Time to hold our nerve

Luciana Berger, Ben Bradshaw, Louise Ellman, Mike Gapes, Margaret Hodge, Liz Kendall, Chris Leslie, Jess Phillips, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Owen Smith, Wes Streeting, Chuka Umunna…
Do these names look at all familiar? They have been at the heart of campaigns against

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Hodge, Phillips and Berger

Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party, not least on the very largely concocted allegations of antisemitism in the Party, and they have sought to undermine the leadership on several other issues too.

Why is it no surprise to find them among the 71 signatories yesterday to a letter seeking to undermine the Labour leadership’s strategy on the day Jeremy Corbyn was proposing his no confidence vote, by seeking to commit the party to a Second Referendum/People’s Vote? Their letter was published, followed by photocalls and media interviews while parliament was debating the No Confidence motion, and at the very moment when the Tories are on the ropes. Their intervention came less than 24 hours after the Tories suffered the largest government defeat in British parliamentary history.

The chess moves by the Labour leadership towards a General Election are trapping the Tories. Within days of 117 Tories voting no confidence in May as leader of their party, they have shown their complete cynicism by voting confidence in her to lead the country. May was considered not good enough for her Party but good enough to keep inflicting her destructive policies on the country.

 

Even then May only survived the “vote of confidence” with the bought votes of the mk6nunyreactionary bigots of the DUP, plus one renegade ex-Labour member John Woodcock.

May has until Monday to come up with Plan B. At the last minute, in utter desperation, she has reached out to other parties but Corbyn rightly won’t join the talks unless she rules out “no deal”. A further entrapment.

If she does so, she will alienate the hard Brexiteers. If she doesn’t she will alienate a significant segment of Tory Remainers. Some Tory MPs are openly expressing fears of a formal split in their party.

Now is the time for all Labour members and supporters to hold their nerve and give full support for the Labour leadership, which is following to the letter the policy agreed almost unanimously at Conference across the party.

 

A General Election – that Referendum, that People’s Vote – on every single government policy, every single Tory failure, is tantalisingly within reach. This is not the time for sectarian games.
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Desperate Days for May

Nearly 600 homeless human beings died on Britain’s streets in last year. In April last year, a struggling young mother in Preston took her own life fearing the hardship of being moved on to Universal Credit. Study after study predicts that the suicide rate will rise as this system is rolled out.  The precariousness and stress of Zero-Hours jobs continues to take its toll and permit super-exploitation. More than 1.3 million people used foodbanks in Britain last year, many of them with regular work but on starvation wages. The callous and heartless treatment of the Windrush generation has been screen shot 2019-01-14 at 11.16.29revealed but their struggle for their rights and for redress continues. More stories emerge of individuals who worked and paid their taxes and national insurance in Britain for decades before being wrongly deported to destitution and some to early death in the Caribbean. Nineteen months ago, the  neglect of the poor and the marginalised in London’s richest borough resulted in the disaster at Grenfell Tower. At several of the monthly silent marches since the disaster the names of the victims are read out – the vast majority of them, impoverished migrants. Dozens of families who survived have still not been adequately re-housed.

But if there is one shameful and particularly distressing image to conjure up, beyond this catalogue of misery, as we enter 2019, it is surely reports of desperate schoolchildren rummaging through bins for food.

Yet, all of these  stark realities of Tory Britain have been consistently relegated and obscured on practically every news programme by the endless discussion and speculation of what might happen around Brexit. Every time I’ve watched BBC Question Time in this last six months I have found it intensely irritating as three-quarters of the show is taken up with Brexit, and other issues which predated the Referendum and continue to worsen, barely get a look-in.

What drove 17 million+ people to deliver an unexpected Referendum result that shook  the complacent elite, was, above all, a desire for change. But with a mass media constantly demonising the left, and especially the Labour leadership, right wing populists gained a hearing to give coherence to at least a significant segment of that anti-establishment vote.

Hard-core racists and nationalists fantasised that they could stop immigration, and this would somehow make their lives better. Farage and Johnson fanned their fears, feeding the lie that people would somehow”take back control”.

But the vote was much more than a narrow nationalist outburst. it was a cry from communities left behind in a society where from the 1980s onwards, their industries have been destroyed and the gap between rich and poor has widened and widened.

The referendum that caused so much havoc was dreamed up by UKIP, and implemented by a Tory Party happy to use it solve its internal political disputes. The Labour Party, with its much expanded base since 2015, but a leadership forced by the defeated right wing to spend so much energy on internal battles, were merely collateral damage to those pushing the right wing Hard-Brexit agenda.

Labour began to undo the damage and division within all classes with a radical screen shot 2019-01-14 at 11.19.41manifesto that could appeal to people on both sides of the Brexit divide. That desire for change throughout the nation denied the Tories a majority in an election which they thought they had in the bag. The relentless war by the media to destroy Jeremy Corbyn, including a manufactured and exploitative “crisis” around antisemitism, had them believing their own hype. They predicted a landslide Tory victory in 2017. But similar impulses to strike a blow against the establishment, as were displayed in the Referendum, aided Labour’s powerful challenge just when people were writing them off.

Undeterred, and  aided and abetted by the Labour right wing, the media have repeatedly tried to turn the Conservative’s crisis into Labour’s crisis.  The Labour leadership has had to do the most careful balancing act not to fall victim, so soon after it had achieved its remarkable feat in the 2017 General Election of denying the Tories a majority.  Labour stepped up its campaigning on many fronts against austerity and foodbank Britain. But the momentum from the Referendum hurtled on through 2018 towards the March 2019 deadline.

Minor opposition parties, such as the Lib Dems and the Greens, still polling very low, called on Labour to be a “real” opposition. Yes, that was the Lib-Dems who for five years worked hand in hand with the Tories imposing austerity.  They urged Labour to adopt a strong Remain position (even if that meant ignoring the way that millions of working class people had voted), and campaign for a “People’s Vote” – one that sounds very nice but is actually likely to produce another close result and merely entrench divisions among the bulk of society suffering under the Tories.

Despite the commentariat deriding Labour for not making Brexit its key focus, and claiming that the Labour Party was avoiding the issue, Labour Conference in 2018 (the biggest in the party’s history) won almost unanimous support for a position after a long compositing session in which hundreds of members from all strands of the party were involved. It reaffirmed the six tests against which any Tory proposed deal would be judged, and set out the basis for the kind of deal Labour would seek to negotiate, (with a Customs Union and a close arrangement with the Single Market). It resolved to try to force a General Election as the divisions within the Tories widened, and, if that failed, promised to keep all options on the table – including seeking a “People’s Vote”.

The pressure that Labour was able to mount looked like it might force the Tories to crack in December. May was heading for a catastrophic defeat on her deal. But at the time of most division, the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour Right tried to push Corbyn to table a No-Confidence vote in the government, an absolutely futile gesture which would have suddenly united the Tories. But May temporarily out-maneuvered her opponents by pulling the vote on the deal for a month. She hoped she could scare many of her internal opponents, worried about simply crashing out, into backing her deal. Corbyn wisely kept the No-Confidence option in reserve.

479Corbyn refuses to swap his glasses for rose-tinted spectacles when he looks at the EU. He knows how abysmally it has treated Greece and Italy, and how Fortress Europe treats migrants and refugees seeking sanctuary. As a longstanding anti-fascist and internationalist, he has witnessed and warned against the menacing growth of the Far Right in several EU countries that will manifest itself even more significantly and influentially after the next EU elections. And, he and other members of Labour’s leadership team, actually understand the arithmetic of Britain’s political landscape. The  majority of Labour’s members voted Remain, though the Remain votes stack up most heavily in more economically comfortable but safe Labour seats. Four-fifths of the key Tory/Labour marginals that Labour needs to win to have a hope of forming a government, are in relatively more distressed areas where people voted heavily for Leave.

This week May will not be able to avoid the vote on her deal, and in advance of that Corbyn gave an important speech last Thursday in Wakefield, at the heart of a region where many communities voted overwhelmingly to leave. Despite an almost total media blackout on the detail of his speech, its themes are gradually emerging. He sought to change the conversation back to the stark realities of Tory Britain, after years of austerity. He emphasised the class divide, stating that whether you lived in Mansfield, a Leave area, or Tottenham, a Remain area, working class people were struggling, were up against it, but were not and should not be against each other.

After the Wakefield speech Corbyn did two other meetings that day. One, recorded live, in Pudsey, was to a large and enthusiastic hall of working class Labour members and supporters who gave rapturous applause to his key policies for transforming Britain. It has been making its way across social media in the absence of any mainstream media reporting it.

Channel 4, which until roughly a year ago had been the least hostile of the mainstream media, has since joined the anti-Corbyn bandwagon. Their attempted spoiler that day was a live discussion, also in Yorkshire, with 18-20 year olds at Leeds University, to show what they thought on the Brexit issue. With the media again believing its own hype, John Snow anticipated being able to demonstrate that the vast majority of young people were fervently pro-Remain and totally disillusioned with Corbyn. He got a lot more than he bargained for as young people there showed a very nuanced set of approaches much more diverse than Snow anticipated, and with very few keen to dismiss Corbyn’s strategy.

On the Marr Show yesterday, Corbyn would not let his bullying host restrict him to talking only of deals with Europe. He insisted on talking about Labour’s socialist, anti-austerity programme that it would seek to implement from Day One, in housing, investment, social security, and education, alongside its adjustment to the new situation vis a vis Europe.

Tomorrow, May’s deal will be voted down. If it had been held in December, it was 2000predicted that May would have lost catastrophically, by more than 200 votes. Bribery and project fear will have reduced that considerably, but I am hoping it gets to three figures. Corbyn will push his attempt at a No-Confidence vote, to try to force an election. That will be close. I hope it succeeds. Many groups in Parliament are working to ensure that crashing with No-Deal is impossible. A small but spirited march and rally two days ago, by the People’s Assembly, amplified the themes that Corbyn has been pushing, and John McDonnell emphasised from the platform at Trafalgar Square, the importance of extra-parliamentary pressure. The genuinely anti-Tory forces need to be ready for whatever the next days and weeks brings. Hold on tight.

 

Far right footprints?

IMG_8048My anti-fascist antennae were twitching today. Before heading back to London from a few days break in Stow in the Wold, we took a short diversion to visit to Moreton in Marsh, a small market town at the head of the Evenlode valley, just a few miles a way.  We found a good parking spot on the High Street, opposite a pub – a 17th century coaching inn –  with a George cross flag: the Redesdale Arms.

Now that was a familiar name. “Family connection with Oswald Mosley. Lord Redesdale. Big-time antisemite!” I muttered to my partner.

034769_0b84a3dbWe didn’t go in there but took a little walk round the town. Many of the buildings on the High Street, were of similar age to the inn. As we returned to the car we stopped by a plaque on the side of a large impressive building that stood a paved area in the middle of the High Street. It was Redesdale Hall. The plaque helped me to piece together the connection. The building was put up by the 1st Baron Redesdale the Lord of the Manor in Moreton in Marsh, whose name was Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford.

In 1936, two days after the Battle of Cable Street, Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British220px-Diana_Mitford_Photo Union of Fascists, was in Berlin to get married for the second time. It was a small ceremony away from the attention of the press, in the House of the Goebbels family. Goebbels was chief Propaganda Officer for the Nazis at the time. Hitler was there as Guest of Honour. Mosley’s wife to be was Diana Guinness, who had previously been married to the aristocrat and brewing heir, Bryan Guinness. They divorced when after she started an affair with Oswald Mosley. Her maiden name though was Diana Mitford. she was one of the four Mitford sisters (Diana, Jessica, Unity, Nancy), and a first cousin, incidentally, of Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife. Winston Churchill was one of a group of four political figures who were close friends spending many hours at clubs in the late 1920s and early 1930s discussing economics and politics. The other three were Harold Nicholson, John Maynard Keynes and Oswald Mosley.

After Diana’s divorce from Bryan Guinness in 1932, she moved into a flat in Belgravia round the corner to Oswald Mosley, but he was still married to his ailing first wife, Cynthia Curzon, daughter of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India. Cynthia died in 1933, and Oswald wouldn’t leave her before then to live with his lover, Diana.

The first Baron Redesdale,  who paid for the Hall to be built in Moreton in Marsh was Diana’s grandfather. Her father, Algernon’s second son, David Freeman-Mitford, second Baron Redesdale, was the one I had remembered encountering in my researches for my book, Battle for the East End, published in 2011.

I’m glad I recognised the name today because it added other pieces to the jigsaw, as I looked up further information on Diana’s father. He was a hereditary member of the House of Lords, who attended the House conscientiously. Through the 1930s, both he and his wife Sydney, had developed a strong liking for fascism, and he became known more widely for his far right views and especially his open antisemitism.

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Lord Redesdale, 2nd Baron Redesdale

The 2nd Baron Redesdale was initially scornful of his daughter Diana’s enthusiasm for Hitler. As a British ultra-nationalist and xenophobe he was known to be dismissive of, and insulting about, both French and German people, describing them as “frogs” and “huns”. His wife Sydney, Diana’s mother, shared Diana’s enthusiasm for the Führer. After they all went to a Nuremburg rally in 1938 they were of one mind in their admiration for Hitler.

In the late 1930s, Lord Redesdale was a member of several far right bodies populated especially by the upper classes, such as the Link, the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Right Club. The latter had been formed by the Tory politician and antisemitic obsessive, Captain Archibald Ramsey, described by the Daily Worker as Britain’s “number one Jew-baiter”.

One more piece of the jigsaw. Oswald Mosley worked hard to build four large fascist branches in the East End. Two of the biggest were in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, where a layer of the working class lapped up Mosley’s increasingly strong antisemitism. More than 30 years earlier, though, much of the groundwork had already been laid by a populist right-wing anti-immigrant body called the British Brothers’ League. Their number one target was Jewish immigration.

One of their key figures who spoke at their largest local rallies was Major William Evans-british-brothers-league-posterGordon, a former Army captain in India, who later served as a diplomat in the British Raj. In 1900 he became the Tory MP for Stepney, in London’s East End. Evans-Gordon was a powerful lobbyist for the Aliens Bill, Britain’s first modern immigration law, passed by Lord Balfour’s government in 1905. A year before that act was passed Evans-Gordon’s niece,  Sydney Bowles, married Lord Redesdale, 2nd Baron Redesdale.

Farewell to “Kazik” – the last of the ghetto fighters

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Rapoport monument

In Warsaw there is a very moving trail of memorials to the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It starts at the huge monument, designed by Nathan Rapoport and erected in 1948, and ends at the umschlagplatz  where the inmates of the ghetto – hundreds of thousands of Jews, and between 1,000-2,000 Romany Gypsies – were deported to the death camp of Treblinka, mainly in 1942.

Along this trail, individual memorial stones  recall individuals among the resistance led by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa  (ZOB – Jewish fighting Organisation). Formed in 1942, it was an alliance of competing left-wing political organisations in the ghetto – Bundists, Communists, Zionists – united in a common struggle for freedom and dignity, or as one of their leaders put it, “to choose our way of death”. When the Uprising started on 19 April, just a few hundred fighters were still alive, all between 13 and 40 years of age.

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Simcha Rotem – “Kazik”

On 30 April, while the battle was still raging, two of the fighters  left the ghetto through a secret tunnel. They were Simcha Rotem, a Zionist, known to his comrades as “Kazik”, and Zalmen Friedrych, a Bundist. They had been sent on a mission by their commander, Marek Edelman, also a Bundist, to reach ZOB resisters hidden outside of the ghetto, and to arrange a way of rescuing the fighters who were still alive by evacuating them through the sewers. They found their contacts and obtained maps and guidance from non-Jewish Poles who had worked in the sewers – part of the Polish Underground in every sense. Kazik organised the rescue of dozens of fighters, and, together with Friedrych, found hiding places for them in the forests, and in the city. He was just 19 years old at the time.

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Zalmen Friedrych

Yesterday, 22 December 2018, Kazik, the last surviving fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died in Israel where he had gone to live after the war. Friedrych had been killed by Gestapo and German police when he was taking a group to a hiding place in a village called Pludy in 1943. Those he was taking were murdered too. Edelman, the last surviving member of the Uprising command group, and who helped to lead the fighters through the sewers, died in Poland in 2009.

They spent 48 hours in total in pipes just 28 inches high. They had reached the planned exit on Prosta Street, beyond the south-western edge of the  ghetto, at night, but the truck that Kazik had organised to collect them could not get there safely at that time because of a curfew imposed by the occupying Nazi forces. He had arranged for a truck that moved furniture. The driver was told that he would be moving the contents of a house. He was shocked to see that instead of furniture they would be loading people emerging from a sewer manhole.

A crowd had gathered around this remarkable scene, amazed at the sight of Jews emerging from the sewer-hole with sub-machine guns strapped to their waists. In his memoir, The Ghetto Fights, Marek Edelman wrote:

“…the trap door opened and one after another, with the stunned crowd looking on , armed Jews appeared from the depths of the dark hole… Not all were able to get out. Violently, heavily, the trap-door shut. The truck took off at full speed”

Edelman and Kazik were part of a unit of surviving ZOB fighters, hidden by non-Jews, who took part a year later in the general Warsaw Uprising led by Polish resisters in 1944.

The section of Prosta Street, where the fighters emerged, is a wide thoroughfare, IMG_3388overshadowed today by tall glass towers recently built by business corporations. It is far from the memorial route of Jewish martyrdom which crosses the north of the ghetto. Many visitors to Warsaw, following that memorial route in order to gain an insight into the history of the ghetto and the courageous resistance that fought there, do not reach this remarkable installation, unveiled in 2010, that stands where the fighters emerged from the sewers. It portrays a sewage canal rising vertically from the ground with disembodied hands symbolically climbing their way to freedom.

Next to it is a prism-shaped monument that lists those who escaped and survived the war, including Cywia Lubetkin, the sole woman among the uprising command group. It also lists those who escaped but died in combat during the war, and those who never made it out of the sewers.

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The final panels commemorate Kazik (Simcha Rotem) and the group he collaborated with to achieve this incredible rescue operation, including the Polish sewer workers, Waclaw Sledziewskie and Czeslaw Wojciechowski. As we remember the heroism of Kazik and give thanks for his remarkable life which ended yesterday, we should remember too, all who fought for freedom and dignity in the uprising, and all who helped them beyond the ghetto walls.

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Facing up to antisemitism – real, denied and invented

Paper presented at an international symposium on the “Resurgence of Antisemitism: Realities, Fictions and Uses”, Brussels 12/13 December 2018

I want to start with some personal biography. My grandparents came to Britain as Jewish child immigrants from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1900s. I grew up in an economically struggling Jewish family in inner London, that gradually became more comfortable.

My extended family were mostly Labour voters, plus some communist-supporting relatives. My family were traditional; not very religious, not actively Zionist. They had no family in Israel, but sympathised with Israel at a general level.,

I became involved in socialist politics and antifascist activism when I was around 16 years old. My first demonstration was against the National Front, a group formed in Britain in 1967 by convinced Nazis, who recruited a wider layer of supporters from all classes, by condemning black immigration and promoting British nationalism.

I went to that demonstration with several Jewish friends from a Zionist youth group. I had illusions then about Israel/Palestine that I discarded long ago. Perhaps only one or two of those  Jewish friends I attended the demonstration with, would define themselves as Zionist now. People can be persuaded to rethink by convincing arguments and evidence. Today though, many leftists are better at condemning and proclaiming than persuading.

I broke with Zionism as a result of my deepening involvement in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, alongside a more serious engagement with the realities in Israel/Palestine.

Today, there is little involvement of left-wing or liberal Zionists within the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement in Britain. Debates around Zionism and antisemitism have become more toxic within the left. Many Jews claim that the left does not take antisemitism seriously, that it trivialises the existence of antisemitism; or dismisses it as a few cranks holding old prejudices. Many leftists insist it cannot be compared with the institutional racism that blacks, Muslims, migrant workers, and refugees suffer every day. There is some truth in all these assertions but we cannot generalise. Many left-wing Zionists are quick to label people antisemites who make genuine observations about the impacts of different kinds of racism.

brick-lane-black-white-unite-2In the 1970s I was inspired by slogans: “Black and white, unite and fight”, “self-defence is no offence”, and especially by: “here to stay – here to fight!”, which argued that the struggle was not only against discrimination, but it was also a positive assertion of the right of minorities to live as equals and develop their distinctive identities and cultures.

Another slogan from that time disturbed me: “Yesterday the Jews, today the blacks”. at street level, the National Front targeted Caribbean and Asian communities, but fascists do not replace targets: they accumulate them. Antisemitism still played a significant role for the fascists then and now. Two publications from that period explained this well: Racism, Fascism and the Politics of the National Front: a pamphlet, by David Edgar, a left wing playwright; and a book called Fascists: by Michael Billig, a social-psychologist, based on interviews with middle-rank National Front activists.

Edgar argued that although most fascists surface campaigning directed itself against non-white immigrants, the ideology shared by the movement’s inner-core said immigrants themselves were merely pawns of more powerful forces who promoted multiculturalism to undermine the white race. Who were these forces? The Jews. Billig’s book showed that the higher up the movement you moved, the more you were exposed to “world Jewish conspiracy” ideas of classic Nazi antisemitism.

the-43-groupMany people assume that, in Britain, you have to go back to the 1930s to find Jews in the front line at street level from fascists. You don’t. Just after the war, between 1946 and 1950 fascist groups re-emerged promoting antisemitism, but were beaten back by a physical anti-fascist campaign organised mainly by Jewish ex-army  servicemen and women called the 43 Group.

In the 1960s, thousands of anti-fascists broke up a rally where the platform had a banner across it saying “Free Britain from Jewish control”. In the early 1960s protests fringe far-right groups in Britain held banners proclaiming “Hitler was Right”. Those banners disappeared from view for nearly 50 years, as fascists began to use code-words to express antisemitism. But in the last few years similar banners have reappeared.

hitlerwas rightIn America, and especially in central and eastern Europe, antisemitism is still the glue that holds  neo-Nazis’ worldview together, that explains global economics and politics.

Racism against black and brown minorities in Britain has deep roots in Britain’s imperial and colonial past. Negative stereotypes of inferiority sustained themselves long after the Empire collapsed. They are still woven through institutions such as police, the criminal justice system and the education system.

Antisemitism has other deep roots in Britain society. Sometimes it has overlapped with more familiar anti-immigrant racism, but more often it stereotypes Jews not as inferior but as an intelligent, alien clique conspiring to undermine the nation

The mass immigration of Jews to Britain took place mainly between 1881 and 1905. In00aliensA2 1905, the Government passed the Aliens Act, which dramatically reduced Jewish immigration. The  Prime Minister who pushed it through was Lord Balfour, who, 12 years later, promised Palestine to the Jews. Balfour was responding to grassroots campaigning from organisations such as the British Brothers League, whose activists were from struggling working class communities bordering Jewish enclaves.

People whose work was precarious, and whose housing conditions were poor, were convinced by the League’s middle-class leaders, such as Major William Evans-Gordon, that all their problems were caused by immigrants. Some politicians and many newspapers described Jews as dirty, diseased, parasitic, culturally inferior, alien, as well as being criminals and anarchists.

Both Evans-Gordon and Balfour were personal friends of a young Zionist called Chaim Weizman, who later became the first President of Israel. Evans-Gordon and Balfour were Christian Zionists and imperialists in foreign policy but antisemites domestically.

The everyday racism Jews suffered at this time, though, was largely from white workers who saw them as rivals for scarce resources. It was very similar to the xenophobic prejudices later experienced by Caribbean and Asian immigrants,

Oswald MosleyA more ideologically articulated antisemitism emerged in the 1930s. The British Union of Fascists, formed by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932, portrayed working class Jews as rivals for the indigenous working class, but focused more on alleged machinations of wealthier Jews. It portrayed them as immensely powerful, accused them of controlling the economy, the media, and the political system. From autumn 1934 Mosley made antisemitism the central plank of his fascist ideology, defining a battle between “the cleansing spirit of fascism” and Jews as “an unclean, alien influence in our national and imperial life”.

Mosley preferred Mussolini to Hitler, at first, but in early 1936 his movement became the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, and embraced Hitlerite antisemitism. Street-corner speakers for the movement still cast Jews as criminals, bad landlords, and rivals for jobs and homes, but they also described Jews as “rats and vermin”, “subhumans”, a “pestilence”, or a “cancer” that had to be removed,

Antisemitism proved popular among sections of all classes in the population. The fascists had 500 branches around the country including 20 branches at  fee-paying schools for the wealthy. This helped to sustain an antisemitic mind-set among sections of the upper and upper-middle classes after World War 2, as they reached adulthood.

I sense that antisemitism in Britain is rising today together with other hatreds. That subjective perception is supported by the principal organisation collecting data on antisemitism – the Community Security Trust (CST) – a mainstream Jewish body that work closely with the police. They also work closely with the main institution claiming to represent the Jewish community – the Board of Deputies of British Jews – but are independent from it.

In political terms CST personnel comprise right-wing Labourites and mild Conservatives. They are pro-Zionist, and defensive about Israel, but not Netanyahu supporters. However, they are an increasingly reliable source of information on the kinds of incidents that occur and the profiles of the perpetrators. Mostly now, they differentiate between politically motivated abuse relating to Israel and Zionism and antisemitic abuse. They reject claims by Jews of antisemitic incidents which do not show a clear antisemitic intention. Their end of year report for 2017 recorded more than 1,300 incidents but left out several hundred more where anti-Jewish motives could not be proven.

Their facts indicate a significant, and gradually increasing level of attacks on Jewish individuals, sometimes on groups (such as schoolchildren), and on Jewish institutions such as  synagogues and cemeteries. A  typical attack involves verbal abuse, threatening behaviour and sometimes physical assault.  Victims of assaults are often ultra-orthodox Jews, attacked for how they dress. Muslim girls and women wearing the hijab face similar street harassment.

The language used in many attacks frequently references the Holocaust and Hitler. Jewish communal leaders claim that the principal threat to Jews in Britain comes from the Left, but where the CST can identify perpetrators, the majority are white far-right. However, increasing numbers of incidents are perpetrated by other minorities, who themselves experience racism. These perpetrators often utilise the same Hitler and Holocaust tropes.

The far right have flooded the internet with poisonous antisemitic ideas, alleging Jewishjacob-rothschild conspiracies by “Rothschild bankers”/”Rothschild Zionists”. These powerful conspiracy theories are entering mainstream and minority cultures.  Sometimes, they are unwittingly shared by Leftists who think they are sharing anti-capitalist or pro-Palestinian material. They are tainting both of these just struggles.

Jewish establishment responses to antisemitism and the far right, and to racism in general in Britain, have long been inadequate but have also undergone significant historical shifts.

Today the Board of Deputies seem to see antisemitism everywhere. Yet in the 1930 when working class Jews faced sustained abuse and assaults from organised fascists, the Board of Deputies and the principle Jewish establishment newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, dismissed the fascist threat as exaggerated, and treated the perpetrators merely as “Hitler copy-cats”.

They refused to believe that antisemitism could flourish in a country they characterised as fair, decent and tolerant. When that movement terrorised Jewish communities and threatened to march through the Jewish working class heartland, the Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle advised Jews to stay indoors and avoid protest actions that might lead to disorder. The community completely ignored them and inflicted a peoples’ defeat on the fascists through mass street action, in October 1936 in what became known as the “Battle of Cable Street”. Soon after that, Jewish leaders began to argue that Jewish behaviour was provoking antisemitism.

In the 1970s and early 1980s when the National Front were mainly targeting blacks and Asians – though antisemitism had not disappeared –  Jewish “leaders” acknowledged the problems were principally caused by the far right, but they trusted the same state authorities who were frequently mistreating immigrant communities to deal with it.

IMG_2856When a mass and broad-based anti-fascist movement – the Anti-Nazi League – was created by leftists in 1978, the Jewish establishment tried to dissuade young Jews from joining it, claiming that some ANL leaders were known for anti-Zionist activism. I believe that the Jewish establishment was less worried about Israel than the prospect of young Jews associating with militant leftists.

The Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) –a radical fringe group – openly challenged communal leaders  and helped recruit Jews to the Anti-Nazi League. A bigger confrontation with the Deputies came in the early 1980s. The JSG obtained and released information kept under wraps by the Board of Deputies about an increasing number of serious antisemitic incidents in London perpetrated by the far-right. Jewish leaders attempted to hide this from the community, because it might have alarmed the community or encouraged Jews to make common cause with other minorities. They preferred to deal with it privately in close cooperation with state authorities.

Contrast that with recent years where Britain’s Jewish leaders see antisemitism everywhere including where it is not present at all. This has coincided with their adopting a much more strident and explicit anti-left agenda, especially after Jeremy Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian radical socialist, became leader of the Labour Party. There is another paper at the conference on this so I won’t intrude on that, but just make a few observations.

The left, in its many organisations, have been the strongest and most militant fighters against racism and fascism in Britain, but they have not always recognised the continuing presence and significance of antisemitism.

Some elements of the left for whom Palestinian concerns are very important, who recognise that antisemitism provides the self-justification for Zionism, mistakenly believe that giving attention to antisemitism weakens their support for Palestinians. It doesn’t. Jewish communities are increasingly  polarising over Israel/Palestine and Zionism. Every reliable survey of Jewish community opinion in Britain shows a decline in self-identification with the term “Zionist” – down from more than 70% to 59% in the last decade. Increasing numbers of Jews speak out for Palestinian rights. Those numbers would be greater still if Jews felt that those speaking up for Palestine also consistently denounced antisemitism.

Jewish community leaders speak and act as if there is rampant antisemitism on the left. They cynically conflate opposition to Israeli policy, and critiquing of Zionism, with antisemitism. They promote the lie that Zionism is an intrinsic and eternal part of Jewish identity rather than it being one of several political ideologies that were vying for support among Jews at the end of the 19th century

There are two errors frequently made on the left that make it open to criticism from Zionists. Leftists often refer to Israel when mean the Israeli government or the Israeli

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Israeli anti-government protesters

military, or Israeli settlers. This homogenises Israeli Jews and erases the internal opposition. There are growing numbers of brave but harassed oppositionists within Israel – who are a mixture of anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, and left-wing Zionists. How they define themselves is less important than what they do. The left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe should recognise and broadcast what Israel’s internal opposition is doing.

The other error is to frequently make analogies between Israeli state practice and Nazism. This accusation seems more intended to wound rather than enlighten. It reveals a lack of historical understanding or empathy with Jews under Nazism. Racist discriminatory aspects of Israeli government policy are certainly similar to practices in the very early years of Nazism, but there are perhaps closer similarities with other racist, ultra-nationalist regimes, or with ethnic cleansers, for example, during the Yugoslav wars.

Why are we obsessed with making analogies? We can find all the arguments and evidence for promoting Palestinian justice in the practices of Israeli governments and institutions that are about dispossession, exclusion, discrimination and oppression. We don’t need to invoke Hitler.

Despite these errors, it is the left that consistently exposes and combats those who genuinely threaten the future well-being of minorities in Britain today. Leaders of the Jewish community highlight any perceived antisemitism on the Left even if the evidence is flimsy, yet they are silent on  regimes in central and Eastern Europe where antisemitism rides in tandem with Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and other forms of bigotry,  where such regimes are friends with Benjamin Netanyahu.

We are entering a dangerous period with regard to the growth of the British far-right where the traditional alliance between the Left and the Jewish community has broken down. We urgently need to fix this.

A memory and a warning from Spain

“For the first time in the history of the peoples’ struggles, there was the spectacle, breath­taking in its grandeur, of the formation of International Brigades to help save a threatened country’s freedom and independence – the freedom and independence of our Spanish land.

“Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republicans – men of different colours, differing

la-pasio2a

La Pasionaria – Dolores Ibarruri

ideology, antagonistic religions – yet all profoundly loving liberty and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally.

“They gave us everything – their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations – and they asked us for nothing. But yes, it must be said, they did want a post in battle, they aspired to the honour of dying for us.

“Banners of Spain! Salute these many heroes! Be lowered to honour so many martyrs! … You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.”

These are the words spoken by Dolores Ibarrruri (known as la Pasionaria) in a ceremony in Barcelona in autumn 1938, marking the withdrawal of the International Brigades. Today, 7th December, is the 80th anniversary of the arrival back in London of 305 members of the British Battalion. When they reached Victoria Station they were greeted by huge crowds. Before setting off by bus for a banquet at the Cooperative Society in the East End, they had a political task. Led by wounded Brigadistas, they delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street demanding British aid for the Spanish Republic.

Screen Shot 2018-12-07 at 09.13.18It fell on deaf ears. By 1939, Britain’s National Government, led by the Conservative, Neville Chamberlain, was recognising Franco’s regime. And the shocking fact we face, in the week of this anniversary of returning heroes, is the news that the Far Right Vox Party (formed in Spain 5 years ago by a splinter from the Conservative Popular Party) received almost 400,000 votes at the Andalusian regional elections, and for the first time won seats in the Andalusian Parliament.

It was clear that they won support from many who had previously voted for the Socialist Party (PSOE). It is striking how similar Vox’s stances are to those of populist far-right parties in central and Eastern Europe: their strong ultra nationalist-stances against immigration and multiculturalism, their open Islamophobia, are married with very strong opposition to women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights. This underlines further the need for anti-fascists the world over to give attention to all the issues on which the far right is mobilising and winning arguments for its movement deep inside working class communities. Our methods of combating them cannot be restricted to set piece confrontations in city centres but must involve arguing within all arenas in our communities with those who are becoming receptive to far right ideologies.

ifyoutWe have an opportunity to show our recognition of the breadth of issues they are mobilising on, in just two days time when the British far-right’s leading figurehead, Stephen Yaxley Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), aided and abetted by UKIP leader Gerard Batten, takes to the streets behind the facade of opposing a “Brexit Betrayal”, while their real aims are to push the same themes of racist and fascist parties asserting themselves in central and Eastern Europe, in America, and now in Spain, and to strengthen a cross-class, cross-generational far-right street movement. As a Spanish Republican poster of the late 1930s warned: “If you tolerate this your children will be next.”

There have been difficult negotiations this week towards a united demonstration this Sunday – and there are real differences to be hammered out. We need to do that, though, in a spirit that is open-minded, and free from all too common sectarianism, egotism, stereotyping and ageism. And the places to talk through these differences, learn from each other’s perspectives, change our practices, and go forward stronger together, are not in the virtual world of social media, but on the ground, in real life, within our diverse, broad-based, cross-generational, united actions.

Be there on Sunday, 11am Portland Place, talk to other groups you disagree with, not just to yourselves, build bridges not walls, show our unity in our diversity, and our absolute determination to face down the racists and fascists.

Right slogan, wrong target

The slogan “Free Palestine” should be shouted from the rooftops. It needs to prick the conscience of politicians around the world who daily tolerate the discrimination, the abuses of human rights within Israel, where Palestinians comprise more than 21% of the population; within the Occupied West Bank, where armed Israeli Settlers run rampant destroying olive groves and where Palestinians are daily humiliated at checkpoints; within Gaza, still under siege, which Israel uses as a laboratory to test its weapons, and where another story emerged this week of a mother not allowed to accompany her child to a hospital in Jerusalem for cancer treatment.

The slogan “Free Palestine” applies especially to children who have suffered directly from the brutal actions of Israeli soldiers. We hear the shocking statistics of the numbers of children who have died during five decades of occupation. Far greater numbers have been left with terrible, disabling injuries, affecting their everyday life and their future. The occupation severely impacts on children’s ability to access their education, and their teachers’ ability to provide that education. Meanwhile, according to the latest figures (October 2018), collected by the excellent Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, which closely monitors and exposes Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians, more than 200 young Palestinians are held in Israeli jails. Earlier this year that number was over 350.

The frustrations of those who witness this from a distance should be channelled into smart and effective political campaigning and action. But sadly we have just witnessed the very opposite of that in central London.  For the second time in a few weeks the slogan “Free Palestine” has been scrawled across a poster at Russell Square tube station advertising an exhibition called “Shattered”, about Kristallnacht 1938, or “Reichspogromnacht” as German anti-fascists prefer it to be known.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 16.31.42The exhibition is being held at the nearby Wiener Library, an institute founded by Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who returned to Germany in 1919, having fought for his country, who was horrified at the surge of right-wing antisemitism, which blamed Jews for the defeat.

From 1925 he perceived that the greatest threat came from the Nazi Party and he started an archive to collect information about the Nazis, which formed the basis of campaigns to undermine their activities.  Wiener and his family fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam. After the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 1938, Wiener made preparations to bring his collection to the UK. It arrived the following summer and  opened on the day the Nazis invaded Poland. After the Holocaust, the contents of the library assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremburg Trials.

In the decades since, the Wiener library has greatly increased its collection and has been an invaluable resource both for those who have wanted to research fascism and those who are engaged in combating fascism and all manner of human hatred today. At a time when antisemitism and many other forms of racism are rising here and elsewhere at the hands of a resurgent far right, we need those who can envisage a future based on respect and equality for all humans to choose their targets carefully for actions, in order to unite as many as possible in forging that kind of future. We need to condemn unreservedly those who set oppression of Jews and Palestinians against each other.

We know how this is going to play out among those determined to show that support for Palestinians comes at the expense of support for Jews, and who cynically spread the lie that opposition to Zionism and Israel’s actions is tantamount to opposition to Jews. They have been handed a gift. And at the same time it has probably made some progressive Jews more wary of involvement in wider issues of liberation from oppression.

Who gains? Only those who enjoy spreading hatred against Jews and who seek to divide minorities from each other. And also those who wish to maintain the oppression of Palestinians.

 

Don’t play Tommy’s game

Last week saw a vibrant and united anti-racist and anti-fascist march through London. It was cross-generational and multicultural. It had a big turnout from several trade unions and a bigger Labour Party representation than I can remember over many years. It was built through blocs representing different sections, interests, identities, each of whom gave their segment of the march its own character. And it was internationalist -– personified by the large bloc of Brazilians (which included  a separate women’s section) and supporters of the Brazilian left in the wake of Bolsonaro’s frightening victory.

IMG_7453What we witnessed last week were signs of a renewed confidence within a movement that any honest participant or observer would recognise has gone through difficult times in the last year, in the wake of global developments, but has begun to wake up to the urgent need to broaden its reach. Unfortunately, it has been the far-right in Britain, boosted by the advances it has made in America, and in Western and Eastern  Europe, that has had a spring in its step. Although individual, centralist, far-right UK organisations remain small, their ability to mobilise huge numbers of atomised cross-class forces around common racist and nationalist themes, and around a figurehead, has shown their strength and potential.

18-Tommy-Robinson-GetThat figurehead – Tommy Robinson – has been ridiculed as a “poundshop Enoch Powell”. From a platform at one of our recent anti-fascist mobilisations I called him “the lummox from Luton” and a “two-bob Oswald Mosley”. Intellectually, that is probably true, but he is dangerous. And the people especially in the USA and Canada, that have been pouring money into his account are banking on him becoming a lot more dangerous.

This week, though, he has been given a huge boost by the actions of two seemingly diametrically opposed movements. One is UKIP, which has been taken step by step on a journey to the very far right under the caretaker-leadership of Gerard Batten. The other is a movement which ostensibly includes people from the centre-left to the far left – Another Europe is Possible.

Robinson is not just some populist pub-brawler, but is a convinced racist and fascist. He Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 09.14.22is a former BNP member and EDL leader, who poses as a martyr to free speech, as a representative of the left behind (white) working-class, and a bulwark against a mythical Muslim takeover of British society. From his EDL days he was seeking to create division between Muslims and Jews by handing out Israeli flags on their demonstrations, while at the same time hob-nobbing with convinced Nazi antisemites with swastikas tattooed on their chest, and with anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists.

UKIP’s “temporary” leader, meanwhile, has kept very close to Robinson, and has been converting UKIP from a sanctuary mainly for disgruntled, hyper-nationalist but traditional, imperialist, Tories, which operates as a particular kind of protest vote at the ballot box, into a more openly cross-class movement. And most significantly, he has taken it on the streets to blend with largely working class far-right street protesters, many supplied by Islamophobic football firms.

Of course Brexit has been a major driver of that movement, but what drives their attachment to Brexit has been less a concern to maintain British independence from Brussels bureaucrats than an increasingly open racism, mainly expressed through Islamophobia but also a hardening of vicious anti-refugee sentiment, and under Batten’s leadership a sentiment against those he calls the “globalists” and “elites” who he believes are fostering multiculturalism and undermining the nation. More longstanding anti-fascists don’t need help decoding these antisemitic tropes.

DbPNcfbX4AAa45WBatten has met resistance within UKIP from more traditional Tories to his desire to bring Tommy Robinson into the fold, as a fully-fledged UKIP member, so he has by-passed that section of the membership this week by employing Robinson as an advisor (on grooming gangs and prison reform). Batten has pledged to work with him in a street mobilisation called for 9th December opportunistically railing against what they call the “Brexit Betrayal” represented by the chaotic “deal” being put together by Theresa May and her shrinking band of loyal followers. Brexit will be the slogan but the themes for this Robinson and Batten-led march and rally that will assert themselves will be open and blatant Islamophobia, coded antisemitism, vicious anti-left rhetoric and selective anti-establishment posturing.

The same forces that organised last week’s successful and positive march have called a counter-protest to Robinson and Batten’s plans. We will need as many people as possible who turned out on last week’s anti-racist and anti-fascist unity march to provide a solid opposition to them that will prevent them taking over the streets as they did in June and July.

The strength of that mobilisation last week was its ability to unite left wing Leave and Remain voters in a common cause. But Another Europe is Possible have called a separate protest which ties their opposition to the Far Right explicitly with anti-Brexit politics and a people’s vote, simultaneously splitting the anti-Robinson forces into Remainers and Leavers, while crowning Robinson the King of the Leave cause.

There is no doubt that, at the time of the referendum, those pushing the left’s scepticism about the capitalist club that comprises the EU barely got a look in. Hard right racists seized the initiative in gathering the Leave vote, and there was certainly a spike in racist attacks after the Leave victory in the referendum, by emboldened racists. But the reality was always more complicated and has become more so.

Leave also picked up a lot of votes for reasons other than racism. There are not 17 million hard-right racists in Britain, but there is a growth in far right racist forces right now. There are many trade unionists who are fighting for a more equal society, and who are anti-racist, but are thoroughly unimpressed with the EU, and voted Leave. Last week they turned out in big numbers on our march and were united with Remainers in their unions and in wider society. They can see the danger signs of a renewed far right. It would be disastrous if we let our forces be split on this basis, and if we gave people the impression that the natural leaders of the Leave movement are the likes of Tommy Robinson.

In the face of immense pressure from the right wing of the Labour Party and the pro-corbyn-refugeesAARemain establishment media, Jeremy Corbyn has steered a difficult path to keep on board those Labour members and voters who voted in either direction. He has sought to prioritise discussions of housing and homelessness, foodbanks, poverty, education cuts, trade union rights, the need for greater public ownership, and the threat from the growing far right in Britain and across Europe. Corbyn has been assiduously maintaining close connections with socialists in Europe, and pushing for an early General Election here as the means for social transformation.

I was a reluctant Remain voter, who, like others, saw what the EU did to Greece. I have witnessed the far-right and right-wing populist forces getting stronger across Europe and fear that the next European Elections will strengthen the most reactionary, authoritarian and racist forces within the EU. I also fear the potential for the far right to become much bigger here. This is not at all the time to split our forces on the question of racism and fascism, so I appeal to Another Europe is Possible to join a united effort to stop Batten and Robinson’s street movement in its tracks.

Whether there can be any coordination on the day with the forces around Antifa including the Feminist Anti-Fascist bloc and Plan C, who held a successful, separate mobilisation against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, remains to be seen but they will surely turn out in numbers and won’t allow themselves to be divided on questions of Leave/Remain.

4906429_origOn 7 December, it will be the 80th anniversary of the return of the British Battalion that fought against Franco’s fascists in Spain. They docked at Newhaven, then came by train to Victoria Station where they were welcomed by huge numbers of anti-fascists and and were greeted by prominent political personalities including Clement Atlee. 1657923_orig

They then went by bus to a dinner at the Cooperative Society in London’s East End, where the fight against fascism in Britain had been at its sharpest through the 1930s. Let’s honour the memory of those who fought in Spain with a united mobilisation against racism and fascism on 9 December. And let’s turn the popular slogan in the Spanish Civil War, “No Pasaran”, into a reality on the streets of London!

 

Sadness and rage: Auschwitz 2018

IMG_7378We placed chairs in a circle and waited to see who would come. Half an hour earlier our group of 60 anti-racists and trade unionists had returned from a day visiting Auschwitz and the remnants of the vast expanse of crumbling barracks, cut through by a railway line, that had been the death camp of Birkenau.

This was my third consecutive year on the organising team of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) for this visit. We usually encourage people to share their reflections on our return to the hotel, but that is voluntary. Some prefer to be alone immediately afterwards. Others just want to lie down in their rooms, and let the experience wash over them. This year the circle was full, and we had to add more chairs.

I wrote some prompts on a sheet: What surprised you? What made this different from reading books about the Holocaust? What emotions did you feel? What will you take back into your normal life…?

The participants began to unpick and analyse the shattering experience they had just been through. Two main emotions predominated: deep sadness but also rage and anger that the world could let such a thing happen. That people in power had failed to heed credible reports of what was unfolding, or intervene by bombing railway lines to the camps or the gas chambers, even though they had aerial photographs of them.

Our group included people with strong personal ties to this history. One participant’s mother and grandmother arrived together in 1944 in a crammed cattle truck. As they disembarked, her mother, Esther, just 16, was advised by another transportee to lie about her age. She said she was 18 and was put in a line for slave labourers. Esther’s mother could not hide her age, and probably looked even older than her 44 years, having endured starvation in the Lodz Ghetto. She was placed in the line for immediate extermination.

Esther survived, just. She was transported to a slave labour camp in Germany. As the war was ending, the Nazis force-marched the remaining slaves to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp. There, Esther contracted typhus and shared a bunk with three other young women in a similar condition. She slept right through the day of liberation and then awoke next to three corpses.

The traumatised father of another group member was in a British army unit that helped liberate Belsen. The only Jewish member of his unit, he witnessed the piled up corpses and was tasked with guarding the captured SS men who remained at the camp.

The connections were not only with the victims. Another group member of had grown up very close to her Austrian relatives who were unrepentant Nazis.

The nearest major city to Auschwitz is Krakow – the base for our visit. Only a small proportion of Krakow’s pre-war Jewish population of 68,000 (26% of Krakow’s residents) were sent to Auschwitz. Most were deported to Belzec, 190 miles away.  The Nazis tried to to hide the reality of extermination from the local population, but they did not hide their brutal policies of separation, discrimination, and ghettoisation of the Jewish residents of various cities under occupation. Some Catholic Poles benefited materially from the Nazis’ antisemitic policies in the short term, though they too would ultimately suffer huge losses. The walls of one block in Auschwitz 1 camp – converted into a museum – are lined with photos of mainly non-Jewish Polish political prisoners who perished there.IMG_4108

In several cities Jews had formed an even larger proportion of the population than Krakow, such as the textile town, Lodz, and the capital, Warsaw. In both, Jews comprised a third of the pre-war population. Warsaw had been a cosmopolitan, multicultural city, and Yiddish was one of eight main languages you could hear on the streets. Not so today. Poland’s menacing far right groups try to induce paranoia about migrants, refugees and “Muslim invaders”, among the white, mainly Catholic, Poles who make up 96% of the national population.

Auschwitz attracts thousands of visitors every day, both educational groups and tourist day-trippers. In our reflections we discussed the merits of short visits. Some questioned the motives of day-trippers –horror as entertainment – or thought their experience could only be superficial, but others felt that even such superficial exposure would have a significant impact on them.

What makes UAF’s trip outstanding, though, is the painstaking attempt to provide crucial context in the 36 hours before we visit Auschwitz, and follow-up sessions to deepen reflection on the experience and focus on Europe’s growing far right today, not least in Poland.

I gave the opening talk – on Jewish life, death and resistance in Poland – tracing moments in the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland, but focusing most on antisemitic policies and the growth of far right movements in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the resistance both before and during the Nazi occupation. I highlighted the courageous role of Bundists (Jewish Socialist) resisters and described the incredible bravery of the few hundred fighters aged 13-40 who led the three-week Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

The next day, Mary Brodbin led the group on a walk around the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where synagogues hundreds of years old survive intact. The Nazis did not bomb Krakow because they planned to turn it into a German city. Mary took us over the river to the walled ghetto where the Nazis forced Krakow’ Jews to resettle. Fragments of the ghetto wall – shaped by the Nazis to mimic Jewish gravestones – survive to this day. IMG_4077We saw the poignant artistic monument created at the Umschlagplatz (where Jews were assembled for deportation) of 70 large wooden chairs across this square, each one symbolising 1,000 pre-war Krakow Jews, who died in death camps, in the Krakow ghetto, or at the nearby slave labour camp. The walk ended at a museum on the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, telling the detailed story of how the Nazis subjugated and separated Krakow’s population and ghettoised the Jews before deporting them for extermination. That evening, a further talk by Donny Gluckstein, dissected the economics and politics of 1930s Europe, to analyse how the Holocaust could have been possible.

The most harrowing material evidence of mass murder is displayed at Auschwitz 1, but it is in the bleakness of Birkenau that the sheer scale of the industrial slaughter hits home. Beyond the railway line is a monument with the same inscription on stones in more than 20 languages, representing the nations from which Jews were transferred. We gathered by the stone inscribed in Yiddish, the language of most deportees, and collectively sang the Hymn of the Partisans written by Hirsh Glik who was murdered aged 22 years old. It ends with the words, “Mir zaynen do!” – We are here!

Our post-Auschwitz reflection session was followed the next morning by Lorna Brunstein, telling her mother’s life story. Esther Brunstein survived Auschwitz and Belsen but died in 2017. Lorna showed film clips of her mother re-living her traumas to educate young people about her experiences, through Anti-Nazi League events, school visits and TV interviews. Our final session in the early evening brought the past into the present. UAF’s Co-Convener, Weyman Bennett, was joined by Robert Ferguson, whose Jewish Hungarian mother survived the war but lost several relatives in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis assisted by Hungarian authorities. Together they illustrated the continuities in the way antisemitic ideology is weaponised, and the newer forces organising particularly around Islamophobia.

During that day news was filtering through from Warsaw about the planned nationalist march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, sponsored by the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party, a populist right wing party that has itself inflamed Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma and anti-refugee sentiments while also opposing gay rights and women’s rights.

In recent years, Independence Day marches have attracted a growing far right presence. Many municipalities are controlled though, by Civic Platform, a liberal-conservative opposition formation. Warsaw’s Mayor sought to ban far-right bodies and neo-Nazi-banners. This was overturned by the High Court. The PiS – the principal partner of Britain’s Conservative Party in its European Parliament group – then negotiated with the far-right’s representatives over their presence on the march. Government officials led the march and were separated by ranks of military police from the far-right groups including the National Radical Camp – who have revived the name of a virulently antisemitic organisation of the late 1930s – and All-Polish Youth, who combine ultra-nationalism especially with homophobia.

Contingents from the Italian Forza Nueva marched alongside them, as did Generation Identity activists from Britain, and a group wearing hi-vis jackets sporting the slogan “Free Tommy”. Young Polish soldiers were pictured marching close to the Polish Far Right contingents, as more than 200,000 people took to the streets. But the spirit of anti-45862146_2154956614569013_320453179311390720_ofascist resistance was also present in Warsaw as progressives held an alternative march and anti-fascist rave. This march was led by two banners in Yiddish and Polish held side by side, translating to “For your and our freedom”. This slogan was first used in a Polish rising against the Tsarist Empire in 1831, then revived in the Spanish Civil War by the Botwin Company of the Dombrowski Battalion, and later by Bundists in the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.

We came back from our visit determined to share the knowledge we had gained, and play a greater role in actively opposing racists and fascists, starting with the national unity march against racism and fascism in London today. Our discussions affirmed that we need to operate on an international level and also broaden the ways in which we challenge the far-right, recognising they don’t rely purely on street activity but are recruiting many adherents through online platforms. During the visit we formed a WhatsApp group to share reflections. On the day we departed, one participant who came with her son, messaged: “Thank you so much for an unforgettable experience… so well organised. Hope that Saturday is so big that we won’t bump into any of you.”

This article was also published in the Morning Star 17th November

One of the prophets?

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7209

Communist manifesto in Yiddish published by the Bund in Warsaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

deutscher

Isaac Deutscher

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

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

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

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