One Polish Jewish socialist’s journey through the Holocaust

This is from my speech at the Holocaust Memorial Day event, held this afternoon jointly by Hackney and Islington branches of Stand Up to Racism. The central feature of this event was a very moving film called Terezin: Refuge in Music, which tells the story of Alice Herz-Sommer and Coco Schumann, two extraordinary musicians from very different musician worlds, both of whom survived Terezín/Theresienstadt. It also reveals what really happened there between 1941-45 behind the Nazi’s propaganda facade

Ghettoes, concentration camps, death camps: these were all different phenomena within a system of oppression, brutality, slavery, and industrial murder, in Nazi occupied areas of Europe

Every life lost was of equal value whether they were Jews, Roma and Sinti Gypsies, Russian Prisoners of War, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialist, communists, trade unionists, Gays, disabled people or others. Many died from starvation and diseases in the brutal conditions in which they were kept, whether behind ghetto walls or in concentration camps.

Two peoples were marked out for complete extermination in an industrial process calmly and professionally designed by educated and skilled architects and engineers in offices in Germany, for a series of death camps in Poland: Around 6 million Jews and at least half a million Gypsies were murdered.

But even in the very worst circumstances during these times though there was resistance. That resistance took many forms cultural, spiritual, psychological, physical.

The film focuses, through interviews with survivors, on a particular kind of cultural resistance, in a location that was a hybrid of ghetto and concentration camp: a small town within a one-time military fortress.

ThereisenstadtIt was called Theresienstadt and was located in Czechoslovakia, about 40 miles from Prague. It was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945 – the last of all the camps to be liberated. In the period of the Holocaust, 33,000 of those incarcerated there died, mainly from disease and malnutrition, and yet the Red Cross visited and went away apparently satisfied that prisoners were being treated well.

The Nazis had a more permissive regime there, than at other camps, that fooled them. As it was meant to. Meanwhile, some 88,000 Jews were deported to death camps from Theresienstadt. Less than 4% of them survived the war.

I personally knew one of the survivors who was liberated from Theresienstadt having been there a relatively short time. His name was Perec Zylberberg.

My friend Perec was a Polish Jewish socialist who arrived in Theresienstadt at the end of April 1945, just days before its liberation and a couple of weeks before his 21st birthday. He had been travelling in inhuman conditions on a packed transport with hundreds of other Nazi prisoners over a few weeks. Many died en-route.

Perec was suffering from typhoid when he got to Theresienstadt, but his nightmarish experiences of suffering under the Nazis had begun shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.

Perec grew up in a working class socialist family in the city of Lodz in Poland. He had an older brother and younger sister.  His father was a textile worker and prominent activist in the Bund – a radical internationalist-minded movement of socialist Jews, especially active in trade union and political campaigns, and increasingly in anti-fascist work with the ever more threatening situation in Poland in the late 1930s. Poland already had a deeply antisemitic, very right wing government before the Nazis invaded.

In Lodz the first Nazi order to create a ghetto was made in December 1939. Over the subsequent months through processes of stigmatisation and discrimination, the Jewish community was separated from the non-Jewish population and ghettoized. A large community of ethnic Germans in Lodz were were relocated to replace longstanding Polish communities near the boundaries of the ghetto – which was completely sealed off – making solidarity efforts very difficult.

The responses of local Poles varied – some tried to help the Jews, despite the difficulties of doing so, others deliberately collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, but the majority just acquiesced and did not take a stand, did not take risks, to help the Jews who were being targeted.

One of our purposes today in educating people about that history must be to ensure that people are atuned to what is happening to others, and do not remain bystanders but become upstanders when they witness oppression and mistreatment, whoever the targets may be.

Inside the ghetto, a few political activists had clandestine radios. Perec did not, but his role was helping to distribute news from those that did about the progress of the war, through clandestine bulletins.

There were around 250,000 Jews in the Lodz ghetto and around 5,000 Roma.

At the end of 1943, deportations to the death camps began from ghetto. People were not told where they were being deported to or why. Perec was one of hundreds of young Jewish men rounded up but taken to the prison in the ghetto in December 1943. He was told he would soon be part of a slave labour group that was being formed for work outside the ghetto, but spent two to three months in the prison before being moved with others to a camp at a place called Warta near the city of Czenstochowa.

In January 1945, without any warning, they were hurriedly transported from Warta to a huge and notorious concentration camp called Buchenwald, which was near Weimar in Germany, Buchenwald had been set up in 1937. Its first detainees had been political prisoners before the war ­– communist anti-fascist resisters. Perec had already heard of Buchenwald before the war. In a memoir he wrote in the 1990s, he said this about Buchenwald:

“It became known the world over immediately after it was established… synonymous

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Prisoners in Buchenwald

with torture, inhumanity and bestiality. All of those designations were constantly confirmed by stories that came out of the German underground. We used to shudder at the very thought of that horrible place… It became a scare word everywhere.”

Camp prisoners were given numbers, sewn on uniforms and tattooed on their arms. Perec wrote: “ I was transformed into 113208, I was just a number. It was a vast camp… Barracks devoid of anything save the three-tiered bunks. Dark, cold and frightening.”

The constant flow of new prisoners also brought more news from outside. Perec learned there why he and many others had been hurriedly transported to Buchenwald. A day after they had been evacuated from Warta, the Nazis had fled as that camp was liberated by the Russians. He had missed out on being rescued and freed by 24 hours.

Buchenwald had prisoners from all over Europe. Perec had grown up in a movement that stressed belief in humanity and international solidarity, and despite the terrible circumstances at Buchenwald, he was pleased to meet Italian and Spanish anti-fascists.

It was a brutal and punishing regime there working 6.5 days a week for 12 hours a day on the most meagre rations.

Because we tend to focus on the mass murder during the Holocaust, there is insufficient attention to the system of slavery, and how that fits into the long history of slavery in the world, which includes the millions who suffered through the transatlantic slave trade, through Nazi slavery, and the estimated 30 million people in the world today trapped in conditions that are labelled contemporary slavery. Putting Nazi slavery in that context ought to encourage us to build solidarity and campaigning links between communities that have suffered, and still suffer, from slavery and its effects.

In April, Perec and many Buchenwald prisoners who had survived their slavery, were transported again, arriving at the end of April/beginning of May in Theresienstadt, suffering from typhoid. He didn’t know the precise date that he arrived there.  We know from records recovered after the war that between 20 and 30 April 1945 there were 12,555 new registrations there.  One survivor, called Aliseh Shek, who managed to keep a diary at the camp, noted on 20th April that 1,800 people from the camps arrived in twenty-five wagons, “stinking, infested cattle wagons, inside, stinking infested people, half alive, half dead or corpses.” Perec found himself in the camp hospital.

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Theresienstadt prisoners shortly after liberation

With Germany losing the war rapidly, and the Soviet Union’s Red Army getting closer, the Nazis prepared to abandon the camp in early May. First the Red Cross and then the Red Army took over the administration of the camp. Other allied soldiers arrived too. Their task was to look after the survivors, help them recover and help them find somewhere to go to start to rebuild their lives.

Perec remembers that summer of 1945 and various schemes being put forward to offer a new future to survivors. In his memoir he recalled a lot of activity by Zionist emissaries to persuade Jewish survivors to go to Palestine but he wrote:

“I was never enamoured of the idea of a Jewish state. It seemed unreal and carried the threat of Arab-Jewish confrontation. I thought this was an attempt to avoid fighting for your human rights wherever you lived.”

He heard rumours of a scheme to bring unaccompanied young refugees to UK, drawn up by the British government and a Jewish refugee committee in Britain, but candidates had to be 15 or under.

Perec had some relatives who had got to Britain before the war. He was 21 but physically small and after five years in the ghetto and slave labour camps living on the most meagre food, could pass for being younger. He registered for the scheme and put his age as 15.

He came to Britain in 1945. They were divided into groups and his group was at first taken to Windermere in the Lake District. Eventually he  settled in London‘s East End, where there was a large working class Jewish community. Over the next year he was able to establish that his sister had survived. She is known to people who were active in the Anti-Nazi League – her name is Esther Brunstein.

Perec made contact with other Bundist survivors, socialists and Labour Party figures, one of whom was Fenner Brockway, a great socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and fighter for equality, who was also well connected at the Home Office. Brockway interceded with the Home Office to help Esther get a permit to come to Britain as a domestic worker.

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Perec Zylberberg (front row, left), with other Bundists in London. His sister Esther is 3rd from left, front row

Perec lived in London until late 1950s then emigrated to Montreal in Canada  He stayed active there with the remnants of the Bund. He remained a socialist, anti-racist and anti-fascist till he died in 2007. In the 1980s I got to know his sister Esther very well and Perec used to come over to visit Esther for a few weeks every year or two. I used to meet them both. I often played chess and talked Bundist politics with Perec.

Today and tomorrow, politicians of all stripes in Britain will be saying meaningful words at Holocaust remembrance events. Those words will ring especially hollow from the mouths of the 350+ Tory politicians who, this week, callously voted down an amendment to guarantee the right of family reunion to a few thousand unaccompanied child refugees.

Just in December there were grounds for optimism of a major turnaround on refugee policy.  There was the  prospect of defeating the Tory government. Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell was committed to closing down the shameful detention centres, and to welcoming instead of oppressing refugees.

But Instead of bucking the trend, Britain chose the hard right Conservatives, and has fallen into line politically with the populist right wing forces that have been growing and dominating in Poland, Hungary, USA, Brazil, India and Israel.  Far-right movements remain strong in France, Spain, Italy , Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine

Old racisms and newer racisms co-exist and flourish in these countries with anti-Roma prejudice, antisemitism , Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, all finding free expression. For all the media attention alleging antisemitism against the Labour Party (and there have been some real cases), we know the real story that antisemitism is strongest in its natural home – the right and far-right of the political spectrum. But  anti-racists and antifascists do need to reflect very seriously on the new realities

Of course the openly fascist Far-Right forces will be emboldened – and we need to impede and confront them where we can, but those same forces can get much of what they want from the men and women in suits in the heart of the Conservative government. We will need to shift the balance of our activities much more into confronting government and state racism.

And we should note that the Johnson Government is not just wedded to racism but to authoritarianism too. Many talk about similarities between Johnson and Trump, but as much as Johnson looks west to America for his inspiration, he is looking east to Poland and Hungary where racism and authoritarianism are combining.

It is also clear in both Poland and Hungary that the populist right governments mobilise support among working class voters on sexism, homophobia, and promotion of the Christian family, as well as on old and new racism. These must be our arenas of struggle too.

And the place where we will have to do our work will shift from set-piece confrontations on the streets with far right thugs, to patient work to build as much solidarity from the ground up as we can inside our communities across the many divisions that our government will try to foster.

The fundamental lessons we must draw from the Holocaust are about being upstanders not bystanders; being bold in support of others as well as ourselves; resisting every attempt to shut down civil rights, human rights; and building, communicating and spreading a vision of the kind of world of freedom and progress and diversity that we can create that is the polar opposite of everything the Nazis sought.

Vindictiveness and faux outrage

Here are some names: James Cleverly, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak, Iain Duncan Smith… they have all been almost wetting themselves with excitement at the prospect of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reporting soon with a verdict that the Labour Party is “institutionally racist” (the EHRC having been egged on by the gaggle of very right wing Tories and Islamophobes that hypocritically call themselves the “Campaign Against Antisemitism” and the fanatically anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement).

If anyone is in any doubt about which party has called out and campaigned most strongly against institutional racism over many, many years, that is the Labour Party.
The vote that took place in Parliament this week was a fine illustration of what the Tories really believe, and just how selective is their faux-outrage about “Labour Party racism”.

Those names above were among the 348 (almost all Tories plus the occasional DUP member) who voted down the Dubs Amendment to the Brexit Withdrawal Bill which sought to guarantee the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with family living in the UK. The amendment was tabled by Jeremy Corbyn in absolute accordance with his lifelong support for refugee rights and total opposition to racism.

One of Boris Johnson’s very first acts as Prime Minister was to seek to remove this commitment that even the heartless director of the Hostile Environment policy, Theresa May, had accepted under duress.

But now with their majority secure – a result partly achieved through false Tory propaganda, shamefully echoed daily by mainstream news outlets, that identified the Tories as supposed defenders of Jews – they can revert back to the most blatant reactionary attitudes towards vulnerable minorities.

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87 year old campaigner Alf Dubs with Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of Labour’s Race and Faith manifesto during the 2019 Election campaign

This was the Tories showing their absolute contempt for the Czechoslovakian-born Jewish parliamentarian Lord Dubs, who has directly related his campaigning on this issue to the sanctuary he found as a 6-year-old child refugee through the Kindertransport.

The vote this week was as clear a display of the petty, vindictive, inhumane, anti-refugee racism of the Tory party as you will find – as well as their hypocrisy. Sickening and disgusting.

The message for Jeremy Corbyn on the other doorsteps

Two nights ago, I put up a post on Facebook that said:

“Such a warm and friendly informal gathering organised by Islington North Labour Party to show our appreciation to Jeremy for everything he has done in advancing a socialist challenge to the most hard right Tory Government we have faced, through the election campaign, and against the wave of hatred he and his family have experienced from the media. He was, as always, relaxed and affectionate but determined and ready for the struggles ahead. He was nicely dressed in his pin stripe ‘for the many’ jacket made and donated by a tailor in Bradford, and his Pablo Neruda t-shirt given to him by a comrade in Scotland!”

I added four photos to that post. A  couple of them are here:

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The post was inundated with “likes” (more than 1,200) and several hundred comments, from people I have never met.

There were many reasons why Labour lost the election, which included the failure to communicate in the simplest, repeated messaging, the core pledges of an excellent manifesto; over-estimating the challenge from the Lib-Dems; under-estimating the depth of alienation and sense of betrayal felt among Labour-voters in the Midlands and North-East who also voted leave in the referendum, which even the vision and promises in the manifesto failed to assuage. But ranking equally high, I believe higher still, was the effect of the most hateful campaign of character assassination and demonisation of Labour’s leader, which canvassers were confronted with on many doorsteps.

Despite that venomous, very-well-funded campaign, more than 10 million still people voted Labour on 12th December, more than the numbers who voted Labour in 2005, 2010 and 2015. The voices of those who were inspired and energised and whose values and desires were amplified  by Jeremy Corbyn deserve to be recorded. Here are some of their comments (anonymised). I hope they are a sign that the fight for a better world will continue in 2020 and beyond:

“I’m still reeling from whats happened. Everyone would have been so much happier with their lives had JC been elected.”

I will never forget meeting this man in my life. My daughter was homeless at the time. He had just become leader and I told him that I finally had hope for he future. He was amazing. He still is.”

What that man has been put through is a stain on our country. I’m so happy to see him amongst friends and still valued by the best of people.”

“We owe him so much, not least for always being true to his principles.

“I absolutely adore everything this man stands for. He brings love and hope”

“A very genuine, caring, loving man who is hated because of smears and lies.”

“Thank you JC for protecting our interest, for helping those in need, for standing on the right side humanity all your working life, you are amazing and we love your honesty, passion, humanity please do not leave us we still need you, now more than ever, love to you the Peoples Hero.”

I would love to get the chance to meet JC, give him a big squish and thank him so much for getting me interested in politics and opening my eyes to how important my vote is.”

I hope he knows how highly regarded he is and how emotionally attached so many of us are to him personally for withstanding so much for the hope of so many

“Thanks to you for your relentless passionate hard work. Your goodness and selflessness did shine on us giving hope. Your light exposed betrayal, lies, greed,and the darkness won. I was lucky to meet you and will always remember even though busy, you took time to talk to me. Thank you dear man.”

“I absolutely adore everything this man stands for. He brings love and hope”

I have nothing but disdain for the vile propaganda machine that vilified an Honest man, a Great Statesman, who fought his whole life for the underdog, against racism and inequality.

I feel like I know him. When people are awful to him it hurts me personally. He truly is a gem amongst humans.”

“The greatest Prime Minister we never had and one of the nicest men I ever met during his original leadership campaign in Nottingham. I will never forget him. keep fighting.

“My hero, for many different reasons.”

“The truth will out but not before a man of courage and peace will have been trashed by the few because he stood up for the many. I am disgusted by the way J.C. has been vilified by the tories and their troll media.”

“Love and respect to Jeremy Corbyn. He turned our whole family red.”

“A great man of the people. I am in my seventies and have never known any Labour leader so in tune with my thoughts!”

“A great man and a truly wonderful human being. he has given the party back its identity and socialist roots and for that I for one will be forever grateful.”

“I am a libdem and have great loving respect for Jeremy who was crucified by the media inc BBC. His honesty and compassion put Tories to shame.”

Good luck Jeremy. How you have stood up to the lies, smears and hatred is beyond belief.”

“Love you JC, very sad that you must go, but you have definitely earned the peace and quiet with your family after the media hounding. Don’t ever stop fighting, you’re a great man who I will always remember as the leader of our generation. I would have been proud to call you my prime minister.”

“Amazing and awesome, genuine, humble man.”

Why is it that every time I see him I want to cry. I admire this honourable man so much. I can’t bear that he will not be our leader for much longer. A cruel blow. I really want to tear the media apart.

“I would love to meet this man, he’s my hero, I am devastated by what happened at the election, the way they have vilified Corbyn, and continue to do so, he must know there are people that care, and voted for him, his family must know we are proud of him, he did not let us down, the establishment did, good luck Jeremy in whatever you choose for your future, I’m sure you will still be keeping up the fight, and we will be right there beside you, you of all people didn’t deserve this!”

“Lovely to see him surrounded by love. Glad he’s still wearing that suit! I think he looks great in it. Love you Jeremy.”

So honoured to have had the opportunity to talk to him on 25 Nov about Labour’s fantastic offer to us Waspi women. He will always be the best PM we never had. Wonderful man. We must carry on in his honour.”

It’s just heartbreaking to see and hear how he’s been treated! I’ve cried…many times.”

“Our one chance of decency, honesty offered by a man of such kindness & integrity has been wrenched from.our hands! As a family we are bereft, but we remain loyal, because Mr.Corbyn is loyal. I am so ashamed of the Labour MPs who betrayed him, they know who they are as we do. They will NEVER reach HIS HEIGHTS. My greatest respect to you Mr.Corbyn for being such a wonderful human being”

“A great man vilified by the terrified rich.”

“I just don’t know how he has remained so cool despite the disgusting gutter attacks on him. Inspirational.”

You Sir, are a legend. You gave us hope and compassion! Enjoy your Christmas with your lovely family.”

“He may have stepped down but the movement continues. They can take out a man but they can never silence the message.”

“He did us proud putting up with the shit from the media for the last 4 years and stood up to the Tories and their bashing of those on social security and immigrants. He brought me into the party and gave me HOPE that no one or party have ever done in my life and despite being beaten by the Tories I am not ready to give up I want to continue and resist.”

When Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn lost the election, we all lost. Those who believed the lies and were celebrating last week, will be sold out by a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. In time, they too will find that they lost as well.

I don’t know any of the people who wrote these words on my facebook page that I have quoted here – but now I feel I know them all! Let’s take a break over Chanukah/Christmas/Winter Solstice/ Kwaanza and New Year but come back fired up for the struggles where I know we will find Jeremy Corbyn at our side.

 

 

Seize the moment!

In the final week of the dirtiest British election campaign I can remember, the moment that Labour has been looking for has arrived. The Prime Minister, whose lies have flowed constantly, whose mass deceptions have been faithfully promoted rather than challenged by a supposedly independent mainstream media who have conspired to protect Johnson from scrutiny as much as possible, was finally exposed by one journalist not prepared to obediently toe the line.

Johnson’s completely amoral attitude on the NHS – the key issue that Labour has been pushing on most strongly through the campaign – was revealed to millions when he disgracefully pocketed the journalist’s phone after refusing to look at the image of a four-year-old boy from Leeds with suspected pneumonia forced to sleep on the floor of the local hospital due to a lack of beds.

The utter venality of the Tories’ relationship with the most senior political journalists such as Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston was laid bare in the aftermath. The intellectually challenged Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, made an unscheduled trip to the hospital and was confronted verbally by a few protesters. Kuenssberg and Peston quickly put out reports that they claimed came to them from “senior Tory sources”, that a member of Hancock’s team had been punched by Labour supporters.

No checking, no questioning of whether this might be simply an attempt to distract from Johnson’s earlier appalling behaviour, just instant and blatant repetition of a lie – a lie that enabled a wider set of right wing journalists to spread a completely false narrative of paid Labour protesters displaying thuggery.

Video evidence forced Kuenssberg and Peston into embarrassing apologies. By late last night, more than 7 million people (hopefully many of them voters) had viewed that video, and as one tweeter commented – more than the numbers nationally who regularly watch the Queen’s Christmas speech!

In 2017 Labour’s surge in support owed much to its bold and distinctive manifesto but that was helped to a considerable extent by the mainstream media actually heeding the legal demands on them for formal political impartiality in the election period. Of course, that “impartiality” didn’t magically replace the fundamental anti-socialist ideological framing that had become the standard setting over many years, but in 2017, Labour’s efforts during the election period were widely reported on. And, maybe because of media workers’ utter exasperation with the pathetic and robotic campaign by Theresa May, Labour’s key spokespeople were given many opportunities to express themselves without constant interruptions.

This time round there has been no pretence at implementing impartiality rules. The broadcasting corporations are clearly hoping they will get no more than a slap on the wrist after they help to achieve the result they clearly desire. The negative, accusatory,  attitude of interviewers of Labour politicians has been plain to see. Labour clearly has to take interview opportunities when it can, in the full knowledge that they will be interrupted and diverted from their main points, and challenged with irrelevancies and issues deliberately misunderstood and blown out of all proportion – not least by what is described completely falsely  as “Labour’s antisemitism crisis”.

There is no crisis of antisemitism in the Labour Party. There are incidents, usually OTT social media comments re Palestine/Zionism which consciously or unconsciously use antisemitic tropes. They involve a tiny number of Labour members, and a wider set of individuals who are not Labour members, some of whom self-identify as supporters of  Jeremy Corbyn. Labour has a responsibility to deal with those members, however small their numbers, who have made antisemitic comments. In the first instance that must be  through education.

But there is definitely a huge crisis of racism and tolerance of racism in our country. The people  paying the highest price for that at street level are Muslim and refugee communities. Those paying the price of racism at an institutional level are principally Caribbean-born members of the Windrush Generation and their families, as well young black people seeking work, or wishing simply to be treated fairly by the police. Those paying the price for the menacing activities of a splintered but emboldened far right certainly include the Jewish community, as antisemitic attacks rise and far right antisemitic tropes spread virally through social media.

All of these different forms of racism have been massively aided by a Tory Government that has lurched to the right not only in recent months under Johnson who has made little attempt to hide his personal racism but under the arrogant upper-class racism of Cameron and the petty vengeful racism of Theresa “Hostile Environment” May. Reports from many areas suggest that Islamophobia is commonplace in Tory parlance. And a number of Tory candidates are under investigation right now for antisemitism.

While any antisemitism stands in complete contradiction to Labour Party values and Labour’s record of campaigning for equality and non-discrimination, Tory antisemitism fits well within its long tradition of bigotry on class and ethnic lines, its decades-long resistance to equality legislation as “political correctness gone mad”. Added to this are its alliances today with populist right wing antisemitic and Islamophobic governments and parties in Europe (especially in Poland and Hungary) and Donald Trump, and Johnson’s open links with the white supremacist and antisemite Steve Bannon.

If Labour fails to prevent a Tory majority on Thursday, one factor will be the complicity of individuals, mostly non-Jewish, in key positions across the media. They have been aided by the right wing of the Labour Party, including leaders of the Jewish Labour Movement, alongside the right wing of the Jewish community, who know better but have decided that a victory for the racist Johnson and his far right friends is preferable to a radical left-wing Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Government.

Labour knows the situation with the mainstream media and has directed huge resources to its social media campaigning, which will be particularly influential with younger voters whose ranks have been swollen very considerably just before the deadline for voter registration. The establishment war on Corbyn has been unremitting but it cannot prevent key Labour messages getting through. The assumption by the Tories that they would be able to make this an election purely about Brexit was successfully punctured by Labour in the first few days of the campaign. Sky TV’s insistence on branding all its election coverage since the day the election was announced with the banner headline “The Brexit Election” daily looks more ridiculous.

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Labour must seize the moment and the momentum it has with its central campaign focus on the NHS and other key themes such as the Climate Emergency/Green Industrial Revolution and the ending of austerity. In these final days it is absolutely imperative that these are communicated not simply as strong, well-reasoned arguments but with as much passion and anger as possible. It must reprise its powerful arguments about the rigged system, whose interests the Tories are trying to protect, and must continue to proclaim that Labour is on the side of the 99% who have everything to gain from a Labour  victory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pogromnacht in Germany and Austria and an alien scare in Britain

“It is felt by many people that we hear too much about the troubles of the Jews in Germany… They are an anomaly… an undigested particle which causes disorder… they are of Oriental origin, yet having lived for long in Europe they claim to be treated as Western people and usually the claim succeeds… There is the belief that Jews possess a great and occult power. And certainly the Jews must bear some of the responsibility for keeping this belief alive.”

These are the words of George Malcolm Thomson, a widely respected newspaper columnist, writing in the pro-Conservative Evening Standard in the summer of 1938. He claimed that that they possess “an international organisation.” and are “quick to use their influence over opinion, their power over money to help their fellow Jews”. He bemoaned the rise of Jewish refugees “who pour into Britain” warning that, “if we get overloaded with Jews there may be a reaction against them.”

A few weeks earlier, another pro-Conservative paper, the Sunday Express, published a major article about the position of Jews in Nazi Germany. It acknowledged that their position was worsening but speculated that antisemitism had grown there because German Jews had become too prosperous. The Express indicated its sympathy with anti-Jewish measures that the Nazis had taken. But it returned at the end to its real focus: Britain, claiming that: “Just now there is a big influx of foreign Jews into Britain… They are over-running the country”. Over at the Daily Mail, this paper that had openly supported the British Union of Fascists, especially during 1934, and regularly reported Hitler in positive terms, chimed in with the headline: “German Jews pouring into this country”. They were praising and repeating the words of a magistrate, Herbert Metcalfe, who had made an anti-refugee outburst while overseeing a trial concerning a street altercation between Jews and fascists. He sentenced three Jews to six months hard labour with a recommendation of deportation.

Despite the ominous headlines, in comparison with the volume of asylum applications, relatively few Jewish refugees were actually permitted to enter Britain at that time. The events that occurred 81 years ago in November 1938, increased the clamour among a more liberal segment of society to deal with an obvious humanitarian crisis, but they were repeatedly drowned out by the wave of hostility to refugees, especially Jewish refugees, in the pro-Conservative press.

holocaust_kristallnacht_index_copy.jpg__300x241_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleToday is the anniversary of the horrific events in Germany and Austria that took place over two days and nights on 9/10 November 1938, initially labelled Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass”, but renamed by German anti-fascists as Reichsprogromnacht. Over these 48 hours Nazi stormtroopers led a wave of violent attacks on Jewish people and property which many ordinary citizens participated in or cheered from the sidelines. Some 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were smashed and looted, 267 synagogues were destroyed, 91 Jews were killed, and thousands were taken from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps. During those two days and two nights the Nazi regime’s goal of completely removing Jews from German life, underwent a major step change.

In that period there were few individuals willing to put their head above the parapet and confront the anti-alien position head on. One was a former Liberal MP Sir John Hope Simpson who wrote a piece, also published by the Evening Standard, entitled: “Open the Gates”. In it he argued that, “if Great Britain were yet to announce that she were willing to accept one hundred thousand… she would set a worthy example which other nations… could scarcely fail to follow.” Interestingly Hope Simpson also took a very critical view of Zionist practice in Palestine in the 1930s, observing that, “The most lofty sentiments are ventilated in public meetings and in Zionist propaganda” but “the Jewish National Fund and other organs of the movement did not uphold or embody a vision of cooperation or mutual benefit with the Arabs”.

As we remember the events of Reichspogromnacht, it is of course sad to reflect that the stance against refugees in the pro-Tory press continues to be characterised by, at best, suspicion of refugees, but more usually just utter inhumanity. The architects and main perpetrators of the deliberately created Hostile Environment towards migrants and refugees – David Cameron, Theresa May, Amber Rudd –  have all stepped down from their positions, or been replaced, but the policy itself has not yet been superseded. The victims of that “environment” from the Caribbean community still chase after justice. For some it is already too late. Deported to destitution, some British citizens from the Caribbean met with an early death.

And what a contrast between the humanity of a Liberal such as Sir John Hope Simpson,

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Sir John Hope Simpson

and the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, who, in coalition with the Tories, repeatedly voted for every single piece of legislation that constituted that Hostile Environment.

The chink of light for those voters for whom attitudes towards migrants and refugees is of paramount importance in deciding which way to vote, however, is the debate on immigration that took place on the floor of the Labour Party conference at the end of September this year. That debate was brimming with humanity towards and empathy with migrants, and several delegates who were themselves migrants contributed to it.

The policy that delegates passed was refreshingly radical. It embodied the shift in attitudes that longstanding anti-racist activists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have enabled since 2015: it declared that “Free movement, equality and rights for migrants, are socialist values and benefit us all.” It pledged to oppose current Tory immigration legislation; campaign for free movement, equality and rights for migrants; reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business, and number caps/targets, close all detention centres, and scrap all Hostile Environment measures.

It is a policy that should be positively welcomed by all who understand the real meaning of Reichspogromnacht and the atmosphere that was present in the press and politics here at that time. And if those in leadership positions of the Jewish community removed their blinkers, and took a few moments off from their propagandist war against Labour’s leadership, they might see some principles that large sections of the Jewish community, in common with other minority communities, would appreciate and support.

 

 

 

 

Who’s afraid of Jeremy Corbyn?

With an election around the corner, accusations, allegations and inferences of antisemitism have hit the headlines of media outlets once more, especially those known more for their sensationalism than their serious commitment to combating this evil.

IMG_1479Last Thursday evening I had the privilege of being among a group of 60 people who genuinely cared about antisemitism. They were people so committed to deepening their knowledge about it, that they had travelled to Poland to attend a 4-day educational programme that included a day at Auschwitz/Birkenau, where we could see at first hand the harrowing evidence of what European antisemitism led to in the 1930s and ’40s.

From 6th form students to pensioners our group spanned several generations and ethnic backgrounds, Asian, African, South American, European. There were at least seven Jewish people there. One among them had two relatives who stepped off the cattle truck when it arrived at Birkenau in 1944: her mother who survived, was later transferred to a slave labour camp in Germany and then Belsen from where she was eventually liberated; and her grandmother who was exterminated most likely within hours of disembarking at Birkenau. Another of the Jewish participants lost her grandmother there and probably an aunt too.

The majority of the participants on this trip – organised by the campaigning group Unite Against Fascism – were trade unionists, and many of them were also Labour Party members and activists. The same Labour Party that has had its name dragged through the mud by the right-wing media, and others with easy access to that media, who casually libel the Party from top to bottom as antisemites.

I am Jewish and also a Labour Party member. I gave the keynote presentation on that first evening that would frame our visit, talking about the features and challenges of Jewish life in Poland especially in the frenetic period between the two world wars. I gave graphic examples of the virulent antisemitism in Polish society that was escalating through the 1930s. I described the shock brought about by the Nazi invasion and occupation, the policies to enforce the separation of a very longstanding segment of the population through the creation of ghettos, and I highlighted the courageous resistance that took place in indescribable conditions inside the ghettos and by Partisans outside.

But just before I spoke, we watched a video message that had been filmed in one of theScreen Shot 2019-11-06 at 17.22.31 busiest weeks of Jeremy Corbyn’s year. The election had only just been called but he found time to record a message to wish our group well on our visit. This was not electioneering. This was not a social media post to be broadcast by Labour’s Press Team for sharing far and wide. It was simply a private, personal, heartfelt message to our group, from someone who has spent their life confronting racism and fascism and posing an alternative to hatred.

“Your visit to Auschwitz,” Corbyn told us, “will be a poignant experience. I have been there myself.” He described antisemitism as an “evil cult that has to be destroyed in all forms.” He recalled a visit he made, in summer this year, “to a small Jewish museum in Romania next to a railway line, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were rounded up in 1944 and deported to their deaths.” He closed by calling on us to “unite as people to say we will not tolerate racism in any form in our society, be it antisemitism, be it Islamophobia, be it homophobia or any other kind of discrimination.”

I would have dearly loved Rabbi Jonathan Romain to have been a fly-on-the-wall on that first night of our programme. In general terms, Rabbi Romain has been an intelligent and relatively liberal figure among Britain’s rabbinical establishment, welcoming partners in mixed marriages, urging them to play a part in Jewish life; critical of the separatist logic of faith schools, urging schools instead to reflect Britain’s modern multicultural society; supportive of same-sex marriage, and so on. Yet he has fallen hook, line and sinker for the right-wing propaganda that has thrown wild and unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitism at Jeremy Corbyn.

Screen Shot 2019-11-06 at 17.25.56Rabbi Romain wrote a piece for The Times last Friday where he acknowledged that it was not the task of rabbis to suggest which way their congregants should vote, but added: “This needs to change for the coming election. The antisemitism that has come to the fore within the Labour Party during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn means that normal considerations are superseded. It is astonishing that a mainstream party should have such associations, and that the evidence of it is serious enough for Labour to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission… I shall therefore be advising my congregants, and anyone else who cares to ask, to vote for whichever party in their constituency is most likely to stop Labour from winning that seat, even if they would never normally support that party.”

To make his statement even more pointedly, he added: “This is not a stance against Labour in perpetuity but against Corbyn-led Labour and will be abandoned the moment he is no longer at the helm.”

As has been all too often the case with such statements from high-profile critics of Corbyn, we are in an evidence-free-zone. Innuendo and circular arguments are treated as sufficient by the mainstream media. Romain, evidently, is prepared to give a clean bill of health to any anti-Labour forces that might beat a Labour candidate. In most Labour marginals across the country their closest rivals are the Tories – the party that created the Hostile Environment, a shameful initiative that has devastated the lives of longstanding Caribbean communities, and continues to act against migrant and refugee communities, not least through a network of oppressive migrant detention centres. This is the party led by Boris Johnson who has been widely, and rightly, condemned, not just by minority communities, but across the board, for his racist remarks about “Picanninies with watermelon smiles” and his ridiculing of Muslim women as looking like “letter boxes or bank robbers”.

As for those who consider themselves seriously committed to anti-racism but have fallen for the shallow arguments about Labour’s “tarnished” reputation around antisemitism, Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 12.30.48and believe that their Liberal Democrat candidate might just win out over their Labour candidate, they need to understand what the Lib Dems record was in coalition. It was not just the cruel austerity measures that the Lib Dems voted for, with their disproportionate impact on minority ethnic communities, but every abhorrent aspect of David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s Hostile Environment policy too. Swinson & Co may not have come up with the idea of “Go home” vans, but they consistently voted for every single measure that built and reinforced that system of racist treatment entailed by that Hostile Environment.

Some of us with longer memories might recall the role of the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s where Lib Dem leaflets linked the presence of Black and Asian people with the housing shortages, giving further credibility to the overtly racist BNP who were polling well. Other leaflets distributed by the Lib Dems accused Labour of diverting funds towards the area’s Asian communities. In the end the BNP won that seat, and the Lib Dems locally were widely seen as playing a despicable and racist role.

I don’t know if any participants on our trip took any notice of Rabbi Romain’s article in The Times. I am fairly sure that none of them give credence to the pro-Tory outpourings of the Sunday Telegraph. On the morning after our day at Auschwitz, I made the mistake of looking at twitter, where I saw an image of the front-page Telegraph headline: “Jews will leave if Corbyn wins”. This is not the first time this ridiculous claim has been made, a claim greeted with derision and disbelief from other Jewish people on our trip – people who have a a very good reason to be extremely sensitive to antisemitism.

Was it the Telegraph itself that authored this message? No, they were quoting James Cleverly, Chair of the Conservative Party, one-time chair of London’s Waste and Recycling Board, which is probably the most appropriate body to deal with a front page story such as this. It has certainly been recycled, and is full of shit!

D8NhfDqXUAEprpaThe clear inference in this and similar stories is that Jewish people who fear a Corbyn-led government that is accused of antisemitism will pack their bags and head to the welcoming arms of the Jewish state, Israel, where they will supposedly feel safer. In fact, year on year since Corbyn became party leader, figures confirm that fewer British Jews have been moving to Israel. But the more serious point contained in this suggestion is the not-so-subtle antisemtism of both the Telegraph and Cleverly.

In essence they argue that a Corbyn government will launch a vengeful attack on wealth. Those most committed to private enterprise fear being squeezed by a radical Labour government, and the suggestion seems to be that the Jewish community, often stereotyped as an overwhelmingly rich, business-orientated community, will especially feel that pinch. It is an argument that has been rehearsed by the very right wing Jewish Chronicle editor, Stephen Pollard, who gave space in December 2018 for an appalling article in his paper by Alex Brummer with a headline you might have expected to see in a fascist journal: “The thought of Jeremy Corbyn as PM has Jewish investors running for the hills”.

Three months earlier, Pollard himself, had attacked a tweet by Jeremy Corbyn in which Corbyn said that the people who caused the financial crash of 2008 “call me a threat. They’re right. Labour is a threat to a damaging and failed system rigged for the few.” Pollard tweeted: “This is ‘nudge, nudge, you know who I’m talking about don’t you? And yes I do. It’s appalling” In response I tweeted: “Stephen Pollard and Jeremy Corbyn. One of them seems to think all bankers are Jews. Clue: it is not Jeremy Corbyn.”

But when I read this drivel, stereotyping the Jewish community as capitalists, I think of the many Jews I know well who work in the health service and caring professions who will be boosted by the prospect of a Labour government that is committed to funding their sectors rather than selling them off. I think of the struggling Jewish single parents and pensioners I know, and unemployed Jews, who have every reason to welcome a Corbyn-led government that would boost welfare payments rather than cut them, and would undertake other serious anti-poverty measures. I think of Jews I know who are users of mental health services, whose provision has been cut to the bone by the Tories. I think of elderly Jewish acquaintances living in the East End for whom repairs to their council housing and a well resourced health service are very high on their agendas. These people need a Labour government to be returned on December 12th as much as as their non-Jewish counterparts.

On the same day that I read the Telegraph lead story, I was cheered by seeing announcements of two new initiatives by young Jews in Britain, one called “Vashti media” which is advertising itself as a “a microphone for the Jewish left”; and the other called “Jews Against Boris” – whose politics I think are self-evident.

We concluded our visit to Poland with two meetings on the Sunday morning, one of 238c2866-7317-4a1c-901e-d5d38dce2ea9which was addressed by a Andrzej Zebrowski, a Warsaw-based socialist and anti-fascist. He described the gains both of the left and the far right in the recent Polish elections, while acknowledging that the populist-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) had consolidated its control. He spoke of the mobilising efforts of anti-fascists to counter next weekend’s annual nationalist march through Warsaw which in recent years has been flooded with far-right activists.

As we sat in a cab driving to the airport on Monday, we passed a wall graffitied with a crossed out Star of David in a circle. The populist right and far right in Poland, and other countries central and eastern Europe, have been drawing support from right wingers in Western Europe including Britain’s Tory Party. Those elements in Britain that are leading the false charge against Jeremy Corbyn, as if he were some sort of threat to Jews in Britain, need to stop playing dangerous factional political games and face up to where the threats are really coming from.

 

The challenge of Hate Crime

Contribution to a workshop on “Hate Crime – Victories and Challenges: unity against Islamophobia, antisemitism and LGBT+phobia” at the International Conference organised by Stand Up To Racism, 19 October, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 08.47.44In order to look at tackling hate crime today, I want to start with a moment and place in history when hate crimes were escalating against a specific community: April 1970. Bethnal Green, East London. A small Pakistani immigrant community (half of them Bengalis from Sylhet) found themselves under physical attack from skinheads – an angry phenomenon emerging among impoverished, alienated working class youth. At first the skinheads were not politically affiliated, though many later supported the Far Right.  Some others supported SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice)  but, in 1970 in Bethnal Green, they targeted those they considered vulnerable. Their early victims included two Pakistani hospital workers beaten up on the street as they left their workplace one evening.

The Observer newspaper heartlessly wrote: “Any Asian careless enough to be walking the streets alone at night is a fool.” Days later, a 50-year-old kitchen porter, Tosir Ali, was attacked by two skinheads on his way home from work.  They slashed his throat. He died from his injuries.

A community meeting was called, attended mainly by the Asian community, but also by other local antiracists. One of them was a veteran Jewish anti-fascist, Communist Party activist, and local councillor, Solly Kaye, who fought against antisemites locally in the 1930s: he told this meeting something very important:

“The purveyors of racialism can be defeated by united action… it would be the greatest

Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 08.54.24

Solly Kaye, 1930s

error and worse, if the struggle were left to the immigrant organisations to bear the brunt of the fight… the fight against racial discrimination and violence is part of the fight for a new and better society”

if we unpick that, it has really important lessons for us all right now:

• the responses to hate crime must be wider than the community directly attacked. Their fight is our fight – we must support each other.

• That solidarity is not only the responsibility of other minorities. It is the responsibility of all who want a better society.

• It tells people: don’t be by-standers when others are attacked, be up-standers.

• It explains that violence and discrimination are intimately linked. What gets categorised under “hate” is actually more than that. Very often it is a defence of real or assumed privilege, that maintains everyday hierarchies, everyday discrimination, everyday oppression.

• Hate crimes take place within a framework of privilege and power.

I would add that immediate responses  must provide real, tangible support for direct victims of hate crimes, meeting the real needs of individuals and communities. They should not be tokenistic or formulaic responses. They must leave those victims feeling supported and empowered and strengthen the communities affected.

In some ways, the term “hate crime” is too much of a catch-all. We need a more sophisticated language to counter different kinds of negative actions in different ways. We need to distinguish – from each other – responses to negative social media comment, specific threats to individuals, general threats to communities, physical attacks.

But it is also crucial to recognise that discrimination, whether on skin colour, faith, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or based on negative stereotypes, can be enacted quite coldly and routinely, without the outburst of emotions implied by hate. The impact of routine discrimination should command our attention just as much as the dramatic outbursts of hate.

We also need to acknowledge some difficult areas. I try to stay aware of levels of hate crime against different minorities, but pay special attention to 6-monthly briefings published on antisemitism in Britain.

These show that there have there have regularly been upwards of 1,000+ reported antisemitic incidents a year in Britain in recent years, and numbers are growing. They are mainly carried out in the two Jewish population centres – London and Manchester. They include verbal abuse and threats, physical attacks, especially on distinctive looking ultra-orthodox Jews, attacks on Jewish cemeteries and sometimes synagogues, and also social media comment varying from negative stereotypes to outright hatred, frequently including Holocaust denial. Incidents that also involve verbal abuse often reference Hitler and/or the Holocaust.

Where perpetrators of attacks are identified, they tend to be white, far right, which is no surprise, but a significant minority of antisemitic attacks in Britain today are carried out by individuals and groups who are themselves victims of racism. And they just as avidly reference Hitler and the Holocaust. We have an educational challenge, to learn much more about each others experiences and oppressions, and a political challenge for us to build effective alliances

It is unrealistic to think that we can guard against all hate crimes but we can commit ourselves to learning about the kinds of hate crimes that are taking place in our communities, in our workplaces, and we can  constantly raise other people’s awareness, to ensure that we make our spaces as hostile as possible for the haters.

 

Groomed by the Far Right

Local-residents-mourn-victims-of-Halle-shooting-near-the-synagogueTen days ago my partner and myself were travelling by train from Brussels to Leipzig when we were shocked to read on our phones about the attempted terror attack on a synagogue in Halle – about 25 miles from Leipzig. We passed through Halle Station on the way. That evening in Leipzig there was a lockdown around the station and lots of roadblocks. People were unsure if the murderer acted alone or had accomplices who were still a danger in the region.

For those trying to understand where 21st century antisemitism fits within Far Right ideology, this event provided a very chilling example.

Far-Right ideologues are obsessed with replacement theories that see white European being replaced by Muslims from Arab and African countries through mass migrations, and refugees, compounded by low birth rates among white Europeans. Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban talks of “saving Europe’s Christian identity” from “Muslim invaders”. Others talk of “white genocide”.

For hard-core replacement theorists, agency does not rest with the migrants themselves but with global elites led by Jews, who allegedly conspire towards this goal. Orban blames the wealthy Hungarian Jew, George Soros.  Neo-Nazi groups refer to ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government).

Screen Shot 2019-10-19 at 19.45.10At Charlottesville in Trump’s America, in 2017, where fringe white supremacists were emboldened, hundreds of neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us”.

Many anti-racists who struggle to keep up with all this, have their own replacement theories – believing that certain groups who were targeted in the past, have been replaced by others as main targets. But that is a misreading. The fascists don’t replace targets – they accumulate them. Antisemitism rides alongside Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and anti-Black racism

The killer in Halle failed to force his way into a synagogue to massacre the dozens of people praying there. Security cameras inside the synagogue monitored what was happening outside. They barricaded the doors.

In frustration he killed a random woman who was standing nearby, then shot up a kebab-shop owned by a Turkish Muslim, killing a 20 year old white customer.

As usual in these kinds of incidents, the media speculated about the perpetrator’s mental health or  said he was a “lone wolf”. But such perpetrators are groomed by a far right system, where ideological arguments are convincingly spread through internet channels. Since Anders Breivik massacred socialist youth in Norway in 2011, there have been a succession of terror attacks on Jews and Muslims following similar patterns. In each case the perpetrators left manifestos explaining their actions. In this case a live-stream video too.

The Halle perpetrator wrote his manifesto in English – to reach a wide audience. It began: “My name is Anon and I think the Holocaust never happened.” His stated goal that day was “to kill anti-whites, if possible Jews”.

He considered attacking a mosque or an antifascist cultural centre, but ultimately drove 45 minutes to a synagogue. He chose Yom Kippur because, he said, “even non-religious Jews visit the synagogue on this date.”

If he had attacked a mosque and even killed 100 Muslims, he felt it wouldn’t make a difference because, he wrote, “on a single day more than that are shipped to Europe. The only way to win is to cut off the head of ZOG – the kikes. If I fail and die but kill a single Jew it was worth it. if every white man kills just one we win.”

He identified mass immigration and feminism as enemies, arguing that “feminism is the cause of decline in birth rates in the West.” But he concluded: “The root of all these problems is the Jew.” His dynamic alignment of prejudices sat within a world view that followed a very clear internal logic.

But for us it is important to be aware of all the elements within that world view. In both Poland and Hungary, working class communities, especially in rural areas and small towns, are being mobilised on anti-feminism, homophobia, and defence of the Christian family just as surely as they are through racist rhetoric against immigrants and refugees. We have to have the arguments and alliances in place to counter them. We cannot let them win. No Pasaran!

Speech made in the first plenary session at the International Conference organised by Stand Up To Racism on 19th October 2019

Flickers of light and North London elites

For those members of the media/commentariat who have spent the last four years largely looking in the wrong place for the presence of antisemitism in British politics, the week leading up to Friday’s anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street might just have provided a flicker of light for them, encouraging them to look elsewhere.

methode-times-prod-web-bin-cae0f7b4-ae4a-11e9-b657-11944f524f2aOn Tuesday, Priti Patel, the hard-right Home Secretary,  an immigrant herself, spoke out forcefully against immigration and “freedom of movement” and lambasted those she thinks encourage it. “This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the North London metropolitan liberal elite,” she said.

Some of us are all too familiar with that code. It was the kind of slur thrown around by the Pro-Tory tabloids when Ed Miliband became the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party back in 2010. They referred to him then as a “North London geek”, who wants to  serve “the North London metropolitan elite”. They ran headlines questioning his patriotic credentials, accusing his father, an “east European refugee from Nazism” (they don’t like to use the ‘J” word) of being insufficiently grateful to his adopted land of refuge. And then came the pictures and headlines illustrating his alleged awkwardness with a bacon sandwich. Yes, it’s OK, we get it.

Priti Patel mixes in unsavoury right wing circles. Back in February she and Jacob Rees-Mogg were taking to twitter to express their fulsome support for Turning Point UK. This  new extremely right-wing youth group  is an offshoot of an American group of the same name that has links to conspiracy theorists, and characterises its enemy as “Cultural Marxism”.

You might have heard that term before from the lips of Suella Braverman, Tory MP for Fareham, in a speech that even brought criticism from the very pro-Conservative, and obsessively anti-Corbyn, Board of Deputies of British Jews. “Cultural Marxism” is a hate target of “intellectual” far-right circles. It signifies for them followers of the ideology of Frankfurt School Marxists – mainly Jews – whom they depict as conspiring to undermine Western (capitalist) civilization. The Board of Deputies asked her to pledge not to use this phrase again.

Joining Priti Patel in her support for Turning Point UK was the execrable Jacob Rees-Mogg. His contribution this week, the day before the Cable Street anniversary was to repeat another favourite far-right antisemitic trope, used frequently in Hungary, Poland and the USA in particular. He accused George Soros of combining money-power and political reach, as the “Remoaner funder in chief”. This followed his intervention on 3rd September when he directly referenced conspiracy theories by describing two Jewish politicians, Oliver Letwin and John Bercow, as “Illuminati who are taking the powers to themselves.”

Rees-Mogg is not the only Tory to indulge in Soros conspiracy theories. Theresa May’s rees-mogg_topHatformer close adviser Nick Timothy, now working as a Daily Telegraph columnist beat Rees-Mogg to it in February 2018, when he accused Soros of a secret plot to stop Brexit. When May stepped down, she rewarded Timothy with a CBE. Antisemitism is certainly no bar to honours in today’s Toryland.

Rees-Mogg has form with the Far-Right, having accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker of the Ultra-Conservative Traditional Britain Group (TBG) a few years back. Rees Mogg spent the evening sitting amiably next to TBG’s vice president, Gregory Lauder Frost, who has also amiably shared platforms with prominent Holocaust deniers such as David Irving and Ernst Zundel. On other matters Lauder-Frost has stated that “we owe Africa nothing. It owes us… for lifting it out of barbarism”. He was once unwittingly taped by an undercover reporter, as he described Vanessa Feltz as a “Fat Jewish slag” and Doreen Lawrence as a “n****”.

The TBG’s website, which Rees Mogg would surely have examined as minimal due diligence before accepting an invitation, recommends the works of fascist ideologues Oswald Mosley and Julius Evola. It also promotes books by “race scientist” Roger Pearson who defends “Aryan” racial superiority, and encourages members to read The Great Betrayal by Ian Smith of the old racist Rhodesian regime.

It wasn’t long ago that antisemitism was more openly expressed by Conservatives and many Jews treated the party with deep suspicion. When Michael Howard – born Michael Hecht to Rumanian Jewish immigrants – set off to build his political career, he had to travel to dozens of Tory associations before he found one willing to to tolerate a Jewish Tory candidate.

When the deeply anti-immigrant Margaret Thatcher promoted three very assimilated and patriotic British Jews to her cabinet in the 1980s, she was sternly rebuked by Tory elders, not least by one time premier, Harold MacMillan, who complained that her Cabinet had “more old Estonians than old Etonians”.

With the rise of Boris Johnson we have someone in Number 10 more racist and right wing than Thatcher herself. Following his brief stint as Foreign Secretary, he will be perfectly at home with the disturbing alliances that the Tories have cemented over the last 10 years, which have barely raised more than a whisper of concern from the mainstream media.  These are the alliances with antisemitic governments in Poland and Hungary, and with far right nationalist parties in Latvia and Bulgaria, and, more recently in Italy and Sweden. To many people it is even more surprising that organisations that claim to lead the Jewish community and defend it from antisemitism are so muted about these formal links.

In Boris Johnson’s short period of  leading the governing party he has already suffered several defeats, but he has emboldened his further right-wing MPs. When Jeremy Corbyn responded to Johnson’s Brexit statement this week, he had to do so while the Conservative frontbencher Jake Berry was calling out “Britain First! Britain First!” – the words shouted by Jo Cox’s killer, and the motto that adorned Oswald Mosley’s weekly Blackshirt newspaper.

Johnson may think he is forging a brave new world but he is taking us backwards several decades to a time when Tory MPs openly gave support to racist politics, as in the period shortly after the Second World War. At that time, a sense of alarm was spreading among longstanding residents of Hampstead about the growing number of Jewish refugees from Nazism finding homes in the area. Local residents began an anti-alien petition which won enthusiastic support from local Tory councillors, and especially from the local Tory MP, Flight Lieutenant Charles Challen.

Johnson, you should tell your Home Secretary, we actually know what a real North London Elite looks like.

 

 

On this day – 3 October 1937: the battle of Bermondsey

This is an extract from my book Rebel Footprints.


In July 1937 the British Union of Fascists (BUF) applied for permission to march through Limehouse but the Home Office refused. When the fascists sought permission to march through the East End in October 1937, exactly a year after the Battle of Cable Street, they were again stymied after local organisations lobbied the new Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare. Undeterred, the Blackshirt’s newly appointed editor, A. K. Chesterton (a cousin of the writer G. K. Chesterton) promised to invade ‘unconquered’ areas with propaganda, insisting that ‘On October 3rd we shall march again.’

Still smarting with disbelief that East End Irish dockers had supported the Jews the previous year, Mosley selected another dockers’ area – this time south of the Thames. The fascists announced a route from Parliament Square to New Kent Road, then through Tooley Street and Dockhead to an open-air rally at Mill Pool in West Lane, Bermondsey. Bermondsey’s Communist Party immediately proposed a counter-march and won instant support from the local ILP. Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades Council, representing 60 local trade union branches, came on board and issued a belligerent anti-fascist statement:

‘Mosley has no branch in Bermondsey – he represents no mass movement … This spot … is surrounded by the new flats erected by the Labour Council … a monument to Labour’s magnificent record of social progress in the borough. It was as if he came to demolish these buildings brick by brick before the very eyes of the people who put them up.’

Local political figures lobbied the Home Office to ban the march but the Home Secretary argued that, since very few Jews lived there, the threat to individuals was negligible. Local radicals, including the Trades Council, favoured a militant response but there were divisions on tactics. London’s Labour Party Executive suggested a boycott, allowing the march to pass, ignored, through empty streets. A respected local churchman, Revd Leslie Davidson, Rotherhithe Labour MP, Ben Smith, and the left-leaning News Chronicle supported this strategy. Smith told a large public meeting that Mosley’s procession would happen anyway, but ‘If we leave the route empty we will have achieved our object. We can have unity for a boycott but not for force.’ His audience rebelled. The majority favoured direct confrontation to block Mosley’s march. Over the next few days, several local Labour Party branches defied the London Labour Party Executive, declaring their support for a militant counter-protest.

The day before the march, the Blackshirt reserved its front page for Mosley’s florid anniversary message:

11e9ae26d492cff11a46fbbe83cb90cb ‘… five years of advance in the face of money power, press power, party power and Jewish power … during which the flame of the faith has grown within us until the blaze of our belief and of our determination lights the dark places of our land and summons our people as a beacon of hope and of rebirth.’

The bombshell was tucked away inside the paper. The march route had been altered: the starting and finishing points were unchanged, but it would now pass through Marshalsea Road, Long Lane and Abbey Street, taking it through the heart of working-class Bermondsey. This development gave added impetus to those planning to physically prevent the fascists entering the area.

Mosley’s supporters assembled near Millbank. Banned by the 1937 Public Order Act from wearing a political uniform, Mosley wore a grey jacket over his black shirt. Some 3,000 marchers formed up three abreast in a procession, convoyed by 30 mounted police at the front, and busloads of foot police bringing up the rear; ‘one policeman for every fascist marcher’, the Daily Mirror remarked.

Just as at Cable Street, thousands of anti-fascists constructed their own barricades with locally available materials. In Long Lane, protesters ‘borrowed’ a huge water tank from a nearby factory, which became the centre of a 30-foot wide barricade. The News Chronicle reported: ‘Iron ovens, cisterns and wheelbarrows were chained together and strung across roads.’ The Daily Herald described how

‘[b]arricades of costers’ barrows, fences with barbed wire, with red flags flying at the top, were flung up at incredible speed; when police tore them down, others were erected a few yards further on … Mounted and foot police, with lashing batons, swept … into the crowds of anti-fascist demonstrators … Missiles were hurled from roofs: eggs, stones and fireworks were flung at the marchers and at police horses.’

The News Chronicle described how mounted police ‘charged down Staple Street into the crowd in Long Lane … One man who was being taken away by the police after being struck on the head with a baton was rescued by a crowd of about 40 dockers.’

Faced with angry crowds and improvised barricades, the police diverted Mosley’s troops Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 15.33.19from their chosen route and led them instead around the rim of the borough. The Daily Worker reported that, when they finally returned to their planned path and reached Jamaica Road, they ‘met another barricade … of men, women and children from the great flats that Labour has built in Bermondsey’. Banners hanging from these blocks proclaimed: ‘Socialism builds. Fascism destroys. Bermondsey against fascism.’

Mosley never reached Mill Pool where he planned to address local people at an open-air rally. The police funnelled his marchers into Southwark Park Road and cordoned off local side streets, leaving Mosley speaking only to his marchers. Meanwhile, anti-fascists occupied Mill Pool, where a Communist Party speaker, Ted Bramley, said: ‘The 100 per cent cockney borough of Bermondsey has given the same answer to Mosley as the Jewish lads and girls did in Stepney just twelve months ago.’

Bermondsey’s protest involved smaller numbers than the East End in 1936, but the authorities’ response was harsher. Several East End Jews were among 111 people arrested. Magistrate Campion commented, ‘It is extraordinary how many of the population of Whitechapel and the East End seemed to choose Bermondsey for a Sunday afternoon walk.’ Campion condemned the anti-fascist demonstrators for causing disorder, and threatened to punish them ‘vigorously’. At least 23 custodial sentences were imposed. Former dock union secretary, Frederick Thompson, aged 60, received three months after being identified at the centre of a ‘violent crowd’; John Morton received five months for assault and three months for insulting behaviour after he tried to rescue another man who had been arrested. Betsy Malone, 23, was treated more lightly – fined a pound for taking a running kick at a policeman and telling him to arrest someone his own size!

The Blackshirt put its best gloss on a frustrating day, insisting that their marchers did pass despite the ‘violence of the apes’. But the defeat at Bermondsey represented the last major street confrontation between the two rival rebel movements of 1930s London. After Bermondsey, Mosley’s Blackshirts struggled to maintain their working-class base or make further inroads in the capital’s poorer districts.

Rebel Footprints (new edition 2019) is published by Pluto Press, £12.99