When I heard recently of an academic researcher questioning the number of Jewish Holocaust victims, I felt enraged, and if I was honest, perhaps a little murderous. But my reaction was misplaced. This was not someone trying to hide, erase or deny Nazi crimes, but someone who thought that actually the iconic figure of six million Jewish deaths may actually be an underestimate. One thing I am sure of is that revised figures should include one Holocaust victim, a Polish, Jewish, anti-fascist, who died far from the death camps that the Nazis established on Polish soil. He died here in London. Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Szmul “Artur” Zygielbojm, who committed suicide at his Paddington flat on the night of 11/12 May 1943 as the heroic Warsaw Ghetto resistance was finally extinguished. His story was a remarkable one.
A factory worker at 10 years old, and apprenticed as a glove maker at 12, Zygielbojm became a renowned trade union figure in Poland. He was a leading member of the Bund, the Jewish socialist party that was active throughout Poland but especially in Warsaw and Lodz, where, in the 1930s, one in three residents were Jews. At that time, antisemitic, pro-fascist forces flourished in Poland, and the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party-Left (PPS-Left) led the anti-fascist resistance. Zygielbojm helped to organise a half-day general strike by Jewish and non-Jewish workers protesting a pogrom in Przytyk in 1936 in which three people died and many were wounded.
When the Nazis invaded in September 1939, Poland’s right wing political establishment fled, but the Bund and PPS formed workers’ battalions, which tried to repel the invaders. Zygielbojm was central in this resistance. To ensure Warsaw Jews’ acquiescence, the Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council). In November 1939 they commanded the Judenrat to create a walled ghetto. When they heard this decree many Jews descended on the Judenrat building. Zygielbojm, a reluctant Judenrat member, could not convince his fellow councillors to oppose the decree, and resigned. But he seized the opportunity to address the crowd from a balcony, urging defiance: “Don’t go voluntarily to the ghetto. Don’t lose courage. Remain in your homes until you are removed by force.” He was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters “to discuss important matters”. But instead his Bund comrades hid him, then organised a daring escape in which he travelled in disguise through Nazi Germany on a false Dutch passport. They entrusted him, though, with a formidable task: to tell the world what was happening to Poland’s Jews and mobilise for their defence and rescue.
Zygielbojm emerged in Belgium and attended a meeting of the Socialist International. He shocked delegates with eye-witness reports of the atrocities the Nazis were already committing. But when the Nazis sent their occupying forces westward as well as east, Zygielbojm had to flee once more, eventually reaching America. He told Jewish and labour movement audiences there about the barbaric nature of the Nazi occupation and urged exceptional action to rescue the Jews.
In early 1942, the Polish Parliament in Exile invited Zygielbojm to join their National Council in London. From here he maintained a network of clandestine contacts – Jewish and non-Jewish – relaying detailed information on the tragedy unfolding in his homeland. In May 1942 he received a report from Warsaw Bundists that contained a list of mass murder sites. It estimated that 700,000 Jewish civilians had already died through starvation, shootings and gassing. Zygielbojm released this report to the Daily Telegraph and several other newspapers before giving it to the Jewish press. He believed this would ensure it reached a wide audience. Given the antisemitism that existed among the British establishment, he feared that, had it surfaced in a Jewish newspaper first, there would be many who would question its authenticity.
He sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders and conveyed information to the general public by broadcasting on the BBC, addressing public meetings, and bombarding the press with letters and information. At a packed Labour Party meeting in Caxton Hall in September 1942, Zygielbojm revealed gruesome facts that, would, in his own words, “make blood curdle in the veins”. He asked the audience to “imagine the people who see their nearest ones being dragged away to their death every day.” Each one, he said “knows that their turn must come. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.” He called on people of all nations to “force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people.”
Three months later, Zygielbojm was visited at his Paddington flat by Jan Karski a remarkable figure in the Polish underground, whose promising diplomatic career was halted when his country fell under Nazi occupation. Karski smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay messages between underground resisters. In London he handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto. The letter asked Jewish leaders in the West to go on hunger strike outside British and American Government offices until they obtained guarantees of action to save the Jews. “Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.” Zygielbojm promised Karski he would act on this letter.
In spring 1943 Zygielbojm wrote a sombre letter to his brother Fayvel in South Africa. He expressed frustration that his strenuous efforts had failed, and grief for his wife Manya their sons Yossel and Artek, and other close relatives he presumed had perished. He never knew that Yossel had actually survived and was a Red Army partisan fighter.
Two crushing events coincided on 19th April 1943. While Nazi tanks and soldiers entered the Warsaw Ghetto to destroy it and massacre its remaining inhabitants (most had already been deported to death camps), American and British leaders convened the Bermuda Conference where they ruled out taking significant numbers of Jewish refugees. The conference concluded on 30th April. Inside the ghetto, though, Bundists, Communists and Zionists under a joint command, boosted by a small number of weapons received from the Polish resistance outside, fought a courageous three week guerrilla campaign to defend the ghetto. It was the most unequal of battles but the Nazis paid a high price for their eventual victory.
On the night of 11th/12th May, 1943, Zygielbojm gassed himself at his Paddington home. He left letters – one to his landlady apologising for the shock she would experience; others to political leaders and to his Bundist comrades and friends, confirming that his suicide was a premeditated act of political protest:
“I cannot remain silent; I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland, whose representative I am, are being exterminated. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto perished with their weapons in their hands in their last heroic battle. It was not my destiny to die as they did, together with them. But I belong to them and in their mass graves. By my death I wish to make the strongest possible protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people … as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall help to break down the indifference of those who have the possibility now, at the last moment, to save those Polish Jews still alive from certain annihilation. My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and, therefore, I give it to them. I wish that the surviving remnants of the Polish Jews could live to see, with the Polish population, the liberation that it could know in Poland, in a world of freedom and in the justice of socialism.”
Zygielbojm’s suicide was a protest not against the Nazis – he condemned their atrocities daily – but against the allies’ failure to help the Jews in their moment of greatest need. Newspapers across the world reported his suicide. It had a powerful public impact, but the allied governments did not change their policy. Zygielbojm’s son, Yossel, learned of his father’s death when his partisan unit took over a former Nazi base on the River Vrbas in Yugoslavia that same month. A newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, was left behind. It contained an article mocking his father’s suicide.
In Warsaw today, where the ghetto once stood, an artistic memorial is etched in glass on a building in Zygielbojm Square. Montreal has a Zygielbojm Memorial Park. In Israel, a Tel Aviv street is named after him. Here in Britain, where his life ended, there was no memorial. But in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in April 1993, Jewish Socialists’ Group activists and several elderly Bundist survivors established a Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee to campaign for a local memorial. With endorsements from writers, historians, rabbis, trade unionists and MPs, the committee requested Westminster Council –a notoriously right wing council – to mount a plaque to honour a Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist resident.
A young council officer responded enthusiastically but met repeated hurdles. It took three years to succeed. The committee established contact with Zygielbojm’s surviving family. Yossel (now known as Joseph) had settled in California with his wife Adela, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They had two sons, Arthur and Paul. Joseph was determined to attend the ceremony. Sadly, he died a year before the plaque was unveiled. But other family members flew over. Adela Zygielbaum unveiled the plaque together with Britain’s then Polish ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, in front of 200 supporters. The elderly Jan Karski, still alive then but very frail, and living in America too, sent a handwritten message regretting that he was “not strong anymore” and could not travel, much as he would like to.
The unveiling was followed by a celebration of Zygielbojm’s life at the nearby Yaa Asantewaa African Community Centre, where Paul Zygielbaum spoke movingly of his grandfather’s sacrifice. “Zygielbojm’s sacrifice,” he said, “was not for the Jews alone. His words and deeds embodied vital lessons for mankind about what it means to be a human being. About compassion, dignity, commitment and courage. About the ultimate value of life and of each human culture… with his death he invoked the vision of a world of freedom, justice and peace, in which brutality would have no place… Let us look ahead with determination to the building of a world in which all people can live in peace and mutual respect. This is what Szmul Zygielbojm would have wanted.”
Sadly, only one of the Bundist survivors who were part of our Memorial committee, is still alive, Wlodka Blit-Robertson, whose father Lucien Blit was a prominent Bundist activist in Warsaw. But with the plaque in place, Zygielbojm’s memory here lives on. You can find it on Porchester Road, near the corner with Porchester Square. Go and visit, celebrate his life, reflect on his sacrifice, and rededicate yourself to the struggle for freedom and against fascism wherever it shows itself.
“I didn’t see that coming!” has been the repeated refrain of the last two years. Political shocks and tremors have taken place in several countries, challenging expectations and surprising those who have taken their eye off the ball. Just now, another one seems to have happened that affects the Israel/Palestine conflict, and many activists who have following developments there much more closely than me are unsure how to react.
The most right-wing government in Israel’s history, whose tired mantras that it has no one to negotiate with, that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it is constantly faced with existential threats, has just suffered a body blow. But no one died or was injured. There was no rocket or suicide bomb. The weapon on this occasion was a piece of paper. A piece of paper that undercuts Israel’s position and holds out the promise of a more united struggle by the Palestinian people that the Israeli Government continues to oppress. For many years, the fiercely expressed internal political divisions between Palestinian parties and factions have suited Israel well, and historically it had a part in fomenting them. But perhaps the tables are starting to turn.
Israeli leaders always claim that their citizens are in fear of military attack, but they are actually much more frightened of peace than war. There real existential fear is having to account for and face up to the injustices they perpetuate. The most hopeful time for a breakthrough for the Palestinians in recent decades was towards the end of the 1980s at the time of the first intifada – an uprising by all of Palestinian society from the ground up – which engendered a build-up of sympathy and support around the world for a people suffering under a brutal and long-running military occupation. The exiled Palestinian leadership, based in Tunis, played a role, but in many ways this was a locally organised popular grassroots rebellion on the political principles the PLO had helped to establish.
The Israeli Defence Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, famously ordered his soldiers to “break their bones”. His internal opponents on the more explicitly right-wing of the Zionist movement, called Palestinians “cockroaches” who needed to be crushed. But the deep Israeli state had softer, more cynical methods too to disrupt the Palestinian resistance. As the PLO – a secular resistance movement with Muslims and Christians and less religious people in its leadership – grew in stature, despite operating from exile, the Israelis began covertly funding an Islamic religious organisation, led by Sheikh Yassin, to help establish a religious counterweight to the PLO; one that would undermine its ability to represent the vast bulk of Palestinians. Yassin’s organisation eventually developed into Hamas.
It was a risky strategy for the Israelis. As the PLO became more trapped in talks about talks about talks, that were going nowhere, but not wanting to miss out on gaining even a minimal and fragile autonomy within the Occupied Territories, Hamas became something of a Frankenstein’s monster for Israel, developing an increasingly militant and fundamentalist politics. It adopted a charter that did not distinguish between people and governments, or between Jews in the world and Israeli policy makers and military representatives. Indeed the charter, drawn up by one person within Hamas, borrowed from the infamous antisemitic document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
As Hamas incorporated terrorism into its methods, the lives of ordinary Israelis and also Jews outside of Israel suddenly became more perilous. But for increasingly desperate Palestinians on the street, with the PLO’s main faction, Fatah, laying emphasis on diplomatic manoeuvres, Hamas’ militant stance became attractive. There was a sense they were actually fighting back, even if Israel greatly exaggerated the threat from their rockets. Israel’s establishment basked in the continued divide, knowing also that Hamas’ conception of the struggle as a religious struggle could not bring political successes against it, and it would be easy to cast it as antisemitic rather than simply anti-Zionist.
There have been several unsuccessful attempts over the years to broker some kind of pact between Hamas and Fatah, but until now there has been a gulf between the aspiration of Hamas to liberate all of Palestine in the name of Islam and the de facto acceptance of two states by Fatah in the name of realpolitik.
Now that Hamas has abandoned its charter, distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, described the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle against Zionism, not a fight against Jews, and now that it has spoken of an aspiration to create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West bank on the pre-67 boundaries including East Jerusalem, and the return of refugees, both it and Fatah are increasingly working on the same page. Both movements remain strongly committed to the welfare of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The current hunger strike by more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israel, led by Marwan Barghouti, who maintains the traditional secular Fatah philosophy, is helping also to prepare the ground for greater political unity.
Hamas’ move will surely be regarded as constructive by many states around the world, and will increasingly isolate Israel’s apartheid rulers. The Israeli government, which thought that with Trump at the helm, it could get away with more land-grabbing and establishing more new settlements, now has to justify once again on the world stage why it should maintain the occupation, let alone build more settlements. That is a significant gain for the Palestinians. But it is also uncomfortable for large sections of the anti-Zionist Left in the world who are now wedded purely to a single state solution.
I suspect a number of them will denounce Hamas for “selling out”. I’m more relaxed about it. It is the principles of self-determination, equality, democracy, not the number of states, that counts for me. These principles can be fought for in either a one or two states arrangement. I would prefer one state, but a fight for two secular democratic states, to be states for all their citizens on an equal basis, instead of one state, would liberate a large chunk of Palestine, would challenge Israel as an ethnocracy, and still represent a progressive agenda in my book. We need to follow events closely and intervene in supportive ways, but in the coming period it is very important for the Palestinians themselves to determine their mode of united struggle. In a world where currently so many situations are stacked against progressive forces, this is a rare chink of light. There are dangers and traps but, at last, there are also some real opportunities.
Just over a week into the General Election Campaign it has been the party leaders who have been grabbing most of the headlines: Theresa May with her defiant refusals to debate on television or take questions from the press or public, and her studied mantras about “strong and stable” government; Tim Farron, struggling with his own conscience as much as with his PR strategies as he tries to deal with the question of whether a Liberal Democrat leader needs to be liberal enough to consider gay sex as something other than a sin; and Jeremy Corbyn, appearing remarkably upbeat and combative, despite 20 months of insults, smears and put-downs from political opponents, the media, and the disgruntled within his own party. Corbyn is clearly relishing the opportunity to take the campaign to the terrain of the streets and public spaces, where he feels at home, and was so successful during his Labour leadership battles.
But there is another figure looming in the background who clearly resents the attention the leaders have been getting. He thinks he deserves to be in the headlines instead, and is trying to muscle in, with a little help from the media friends he cultivated so assiduously when he was in power. Tony Blair. He may, in name, be Labour still, and he assures us he will be voting Labour, but his message to Labour voters is to think carefully about the country and who they should vote for in order to strengthen opposition to the Tories’ hard Brexit. Yes, it might be their Labour candidate but it might just be a Tory or a Lib Dem Remainer instead.
To say his interventions have riled Labour campaigners going all out to reverse the torrent of negative opinion polls and anti-Labour headlines, is of course a great understatement. People are outraged as they recall how casually thousands of Labour members were suspended and denied the opportunity of even voting in Labour leadership elections for as little as praising a statement or policy of a Green politician for example. Yet here, a prominent Labour figure who encourages Labour supporters to consider putting their vote elsewhere, remains untouched. He is feted by the sycophantic media who thrown open their columns for his “statesmanlike” words of “wisdom”.
This man whose achievements can actually be enumerated, grotesquely, in the mass corpses of Iraqi civilians, the size of his property empire, the 4 million-plus Labour votes that he lost between 1997 and when he stood down, in the hundreds of thousands of pounds he demanded for giving a talk to an international hunger forum, is utterly, utterly, desperate for attention. And sadly our own side are providing some of that attention.
On social media, Labour members and supporters are being urged to sign petitions to expel Tony Blair. But that kind of response is exactly what he craves. He wants to distract you from Jeremy Corbyn’s and Labour’s popular, bold, well-targeted policies that are challenging people like him, challenging the rule of the establishment, the rich and powerful.
Back in the mid-1880s, the radical journalist Annie Besant lambasted the “present state of society, with its unjustly rich and its unjustly poor, with its palaces and its slums, with its millionaires and its paupers”. Look at the streets of our major cities in 2017, the foodbanks, the rough sleepers, the desperate individuals wandering around. It seems that we are returning closer and closer to the situation that Annie Besant described . But now, we finally have a party (albeit divided), with a combative leader who is serious about taking on that rigged system that diverts more and more wealth to those who already have too much. Jeremy Corbyn, and those rallying around him, are deadly serious about radically transforming that reality if they get the chance to do so. No wonder the likes of Blair are worried, let alone May.
So my advice to fellow Labour members and supporters is simple: Ignore Tony Blair. Don’t bother with petitions asking Labour’s discredited Compliance Unit to expel him.
He may want to be the story. But this story needs to end. Don’t feed Blair’s ego. Starve it instead. Remember that when Maggie Thatcher was asked what her finest achievement was, she quipped: “Tony Blair”. Remember too that “Tony Blair PM” was always an anagram of “I’m Tory Plan B”. And it remains so. Concentrate your vital energy instead on fighting for every vote you can win for Labour, especially in the marginal seats.
This battle has only just begun.
Before you go to sleep tonight, take a few moments to reflect on what happened in Warsaw in the early hours of 19 April 1943. That was when troops and tanks of the most powerfully equipped army in the world – the German Nazis – entered the Warsaw Ghetto to burn the ghetto buildings to the ground, massacre the remaining inhabitants, or deport them to death camps. At one time the ghetto, comprising just 1.3 square miles, had held more than 400,000 people – almost all Jews, but also several hundred Roma Gypsies. By April 1943 the inhabitants still numbered 30-40,000 – starved, diseased, beaten – but still holding on to life, just.
In those early hours the Nazi army were shocked to meet armed resistance from a united fighting organisation comprising around 220 people, the oldest of whom was 40. The youngest was a boy called Luciek, a member of the Jewish Socialist Bund’s children’s organisation. He was just 13 years old. They fought with home-made weapons created and smuggled in by Jews living secretly outside the ghetto who were hidden by sympathetic non-Jews, plus a small number of other weapons clandestinely received from the non-Jewish Polish resistance outside. It took the Nazis longer to defeat those resisters than to occupy whole countries.
Those 220 fighters represented an alliance under a joint command of three conflicted political tendencies: Bundists, Communists and left-wing Zionists. The Bundists and Communists disagreed with each other over centralism, authoritarianism, inner-party democracy, cultural politics, and more. They had been bitter rivals for the allegiance of socialist-minded Jewish workers in 1930s Poland. Left-wing Zionists believed that Jews needed a territorial state in Palestine to solve the recurring problems that Jews faced in different countries. Both Bundists and Communists warned that any attempt to impose a Jewish state in Palestine would not only lead to permanent bitter conflict with the population who lived and worked the land there, but also could not solve the problem of antisemitism and fascism in the world. In the ghetto, faced by a deadly enemy, these three disparate tendencies united in action as one.
In the last few weeks a lot of heat, but not much light, has been generated by those who would like to tell the story of Jews, Zionists and Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s in the most simplistic terms of good and evil, and wish away or dismiss any contradictions. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters ought to be told for other reasons, above all to restore names and dignity to those who fought in the most unequal of battles. In telling their history we should embrace the contradictions rather than dismiss them, but also recognise how and why that memory continues to be fought over.
The first moments of the Uprising were described during the 1961 trial in Israel of the leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
The resistance had organised itself into small units in different locations: “I was standing in an attic on 31 Nalewcki street when I saw thousands of Germans armed with machine guns surrounding the ghetto. Suddenly they entered… and we, some 20 young men and women (with) a revolver, a grenade, some bombs, happily standing up against the heavily armed enemy. Happy because we knew their end would come. We knew that ultimately they would conquer us. But we knew… they would pay heavily for our lives… When… we threw our hand grenades and bombs and saw German blood pouring over the streets of Warsaw where so much Jewish blood had poured, we rejoiced. The future did not worry us. It was a joy… to behold the wonder of those Germans retreating… they had enough… ammunition, bread and water, which we did not have. Reinforced with tanks they came back on the same day, and we, with our Molotov cocktails set fire to a tank… And when we met in the evening… the number of our dead was small, two men, while hundreds of Germans had fallen either dead or wounded.”
That powerful testimony was given by Tsivye Lubetkin, the only woman in the command group, and a left-wing Zionist. Before this trial, Israeli schools had become used to teaching that during the Holocaust, Jews had gone, “like lambs to the slaughter”. The narrative incorporated these heroic stories of Zionist involvement in the resistance and drew a direct line from resistance fighters in Warsaw to the fighters for a Jewish state.
Inconveniently disrupting that narrative was Marek Edelman, who wrote the most comprehensive memoir of the Ghetto Uprising, in Polish, in 1945. It was translated into Yiddish and English in 1946. Second-in-command during the Uprising, and the last surviving member of the command group until his death in Poland in 2009, he wasn’t even called to give testimony at the Eichmann trial. Despite his own heroism, Edelman was persona non grata in Israel, a country which leaned on the terrible experiences of the Holocaust to underpin its necessity and legitimacy. That was because he insisted on maintaining his pre-war Bundist ideological beliefs: He was a socialist, an anti-Zionist, an internationalist and anti-nationalist until his dying day. He spoke out in support of justice for the Palestinians. Disgracefully, Edelman’s ghetto memoir remained untranslated into Hebrew until 2001.
Having successfully linked resistance in Warsaw to fighting for Israel, Zionist ideologues drew a sharp distinction between those who fought and those who “passively” and “cowardly” submitted, emphasising brave Zionist fighters, and downplaying or even air-brushing out the Bundists and Communists. Edelman challenged this narrative and could stretch the line of resistance further back in time than the Zionists could. In 1930s Poland the anti-Zionist Bund led the fightback against fascist and antisemitic tendencies in Polish society, whether in the form of Government-backed economic discrimination, street violence or attempted pogroms. In this fight, the Bund could not rely on any support from Zionists except from the small “Left Poale Zion” faction. The communists were too busy engaging in sectarian political wars against the Bund to help. But the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party worked closely with the Bund.
In Poland’s last municipal elections before the war the Bundists swept the Jewish vote. Many historians attribute that to their leadership in the daily fight against antisemitism. It also enabled the Bund to play a pivotal role inside the ghetto resistance, well before an armed battle command was formed. The first underground resistance newspapers that were distributed in the ghetto flew off underground Bundist presses. It was Zalman Frydrych, a Bundist “courier” (the term for those who smuggled themselves in and out of the ghetto on various dangerous missions) who, with assistance from a non-Jewish Polish socialist railway worker, made a gruesome discovery: that deportation trains leaving the ghetto were not transporting Jews in their thousands for “work in the east” but sending them instead to a death camp at Treblinka.
I was fortunate to briefly meet Edelman, whom I regard as a hero, in Warsaw in 1997. But he preferred to be an anti-hero. He did not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. He spoke of the courage of those Jews who stayed with their families rather than fight; the strong accompanying the weak to a certain death. Edelman said: “These people went quietly and with dignity… Humanity had decided that dying with a gun is more beautiful.” He described the armed rebellion, though, as “the logical sequel to four years of resistance by a population incarcerated in inhuman conditions, a humiliated, degraded population treated as sub-human”, but who had nevertheless established clandestine universities, schools, welfare institutions, orchestras, theater groups and newspapers. For Edelman it was these acts, resisting to whatever threatened their right to a dignified life, that culminated in rebellion.
A significant number of the arms used by the Warsaw ghetto fighters were manufactured by hand by another Bundist called Mikhal Klepfisz who was being hidden by Polish Catholics in a flat a short distance beyond the ghetto wall. He was 30 years old at the time. That family also hid an 11-year-old called Wlodka, smuggled out of the ghetto – who survived and lives in London today. Wlodka has told me that Klepfisz showed her exactly what he was making and how. He delivered his last consignment after the battle had begun knowing he would not come out.
In sharp contrast with the retrospective Zionist narrative regarding the ghetto fighters, Edelman insisted: “We fought for dignity and freedom, not for territory or a national identity.” He upset the Israeli establishment by declaring that there were no nationalist lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, only general lessons for humanity, adding that, in his view, the memory of the Holocaust did not belong solely to the Jews but to everybody.
One of the most stirring documents smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto was a “Manifesto to the Poles” – directed to the underground non-Jewish Polish resistance. It had the slogan “For our and your freedom” – also the motto of one of the Bund’s underground ghetto newspapers.
There was courageous resistance in many ghettoes. In Vilna (Vilnius), after the ghetto was destroyed, survivors formed a United Partisan Organisation led by an anti-Zionist Communist, Itsik Wittenberg. Both Bundists and left-wing Zionists took part in its operations.
Despite some of the wilder claims aired recently, deeper investigations of the experiences in Poland and in other countries under Nazi occupation reveal that the dividing line between those who fought and those who didn’t cannot be mapped by attitudes to Zionism. A Hungarian survivor, Louis Marton, who was a Zionist in his youth and became an opponent of Zionism in later life, made this point, and also argued that those who went into the ghetto with an idealistic political background, dreaming of a better world, and with a commitment to a politics of change, whether Bundist, Communist or Zionist, were best placed to lead resistance activities.
The recent controversies have focused on the heart of the Nazi beast – Germany – and the actions of some among the (significant) minority of German Jews who were Zionists, but German Jews (largely middle class and more assimilated) were not that representative of Jewish communities in Europe, especially of the larger East European ones which were much more working class and generally more impervious to Zionism, which they saw as a pipe-dream totally divorced from the realistic aspirations of ordinary people..
The Polish Jewish population was more than five times bigger than Germany’s and the fight within Jewish life over attitudes to Zionism and antisemitism was acted out much more sharply there in the 1930s. Bundist leaders in Poland were incandescent about the complacent and defeatist attitude that Polish Zionist leaders had towards antisemitism, and their public statements, echoed gleefully by antisemitic Polish politicians, that there were “100,000 superfluous Jews in Poland” and that “Jews pollute the air of Poland”.
One Bundist leader, Henryk Erlich, described Zionist ideology as “a Siamese twin of antisemitism and every kind of national chauvinism” and characterised the Zionist movement in Poland as the “open ally of our deadly enemy – antisemitism”.
In 1938, Erlich wrote these chilling words: “…if the future of humanity really belongs to fascism… then what truly awaits us… is death and destruction. But death and destruction will be the destiny of all human civilisation and culture. Would Zionism be capable of saving us alone from the fascist deluge. It is ridiculous to even think about it.”
Of course, the relatively small numbers of Jews of Palestine did survive, not because of Zionism though, but because the allies defeated the Nazis at El Alamein. Those polemicists who have been waving around the Ha’avarah Agreement to score a political point against Zionism today, need to ask themselves what would have happened had the Nazis reached Palestine? Would they have tracked down the 60,000 Jews who got there under the Ha’avarah agreement, separated them out and said, “we’ll exterminate the others, not you”? Of course not.
They also need to acknowledge that most German Zionists stayed in Germany and shared the fate of nearly all German Jews there and elsewhere under Nazi occupation, whether Zionist, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Reduced to ashes. Cremated equally.
Unfortunately, many people who have justifiably critiqued Livingstone’s half-baked history, and poured scorn on those who unthinkingly defend him, don’t apply the same critical scrutiny to Zionist ideologues and the Israeli political establishment, who have cynically tried to appropriate the history of the Holocaust, and episodes within it, and harness it to their ultra-nationalist and revanchist political outlook today.
The fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, whether Bundists, Communists or Zionists, who took up arms on April 19th 1943, and were still defiantly fighting against the might of the Nazis in the second week of May, deserve better. Koved zayer ondenk! (Yiddish). Honour their memory!
This time last week I was in Nottingham, feeling incredibly relaxed, happy and at one with the world. I was at the annual British Juggling Convention for the first time in 16 years. Back in the 1990s not just me, but our family, had discovered the joy of juggling. Between 1995 in Norwich and 2001 in Cardiff we only missed one national convention, and took in quite a few local conventions along the way. We packed the car full of juggling equipment and usually came back with more. It is addictive. I thought I could handle the addiction, but came back this time as well with new equipment.
So what does a juggling convention look like? Hundreds, sometimes more than a 1,000 jugglers of all ages and sizes sharing a 24/7 practice hall, usually in a purpose-built sports centre; people practicing and practicing by themselves, or with a partner or small group with all kinds of equipment not just balls: hula hoops, diabolos, rings of all sizes, silk scarves, flower sticks and devil sticks (look them up!); smaller groups gathering for workshops in studio spaces or squash courts – in Nottingham’s case – or in small circus tents at some previous conventions.
People generously offer workshops to freely share their skills with learners. Late in the evening the “Renegade Show” offers anyone attending the chance to do a little turn in front of an always friendly and supportive audience. There is also one professional show put on at a proper theatre in the town where the convention is happening. The skills on show are breathtaking, but there is also something very pleasing when you suddenly see on stage that person who has just been practicing very quietly and seriously near you in the 24/7 hall space.
Also there are the “juggling games” when we take over a place in the town. In Nottingham’s case it was a large green within the grounds of Nottingham Castle. At previous conventions it has been a pedestrianised city centre. All manner of strange collective games and endurance tests follow, mainly using juggling balls, clubs, diabolos, and human balancing skills. Sometimes there is a carnival style procession to the games venue.
Although I was completely fascinated with circus since I was a child, my story as a juggler started in the early 1990’s (shortly before I trained as a primary school teacher). With three bean bags and a small instruction sheet – a present just before a family holiday in Cornwall – I practiced for half an hour a day, until I got the hang of it. When we came back I progressed to balls, and then in subsequent months and years to rings, clubs, knives, and I’ve since dabbled a bit with fire clubs too.
People ask me whether juggling is meditative. I don’t think so, but what does happen is that all inhibitions and anxieties temporarily drop out of your head and disappear. That is a state that those of us who are political activists really need to build into our lives to maintain our sanity in these very fraught times. I guess other people do it by playing music, going jogging or climbing a mountain.
Juggling turned out to be a very useful skill in my 22-year career as a primary teacher in inner-London. I resorted to it at moments when I really needed to calm situations down in the class, and I also regularly visited each classes’ annual Christmas party to do a brief entertainment slot. For around 10 years from the mid-1990s, I ran a weekly after-school Juggling Club for 7-11 year olds which gave me insights on the question of “natural” talent and also on the negative cultural changes our children have lived through and are still living through.
My first five or six years of running the club were the most creative and enjoyable. The club was populated by children who fully bought in to the non-competitive spirit I tried to establish. They appreciated each other’s efforts and supported each other. Juggling came more easily to some children than others, but those who were willing to persevere with something they found hard, and who could cope with others around them progressing at a faster pace would succeed too. I usually had up to 12 children in the class. We would play some games then I would demonstrate some techniques and leave them to practice. While they practiced, I went from child to child giving individual help. We closed the sessions with children volunteering to show the others what they had improved on that week.
I had one child, P, who started in the club when he was nine. Despite the fact that in other spheres he was well coordinated – he played guitar with considerable proficiency – he had terrible coordination problems with juggling. The first exercise I gave him was to hold a ball in his favoured hand (his right) and throw it in a loop reaching just over head height to catch it as it fell into his left. I told him to hold his hands low palm upwards and placed a ball in his right hand. As he tried to throw it, it just stayed there. the first limb that moved was actually his left arm; then his left leg; then his right leg, then finally his right arm. And the ball didn’t really land anywhere near his left hand.
Some children got the hang of it quickly as I progressed them through the basic exercises for the “cascade” – the most basic 3-ball pattern. Within two or three weeks most of them could keep the balls in the air in that pattern for 5-10 throws. P showed fantastic perseverance – aided by the support of others in the club. By the time he was 11 – he could finally keep a three ball cascade going for at least 10 throws. He proved to me that it didn’t matter how uncoordinated you were, you could get there. I hope he is still juggling.
But the last few years of the club were more challenging. This was a period when two simultaneous processes were happening. Children were getting sucked more and more into the passive culture of electronic games which provided instant gratification with very little physical skill/agility involved; and a competitive spirit was being insinuated by Blair’s New Labour into almost every aspect of the education system, setting borough against borough, school against school and ultimately child against child. Children imbibed it unconsciously. They were harsher not only towards other children but also towards themselves.
With children leaving for secondaries at 11 there was a natural turnover in the club each year, but many of the new recruits simply gave up if they couldn’t succeed at it really quickly, especially if they saw others proving more adept. I tried to maintain the collaborative, mutually supportive atmosphere, and to see themselves only in competition with themselves and their previous achievements but I couldn’t compete strongly enough against the other cultural pressures they had internalised.
I know that some of my early recruits to the club eventually became much more proficient, fluent and skilled than myself. I even bumped into some at juggling conventions. I hope that juggling is still a part of their lives. I’ve come back from Nottingham determined to build on what I can already do with my juggling equipment and determined to make the space in my life for the serenity and pure pleasure it brings. And for those of you who haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too early or too late to learn to juggle.
My favourite political image among the protests and street activism that has marked the first three months of 2017 is a banner held on the St Patrick’s Day parade. It proclaimed:”More Blacks! More dogs! More Irish!” – mocking the daily racism of the 1960s when people looking for homes were confronted by openly discriminatory window signs rejecting applicants from these categories. The first Race Relations Act of 1968 finally knocked that appalling behaviour on the head, but not the sentiments behind it. It took another 20 years of grassroots campaigns led by victims of racism, finally aided by another layer of government, to normalise anti-racism and explicitly promote multiculturalism.
That layer of government was the Greater London Council (GLC). Under a visionary Left Labour leadership from 1981 it railed against continuing inequalities and discriminatory practices and the mindset supporting them – whether it was racist, sexist, homophobic or disablist. Through a generous grants programme it gave grassroots campaigners including Caribbean, African, South Asian, Irish and Jewish groups, the resources to make their voices count. The GLC also brought those groups and campaigns together through its Ethnic Minorities Unit, whose activities dovetailed with those of the GLC’s Women’s Committee. These policies were denounced at the time as “loony left” by the right-wing press. Maggie Thatcher felt so threatened by this equalities agenda that she dictatorially closed down the GLC.
The imagination and determination to push this agenda through was rightly identified very strongly with the GLC’s leader – one Ken Livingstone. In place of the old paternalistic grants policy which mainly favoured rather conservative existing groups, the GLC under Livingstone developed a grassroots strategy whereby innovative groups without resources were encouraged to identify a need in London, make a plan for addressing it and ask the GLC to fund it.
I was a beneficiary, appointed as sole worker for the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group initiative funded by the GLC. Our two years of funding came to an end through Maggie’s act of destruction. But I remember a delicious moment one year in, when our project grant came up for renewal. Alongside other groups we were invited to the public gallery. Labour had a solid majority on the council, so at the meeting confirming renewal Ken Livingstone read through a list of groups that the grants committee had approved. The Tories could express their objection but they had no power to stop any of the approved grants going through. Most did so without objection but every so often – a lesbian project, or an Irish project – the Tory would say “We object!”. Livingstone read out “Jewish Socialists’ Group” in a manner which suggested he enjoyed the particular combination of those words as much as we did. The Tory rose: “We object”. Livingstone retorted, smiling, “You don’t like the name!”
How can it be that three decades on, the person who played such a pivotal role in the fight for equality came within a hairsbreadth of expulsion by the Labour Party for bringing the party in to disrepute over the issue of anti-Jewish racism, having made dubious comments about Hitler and Zionism; and for defending another MP’s comments, which she herself apologised for, after she recognised they had crossed a line into antisemitism?
The knee-jerk reaction of many left wingers, tired of cynical, manufactured and distorted accusations of antisemitism was to leap to his defence, Others who harboured doubts about the veracity of Livingstone’s comments and his tact were more reticent. He claimed that the real reasons he was threatened with expulsion were his support for Palestine and for Jeremy Corbyn. As someone who admired his earlier work, I’m not convinced. I believe that his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention – based on a very poor quality source – undermined Jeremy Corbyn and was detrimental to the Palestinian cause. It was also a free gift to right wingers in both the Labour and Conservative parties, and to pro-Zionist and pro-Conservative elements in the Jewish community determined to do Labour and Corbyn down.
They have been having a field day denouncing Labour for not expelling him, claiming that it proves that the Labour Party is not serious about tackling antisemitism, that the Jewish community has been let down by Labour’s disciplinary process and so on. Why pro-Conservative elements such as Jewish Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush, who rushed to congratulate Trump on winning the US election, or Chief Rabbi Mirvis who penned a vicious attack on Labour on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day before London’s mayoral election while saying nothing about the Tories openly Islamopbhobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, feel they have the right to comment on Labour’s internal disciplinary processes is beyond me.
The bad blood between Livingstone and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, however, goes back a long way. It is nothing to do with Israel/Palestine or Nazis, and it shows those “leaders” in a poor light. I will say more on that further down.
But those of us in the left and centre left of the Labour Party, who certainly do have the right to comment on those procedures, have every reason to be cynical about those individuals put in place under Tony Blair who still dominate the bodies enacting these disciplinary procedures. While they act against loose cannons such as Livingstone, who unfortunately has form when it comes to speaking first and engaging his brain second, they completely ignore the daily acts of Labour right-wingers, which bring the party into disrepute and harm its electoral chances. I am talking here of the likes of Mandelson, Blair, Wes Streeting, Michael Dugher and Ruth Smeeth, who deliberately and repeatedly insult, demean and seek to undermine a Labour leader overwhelmingly elected twice to lead the party by its members. And they often take to the columns of the anti-Labour right-wing press to do so. They are surely the people who deserve to be at the front of any queue of those who might be legitimately charged with bringing the party into disrepute. In that context I am glad Livingstone was not expelled. And, indeed, rather than suspend him for a further year, maybe, as other Jewish left-wingers have suggested, he should be challenged to go for a year without mentioning Hitler.
But what is the real story with Livingstone and the Jewish community? What are the merits of what he has said, and the “academic” source he based them on? Did the timing of his intervention help or undermine Jeremy Corbyn at a time when Labour was being assailed with charges of antisemitism? Has it helped or hindered the Palestinian cause?
Livingstone took power in the GLC in 1981 at the same time as the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) was increasingly falling in with Thatcher’s government and its reactionary norms. Thatcher was extremely hostile to the GLC’s anti-racist agenda. Nevertheless the BoD initially co-operated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit.
As Livingstone democratised and revolutionised the GLC’s grants procedures, a range of politically independent groups among both secular and religious Jews, including dissident and marginalised groups, applied for funding for their projects. The BoD, which saw itself as the sole legitimate political representative of Jews in Britain, wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications to the GLC for funding by Jewish groups. Livingstone quite rightly refused, on democratic grounds, and was never forgiven. As well as being involved with the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s (JSG) application, I was also part of a small group of four people called the Jewish Employment Action Group, which was taking up cases of antisemitism in the workplace. One of the four was a maverick member of the Board of Deputies. We asked for and received a grant of £220 (that’s all!). That maverick BoD member was hauled over the coals by the BoD’s paranoid leaders. Whenever the BoD got a hint that a particular Jewish group was applying for funds, it sent in unsolicited “references” to try to dissuade Livingstone’s GLC from funding them. I was shown the unsolicited “reference ” on the JSG, by the Grants Officer dealing with our application. It was a filthy document, full of lies and unfounded smears and allegations linking us to organisations described as “terrorist”. Fortunately the GLC disregarded it, but it revealed the BoD’s methods.
In 1983 the Board suspended its participation in the work of the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, an entity that was developing an imaginative, inclusive agenda for tackling all forms of racism in London and actively promoting multiculturalism. I have a leaked copy of the internal minutes from the BoD’s Defence Committee which agreed this action. It sets out five charges against the GLC, listed a to e, including: “The use of County Hall by pro-PLO factions and by terrorist representative groups”.
In 1983 the GLC’s County Hall had indeed hosted the first public meeting in Britain in which an Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, shared a platform with a leading PLO representative, Issam Sartawi. I was among the organisers of the meeting. Also in the early 1980s the GLC hosted Sinn Fein members accused of direct links withe IRA.
However the leaked minutes explained that the BoD’s decision to break off relations with the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was taken because of (e), “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board”.
Following the initial skirmishes which were about the GLC being able to function democratically without unwanted and unwarranted interference for the BoD, there were further clashes which related also to pro-Palestinian comments that Livingstone made in the aftermath of the Lebanon war of 1982.
In that period, Livingstone was guilty of a misdemeanour which does link directly to much more recent controversies. He was one of the editors of a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald which published very crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of its very right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin dressed in Nazi uniform, which drew accusations of antisemitism. It also carried a review by one Harry Mullin of three publications alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration. This review crossed a line from anti-Zionism to antisemitism. I was co-writer of a letter from the JSG, showing how this line had been crossed, and how it also served to diminish Nazi responsiblity for the Holocaust. Our letter demanded an apology from Labour Herald for publishing this review. The letter was published but no apology was made. In a private letter Livingstone remarked that Harry Mullin was a respected labour movement writer. It was no great surprise to me to learn that a few years down the line Harry Mullin had found his more natural home in the fascist British National Party, through which he increasingly peddled Holocaust denial. Perhaps this was an early hint of – at best – Livingstone’s lack of sophisticated judgement in this area.
During the recent controversy, when Livingstone was pressed for the source of his claims that Hitler “was supporting Zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he told the Evening Standard, “Everything I said… was true and I will be presenting the academic book about that to the Labour Party inquiry.”. That “academic” source was Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, written in the early 1980s by Lenni Brenner, an American freelance journalist. Brenner’s book reads much more like tabloid journalism than any serious academic study. It makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing all Zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis.
In truth, there were attempts by some Jews in Germany to make deals with the Nazi dictatorship that was hostile and repressive towards all Jews. In Germany’s case these were Zionists (an ideological minority among German Jews), who were criticised by other Zionists and other Jews for doing so. Further attempts to make deals with Nazi rulers were made by some Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but these attempts do not break down on simple Zionist/anti-Zionist lines. Some bourgeois Jews who were not Zionists also attempted to extract concessions from their oppressors, to save some lives through such deals. On the other hand, many left-wing Zionists participated in the anti-Nazi resistance, especially in the ghettoes. But, whatever deals were attempted in Germany after Hitler came to power, Hitler had already made crystal clear his absolutely poisonous hatred towards all Jews when he published Mein Kampf in 1925, and a second edition in 1926.
When Lenni Brenner came to London in 1983/84 to promote his book the Jewish Socialists’ Group was unimpressed with the publicity but nevertheless invited him to speak to one of our meetings about it. He was terrible. He gave an extremely crude analysis which tried to make facts fit very thin pre-ordained theories. When he was challenged on his “analysis” he reacted with aggression. When audience members argued that his comments were antisemitic he flew into a further rage and told us that he could not be racist or antisemitic because his wife was Black. That, I’m afraid, is the calibre of Livingstone’s prime source.
Of course, if you do serious research you can find many examples that would show that in terms of combating antisemitism and fascism, whether in Germany or, for example, in Poland Europe’s largest Jewish community pre-war, the 1930s and ’40s were not Zionism’s finest hour. And the willingness of Zionists to seek cooperation with the most reactionary regimes towards its goals has a long pedigree that stretches as far back as Theodor Herzl’s meeting with Plehve, a minister in Tsarist Russia, a representative of the murderous oppressors of Jews, radicals and revolutionaries. Herzl promised Plehve, on no authority at all, that Jewish radicals and revolutionaries would cease their struggles against Tsarism for 15 years if he would give a charter for Palestine. Nothing came of it, but not for want of trying.
However, this whole effort to try to find evidence of Zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way Zionism behaves today, is such a poor way of supporting the Palestinians and their just demands. It rests on too many crude generalisations. You do not have to go back to Hitler and the 1930s in order to expose and challenge the oppression of Palestinians by Zionist ideology and practice today. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly pointed out in her report, from the Inquiry that followed in the weeks after Livingstone’s remarks, critics of Israeli policy could “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it”. I agree with her wholeheartedly. The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable. Trying to base that case on what some Zionists did in Germany in the 1930s will always end up diverting the argument towards accusations of antisemitism, and ultimately lets both the Israeli government and the Zionist movement in 2017 off the hook.
Livingstone was also apprehended for his defence of tweets made by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which were considered by Jewish “leaders” such as the BoD as offensive. The BoD apparently believes it has the sole right to define, on behalf of the community, what is offensive to all Jews. It does not have that right. One of Shah’s tweets recycled an innocuous old joke suggesting that Israel should solve its problems by relocating to America. It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between Israeli and American governments over the last few decades in which Israel has served the interests of that superpower very well. My friend, the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina, pokes fun similarly when he says in his shows, “I think Israel should give back the Occupied territories… but keep New York!” That is edgy but not antisemitic.
The only actually offensive, indeed antisemitic, tweet by Shah was in relation to an online poll regarding Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, when she tweeted that “the Jews are rallying”. Not “Zionists”, not “supporters of Israel”, but “Jews”. That is antisemitic, and she rightly apologised.
The day after she did so, Ken Livingstone appeared on Vanessa Feltz’s radio show, of his own volition, to discuss this matter. The timing is crucial and tells us much again about Livingstone’s lack of judgment and his apparent desire for notoriety, whatever the cost to those whose causes he claims to be promoting. The London mayoral elections were approaching and the Tories were running an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. If Livingstone had had the nous, he would have simply noted Shah’s acknowledgement that she had crossed a line into antisemitism, welcomed her apology and then used all the weight of his background in anti-racism in London to utterly condemn the Tories for their thoroughly racist campaign against Khan. That could, and should, have been the story. Instead he tried to excuse Shah’s tweets as “completely over the top but … not antisemitic”. Immediately after this came his infamous remarks about Hitler and Zionism.
Livingstone’s claims that he is being targeted partly because he supports Jeremy Corbyn don’t stack up well. Corbyn was under massive pressure on this issue from an unholy alliance of Blairites, the mainstream media, Jewish community “leaders” and Tories. A spokesperson for Corbyn had already welcomed Shah’s apology. Livingstone’s intervention further undermined Corbyn. And some who know him well have suggested that this was deliberate – whether for reasons of jealousy or some petty sectarianism.
I do not believe Livingstone is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews whom the media treats as spokespersons have any right to define what is offensive to all Jews. I respect the integrity of the longstanding socialist and Labour Jewish activists who gave supportive testimony at Livingstone’s hearing, several of whom I know personally. However I do believe that Livingstone deliberately invites controversy and notoriety, that his judgement on these issues is very poor, that he has set back the Palestinian cause by his utterances, and made life more difficult for the embattled left-wing Labour leadership.
I hope that those of us fighting for justice for the Palestinians, fighting racism in all its forms, including antisemitism, and fighting to strengthen Labour’s progressive leadership will reflect on this episode and ensure that we are directing our fire on our enemies in ways that are both principled and effective.
Yesterday afternoon I stood with a small tour group of young activists outside Christchurch Hall off Brick Lane, where the unstoppable force that was the international anarchist celebrity, Emma Goldman, gave three lectures when she was visiting London in late 1899. The Yiddish poster for one of those lectures survives. it announces that she will speak about Tsedokeh (charity). In the 1899 version of clickbait, the poster entices the audience with some questions:
“Vilt ir visn vos is dos azoyns tsedokeh?”
Do you want to know what is this thing charity?
“Vilt ir visn varum un ver es git tsedokeh?”
Do you want to know who gives charity and why?
These are, of course, contemporary questions, and every two years when Red Nose Day comes around, I wish Emma Goldman was around to deconstruct Comic Relief and chart an alternative. I don’t know the exact words she said at this particular meeting in 1899 but in her writings on charity a few years later she described it as a function of capitalism – an economic system that “robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self respect.”
Another forceful woman speaker who spoke at the same venue a decade earlier was Annie Besant. Having once been a very enthusiastic Christian, she later became a leading secularist and atheist. In that phase of her life, her pet hate was Christian charity which, she said, “plunders the workers of the wealth they make, and then flings back at them a thousandth part of their own product as charity. It builds hospitals for the poor whom it has poisoned in filthy courts and alleys.”
In both these descriptions the recipients of charity are seen not as equals whom the giver of charity is helping to empower and access their rights but as objects of pity, always below and always inferior to the person giving the charity. The charity they receive might relieve some stresses temporarily but it is like a tiny plaster, that eventually comes off, and the wound hasn’t really healed. The givers don’t see that bit – they focus, often very sanctimoniously, on the moment of giving.
Red Nose Day brings my negative feelings about charity very close to the surface not just because I am familiar with the radical critiques of charity of people like Goldman and Besant, but because I have seen its work at first hand, which undoubtedly benefited a community – at least in the short term – in some significant respects. Though I also know about those crucial questions it does not and will not address, and I recognise the harmful ideology that it keeps in place.
In summer 2010 I was in Uganda doing some work for Link Community Development (LCD), an NGO which I had a close connection with for more than 10 years . On that trip I spent some time meeting and interviewing people who were part of a Comic Relief-funded project in an area called Katakwi, just starting to recover from three decades of conflict. During many of those years, people used school compounds not as places of education but as Displaced Persons’ camps to collectively protect themselves from those who were frequently raiding and attacking and sometimes kidnapping them. The children got very little education and communities couldn’t work on their farms very much. As a result people were extremely poor and there was very little food. Gradually, after long-demanded and long-awaited government action to give more protection to the threatend communities, things have become more peaceful and schools are returning to thier more normal function. Comic Relief has channeled some of the huge amounts of money raised through charitable donations to give several schools in this district equipment and seeds for developing school gardens in which they can grow their own food. The local organisation they are working through is LCD , who as their name implies sees school development going hand in hand with community participation. In each of these schools there is a group of 30 adults from the community who work with the children and teachers growing food together.
The climate in Katakwi makes life difficult, and undoubtedly played a part in the conflicts, which had an ethnic dimension too, but were essentially about access and control of scarce resource. In the Katakwi region, if you add the dry seasons together they take up more than half the year. So, Katakwi provides the kinds of images that abound in Comic Relief videos – starved, emaciated children, little food growing, very poor living conditions. Fortunately when I was there I didn’t bump into any super-rich tax-avoiding western pop stars looking devastated and tearful.
But I spent two other periods in Uganda – through the same NGO – in 2001 and 2005 in the much more fertile areas around Masindi and Kiryandongo. There the rain falls in buckets for nine months of the year. So many crops grow there, and so quickly: coffee, sugar, tobacco, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, beans, maize, cassava, and many more, but the people there – mainly subsistence farmers – also suffer grinding poverty. Is it because they don’t get the same kind of attention from Comic Relief?
The problem is more basic. Farmers there cannot get a decent price for their excess produce, beyond their subsistence needs, on the world market. The questions of why there are richer and poorer countries, whether it was chance or through conquest and massive transfers of wealth; or the questions about which companies control food prices globally are the questions that Comic relief cannot and will not ask. Fair Trade projects are spreading to more districts in Uganda and that is making some difference for local communities but Ugandans need trade justice for any real economic shift.
My own observations and conversations in Uganda were undertaken in summer breaks when I was working as a primary school teacher in inner London. When Red Nose Day came round it was probably quite confusing for the children at our school. One of the other teachers was a great enthusiast for Red Nose Day, would order in all the packs to popularise it among the children. The school would have a “fun day” in which children would come up with some very inventive ways of raising money and would collect a decent amount for Comic Relief. But I would take the opportunity to do an assembly for the school that would acknowledge the children’s genuine desire to “make a difference” but also subvert and challenge the charity mindset in the spirit of Emma Goldman .
Being generous to others, giving help to those who need it, showing that you care for someone else, not just yourself, wanting the world to be a fairer place, I said, were all good things. I congratulated them on the money they raised through their efforts. But I would then give them give them two very important messages about charity.
The first one was that what you do is much, much, more important than what you give, and at school, at home, within your community, they could make a positive difference by what they do every day, not just once every two years on Red Nose Day. I explained that if you become aware of what makes some things in the world unjust and then change the way they live your lives and the actions you take, you can impact on the world.
The second message was about how they conceive of the recipients of charity: Do we see them as people we feel sorry for because they can’t help themselves or do we see them as people who have a right to live with dignity – equal to everyone else, in a fairer world, and through actions we take we are helping them to do so? I encouraged them to to look at the world in terms of rights and recognise that people who are poor have a right not to be poor; people who don’t have clean water have a right to clean water to drink and to use; people who are living in a place of war have a right to live in peace; people who are homeless have a right to have shelter. And that people are already fighting for these things themselves but we can support them.
In terms of practical things that they could do I suggested some small things: that they and their families buy a bigger proportion of fair trade products when they are shopping ; that they look out for situations of injustice near to them and try to do something about it – to stand up for their own rights and for the rights of others. I talked about making the world a more comfortable place for everyone where they live, to recognise that some of their neighbours might be refugees new to the area, and think about how they could offer friendship and support.
I talked about how many problems in the world are to do with people in positions of power discriminating in one way or the other – whether on the basis of someone’s skin colour, beliefs, or gender. I suggested that when they grow up, if they find themselves in a position to make decisions that affect the lives of others, that they choose not to discriminate. I talked also about how they could campaign for peace; how wars can’t be made without weapons, and just how many weapons are built by richer countries and sold to poorer countries. I would usually end with what they can do to make their own opinions and their own voice heard. I acknowledged that they couldn’t vote until they were 18 but I told them they didn’t have to wait until they were 18, or even at secondary school to write a letter to a newspaper, or to their MP, or to the Prime Minister. And they didn’t have to wait until they were 18 to join a campaign about something they cared about.
I have left the world of work in primary education now – these days I am teaching adults – though occasionally taking primary age children on radical guided walks. But I hope some of these messages got through, and that some of those young people I spoke to a few years ago are part of the generation giving energy to the large protests against Trump and against racism that we have seen here in the first three months of 2017. I’ve spoken at two of those large rallies and it is really heartening from the platform to see a sea of young faces from many backgrounds making up a large proportion of the crowds. Perhaps the most heartening movement for me in this respect is that on the Stand up to Trump rally a few weeks ago I bumped into two teachers I used to work with and one of them told me about her pride that her teenage daughter was also there that day,having organised herself and a multicultural friendship group, to come together to participate in the march on their own terms and in their own way.
So, to Emma Goldman’s still pertinent questions about what this thing charity is, and who gives it and why, let’s add a few more for 2017: what are the alternatives to charity for changing the world? How do we organise ourselves to do it? How can we make every day Red?
This is the text of a platform speech I made in Parliament Square at the UN Anti-Racism Day march and rally, organised by Stand Up to Racism on Saturday 18th March 2017
A great anti-fascist, Marek Edelman, said “to be a Jew means always being with the oppressed never with the oppressors”. His words echoed for me two days ago when I took two American “Black Lives Matter” activists to Cable Street, scene of the victory over Mosley’s fascists in 1936. They wanted to learn what happened to Jews then. And I learnt about their struggles against another filthy rich, populist, racist, demagogue – Donald Trump
I told them that a grassroots movement – the Jewish People’s Council – understood that you defeat antisemitism and fascism by building an anti-fascist majority. By turning by-standers into up-standers. By convincing even those starting to fall for racist ideas.
We need to take our ideas into every arena – work, college, our neighbours,– to build that anti-racist majority today.
On the day that Paul Nuttall became leader of UKIP he said: “We are now the patriotic party of the working class”. If Mosley was alive he could have done him for copyright. He said the exact same words in 1936.
Labour crushed UKIP in Stoke. But UKIP are not finished yet. They still win protest votes among people, struggling economically, clutching at racist explanations. Saying to them racism is bad, or wrong, is not good enough. We have to show how a multicultural society and immigration benefit us all, and make the fight against racism a fight for proper jobs, better housing, better education, for all communities
Antisemitism is rising again alongside daily Islamophobic attacks. It has been decades since Britain’s Far Right publicly displayed banners saying “Hitler was Right”. That happened here last year.
The Daily Mail, which supported Hitler all through the 1930s, falsely accuses Corbyn of antisemitism, but Jewish socialists knows who the real antisemites are and who our allies are.
Our allies are in every minority community that is a victim of race hate and among everyone, like Jeremy Corbyn, who unites against race hate, mysoginy and homophobia.
Racists accumulate and switch targets easily – from Muslims, to Polish workers, to Jews. We have to defend all communities under attack. Unconditionally. With solidarity we will win. No Pasaran!
The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams had an interesting angle on the Tory budget. She noted that Phillip Hammond had set aside a small sum of money for commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Act of Parliament enfranchising women (well, more than 70% of them) which will be upon us in Early 2018. She wrote a searing critique of the impact on ordinary women of the cuts that the Tory budget entailed: She asked what would the suffragette leader and activist Emmeline Pankhurst say about women in Theresa May’s Britain continuing to suffer such economic hardship so long after winning the vote.
Good question, but to my mind Williams invokes the wrong Pankhurst. It was Emmeline’s middle daughter, Sylvia, who led and inspired a much more sustained attack on the economic injustices afflicting working class women, through her work alongside her sisters in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).
When Rudyard Kipling wrote “East is East and West is West” he may as well have pre-figured the political, economic and geographical chasm that separated these two vibrant sections of the Suffragette movement in London. The West End suffragettes were dominated by educated, very well to do, immaculately dressed women, a significant number of whom were willing to engage in individual, often dangerous, acts of serious trouble-making that risked imprisonment. And they were prepared to endure the horrors of doctors and prison staff attempting to force-feed them while they engaged in hunger strikes. They did not fear prison, though, since there would be no shortage of people to look after their children, and a good income would continue to flow into the household while they were getting some respite from round the clock activism behind bars (though a number of them found ways to continue to resist while imprisoned).
It was of course very different for the ELFS, whose typical members were factory workers, laundry workers, bar-maids, cleaners and others working long exhausting hours for low pay in sweated industries. A number of them would have been the sole breadwinners in their households. A prison sentence for something they could have avoided being caught up in would have been (and was) an unmitigated disaster for their families.
Their different circumstances coloured their attitudes towards the very demand they were both fighting for. Emmeline Pankhurst may have been satisfied to ask that women be granted the vote “on the same basis as men”. But at that time barely 60% of men had the vote, and it was on a property basis. If an equivalent franchise extended to women, many working class women would still be excluded. The ELFS, though, saw themselves in the business of securing the vote for working class women and men. They campaigned for Universal Suffrage, and they were not content to reduce their efforts to a single issue campaign.
They supported local women’s workplace struggles to form trade unions, and built strong relationships of solidarity and struggle with male trade unionists, especially gas workers, railway workers and dockers. It was an ELFS delegation of working class women, describing their appalling daily economic realities, that shook Prime Minister Asquith from his complacency in June 1914. He finally agreed to meet them only after Sylvia had threatened a hunger strike on the steps of Parliament. Having been an opponent of women’s votes, but edging towards a partial suffrage, he was forced to acknowledge at the end of their meeting, “If the change has got to come we must face it boldly and make it thoroughly democratic in its basis.” But before he could start to put the machinery in place to act on it the war began, and womenb’s votes remained on the backburner.
Emmeline’s mainstream suffragettes “patriotically” wound down much of their activity during World War 1. They changed the name of their newspaper to Britannia, and concentrated on recruiting women for munitions factories. Meanwhile, Sylvia and the ELFS were marching to Trafalgar Square alongside local trade unions, demanding no taxation on food and caps on food prices, an end to sweating, and equal pay and equal opportunities for women in their workplaces during the war, where they were increasingly taking on roles which had previously been reserved for men.
I am sure that Zoe Williams is very familiar with Emmeline Pankhurst’s forthright and courageous political campaigning in the early years of the suffragette struggle. I wonder how much she knows of Emmeline’s later trajectory. Emmeline Pankhurst’s last political act was to put herself for a Conservative candidacy. In 1926, she was adopted as the Conservative – yes, Conservative – candidate for Whitechapel, though she died before she could contest the election. Emmeline had made her peace with the system that Sylvia was still battling against with every fibre of her body for all women’s economic as well as political rights.