he was elected as party leader was to “Strengthen workers’ rights and trade unions”- working “shoulder to shoulder with trade unions”. it is hard to see how the targeting of BFAWU’s National President – who works day in, day out for low-paid workers – for expulsion matches that pledge. Mind you there has been precious little sign of any of Starmer’s other pledges being acted on. But this action against Hodson seems also to symbolise the desire among Labour’s leaders and influencers to break the fundamental link of the Party with the conscious collective struggles of working class people through their unions.

While the Labour Party “under new management” continues to show how acceptable it is to businesses and Middle England, BFAWU, meanwhile, continue to spearhead key campaigns for better working conditions in the food industry; for food workers not to be priced out of purchasing the food they produce; for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for low-paid workers, especially women, and workers on zero-hours contracts who don’t meet the threshold for SSP of earning £120 a week. And BWAFU are seeking to unionise the precariat who work on Zero-Hours contracts in the super-exploitative fast-food industry.

These are the campaigns against Tory-imposed misery that the Labour Party ought to be putting its full weight behind, but it can’t when its main priority seems to be an internal war on the Left of the party and even on trade unionists who are standing up to that misdirection of the Party’s energy and resources. Meanwhile the Tories, the party of the millionaires and billionaires, are laughing all the way to the bank.

Ian Hodson 3rd from left behind the BWAFU banner

So what did Labour members tell Forde?

Memories on Facebook are not always enlightening but today Facebook informed me, because I had commented on it, that this day last year was the extended deadline for submissions to the Forde inquiry: 7 August 2020. It was an inquiry announced after the explosive and meticulously documented revelations in Labour’s leaked report. One year on from that deadline, we don’t have the report and we don’t have a scooby when, or even if, it will get published. A cynical person might conclude that obstructions have been deliberately put up so that the people most angry about it will have given up on the party by the time (which may still be years away) when it sees the light of day.

I am marking this anniversary by publishing my own personal submission sent in July 2020. I encourage others who submitted to do the same, as this might help reveal perspectives on the issues the party seems to be avoiding facing up to. Here it is:

Submission to the Forde Inquiry from David Rosenberg

The focus of my submission is with regard to these aspects of the terms of reference:
1. The truth or otherwise of the main allegations in ‘the Report’ (…the extent of racist, sexist and other discriminatory culture within Labour Party workplaces, the attitudes and conduct of the senior staff of the Labour Party, and their relationships with the elected leadership of the Labour Party);

3. The structure, culture and practices of the Labour Party organisation including the relationship between senior party staff and the elected leadership of the Labour Party.

I am making this submission as a Jewish member of the Labour Party with particular reference to narratives in the Leaked Report about the approach at different levels of the party towards the issue of antisemitism (and by extension other forms of racism). I am also reflecting on the claims in the Leaked Report about how these matters apparently became intertwined with the relationship between senior party staff and the elected leadership of the Labour Party.

Personal background details

I have been an active trade unionist since 1980. I am a retired member of the NEU, but still active on my local branch committee as International Solidarity Officer.

I joined the Labour Party in the early 1980s and attended meetings in two inner-London constituencies consecutively in that decade before my membership lapsed and I didn’t renew. I rejoined in 2015.  By then I was living in a different constituency. Since 2017 I have been an elected officer in my CLP (Political Education Officer). I canvassed during the 2017 and 2019 General Elections in my own constituency and in several marginal seats.

I have been involved in anti-racism, as well as education and campaigning about antisemitism both professionally and at a grassroots level for several decades. In the 1980s I worked for the GLC-funded Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, then later at the Runnymede Trust. At Runnymede I co-wrote a book: Daily Racism: the Press and Black People in Britain. From the early ‘90s until 2015 I was a primary school teacher in inner London, where I was responsible for managing our equalities strategies and policies.

From 2016-20 I have helped to lead an annual educational initiative that takes multicultural, cross-generational groups of trade unionists and anti-racist activists to Krakow and Auschwitz where we learn about antisemitism past and present, and reflect on the bigotries re-emerging in Europe today.

In 2010/11, I wrote a book about the Jewish confrontation with fascism and antisemitism in 1930s Britain, Battle for the East End. I teach adult education courses that include significant aspects of London’s Jewish history, and another focusing on Jewish life and death in Warsaw focusing especially on the Warsaw Ghetto and the Uprising of 1943.

In 2016 I was convenor of Cable Street 80 – a set of events celebrating united Jewish and non-Jewish action against Oswald  Mosley’s fascists in 1936. The centrepiece of the 80th anniversary commemoration was a march preceded and followed by rallies at which Labour was represented by Rushanara Ali MP, Dawn Butler MP, and Jeremy Corbyn MP as well as Tower Hamlets Mayor, John Biggs, and GLA member Unmesh Desai. The platform also included representatives from the Jewish Labour Movement, the Jewish Socialists’ Group and a Jewish Cable Street veteran, the late Max Levitas.

In addition to my personal experience as a Labour Party member in the 1980s and since 2015, my longstanding professional involvements with issues of equalities and racism, including antisemitism, and my experience in anti-fascist campaigns since the mid-1970s inform my understanding of the way such issues have manifested themselves in the Labour Party.

Commentary

The “crisis of antisemitism”

The dominant media narratives about Labour’s engagement with racism over the period that the Leaked Report covers is that Labour suffered from a “crisis of antisemitism” during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; that the Labour Party had become an “unsafe” space for Jews; that complaints about antisemitism were not dealt with; that an antisemitic culture was left to fester, and that such problems emanated from the top levels of leadership within the Party. Jeremy Corbyn himself was accused firstly of tolerating antisemitism in the Party and then later of being an antisemite himself. Jewish community newspapers described him as an “existential threat” to the Jewish community.

As a Jewish Labour member who, with my background involvements, has many reasons to be very sensitive to encountering and recognising any forms of racism and bigotry, those narratives did not correspond with my experience, nor that of many Jewish Labour members I know well and cooperate with through the Labour Party.

During my spell in the Labour Party in the 1980s, I did encounter racism in my branch once – against Gypsies/Travellers. A small number of caravans occupied an empty paved space in the locality that nobody had used during the entire period that we were living in the area. The abusive language about Gypsies/Travellers expressed within my ward meeting was shocking; equally shocking was the vehement denial, when challenged, that anything racist had been said. Ironically, at that precise time the Labour-led GLC were engaged in very positive and visionary anti-racist work across the capital (I was working then for a GLC-funded anti-racist project).

I never encountered any antisemitism in the Labour Party in that period or any other explicit racism against other minorities. However, it was evident in both the branches I was in, consecutively, in east London then north London, that relatively few people from visible minorities were active members. Perhaps they did not feel particularly welcome.

The Leaked Report covers 2014-19. I rejoined the Labour Party in 2015 and have been very involved in my branch, only missing an occasional ward or CLP meeting because of exceptional circumstances. In addition to the ward and CLP meetings, I have taken part in the full range of the Labour Party’s collective activities locally, both social and political, so I have experienced the “culture” of my local Labour Party in a range of contexts.

At no time since I rejoined have a I felt anything other than completely welcome as a Jewish Labour Party member. While I would recognise that the ethnic composition of the branch does not reflect quite the same proportions as the community that it covers, there is nevertheless a very positive anti-racist ethos in the CLP, and in my ward. Attention to all equality matters is regarded as very important, and runs through every meeting.

There are a significant number of Jewish members in my ward and in the wider CLP. Several of these members have stood for and been elected to posts ranging from ward committee members to successful council candidates. I cannot think of any Jewish Labour members I know personally in the constituency who have experienced any hostility or negativity on account of their Jewish identity, or for whom being Jewish is any barrier to their full participation.

I should add that my constituency is Islington North, and our MP, who attends every monthly CLP meeting as well as participating in many other local activities alongside members, is Jeremy Corbyn.

If there were any truth at all to the suggestions that have come from right wing media, and from hostile groups or institutions on the strongly pro-Zionist wing of the Jewish community, that Jeremy Corbyn tolerates or indulges in antisemitism, I am sure that the Jewish members in our CLP would be the first to notice. Whatever differences we may have with each other on any issue, all the Jewish Labour members I know in the constituency consider our MP a completely reliable and devoted ally in the fight against all racism including antisemitism.

Antisemitism in British society

Antisemitism and other forms of racism have deep historical roots in British society that have left an imprint. I have no doubt that there has been a rise in antisemitism in British society in more recent times (which is backed up by statistics). I am 62, and during the last six or seven years I have encountered or overheard more antisemitism in everyday life (on public transport, in cafes and pubs, at football matches etc) than I had heard in the previous 55 years combined. Several close Jewish friends have had similar perceptions. On very rare occasions where I have encountered comments in Labour Party meetings that came close to being antisemitic, this has immediately been challenged.

I believe that there is a significant crisis of racism, including a growth in antisemitism, in British society (hence the recent Black Lives Matter movement) especially since 2010. This has occurred under Tory governments that not only created the Hostile Environment, but also maintained very close friendships with central and eastern European governments that express antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and anti-Roma ideas and have enacted discriminatory policies which in some cases could be described as persecution.

That environment, and those formal links, especially through the Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, and strong expressions of support for the Hungarian Government which used dog-whistle anti-Soros antisemitism to help get itself re-elected, are matters of public record and established fact. In contrast, the notion of a “crisis of antisemitism” within Labour seems to lack any real substance.

The dissonance between the mainstream media narrative and the actuality on the ground is huge. The “noise” generated around the issues often seems to be in inverse proportion to the evidence. But fears about the Labour Party within the Jewish community amongst people who are not members are real. These fears among people with no direct experience of the Party, however, have been constantly reinforced by repetition in media outlets hostile to the Labour Party, and by certain factions within the Party who have treated the issue as a political football. As a Jewish person who takes antisemitism deadly seriously, I find this completely distasteful, and itself bordering on antisemitism.

Well before I read the Leaked Report, I had been digging deeply myself to learn whatever I could about alleged incidents of antisemitism in Labour, and I reached the the conclusion that we were faced with three categories of incidents, which I elaborate below.

1. Malicious, explicit antisemitism, inseparable from far right antisemitism

These are the most serious, clear cut cases, but also the smallest in number and the easiest to act on. They include Holocaust denial, open hostility to Jews as Jews, the use of vicious antisemitic stereotypes and wild conspiracy theories about Jewish money and power. Sometimes these incidents are very thinly veiled as comments on Israel or Zionism. These cases should be dealt with swiftly through a clear and transparent process, most likely ending in expulsion, unless absolute recognition, contrition, and a clear commitment to making amends is demonstrated.

2. Comment on Israel/Palestine/Zionism which involves largely unconscious borrowing of antisemitic stereotypes/tropes combined with certain levels of ignorance and clumsiness This category covers many more cases and is much more complex. Expressed typically on social media, the intention often seems to be a principled critique of Israeli policy, daily oppression in the Occupied Territories and/or a critique of Zionism as a political ideology – an ideology which in practice has had, and continues to have, serious negative consequences for Palestinians.

Such comments on social media are made in the context of Israel’s body politic shifting far to the right in recent decades and becoming more explicitly racist (eg the Nation-State law 2018). But it frequently fails to distinguish between “Jews” and “Israelis”; or between the Israeli government and Israeli people.  Sometimes it seems to unconsciously borrow traditional antisemitic tropes about control/excessive influence over the media or other governments, and apply them to the Israeli government and its supporters.

In many of the cases I am aware of, the intention seems to have been genuine and principled (supporting justice for Palestinians) but perpetrators have used clumsy language or have demonstrated a certain level of ignorance. However it is much harder to make hard and fast judgement and use the label “antisemitic” in cases where the intent is not malicious.  If we assume that the vast majority of people who join Labour do so because they want to make a better world, these seem to be cases where sustained educational work rather than heavy-handed discipline would be most effective. These cases are often without antisemitic intent but are perceived as antisemitic. But it is allegations that make the headlines.

3. Forthright and sharply expressed declarations of justified support for Palestinian rights, that condemn Israeli government policy in the harshest terms, and call out the racist outcomes of Zionist ideology. Whilst I don’t think use of the strongest and sharpest language is the best way to encourage others to rethink and re-evaluate their positions, I am aware of several cases that fit into this category where disciplinary measures have been taken which do not seem to fit any objective definition of antisemitism. But again it is the allegations that make both the news and the statistics.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism

The problems in Category 3 incidents and to some extent in Category 2 above are exacerbated by a blurring of antisemitism with anti-Zionism. Antisemitism is hostility, prejudice and discrimination towards Jews, as Jews. Anti-Zionism is a critique, however trenchantly expressed, of a political ideology on which Jews themselves have (and have had for generations) a range of opinions for and against and in-between.

When political Zionism arose as an ideology (1897) it was only one of several ideologies posed as the way forward for the Jewish people in the 20th century (and beyond). In that same year, 1897, a secular Jewish socialist organisation called the Bund was created, based on an anti-nationalist ideology that sought full equality for Jews wherever they were in the world. Bundism had much more influence on left wing Jewish thought than Zionism until the Holocaust. Zionism was a minority opinion in all Jewish communities around the world before the Holocaust. Its peak in terms of popularity among Jewish communities was in the 1960s and ‘70s, but it has been in slow but steady decline since the Lebanon war of 1982. In the last major survey of Jewish opinion in Britain about Zionism, 59% of British Jews defined themselves as Zionists, down from 70%+ several years earlier.

In the 21st century, it remains the case that not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews. Jews in the Labour Party today include a mixture of Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists.  Many of the non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews I know in the Labour Party are very sympathetic to the philosophy of the Bund.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition and set of guidance exemplars, which Labour adopted (albeit with a small caveat) under great external pressure in 2018, has unfortunately blurred distinctions between antisemitism and commentary on Israel/Palestine and Zionism, and contributed to increasing confusion in this fraught area. The IHRA definition had a chequered history (going back to the early 2000s), long before the IHRA or the Labour Party adopted it. Its original author, Kenneth Stern, has effectively disowned it and expressed discontent about the manner in which it has been used not for monitoring purposes as originally intended but to limit free-speech. A number of prominent liberal Jewish commentators with expertise on antisemitism, have strongly critiqued it as wrong-headed and for blurring important distinctions.

The Leaked Report

Reading the Leaked Report confirmed many of the thoughts and conclusions I had reached about how to understand and categorise incidents where antisemtism was alleged. It also threw new light on the detail of some of these. But crucially it also supplied missing pieces of the jigsaw on the responses by different actors to the allegations of antisemitism.

My own perception was that, despite a constant media barrage making claims that the Labour leadership, which had established itself from 2015 (but only gained a majority on the NEC in 2018), had been slow to act on antisemitism and half-hearted in its responses, I had actually observed it paying a lot of attention to the issue, and it seemed determined to root out any problems. Its statements and actions struck me, as a Jewish Labour member, as genuine, determined and welcome. The Leaked Report gave me a more convincing explanation of what had been going on, and I think it is extremely valuable in that respect, but before elaborating on that I want to comment on a key moment in 2016.

The Chakrabarti Report and Principles

In 2016 there was a brief moment where some very helpful and clear thinking looked as though it could be applied to these matters. This was the launch of the Chakrabarti Report, which I considered to be  a very valuable and important piece of work. For various reasons that Report was quickly undermined largely by forces outside the Party and hostile to it, but also by significant forces within the Party, as the Leaked Report itself reveals.

Despite the mounting accusations and allegations against the Party the Chakrabarti Report was adamant that: “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism,” but it acknowledged “clear evidence (going back some years) of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse.”

Chakrabarti called for attention to “insensitive and incendiary language, metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. On discourse relating to Israel/Palestine, she advised “critics of the Israeli State and/or Government” to “use  the  term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and  never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse”. She recommended that Labour members “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”, saying “surely it is better to use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation or persecution and to leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it.” Chakrabarti made clear that “denial, approval or minimisation of the Holocaust and attempts to blur responsibility for it, have no place in the Labour Party.”

Her report argued for work towards enhancing free speech on contentious issues within the Party, through debate based on civility and education. It argued against tactics to shut down debate such as allegations of guilt by association. It also argued for very clear and transparent procedures for dealing with disciplinary issues that included “resort to a greater range of  disciplinary sanctions short of expulsion; though expulsion may no doubt be necessary in some cases of gross, repeated or unrepentant unacceptable behaviour.”

I was physically present at the launch of the Report where Shami Chakrabarti’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches introducing the Report were very well received by the interested parties invited to the event. The event, however, was marred by a side conflict that was grossly distorted and dishonestly reported in the press, but it was seized upon by those who were determined to discredit this valuable initiative.

The Leaked Report provides several convincing examples which show that staff members opposed to the leadership worked to undermine the Chakrabarti Report and block or subvert key aspects of its implementation, including removing it from the Party website for a significant period.

One of the ironies of the failure to fully implement Chakrabarti’s Report is that many left wing Jewish Labour Party members, with long records of anti-racist and anti-fascist activism, but who do not consider themselves Zionists, have found themselves bizarrely labelled as “antisemites” for expressing their strongly held views on Israel/Palestine and Zionism, and have been subject to heavy-handed disciplinary processes within the Party.

I very much hope that one of the conclusions of this Inquiry into the Leaked Report will be to stress the value of implementing the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Report in full for the benefit of the Party as a whole to strengthen its internal culture of free speech, debate and education and put absolutely transparent and fair disciplinary procedures in place.

Final comments on the Leaked Report

What shocked me when reading through the Leaked Report was the severity of the language that constituted the incidents I have described in my “Category 1”. It was the kind of language you would expect to hear among fascist groups. I still cannot comprehend how it was possible, even though numbers were very small, for the views of such people not to have come to the attention of local Party officials earlier.

Equally disturbing, though, was the revelation, meticulously documented and referenced in the Leaked Report, that the staff in the Legal and Governance Unit, whose appointment preceded the changes in leadership, had sat on these cases for the amount of time they did doing nothing about many of them; and that when the Labour leadership enquired as to the numbers of cases and how they were progressing, it seems they were deliberately given misinformation by the salaried staff of the Party.

If the allegations in the Leaked Report are true, and they do seem very convincing, then it would appear that the Party’s handling of complaints of antisemitism was hindered primarily by former senior officials’ factional hostility towards the new Labour leadership in general, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular. They appear to have dedicated far more energy to the work they were doing against the leadership, than the work they were employed to do for the Party, and they were quite happy to permit a lazy media narrative to fester that incorrectly pointed the finger for failures on these cases’ progress on the Labour leadership.

One such case where the Leaked Report evidence suggests that these staff members prioritised work serving factional hostility brings back particularly unhappy memories for me personally. That is the section which describes the strenuous efforts to conjure up excuses to disenfranchise large numbers of potential voters in the leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 through a “Trot Hunt”.

One of the victims of that was a close friend, a Jewish working class activist, in his early 70s. He was a lifelong socialist, trade unionist and anti-fascist, who knew that socialism was not simply about having progressive ideas but acting on them. During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, he joined with other solidarity campaigners in a convoy of lorries, delivering “Workers Aid” to Bosnian families and communities in besieged Tuzla.

He had medical problems in later life, none of which were life-threatening but they restricted his mobility and meant he couldn’t be as active as previously. He contacted me and my wife by phone in a very agitated state late on the Saturday night before the deadline for voting in the 2015 leadership election. He had just been informed by email from the Labour Party, out of the blue, that his vote in the leadership contest had been nullified.

We spent quite a while trying to calm him down and we promised that we would send him some suggestions the next day of people he might contact to get this looked into and hopefully rectified. He was still very agitated when we said goodbye. We sent through some suggestions the next day but never heard back from him. A few days later he was found dead in his flat.

The reorganisation of the Legal and Governance Unit under Jennie Formby and significant changes in personnel undoubtedly brought about an improvement, not least in the provision of clear information about the number of cases and details about what stages in the process they were at. What was really striking in that section of the Leaked Report was the determination, under Formby’s supervision, to re-investigate a number of those really shocking cases of antisemitism that had been neglected or not followed through under the previous arrangements. If my understanding is correct, then many of those who had escaped the disciplinary process were informed they were under investigation again and moves were being made that might result in expulsion. A number of them jumped before they faced being kicked out.

As a Jewish member of the Party I very much hope that the credibility of the Leaked Report will be established through your Inquiry and that the record can be put straight to the media and the general public about who was actually trying to deal with antisemitism and who was hindering that process.

I started this submission with some background information about myself in terms of my work not just around antisemitism but also around other forms of racism. For me racism is indivisible, as are the responses to it. If the well documented allegations in the Leaked Report are true, the problems it identified went well beyond an inadequate response to antisemitism. They also reveal an incredible level of puerile and vicious targeting by certain employees in the Legal and Governance Unit of perceived political opponents who were black, women, or people with mental health problems. That is completely unacceptable anywhere, but scandalous in a Party committed to respect and equality. I am eager to see what specific recommendations will be forthcoming to ensure that such shameful episodes can not recur.

When Labour had people of conviction – in every sense

100 years ago today, 29th July 1921, thousands of ordinary people including many trade unionists holding banners, proudly and defiantly marched several miles from Poplar in East London to the High Court on the Strand, in support of local Labour politicians who had taken a stand with them to protect their living standards being eroded by unreasonable demands. This was the Poplar Rates Revolt in which Poplar’s radical local council refused to levy additional rates on an impoverished population for cross-London services, because it argued that the formula for assessing this additional rate – known as the precept – discriminated against the poorer boroughs in favour of London’s richer boroughs. These are some extracts from my book Rebel Footprints

Painting by Dan Jones from a black & white photo of the march

Poplar’s councillors were summoned to court on 29 July and told that, if they did not levy the precept they would be sent to prison. Minnie Lansbury [a council alderman and daughter in law of George Lansbury] said: ‘Poplar will pay its share of London’s rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same.’

The councillors marched to court with thousands of supporters. Lansbury assured them: ‘ …if we have to choose between contempt of the poor and contempt of court, it will be contempt of court.’ The question, he said, was not whether their refusal was legal or illegal but whether it was ‘right or wrong’.

John Scurr said the government was ‘on the horns of a dilemma. If they send us to prison they will not get their money; and if they don’t send us to prison they will bring the law into contempt. Poplar does not care on which horn they choose to impale themselves.’ The councillors’ legal team included the Fabian Henry Slesser and W. H. Thompson, who had been jailed three times for conscientious objection during the First World War.

They lost. The judge told the councillors to prepare to stay in prison until their contempt was purged. The arrests took place at the beginning of September. Twenty-five male councillors were placed in Brixton prison; Five women councillors, including Minnie Lansbury and other former ELFS [East London federation of Suffragettes] activists, including Nellie Cressall, were sent to Holloway Prison, where Julia Scurr was also imprisoned while her husband was locked up in Brixton.

Just a few councillors remained to run the administration in their absence. The night before the first arrests, the council discussed how to function with such depleted numbers. Outside the Town Hall, 6,000 supporters gathered. As the meeting ended councillors sang ‘The Red Flag’, ‘bringing particular passion’, Lansbury recalls, to the lines ‘Come dungeon dark or gallows grim, this song shall be our parting hymn’.

In prison they fought for their rights. Lansbury recalls:

We all refused to …[wear] prison uniforms …[and]to do any work and …drink the tea or eat the food. In a few days the food was changed … we all went on strike against being locked in our cells all day, and as a result we had them opened after breakfast until after supper. Then we went into the police commissioner’s room and entertained ourselves with lectures and discussions …we were entertained after 8 o’clock by public meetings and singing outside our windows

They won daily visits instead of two per week. Family members, MPs, magistrates, churchmen, councillors and council employees, including dustmen, roadsweepers, surveyors and engineers visited. They won the right to hold council meetings in prison, the first one (of 32) held on 11 September. From 27 September, women councillors in Holloway were bussed to Brixton for these meetings.

Lansbury was pleasantly surprised by a comment made by a warder soon after the councillors arrived: ‘He said “Don’t worry, you’ll win. Every cause has to be fought for, and always prison opens up the way to reform”.’ The government threatened other boroughs that if they followed Poplar’s example they would be imprisoned too. The threat backfired. Stepney Council and Bethnal Green Council both voted to withhold the precept too. With the rebellion spreading, the government and LCC backed down. Poplar’s rebels were released on 13 October. That same week a conference was convened to equalise cross-London rates…

For the Lansburys though, this victory was soon overshadowed with great sadness. Minnie Lansbury had become ill in prison, and struggled with her health after being released. Over Christmas, a heavy bout of flu became pneumonia. She died, aged 32, on 1 January 1922. Thousands took to the streets to pay respects as her coffin was borne on the shoulders of four Poplar councillors, amid a procession led by hundreds of unemployed workers. At Bow Bridge the coffin was transferred to a hearse for a service at Ilford crematorium. Her ashes were later interred in East Ham Jewish Cemetery.

Mourners described her as a ‘lover of justice’ who dedicated ‘a life of toil and labour in the relief of distress and the upliftingof her fellow men (sic)’. William Morris’s poem, Hear a Word, was read:

Mourn not, therefore, nor lament it,
That the world outlives their life
Voice and vision yet they give us
Making strong our hands for strife.


*****

Comment 29 July 2021: This flashback to 1921 shows us how far Labour has to go to recover the courage and spirit of resistance, to fight within and alongside the people for what is right. Between 2015-19 we knew what that felt like again. Let’s use this anniversary to maximise pressure on the current leadership to present a real challenge to the cabinet of billionaires who are running the country, with the help of their friends in the mainstream media.

Buy a copy of Rebel Footprints today

Follow in the footsteps of George Lansbury, Minnie Lansbury and the other rebel councillors, as well as those of the East London Federation of Suffragettes by signing up for my walk Rebel Women and Men of Poplar: 1920s-1930s from 10.30am-12.30pm on Sunday 8th August

For your and our freedom

I’m looking forward to genuine freedom from the pandemic as much as anyone else.

We have all missed out on so much over the past 16 months, but I’ll be taking it slowly and carefully and hope that, for community health and well-being, others will too.

This is really not an individual matter. For the government, this is, to give its full title, Freedom From Accountability Day. Will all their MPs be returning to Parliament today (apart from those self-isolating because of some virus)? No, thought not. They will be putting it on us in terms of responsibility, so this is the time when we have to step up our demands and campaigning (as safely as possible), and force them to listen to the scientists and community health campaigners.

Tens of thousands around the country involved in Mutual Aid have been trying to keep us safe and alive and supported since early 2020, and they still do, while the Government abandoned us, condemned many to early, painful and undignified deaths, and concentrated on enriching their mates.

The opposition has been slowly starting to do some opposing after spending most of the last 16 months feebly backing the government’s failed “strategies” and, criminally, being as enthusiastic, sometimes more so than the government, in pushing to send kids back into schools at key periods when it was known how quickly the virus was spreading especially among 10-19 year olds, and when it was also endangering school workers, their families and the kid’s families.

Remember Starmer’s “no ifs no buts” nonsense with regard schools last September, and his urging school pupils and school workers to return again at the beginning of January just after the Christmas holidays, as infections were rising sharply. Starmer only changed tack when it was clear that Johnson was about to do a rapid u-turn on the very same day that he had sent kids back to be super-spreaders.

Both Tories and Labour have been negligent of the growing reality of Long-COVID cases among young people and the implications for their lives now and in the future. And now, whatever opposition is slowly emerging from Labour’s leaders, looks set to play second fiddle in the coming period to more internal faction-fighting by Labour’s leaders against the left rather than against the Tories. Depressing.

So, do start gradually to enjoy, in a safe way for everyone, recovering the experiences that are life-sustaining and life-enriching for all of us, but recognise how far we still have to go, and what actions are necessary to move us collectively to a better place.

And let’s keep an eye on, and act on, the international picture re Vaccine Justice. We are one world and “Freedom” is also “freedom from” as well as “Freedom to”.

To quote a slogan first used I believe in anti-Tsarist struggles in Poland in the early 1830s, and used later in the Spanish Civil War and among the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto: “For your and our Freedom”.

What happened to the anger and the hope?

Four years ago today, 8 June 2017, it was the day of the General Election. I had spent the night before at Jeremy Corbyn’s final Election rally. After trailing around the country speaking to a few indoor and many outdoor rallies, some of them really huge, he was back on home turf in the jam-packed and beautiful setting of Union Chapel in Islington, speaking to several hundred enthusiastic supporters. It was an electrifying evening. But the scene that greeted us as we emerged from the rally was even more extraordinary. Hundreds more supporters and campaigners, especially young people, who had booked too late to get a place inside the event, had gathered and stayed nearby through the 2-hours of the rally, and were continuing to party outside.

For most of the last two weeks of the 2017 campaign, the mainstream media and seasoned pundits were united that the Tories were heading for a landslide victory. They were only just starting to edge back cautiously from that utter certainty in the last two or three days before the election. Clearly most of the revellers outside Union Chapel were oblivious, or chose to ignore the msm.

I had been taking soundings from knowledgeable friends and contacts around the country and recognised a deliberate attempt to demoralise Labour’s supporters and potential voters, that was conflicting with the reality I was consistently told about and was experiencing on the doorstep. It was on that basis, not blind faith, that two weeks before the election, I popped into the bookmakers round the corner (on the site of what had once been a Maoist bookshop) and put a £40 bet on a Hung Parliament, for which I got generous odds of 11/1, and a very decent payout that more than compensated for all my wasted bets on years of Grand National races.

On that morning of 8 June 2017, I wrote a post on Facebook, illustrated with a photo from back in the day, of Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn together:

Benn and Corbyn

“Woke up thinking of the late great Tony Benn, and how proud he would have been of the astonishing uncompromisingly socialist campaign that Jeremy Corbyn has led in these past weeks. Benn always said that the ingredients for social change were hope and anger, and Jeremy has provided huge dollops of both of these across the country, plus a third element that shines through in every speech he makes – compassion. Let’s keep our hopes high and, whatever happens, let’s see this as a new beginning.”

Just two years after Ed Miliband had failed miserably in 2015, scraping barely 30% of the vote, winning just 9.3m votes, Labour had a mountain to climb, but its bold manifesto, For the Many Not the Few, recaptured the imagination of those who had been deserting Labour because it had seemingly abandoned any radical transformative programme in the New Labour period, and had backed horrific and devastating unjust wars. That manifesto was unashamed to say it was going to begin a process of dramatically redistributing economic and political power in favour of working class people. It tapped into people’s anger that the Tories had protected the bankers over the crisis they created and hit the living standards of ordinary people though callous austerity measures, and particularly hit already mariginalised communities.

The manifesto and Jeremy’s commitment to change that shone through his speeches, gave genuine hope to a new generation of first time voters, a significant number of whom were becoming party members after Jeremy won the leadership, by a mile, despite a barely concealed effort from within Labour’s bureaucracy to remove thousands of Corbyn voters from the register on the flimsiest of pretexts. It was no surprise to me that in 2017 the election turnout was greater in 2017 than either 2015 or 2010.

Of course Jeremy was helped by a very wooden, lacklustre campaign by the Tories which included the laughable “Strong and Stable” mantra, repeated ad nauseam, by every Tory spokesperson, and the wonderful interview of May in which Julia Etchingham asked her about the naughtiest thing she had ever done her life and she replied: “I have to confess… me and my friend, sort of, used to run through the fields of wheat – the farmers weren’t too pleased about that.”

A relentlessly negative press campaign against Corbyn from the day he was elected leader, aided and abetted by his opponents within Labour’s PLP, who were regularly tweeting against Corbyn to the right wing press during Shadow Cabinet meetings; the wasted months through 2016 when the PLP tried but failed to mount a coup against a leader elected with a huge mandate (a coup in which the current Labour leader was implicated); the cynical and largely evidence-free campaign by a clutch of right wing, mainly Tory-supporting, very pro-Zionist Jewish organisations, to ludicrously claim that there was a “crisis of antisemitism” in the Labour Party – a campaign amplified even more cynically by the mainstream press – all contrived to give the Tories a huge opinion poll lead at the onset of the 2017 campaign.

But once the actual campaign started and media agencies were obliged to give more (but in practice never equal) coverage to Labour, it was Labour that hit the ground running. its manifesto was “leaked” a few days early, clearly wrong-footing the bitterest and most scheming of Corbyn’s opponents within. That leak generated a huge buzz of excitement on the weekend before the actual launch.

Every week of the campaign saw Labour drawing closer and gaining in confidence. And we know now from the Leaked Report, how much ground they recovered and how near they got to the possibility of a minority Labour government: a matter of less than 2,500 votes spread over several constituencies. We know from that Report that key elements of Labour’s bureaucracy were diverting resources to safe Labour seats of right wingers at the expense of winnable ones. it would be nice to see that further confirmed if the Forde Report ever gets published, but I doubt we will ever see it.

Despite the sabotage, Labour won 3.5m voters more than it achieved in 2015 and won 40% of the vote against the Tories 42%. Remember Labour was barely on 30% in 2015 (2% and 1m votes lower than the 2019 result, branded with the big lie that it was “Labour’s worse result since the 1930s” ). If the 2017 campaign had lasted another few days, they would have been level pegging with the Tories or may have overtaken them. As it was, the Tories could only continue to govern with a huge bribe to the Ulster Unionists.

Corbyn had successfully channeled the hope and anger that his mentor Tony Benn had identified as the key to the left’s success. The Tories, and the whole establishment were truly shaken by that election, though the real devastation was on the ashen-faces of Labour right wingers who were willing Labour and Corbyn to lose heavily. They had to wait until 2019 to get what they and the Tories wanted, and we have all paid a terrible price for it, and will continue to do so.

The anger within the country among the most exploited, the most in need, the most oppressed, is still there but the hope has gone. Almost completely. And the demoralisation of the generation that were radicalised by Corbyn is painful to watch. Labour is now led by, as one tweeter put it, paraphrasing a Beatles song, ” a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody”. Starmer doesn’t want to fight the Tories, but fight the left, while pathetically pleading with the Tories to be a little bit gentler, a bit less unkind. Sir Oswald Mosley once dreamed of “a Government unencumbered by a daily opposition”. Starmer has made Mosley’s dream come true for the travesty of a human being that is the current Tory Prime Minister

And despite the attempts of some of the worst, most sanctimonious, most cynical, immoral people on the planet to put the knife into Jeremy, he is still standing strong, still a powerful voice for the oppressed and exploited on street and online local and international platforms. Though on the petulant whim of Labour’s struggling current leader, Jeremy remains cast out from the Parliamentary Labour Party, for revealing a truth, in his calm assessment of the EHRC Report on Antisemitism and the Labour Party, a truth which he was entirely within his rights to state, and one on which many of his Jewish constituents fully concur with him.

I hope Jeremy Corbyn is able to look back with real pride on that remarkable campaign in 2017 when he and us – the movement he engendered – scared the hell out of the British establishment.

The sounds of silence

All the “Cummings” and goings involving newly-wedded philanderer Boris Johnson over the last few days have provided a handy distraction from the fact that, last Friday, Britain’s Prime Minister saw fit to welcome Victor Orban, Europe’s most Islamophobic and anti-migrant Prime Minister, to a cosy chat at No 10.

Orban calls his country the “last bastion’ against “the Islamisation of Europe”. He describes migrants as “poison” and Hungary’s longstanding but marginalised Roma communities, as “aggressors against the majority”. He used vile antisemitic conspiracy propaganda against the Hungarian Jew George Soros, in his last election campaign in 2018, utilising the far-right “Great Replacement” theory.

The “softer” version of this theory is the claim that Muslim migration to the West undermines Western Christian civilisation and values. Orban likes to go one step further, fingering a pro-migrant Jewish financier as responsible for organising this replacement. Traditional antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and money are woven through Orban’s description of Soros as “a speculator who operates a mafia network. Migration is good business for him”. Soros, “and his army”, says Orban, “don’t like Christian Europe. They don’t like Christians at all.”

Soros’ grinning face featured on billboards all over Hungary in that election campaign, with the caption “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Orban told a mass election rally of his battle against “…an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not national but international, does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Who else are soldiers in Soros’ army? Feminists, actually. Orban blames them for low birth-rates among native Hungarian women. He laments that Europe has fewer and fewer children, and condemns Western nations who look to migration “…so that the numbers will add up. We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.” In Orban’s Hungary, native women can access free IVF treatment if they are heterosexual and under 40.

You might have expected that some of the leading Jewish community organisations, such as the Board of Deputies (BoD) and the Community Security Trust (CST), who are not usually coy when it comes to exposing and challenging antisemitism, might have had something to say about Johnson’s welcome for a man who has also been busily rehabilitating the reputation of Hitler’s Hungarian collaborator, Admiral Horthy. Or indeed, when that someone has removed the work of Hungary’s sole Nobel Laureate for Literature, Imre Kertesz, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor from the compulsory education curriculum, but inserted the works of pro-Nazi, antisemitic writers.

Even more so, you might have expected an intervention from such Jewish organisations, after the deep embarrassment both bodies endured the weekend before last, when the Far Right guru, EDL leader, and former BNP member, Tommy Robinson, turned up with a few of his mates at the “Solidarity with Israel” demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy. This event was organised by the Zionist Federation with the President of the Board of Deputies a prominent guest speaker, and the CST running the security. Videos from the event showed how some among the crowd queued up for selfies with Robinson, while others welcomed him warmly with hugs and handshakes.

You might think that these bodies would seek to polish their tarnished reputation with a strong denunciation of Orban’s visit and condemnation of Johnson, but it’s a little awkward. You see, Orban has perfected the art of being antisemitic (alongside his other bigotries) while being full of praise for the Israeli Government. And the BoD can hardly claim to be unaware of Johnson’s record when it comes to minorities, his horrific stereotyping of Africans and his deeply racist comments about Muslims, not to mention his 2005 novel that was replete with antisemitic stereotypes.

And no, as you are asking, they never do mention that 2005 novel. But Johnson too is full of love for the government of Israel led (for now, but maybe not for much longer) by Benjamain Netanyahu. Whether it was Johnson’s love of Israel or the BoD’s irrational and obsessive hatred of Jeremy Corbyn that led them into this mire, we may never know. And I don’t really care. But they have remained shamefully silent on Orban’s meeting with Johnson.

Not a peep either from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, a supporter of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, who had (ab)used the authority of his (unelected) office shortly before the 2019 General Election to denounce Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour, thereby aiding the racist, Boris Johnson’s victory. Rabbi Mirvis claimed at the time that it was his “moral duty” to denounce Corbyn. His silence over the Johnson-Orban meeting speaks volumes. His moral compass seems to have disappeared where the sun doesn’t shine.

And while it may be true that no one chooses their family, is it just a coincidence that Netanyahu’s son, Yair, is a great fan of both Tommy Robinson and Orban?

Meanwhile the anti-Zionist Jewish Socialists’ Group stood shoulder to shoulder with Muslim, Roma, Hungarian and other anti-racist activists outside Downing Street, protesting against the meeting. They had nothing to be coy or embarrassed about.

Neither did one of the speakers at the rally, another left-wing Jew, also an anti-Zionist, who described how, on the same day as the Orban-Johnson meeting – May 28 – but in 1944, 963 Jews were transferred from Auschwitz to Mauthausen concentration camp for medical experimentation. It was the height of the Nazi Holocaust. They were rounded up by the Hungarian state, by Hungarian police, Hungarian civil servants and Hungarian officials. 95% of provincial Jewry (in Hungary) perished. One in two Jews in Budapest, members of this speaker’s family among them. All under the Horthy regime that Orban continues to praise as that of an “exceptional statesman.”

Photo: Guy Smallman

Who is remembered and what is understood on Yom Hashoah? Critical thoughts…

I have taken part in Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations, on 27th January, marking the day that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, since 2001, when it was established in Britain. But the Holocaust commemorations I was first regularly attending and participating in, from the early 1980s, were organised in London’s East End by the Friends of Yiddish.

These took place on April 19th – the anniversary of day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began – and were conducted through readings, memories, poetry and song in the language spoken by the majority of its millions of Jewish victims. These small, very emotional gatherings –usually around 25-35 people – included Holocaust survivors who were ensuring that the memory of those who were exterminated lived on in their own precious language.

What also struck me powerfully was that the chair of this event and lead-speaker, Majer Bogdanski a bundist (Jewish socialist), whose wife, Esther and most of his family were murdered, would always honour, in addition to the millions of Jewish victims, the “tsigayner” (Gypsies/Roma), whom he reminded attendees “were murdered in the same way for exactly the same reason”.

Yom HaShoah – Israel’s national day of remembrance of the 6 million Jews who were murdered –which falls on a different day here each year as it is marked according to the Jewish calendar – leaves me with different feelings: uneasy feelings.

Every year, when it comes around, I have two quotes in my head. One is from Boaz Evron, a left wing Israeli writer who died a few years ago, who wrote a brilliant and controversial essay in 1983 which began: “Two awful things happened to the Jewish people in the present century: the Holocaust – and the lessons drawn from it.” The other is from Marek Edelman, the Bundist Polish Jewish socialist and lifelong anti-Zionist, Second in Command during the Warsaw ghetto Uprising. He said: “We fought for dignity and freedom… not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”

In his essay, Evron rails against narrow nationalist and mystical interpretations of the Holocaust which locate it outside of history, and focus on it as an exclusively Jewish event, which Israel’s leaders (who had recently conducted the horrific war in Lebanon) have tied to Israel’s national fate, as seen through their eyes alone.

During that war in Lebanon, in which you had the first significant refusal to fight by many dissident Israeli army reservists, the murderous ultra-right-wing government of Begin and Sharon described the Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat, under siege in Beirut, as “Hitler in his bunker”.

Boaz Evron

Edelman stayed in Poland and remained a resolute anti-nationalist, and an internationalist who called out racism and human rights abuses wherever they occurred, and he too gave the lie to the dominant Israeli historiography. He was treated as persona non grata in Israel, abused through its media, and, through the intervention of Holocaust historians at Yad Vashem, was denied honorary degrees for which he had been proposed at Israeli universities.Both Evron and Edelman are no longer alive. How much we could do with their collective wisdom today! You can find Evron’s article in this edition of Shmate “an American journal of progressive Jewish thought:

Marek Edelman


By chance, this year, in our calendar here, Yom HaShoah coincides with International Roma Day (the 50th anniversary of the first World Roma congress in Orpington, Kent in 1971). Events of the last week have done so much to heighten consciousness among progressives of the continuing oppression of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities

And tonight, who is the guest speaker invited, shockingly, by Liberal Judaism organisers in Britain? Tsipi Hotovely, Israel’s new and current ambassador in Britain: an ultra-nationalist, supporter of racist settlers, an advocate of ethnic cleansing, who labels and condemns Israeli-Palestinian love relationships as “miscegenation”, and describes the most catastrophic event in Palestinian history – the Nakba – as an “Arab lie”, “a made up story”. What, indeed has been learnt and understood?

What is rising to the surface this Easter?

YouGov email me (and many thousands of others) every week because I once signed up to give my opinion on issues of the day on their “chats”. Yesterday they asked whether we thought levels of racism in the UK had got better or worse over the last 50 years, and several related questions. I didn’t get around to answering until today. By then full-on anti-GRT (Gypsy/Roma/Traveller) racism had reared its ugly head again in the form of Labour local elections leaflets in Warrington.

In the 1980s when I worked for the Runnymede Trust, I thought things were worse than the 1970s, even though that decade had lots of fascist violence and racist murders. Since then things may have improved for some segments within minority communities, but racism is still deeply entrenched in the system.

Now, in hindsight, I look back at the 1980s/1990s as a period of much more hope in the fight against different kinds of racism. There was a great deal of grassroots self-organisation happening and resistance among minorities on the streets was strong. Innovative challenges on race and other inequalities were made by the GLC and a number of left-wing councils

Education initiatives created by progressive teachers and youth workers mushroomed in different settings. The far-right were there still, but, unlike in the 1970s, they were kept to the fringes. At Runnymede our materials were mostly about negative impacts of policy or neglect on Caribbean and Asian minorities, but the targets of racism and racists were already widening.

In my last year at Runnymede I proposed that we produced a report on Gypsies. It met some resistance at first, but eventually it got published in May 1990. it was called On the Verge: the Gypsies of England (by the late Donald Kenrick and Sian Bakewell.) Looking back at it this evening, in the light of the last 24 hours, it really is quite chilling.

In one section it describes Tory officials in Bradford before the 1987 election handing out car stickers which said “KEEP THE GYPSIES OUT – VOTE CONSERVATIVE”

That year, another Tory, Christopher Murphy MP tried to get a bill through Parliament that would have designated the whole of England and Wales as areas where Gypsies could not stop – Priti Patel’s fantasy today. I wondered what happened to Murphy. He actually stood down in 1987 though nearly 20 years later he re-emerged to fight a seat unsuccessfully for UKIP.

The next paragraph of the 1990 report continued: “However, at local level there has been little difference between Labour and Conservative Councillors in their attitude to providing sites for Gypsies.” In the de Beauviour area of Hackney, in 1988, a Labour official praised two Labour councillors for how they had ensured “the eviction of Travellers.”

In the very week when the Tories are sneering at their opponents and critics, and celebrating a report that flies in the face of all evidence, and clears them of the institutional racism that is a daily reality, we are reminded of other longstanding racism and discrimination within the Labour Party too.

We had an all too brief period of nearly five years from 2015 in which many Labour voters expressed a feeling that for the first time on their lives they could be proud to vote Labour as a party unashamed to be anti-racist and pro-migrant and refugee.

Is it indeed a coincidence that on the very weekend that Keir Starmer celebrates one year of his leadership, one year in which he has tried to bury the idealism that Corbyn represented under a thick layer of centrism overlaid with Union Jacks, that the longstanding racism that Corbyn had sought to remove once and for all from Labour has risen to the surface again? What, if anything, will Starmer do about it?

The question anti-racists should ask

Talk given at the World Against Racism online rally 20 March 2021

In the last 12 months, our eugenicist, profit driven Tory Government has presided over COVID carnage. The extraordinary death rate, however, reflects also the Labour Party’s failure to popularise an alternative strategy.

I lost an aunt and brother-in-law to COVID but people from Black and other ethnic minority and marginalised communities, such as Gypsies and Travellers, disabled and elderly people, were hit so much harder, as structural inequalities were magnified.

I’ve had one jab but I’m not vaccinated. We need two. Track, trace and isolate as well.

As an anti-racist I want to tear down borders so we can fight for people to live as equals. The virus crosses borders to inflict harm. Our response must be internationalist. No one is free of the virus until we all are.  The most depressing political intervention by both parties during the pandemic has been “vaccine nationalism” and the claim: “we will be the first country to be vaccinated.”

Anti-racists should ask: who will be the last country? And why? I am proud that my MP, Jeremy Corbyn, is campaigning against the collusion of Big Pharma and wealthy governments to bag the vaccine supplies first.

But at grassroots level during the pandemic, the best of humanity has shown itself in two ways. Mutual Aid – with its proud history in Black American and immigrant Jewish communities – has reasserted itself enabling us to support each other locally in the COVID crisis. And Black Lives Matter mushroomed internationally after the killing of George Floyd.

Lockdown has simultaneously forced us to concentrate on building organic local anti-racist alliances. And it brought Zoom into our lives – connecting us with struggles far away.

In January, Jewish socialists here gave a Zoom platform to young American Jewish trade unionists and anti-fascists involved with Black Lives Matter and support for Muslims, migrants and refugees. We are witnessing the strongest Jewish campaigning against US state racism since the 1960s. They are fighting antisemitism too in a country where Trump’s Proud Boys display shirts with “6mwe” – Six Million Wasn’t enough.

We, and our American comrades, know that the danger of antisemitism comes from the right and far right. Apart from a few ignorant and malevolent individuals, the left are our trusted allies against it.

In Europe too, Polish and Hungarian politicians spread antisemitism, Islamophobia  and anti-Roma racism. Victor Orban accuses the Hungarian Jew George Soros of assisting Muslim refugees. There are Jews in Hungary who assist Muslim refugees. We are proud of them as we are of all Jews, whether in Budapest, Washington, or Jerusalem, who refuse to be enemies of Muslims, and refuse to tolerate racism against any targets.

Solidarity!