I have taken part in Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations, on 27th January, marking the day that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, since 2001, when it was established in Britain. But the Holocaust commemorations I was first regularly attending and participating in, from the early 1980s, were organised in London’s East End by the Friends of Yiddish.
These took place on April 19th – the anniversary of day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began – and were conducted through readings, memories, poetry and song in the language spoken by the majority of its millions of Jewish victims. These small, very emotional gatherings –usually around 25-35 people – included Holocaust survivors who were ensuring that the memory of those who were exterminated lived on in their own precious language.
What also struck me powerfully was that the chair of this event and lead-speaker, Majer Bogdanski a bundist (Jewish socialist), whose wife, Esther and most of his family were murdered, would always honour, in addition to the millions of Jewish victims, the “tsigayner” (Gypsies/Roma), whom he reminded attendees “were murdered in the same way for exactly the same reason”.
Yom HaShoah – Israel’s national day of remembrance of the 6 million Jews who were murdered –which falls on a different day here each year as it is marked according to the Jewish calendar – leaves me with different feelings: uneasy feelings.
Every year, when it comes around, I have two quotes in my head. One is from Boaz Evron, a left wing Israeli writer who died a few years ago, who wrote a brilliant and controversial essay in 1983 which began: “Two awful things happened to the Jewish people in the present century: the Holocaust – and the lessons drawn from it.” The other is from Marek Edelman, the Bundist Polish Jewish socialist and lifelong anti-Zionist, Second in Command during the Warsaw ghetto Uprising. He said: “We fought for dignity and freedom… not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”
In his essay, Evron rails against narrow nationalist and mystical interpretations of the Holocaust which locate it outside of history, and focus on it as an exclusively Jewish event, which Israel’s leaders (who had recently conducted the horrific war in Lebanon) have tied to Israel’s national fate, as seen through their eyes alone.
During that war in Lebanon, in which you had the first significant refusal to fight by many dissident Israeli army reservists, the murderous ultra-right-wing government of Begin and Sharon described the Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat, under siege in Beirut, as “Hitler in his bunker”.
Edelman stayed in Poland and remained a resolute anti-nationalist, and an internationalist who called out racism and human rights abuses wherever they occurred, and he too gave the lie to the dominant Israeli historiography. He was treated as persona non grata in Israel, abused through its media, and, through the intervention of Holocaust historians at Yad Vashem, was denied honorary degrees for which he had been proposed at Israeli universities.Both Evron and Edelman are no longer alive. How much we could do with their collective wisdom today! You can find Evron’s article in this edition of Shmate “an American journal of progressive Jewish thought:
By chance, this year, in our calendar here, Yom HaShoah coincides with International Roma Day (the 50th anniversary of the first World Roma congress in Orpington, Kent in 1971). Events of the last week have done so much to heighten consciousness among progressives of the continuing oppression of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities
And tonight, who is the guest speaker invited, shockingly, by Liberal Judaism organisers in Britain? Tsipi Hotovely, Israel’s new and current ambassador in Britain: an ultra-nationalist, supporter of racist settlers, an advocate of ethnic cleansing, who labels and condemns Israeli-Palestinian love relationships as “miscegenation”, and describes the most catastrophic event in Palestinian history – the Nakba – as an “Arab lie”, “a made up story”. What, indeed has been learnt and understood?
YouGov email me (and many thousands of others) every week because I once signed up to give my opinion on issues of the day on their “chats”. Yesterday they asked whether we thought levels of racism in the UK had got better or worse over the last 50 years, and several related questions. I didn’t get around to answering until today. By then full-on anti-GRT (Gypsy/Roma/Traveller) racism had reared its ugly head again in the form of Labour local elections leaflets in Warrington.
In the 1980s when I worked for the Runnymede Trust, I thought things were worse than the 1970s, even though that decade had lots of fascist violence and racist murders. Since then things may have improved for some segments within minority communities, but racism is still deeply entrenched in the system.
Now, in hindsight, I look back at the 1980s/1990s as a period of much more hope in the fight against different kinds of racism. There was a great deal of grassroots self-organisation happening and resistance among minorities on the streets was strong. Innovative challenges on race and other inequalities were made by the GLC and a number of left-wing councils
Education initiatives created by progressive teachers and youth workers mushroomed in different settings. The far-right were there still, but, unlike in the 1970s, they were kept to the fringes. At Runnymede our materials were mostly about negative impacts of policy or neglect on Caribbean and Asian minorities, but the targets of racism and racists were already widening.
In my last year at Runnymede I proposed that we produced a report on Gypsies. It met some resistance at first, but eventually it got published in May 1990. it was called On the Verge: the Gypsies of England (by the late Donald Kenrick and Sian Bakewell.) Looking back at it this evening, in the light of the last 24 hours, it really is quite chilling.
In one section it describes Tory officials in Bradford before the 1987 election handing out car stickers which said “KEEP THE GYPSIES OUT – VOTE CONSERVATIVE”
That year, another Tory, Christopher Murphy MP tried to get a bill through Parliament that would have designated the whole of England and Wales as areas where Gypsies could not stop – Priti Patel’s fantasy today. I wondered what happened to Murphy. He actually stood down in 1987 though nearly 20 years later he re-emerged to fight a seat unsuccessfully for UKIP.
The next paragraph of the 1990 report continued: “However, at local level there has been little difference between Labour and Conservative Councillors in their attitude to providing sites for Gypsies.” In the de Beauviour area of Hackney, in 1988, a Labour official praised two Labour councillors for how they had ensured “the eviction of Travellers.”
In the very week when the Tories are sneering at their opponents and critics, and celebrating a report that flies in the face of all evidence, and clears them of the institutional racism that is a daily reality, we are reminded of other longstanding racism and discrimination within the Labour Party too.
We had an all too brief period of nearly five years from 2015 in which many Labour voters expressed a feeling that for the first time on their lives they could be proud to vote Labour as a party unashamed to be anti-racist and pro-migrant and refugee.
Is it indeed a coincidence that on the very weekend that Keir Starmer celebrates one year of his leadership, one year in which he has tried to bury the idealism that Corbyn represented under a thick layer of centrism overlaid with Union Jacks, that the longstanding racism that Corbyn had sought to remove once and for all from Labour has risen to the surface again? What, if anything, will Starmer do about it?
Talk given at the World Against Racism online rally 20 March 2021
In the last 12 months, our eugenicist, profit driven Tory Government has presided over COVID carnage. The extraordinary death rate, however, reflects also the Labour Party’s failure to popularise an alternative strategy.
I lost an aunt and brother-in-law to COVID but people from Black and other ethnic minority and marginalised communities, such as Gypsies and Travellers, disabled and elderly people, were hit so much harder, as structural inequalities were magnified.
I’ve had one jab but I’m not vaccinated. We need two. Track, trace and isolate as well.
As an anti-racist I want to tear down borders so we can fight for people to live as equals. The virus crosses borders to inflict harm. Our response must be internationalist. No one is free of the virus until we all are. The most depressing political intervention by both parties during the pandemic has been “vaccine nationalism” and the claim: “we will be the first country to be vaccinated.”
Anti-racists should ask: who will be the last country? And why? I am proud that my MP, Jeremy Corbyn, is campaigning against the collusion of Big Pharma and wealthy governments to bag the vaccine supplies first.
But at grassroots level during the pandemic, the best of humanity has shown itself in two ways. Mutual Aid – with its proud history in Black American and immigrant Jewish communities – has reasserted itself enabling us to support each other locally in the COVID crisis. And Black Lives Matter mushroomed internationally after the killing of George Floyd.
Lockdown has simultaneously forced us to concentrate on building organic local anti-racist alliances. And it brought Zoom into our lives – connecting us with struggles far away.
In January, Jewish socialists here gave a Zoom platform to young American Jewish trade unionists and anti-fascists involved with Black Lives Matter and support for Muslims, migrants and refugees. We are witnessing the strongest Jewish campaigning against US state racism since the 1960s. They are fighting antisemitism too in a country where Trump’s Proud Boys display shirts with “6mwe” – Six Million Wasn’t enough.
We, and our American comrades, know that the danger of antisemitism comes from the right and far right. Apart from a few ignorant and malevolent individuals, the left are our trusted allies against it.
In Europe too, Polish and Hungarian politicians spread antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Roma racism. Victor Orban accuses the Hungarian Jew George Soros of assisting Muslim refugees. There are Jews in Hungary who assist Muslim refugees. We are proud of them as we are of all Jews, whether in Budapest, Washington, or Jerusalem, who refuse to be enemies of Muslims, and refuse to tolerate racism against any targets.
I’ve been thinking so much about this time period exactly one year ago. Early March 2020. It was obvious how quickly the COVID crisis was escalating in Britain, and we had simple comparisons to make with similar countries which were a few weeks ahead of us in terms of infection rates.
But the Tory government was delaying and delaying an inevitable lockdown, allowing two huge events to take place – the Cheltenham Festival attended by 250,000, which ended on 10 March, followed by the Liverpool v Athletico Madrid football match on 11 March, when 3,000 away fans from a city already affected by a greater rate of COVID infections came to Liverpool and enjoyed spending time in bars all around the city centre before the game.
On 16 March 2020 it was finally announced that significant restrictions would be coming but they were not put into place by the Government until 23rd March. Wasted weeks. Wasted lives.
We know the Government made so many wrong choices (and has hardly, if at all, diverted from that), but what of the opposition?
I looked back this morning at a Facebook post I wrote a year ago today, where, as a Labour Party member, I made a suggestion to the opposition (who at that time were in the middle of their leadership contest):
“The height of this crisis is not a great time for a change of leadership and I believe that should be delayed.” I suggested instead that Jeremy Corbyn (still in place as temporary leader) and the three leadership contenders should form a temporary, collective, emergency leadership in the Shadow Cabinet that needed to “put Johnson’s half-baked and half-hearted plans to one side and imagine that it [Labour] is in government now.”
I argued that “Labour must state the principles behind its plan to confront the threat from the virus – a people-first, safety for the community, especially the most vulnerable, approach. Labour must list the key things that need to be done with clear priorities. And at the same time it should mobilise and empower Labour members to play a central role in their communities in making this a reality, in the absence of a useful lead from central government.”
With hindsight we know what actually happened. The Labour leadership contest continued. Starmer and Rayner had their coronation moment. The next day they started showing what they thought ought to be done, but unfortunately not with the COVID crisis. They met instead with the Board of Deputies of British Jews which many ordinary Jewish people, especially those left of centre, regard as an irrelevant, self-important, anachronism . Starmer kept repeating and repeating that tackling “antisemitism in the Labour Party” was his “first priority”. Astonishing. Rayner, once seemingly a committed part of the Corbyn project, who had months earlier been outspoken about how accusations of antisemitism had been used cynically to undermine and derail Corbyn’s leadership, simply sat back and quietly nodded along. (A few months down the line she would say and do much worse when choosing to address a Labour Friends of Israel/Jewish Labour Movement event coinciding with the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.)
Any objective observer who looked at the evidence around allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, would conclude that this problem was infinitesimal, but still needed to be addressed proportionately. They would also surely conclude that it had been deliberately distorted and blown up out of all proportion during the Corbyn-leadership era by a viciously anti-Labour media, egged on by Tories, the Labour Right, and certain Jewish establishment bodies for political and factional reasons. But it was stated that this was the prime focus of Labour’s new leadership, even as the COVID crisis started to burn through the population.
Starmer and Rayner made the mildest, most muted criticism of Johnson during their first few weeks as leaders even as Johnson’s and Cummings’ blunders were rapidly morphing into murderous crimes. While so many people looked for a sign of an alternative strategy that Labour, as “opposition” would take the lead in mobilising, we had the wasted months where, at best, Starmer called the Tories “chaotic” and “incompetent”, but still backed their strategy, and repeated the hopeless mantras: “We support the Government”, “we want the government to succeed.” Starmer was even more gung-ho than Johnson in promoting the disastrous push to get pupils back to school from last April, despite rising infection levels and the dangers to school staff, children and their families. In pushing the “back to schools” line he was mouthing almost word for word the lines produced by Tony Blair’s Global Institute in that same period.
Internally though, Labour were much more focused and decisive as they shut down democracy, suspending decision-making meetings for several months, arbitrarily outlawing discussion of certain topics and suspending members with alacrity. They claimed they wanted unity but engaged in all-out war against the Left, attempting to drive the Left out of the party. It is estimated that 100,000 or so have voluntarily departed, young and old, many no doubt demoralised after the incredible hope, energy and excitement that change was possible, that was generated between 2015-19.
So much for mobilising and empowering our members to play a part in a productive community response. Where that mobilisation and empowerment has happened, that has been primarily through the Mutual Aid movement which many Labour members have contributed to in spite of, not because of, the party’s perceived priorities.
A year on, the sickening death total – the worst in Europe (even with the massaging of figures by the Tories) – speaks for itself. The breakdown of those figures makes even tougher reading with ethnic minorities (especially those in vital front-line work), older people, disabled people, poorer and marginalised people, disproportionately meeting an early death. On top of that, the debilitating effects of long-COVID on individuals, who will need a lot of health care, are still to be fully realised.
I know of course that the principle drivers of this disaster have been our eugenicist Government committed so much more to the economy – or rather their and their friends’ economic interests – than to community health and safety. But it shames me beyond measure how much the leadership of the Party I am still an active member of, has been complicit in a catastrophe whose scale was far from inevitable. COVID makes people ill – very ill. But the death rate we have experienced has been brought about by political choices by Government and “opposition”. The numbers who have died have varied considerably from country to country, with those countries adopting a serious Zero-COVID strategy emerging the least-scathed, and with their economies the most intact.
As scientists begin to warn of a third wave, there are still choices to be made.
This morning, Julia Bard and I have sent a letter as Jewish Labour Party members to Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner calling for the immediate restoration of the Labour whip to Jeremy Corbyn. On 18th February 2021 it will be three months since it was withdrawn.
Dear Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner
We are Jewish members of Islington North Constituency Labour Party and we are calling for the whip to be restored to our MP, Jeremy Corbyn. Since we moved into the constituency in 1996, he has continuously represented us as a Labour Member of Parliament, winning overwhelming majorities in every election.
We agreed with the conclusion of the National Executive Committee panel, who decided unanimously and on the basis of legal advice to reinstate Jeremy Corbyn on 17th November 2020 after he had been unjustly suspended less than three weeks earlier. So, like many others, including a substantial number of NEC members, we were dismayed by the injustice of withdrawing the whip immediately after his reinstatement to the Labour Party.
We consider ourselves privileged to be represented by such an exemplary constituency MP. Until the whip was removed, Jeremy Corbyn attended every CLP General Meeting unless there was an absolutely unavoidable reason for his absence, and gave the CLP detailed regular reports on all his work, local, regional, national and international.
Unlike so many other Members of Parliament, he is rooted in and committed to serving the people of his constituency. He knows every corner of Islington North and has built constructive relationships with every community in it. This is an area where many individuals and communities are suffering from poverty, discrimination and fear. Jeremy Corbyn is always accessible to his constituents and is tireless in his support of those who are struggling to sustain themselves and their families, to live decent lives and to fulfil their potential in the face of inequality and injustice.
We are both involved in Mutual Aid – two of thousands in Islington who rushed to volunteer as the pandemic struck, to ensure that everyone in our community is cared for. We are proud to reflect this culture of solidarity and kindness which our MP has been so instrumental in establishing in Islington, and we have had his active and consistent support and appreciation throughout this tragic period.
As Jewish Party members, we sympathise strongly with his critique of the political and media commentary on the EHRC report on the Investigation into Antisemitism in the Labour Party. Many other Jewish and non-Jewish Labour Party members have, like us, privately expressed similar responses to the report in the absurd situation where we are forbidden to discuss within Labour Party meetings a report on the Labour Party. As Jews who have been combatting and educating people about antisemitism over decades (including being educators on trips to Auschwitz for trade unionists, students and antiracist activists), it was clear to us that Jeremy Corbyn’s comments confirmed the facts, which were misused by people with factional political agendas and were misreported by the media.
Here is just one of a number of examples of such misuse and misreporting. In February 2019, Margaret Hodge tweeted about having submitted 200 complaints of antisemitism to the Labour Party. Inevitably, the media headlines unquestioningly reproduced her claims. In fact, as the then General Secretary Jennie Formby clarified, the Party had investigated and found that many of those reports were duplicates and actually referred to 111 individuals (not 200), and of those, only 20 were Labour Party members (The Guardian, 12th Feb 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/12/formby-denies-labour-leadership-is-ignoring-mps-on-antisemitism). The General Secretary published data on all the complaints of antisemitism the Party had received, the actions that were taken and the outcomes. In response, according to the BBC, “Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge tweeted a warning not to trust the figures.” (11th Feb 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47203397)
While we believe strongly that allegations of antisemitism must be treated very seriously, unlike some of those making the complaints, we support the legal principle that accusations need to be supported by evidence in order to be proven.
Furthermore, we resent non-Jews queuing up to tell us how Jews feel, dictating a single prescribed response to the EHRC report and treating the EHRC as infallible. This is especially concerning given two stark criticisms of the EHRC shortly after its publication. Firstly, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights declared: “We find that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been unable to adequately provide leadership and gain trust in tackling racial inequality in the protection and promotion of human rights.” (p.4 https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/3376/documents/32359/default/. Following this, the EHRC was condemned by women working at the BBC for its report on the Corporation’s gender pay gap (https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/bbc-equal-pay-findings-come-under-fire/). No one in the Labour party has been threatened with suspension for allowing discussion of these reports.
We know that antisemitism in British society is real and growing on the watch of Conservative governments since 2010. This ranges from prejudice, harassment, conspiracy theories and verbal hostility through to violence and desecration of synagogues, cemeteries and other institutions. But like hundreds of other Jews who we know personally or know of, we challenge the claim that Jews are not safe in the Labour Party. We have always felt safe, welcome and valued within our ward and Constituency Party. In this situation, what does make us feel unsafe is the strong sense that antisemitism is being used instrumentally, for political purposes, and not out of concern for the wellbeing of Jewish people. This instrumentalisation creates confusion about actual antisemitism and undermines attempts to challenge it.
The Jewish community, like all other communities and societies, is diverse, pluralist and embodies conflicting experiences, interests and perspectives. There are several bodies in the Jewish community which claim, falsely, to give a unified voice to this diversity, and they have declared their support for the Party’s summary punishment of Jeremy Corbyn. As many Jewish Labour Party members have said repeatedly since the claims of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn began (coincidentally, when he was elected as leader of the Party), these institutions do not represent us or our experiences. Indeed, we struggle to understand how they have more right to comment on the internal disciplinary procedures of a Party they neither belong to nor support than Party members like Jeremy Corbyn.
Three months after the the whip was unjustly removed from him, we call for it to be immediately and unconditionally restored. We look forward to continuing to work with our many-times-democratically-elected MP on the crucial issues of human rights and social justice, locally, nationally and globally, to which he has so consistently devoted himself.
Two weeks ago I was preparing a talk for a PCS union branch for Holocaust Memorial Day. That day commemorates the liberation of the Nazis’ largest death camp, Auschwitz, by the Red Army. Jews from more than 20 countries were deported to their deaths there. But in that talk I remarked that the prime focus on Auschwitz obscures a key aspect of the Holocaust that needs to be assimilated: that, on the eve of the Nazi invasion, half of the Jews who would be murdered in the Holocaust were citizens of Poland.
Jews comprised 10 per cent of Poland’s entire pre-war population. In Poland’s capital, Warsaw, and its textile centre, Lodz, Jews formed one-third of the population.
Auschwitz accounted for around 300,000 of Poland’s Jews who were murdered under Nazi occupation. Much larger numbers of Polish Jews perished at Treblinka and Belzec; others starved in ghettoes, but a few hundred thousand Jews escaped from ghettoes or avoided being rounded up.
Some fled to the forests and formed partisan groups; many others were hidden by Polish Catholics, despite the Nazis threatening the death penalty for Poles caught hiding Jews. Among my valued personal friends are two Polish-born Jews who survived because, as children, they were hidden by Polish Catholics.
But they were the lucky ones. Painstaking research by Polish historians has revealed that two out of every three of those Jews who went into hiding were murdered in Poland. And not just by the Nazis, but by Poles themselves. Many were handed over to the Nazis by local Polish civilians who had captured them.
Last summer I attended an online Yiddish course based in Warsaw which included guest lectures. One lecture in particular was a real eye-opener. It focused on the 18,000-strong Polish Blue Police, that the Nazis incorporated as an auxiliary in liquidating Poland’s Jews. They specialised in hunting down Jews in hiding.
The lecturer was Jan Grabowski, born in Warsaw to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who was a Holocaust survivor. Grabowski emigrated to Canada in 1988 and is a history professor at Ottowa University. In 2003, he co-founded the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, whose director is Warsaw-born Barbara Engelking, a sociologist specialising in Holocaust studies.
Grabowski’s lecture demonstrated that Polish complicity in the Holocaust was not just a matter of assorted individuals and groups undertaking actions, but was institutional. The Blue Police operated under the auspices of the Nazi occupiers, but carried out their tasks with independent initiative and considerable enthusiasm, becoming a “key element in the implementation of the Final Solution.”
This week Grabowski is back in Warsaw where he and Engelking are awaiting the verdict of a libel trial expected today brought against them as editors of a two-volume study Night Without End, published by the Centre for Holocaust Research. Based on thousands of testimonies, it describes the fate of Jews in nine districts of Poland, and reveals, in the centre’s words, “ample evidence of the important, and previously underestimated levels of … complicity of certain segments of Polish society in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours and co-citizens.”
The libel case has been brought by 80-year-old Filomena Leszczynska, whose uncle, a village elder, was named. The study acknowledges that he saved the life of one Jew, though he robbed her of some possessions, and alleges that he collaborated with the Nazis in the betrayal of 22 Jews in a nearby forest.
Leszczynska says she is fighting the case not only for her right to “enjoy the remembrance of a deceased person” but her right also to “national pride and identity … to a fact-based history of World War II” and to “receive truthful information from historical research” paid for by her taxes.
That wording suggests that this goes beyond an individual seeking dignity for her family’s reputation. And it does. She was urged to pursue the case by the Polish League Against Defamation, a body that is strongly aligned with the ruling populist-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), and has received generous state subsidies.
Since PiS came to power in 2015 it has paid great attention to history, condemning an alleged “pedagogy of shame … of disgrace” that was “attacking Polishness, Polish values and traditions and Polish identity” in Poland’s educational institutions. It wants to replace it with “a pedagogy of pride” emphasising “Polish heroism” and “noble behaviour.”
These themes have been advanced by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) a body that has come under more direct political control since PiS came to power, described by critics as an increasingly sinister “ministry of memory.” In 2016 four PiS representatives replaced independent members of the IPN’s ruling body.
The following year IPN came under fire when it was discovered that the deputy director of its publishing office, had, as an independent publisher between 2009-14, reprinted works by Holocaust revisionist David Irving. IPN rejected calls for his dismissal.
In February 2018 the Polish Teachers Union appealed to the media to stop using the term “pedagogy of shame,” which they argued was a cover for seeking “the denial of parts of historical knowledge.” This appeal came in the wake of PiS adopting an infamous law, drafted by a hardliner, seeking to criminalise those who talk and write of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was adopted by the Sejm (Polish parliament) on January 26 2018, the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day.
That law was controversial for Poland’s close right-wing allies in the US and in Netanyahu’s Israel, and PiS were forced into a partial climbdown — reducing it to a civil rather than a criminal offence — hence the current libel case brought by an individual citizen.
It has undoubtedly had a chilling impact on the work of historians, and those who have sought to withstand the pressure are condemned and abused as “traitors” and “falsifiers of history.” Online newspaper articles about the libel case have attracted comments from readers such as: “…deport people who spit on Poland Poles”; “Jews attack Poland with the help of lies slander… they are a fifth column”; “take citizenship away from this liar”; “People like he [sic] should be loaded into the cattle cars and sent East where they belong”; “Kick this Jewish scum out of Poland.”
Rafal Pankowski of the Never Again Association, a Polish body monitoring racism and fascism, described the 2018 law as a “turning point” for Poland that “changed norms” and “opened the discursive space … to organise politically around antisemitic tropes.”
There are, he acknowledges, “few physical attacks on Jews in Poland” which he attributes to “few visible Jews walking the Polish streets,” but Never Again has documented “many acts of violence against … symbolic sites, such as Jewish cemeteries or monuments to the victims of the Holocaust” and a “high level of hate speech cases” since the 2018 law.
Critical historians are right to view this current case as a dangerous attack on freedom of research, critical inquiry and free expression. If it succeeds, it could well herald a number of other civil cases, to the detriment not only of historians but to the foundations of a free society, which are increasingly dominated by nationalist-conservative norms, nurturing a revived antisemitism alongside other bigotries against LGBT and women’s rights.
And while attention has rightly focused on the significance of this libel case, under the radar, PiS recently appointed a new deputy education minister, Thomas Rymkowski, a former MP for the far-right Nationalist Movement coalition, who Rafal Pankowski describes as “notorious for extremely hostile statements about minorities, including Jews.”
This article was first published in the Morning Star 9 February 2021
Speech made at the Holocaust Memorial Day event organised by Stand Up To Racism 26 January 2021
I’m honoured to be on this platform that marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was the most extensive of six death camps the Nazis constructed, all of them in Poland, where the victims were industrially slaughtered in gas chambers designed by educated architects and engineers, in a process organised and recorded by skilled administrators. Private companies made handsome profits supplying materials for death factories. The Holocaust happened in the context of modernity and capitalism.
But to learn more from it we must recognise that Auschwitz and other death camps were the very end of the process. That process began in Nazi Germany several years earlier with labelling, discrimination, exclusion, scapegoating, dehumanisation and brutalisation of particular communities – especially the Jews, but also Roma and Sinti Gypsies and disabled people. That ideology, however, was not confined to Nazi Germany.
In February 1935, years before Hitler advocated the endlosung – Final solution – one fascist wrote: “…the most certain and permanent way of disposing of the Jews would be to exterminate them by some humane method such as the lethal chamber.” His name was Arnold Leese, a retired veterinary surgeon, who had worked in Lincolnshire in the 1920s and served as a local councillor for a fringe fascist party. By the the mid 1930s, Leese lived in Surrey and headed a small, virulently antisemitic grouping in Britain called the Imperial Fascist League.
Jews were transported to Auschwitz from more than 20 countries. In many of them the Nazis were helped by home-grown collaborators. Had they occupied Britain they would have found collaborators here too. Leese and his comrades, as well as many members of Mosley’s much larger British Union of Fascists, would have happily assisted.
The entity that we call Auschwitz actually had three different components – Auschwitz 1 was a prison/concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, trade unionists, gays, soviet prisoners of war…where many died from starvation and brutal treatment. A second camp, Monowitz, consisted of slave labour factories. The 3rd component was a killing centre at Birkenau, 2 km from Auschwitz 1. It was dedicated only to killing and reserved principally for Jews and Gypsies. Around 1 million Jews and 21,000 Gypsies were exterminated there in four gas chambers.
Auschwitz 1 is now a museum. It has horrendous displays, with chilling documentation, that offer irrefutable proof of what happened, and how, for anyone inclined to take notice of Holocaust deniers, but it is a large annotated map there that always shocks me. It shows how far the inmates were transported from their homes. One long line stretches all the way to Norway, where, in November 1942, hundreds of Jews were rounded up to be transported 1,600km to Auschwitz.
One of the ships that transported some Norwegian Jews on the first part of their journey, was damaged and captured by British forces in 1945. It was repurposed and later renamed Empire Windrush. In 1948 that same ship brought hundreds of Jamaicans to Britain, who helped make Britain a more culturally rich multi-ethnic society, despite institutional racism and the attempts by generations of racists to demean, marginalise and oppress minority cultures, and deny the horrors of Empire and colonialism.
By chance, the history of that ship has entangled the fates of Blacks and Jews. Auschwitz-Birkenau entangled the fates of Jews with Roma and Sinti Gypsies. In 2021 Jews who are conscious of our history should actively embrace these entanglements of fate and not leaving things to chance. But that is not just down to us. All anti-racists and anti-fascists should work for unity between the persecuted, oppressed, discriminated against, exploited or marginalised. In the dismal last 12 months, Jewish solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in America, and also here, has been one of the few bright spots.
In terms of solidarity, the words of a Polish Jewish Marxist, Isaac Deutscher, who came to London in April 1939, as a correspondent on a Polish Jewish newspaper, and lost so many family and friends he never saw again, ring so true for me. A year before he died, he wrote: “…what then makes a Jew? Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.”
Deutscher wrote with great sadness of what was almost entirely lost. Not only people, but an overwhelmingly working-class Yiddish culture and civilization of music, poetry, theatre, literature, art, humour, that developed over centuries. Ninety per cent of Poland’s 3.3m Jews were wiped out by the Nazis. Jews had comprised 10% of Poland’s population and 25% of its trade unionists. From the mid-1920s Deutscher lived in Warsaw where one third of the population were Jews. It was later the site of the most astonishing acts of anti-Nazi resistance – cultural, political, spiritual, physical – culminating in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943. when a united fighting force of a few hundred Jews waged a three-week long guerrilla struggle against the most powerful army in Europe. The oldest of the fighters was 40, the youngest just 13, a member of the children’s organisation of the Jewish socialist Bund. Most fighters were in their 20s.
I want to end by returning to 2021 and explaining how a key demand from the Black Lives Matter movement can also help us understand and act on the meaning of the Holocaust.
That demand is to start decolonising education by asking the right questions about slavery, empire and colonialism.
It is also time to decolonise Britain’s Holocaust history in school and ask the right questions. • Why was Britain so reluctant to take refugees from Nazism in the 1930s despite receiving 600,000 asylum applications?
• Why did Britain’s civil servants and politicians refuse to believe credible information about the extermination of Jews in Poland as It was happening, and ignore demands to take exceptional action such as bombing the railway lines that transported Jews to death camps?
• Why, after the war, did Britain’s immigration policy favour refugees from Eastern Europe, including former members of Waffen SS and Nazi police units, over non-whites and Holocaust survivors languishing in DP camps?
When Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in November in the face of rapidly rising COVID infections, there was relief that he had finally taken some action but dismay among many, especially among teaching unions, that he had excluded schools from this lockdown. Not that Johnson came under any pressure at all from his opposite number Keir Starmer to do so. On the contrary, Starmer insisted that any pause in children’s education would be a sign of a government that was failing. Whether lives might be saved by such a pause was, it seemed, outside of Starmer’s frame of reference.
The teaching unions had been sceptical about the full return to classrooms last September. In June they had released a 10-point-plan aimed at making schools safe and challenging the educational inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-crisis. By September, so little of what they had demanded had even been acknowledged by the Government or, indeed, the Opposition leadership, let alone put in place.
Unsurprisingly, within the first two weeks of term there were outbreaks of COVID in hundreds of schools. Children contracting the virus were taking it back with their homework. In poorer inner-city areas this often meant taking it back to overcrowded, multi-generational home settings. PPE for school staff was inadequate and there was poor ventilation in most schools. The government did not care because, for them, children back at school meant parents available for work again, meant the economy would be boosted, and rates of profits revived.
For four and half years from September 2015 Labour was led by politicians with humane and explicitly socialist values, who put people before profit, who made the health and welfare of ordinary people and especially the most impoverished and marginalised, their litmus test of a successful policy. When the establishment succeeded in defeating Corbyn they knew then that Corbynism had not been vanquished. Their favoured candidate for the new Labour leadership, fawned over in the establishment’s media, could only achieve that victory by promising that he would take forward radical policies himself.
It was a cruel deception. There is barely a single one of the 10 pledges that Keir Starmer made, in order to win the popular vote of Labour members, that he has even gone near to fulfilling. The biggest price for that failure has been paid by families and individuals devastated by a COVID crisis which could have been mitigated by a real opposition in parliament that challenged the terrible choices made by the Johnson government, and simultaneously validated and encouraged opposition to government policy within the base of society.
If Johnson was recklessly sending children back to educational settings that were effectively incubators of COVID, he was egged on mercilessly by Starmer who was not merely demanding that children be back in school in September, he was expecting children to return: “No ifs. No buts. No equivocation.” Starmer was thus complicit with Johnson in the infections, illnesses and deaths that had their origin in educational settings from September onwards.
Despite feeling pressure from so many within communities who were experiencing or observing the unfolding tragedy, Starmer still could not bring himself to call for a lockdown, but eventually he asked for a limited “fire-break” . When Johnson did act at the beginning of November, he outflanked Starmer and went for a four-week lockdown. But with Starmer having been so gung-ho about children not missing any education, by physically being in school, (and ignoring union proposals for blended learning and a shift to online teaching), he was in no position to call for schools to be part of the lockdown. The consequences have been so dire and devastating.
Of course Johnson holds an 80-seat majority, so he could have simply dismissed Starmer if he had indicated a change of policy, but Starmer was mainly caught in a trap of his own making. Or was it? Was anyone else implicated? Let’s go back to the early days of the pandemic hitting Britain and the first lockdown in March and April. While communities on the ground were busy setting up Mutual-Aid networks to ensure that the most vulnerable were being supported with practical help in the face of a government influenced by eugenicists obsessed with “herd-immunity”, Starmer spoke up enthusiastically in Parliament in mid-April about the need to get children back into schools with the knock-on effect of boosting the economy. This was just days after Tony Blair’s Global Institute had published a report with the very same prescription in very similar words. To close observers, the new Leader of the Opposition was beginning to sound like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
By early December the unions were publishing compelling updated evidence that, within the wider population, infections had been rising especially rapidly in Primary and Secondary schools. When some local authorities expressed a desire to close schools a week earlier than normal before Christmas they were threatened with legal action by Johnson’s government. And any parents tempted to take matters into their own hands by withdrawing children were threatened with fines.
The teaching unions were fuming, knowing that they and their pupils would be forced to re-enter workplaces at the beginning of January that were completely unsafe. Decades of aggressive anti-union legislation that Thatcher had bequeathed, made industrial action, especially in schools, extremely difficult. Any ballot would require a period of around six weeks to enact. The virus was not about to take a winter break while that process played out. And the teaching unions were given no confidence whatsoever that the Labour opposition had their back. It didn’t. So the unions did it for themselves by holding mass Zoom meetings, and taking every opportunity to put their case on News reports. The result was that 48 hours before the enforced return to schools they had huge numbers of teachers willing to defy the government and assert their rights under Section 44 of the Health and Safety Act to refuse to work in a hazardous environment.
The Government were not going to give any ground to unions. While exempting a number of schools in London and the South East, where it seemed the new variant of the virus had taken hold strongly, and allowing a delayed start of up to two weeks to secondaries, most primary school children were expected to return to their classes, and mix in them, albeit in huge “bubbles”, on 4th January, though many teachers would be absent.
Even after a huge NEU zoom meeting that tens of thousands of teachers participated in, (streamed to more than 100,000 people), where the union set out its defiant position around using Section 44, Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer and Shadow education minister, Kate Green, were stressing the importance of returning to school on Monday. By mid-afternoon there was a leak that Johnson was going to speak to the nation and would most likely announce a new lockdown including schools.
Starmer could see which way the wind was blowing and he began to give interviews in which he said he supported a new lockdown, but he kept hedging and deflecting on schools, merely saying it was “tragic” but “inevitable” that more schools would have to close. Still not a word of support for teachers, support staff, premises managers, administrative staff, cleaners and others, expected to return to unsafe sites. Not a word of acknowledgement or support for the leadership that unions had shown on behalf of their members.
The interviews with a squirming Starmer as the afternoon wore on were painful to watch. A total farce. And so lockdown has come. The vaccinations are beginning to take place. I’m typing this against the constant background noise of ambulance sirens. But schools still have not got any solid government commitments to any of the constructive plans that their unions offered last June, plans that any Labour leadership that had the real human interests of children and parents at heart, let alone workers in schools, should have already embraced. That, unfortunately does not seem to be their priority.
Talk given as part of a panel of speakers at the Red Labour “Celebration of Jewish Radicalism” on 15th December 2020 on Zoom
In 2013 a remarkable museum called Polin opened in a location that 80 years ago was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve visited several times.
The history most Jews around the world have been taught is that Poland is nothing but a Jewish graveyard. A thousand years of continuous presence collapsed into six years of utter destruction, when 90% of Poland’s 3.3 million, largely Yiddish-speaking, working class, Jews, were wiped out by the Nazis, with operations to find hidden Jews carried out by auxiliary Polish police.
Today, under Poland’s ultra-reactionary government, admired by Johnson in Britain and Netanyahu in Israel, you can be punished for exposing Polish wartime collaboration.
And yet, a pluralist Jewish life is reviving in 15 Polish cities today. They don’t have one central Jewish body, like our Board of Deputies, who arrogantly declare what the community believes, and they’re not susceptible to Israeli pressure on their priorities. If Keir Starmer visited, he would be flummoxed, having to consider several Jewish opinions, instead of one.
The Museum showcases 1,000 years of Jewish life, culture, interaction with non-Jews, intellectual creativity, periods of terror and hardship but also long-lasting golden ages.
Only part of it focuses on those 6 years of annihilation.
One compelling display marks the late 19th century, when most Polish Jews lived under Tsarist rule, but new radical ideas promising liberation and self-determination were spreading.
The Zionist idea – territorial self-determination in Palestine – was one among several. It was challenged from day one by Jews who advanced alternative ways to build equal lives for Jews, as a minority, wherever they lived, whether centred on religious identity, secular cultural autonomy, or integration strategies.
So when you next hear some shmendrik (that’s Yiddish for fool) say “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, remind them: anti-Zionism was invented, first used, and developed by Jews for positive reasons (though we don’t own the copyright).
Today, when people discuss “Jewish self-determination” – not least in the dubious IHRA definition and examples – our notion of it is so impoverished. It refers only to territorial self –determination in Israel – a fortress state, built on dispossessing and expelling so many Palestinians in 1948, and then denying self determination to Palestinians who remained.
Twenty one percent of Israelis today are Palestinians who endure multiple discrimination. Israel also rules brutally over 2.2 million Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinian refugees, whether from 1948 or ‘67 cannot return.
Under Israel’s 2018 Nation State law, only Jews are entitled to national self-determination in Israel. Not indigenous Palestinians, migrant workers or refugees. That law was passed during a state visit by Netanyahu’s chum, Victor Orban, who used antisemitic propaganda targeting George Soros to help him win the Hungarian election that year. You couldn’t make it up.
If Israel doesn’t want to be labelled an apartheid state, it can repeal the Nation State law and Law of Return, dismantle discrimination, confiscate arms from illegal settlers, make Jewish–only roads available to all. It could make laws to ensure that Israel/Palestine is a state for all its citizens equally, whether in one state or two.
Despite repression, growing numbers of left-wing Israelis and human rights bodies are working for that goal by protesting, publishing, refusing army service, making illegal solidarity visits. Here in Britain we can support justice there, by amplifying activities by progressive Israelis Jews, as well as exposing brutality towards Palestinians.
Zionism proclaimed the ingathering of Jews in one nation state. Yet, 72 years after independence, a majority of Jews (including many Israelis) choose to practice Jewish self-determination elsewhere – in London, Paris, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Melbourne, Kiev, Warsaw…
Those who shout loudest about defending “Jewish self-determination” are not talking about enhancing the creative, diasporic Jewish self-determination which already exists, but about defending an ethnocracy in Israel. The Israeli ruling class, and their supporters among Jewish so-called “leaders” outside, don’t like other Jews using their self-determined voice to denounce Israeli racism.
Emanuel Scherer, a Polish-born member of the Bund, a secular, left-wing, anti-Zionist Jewish movement, once wrote:
“Rights and Justice for Jews everywhere without wrongs and injustice to other people anywhere”.
Political Zionism and Bundism were both born in 1897, the first at a plush conference in Basle, the other in an illegal house gathering in Vilna (Vilnius). The Bund sought to link the struggles of Jews with those of workers throughout the Russian Empire for socialism.
Bundism and Zionism had opposite values: Optimism versus pessimism; internationalism versus nationalism; Integration versus isolation and evacuation. The Bund accused Zionists of worshipping the same nationalist values as regimes that oppressed Jews and other minorities
The Bund threw itself into Russia’s revolutionary upheavals in 1905 and 1917 but also engaged very critically with Lenin and warned about the Bolsheviks anti-democratic tendencies. The Bund’s socialism was from the bottom up.
Its heyday as a mass movement was in 1930s’ Poland, where it had a daily Yiddish newspaper and other publications in Yiddish and Polish, organised strikes, built a world of institutions – libraries, schools, sports clubs, cultural projects, a Bundist women’s movement, youth movement, and children’s organisation, a sanatorium funded by trade unions, for children at risk of TB, run on the most democratic, children’s rights principles.
As Poland slid into semi-fascism the Bund and Polish Socialist Party activists jointly led the political and physical struggle against antisemitism. Apart from one small faction, Zionists and religious Jews abstained from that fight in the 1930s, while Communists were too obsessed with a trade union turf-war with Bundists to defend Jews.
In the last municipal elections before the Nazis’ invasion, the Bund won massive victories among Jewish voters in major Polish cities where Jews comprised a third of the population. Many religious Jews voted for secular socialists – the Bund – who defended them from antisemites.
In the ghettoes, in the early 1940s, Bundists, Communists and left Zionists united in armed anti-Nazi resistance. The Holocaust decimated the Bund. Its post-war presence has been marginal but its philosophy of diasporic self-determination and its fundamental critique of Zionism, remain absolutely pertinent today.
Zionism represses Palestinians daily, but also, through insisting on the centrality of Israel to Jews, undermines Diaspora Jewish lives, dividing us from other minorities, and other allies, with grave consequences:
In semi-fascist Argentina, late 1970s, thousands of political opponents disappeared. Jews were 1% of the population but more than 10% of those that disappeared, under a regime armed to the teeth by Israel.
In apartheid South Africa, the most progressive Jews joined the ANC. When I interviewed a Jew who had worked in the ANC’s armed wing, he told me that Jewish establishment bodies handed over names and addresses of Jewish activists to the Apartheid authorities.
I will end back in Poland. Last year, 12 Jewish Socialists’ Group members went to Warsaw. We met left activists, historians, a socialist choir, and visited museums and the grounds of Treblinka death camp. On our final day, we joined hundreds of local anti-racists and anti-fascists (some Jewish) in an alternative Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration. We were stunned by the symbolic presence of the Bund on banners, placards and slogans; in Yiddish songs sung by a non-Jewish school choir. Those same Polish anti-racist and anti-fascists are in the frontline today defending Roma and Muslims while also fighting homophobia and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
Poland’s reactionary government and Britain’s Conservatives are main partners in a Council of Europe grouping that now include the ultra-right AfD in Germany, Vox Party in Spain, Salvini’s Northern League. If those in Britain, who claim to care about antisemitism, were serious, they would turn the heat on these parties abroad, and Tories at home. But they don’t make a peep about this, partly because those parties support Netanyahu.
One year ago today, less than a week before the 2019 Election, I was very pleased to be part of a short film made in front of the Cable street mural with the Labour candidate for Poplar and Limehouse, Apsana Begum
We spoke of the links between antisemitism, Islamophobia and other bigotries. Apsana getting elected was one of the few bright moments of that election held against the incessant and rising background noise of wild claims and accusations against Labour of antisemitism. And while there certainly have been incidents involving a tiny fraction (much less than 1% of Labour’s then huge membership), most of which were down to ignorance and could and should in the first instance be dealt with by education, there never was a “crisis of antisemitism” in Labour. It existed only in the minds of the pro-Tory media – and some of the liberal media who should have known, and did know, better. It was a term used liberally by right-wing non-Jewish and Jewish political actors/organisations largely to beat the Left.
If any of them were serious about tackling antisemitism and other racism, they would have surely concentrated their political attack on the party of the Hostile Environment, the Windrush Scandal, where Islamophobia is commonplace, who had a candidate for Prime Minister in Boris Johnson who wrote a novel several years back replete with antisemitic stereotypes. The same party whose MEPs were formally linked through the Conservatives and Reformists Group in Europe with a range of Islamophobic, antisemitic and anti-Roma parties and government.
Unlike many of the accusations against Labour which fell down when you looked for hard evidence (and the EHRC Report, for example, makes bold generalised claims but offers little in hard evidence, relying, after 17 months of investigation, on two cases – one already well known, one not well known – both of whom were expelled under Corbyn-led Labour), those Tory links with antisemitic and Islamophobic political parties and government are clear and verifiable.
As if to rub it in, while Britain no longer has Tory MEPs to maintain that frequent contact with European antisemites and Islamophobes, it still has 12 Tory representatives in a similar group in the Council of Europe. Since March 2020 they have been allied within their Council of Europe group with the Far Right AfD, in Germany, Vox in Spain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, United Patriots in Bulgaria, the Danish People’s Party, Salvini’s Northern League and others.
The other party with whom the Tories share the biggest representation in this grouping are the Polish Law and Justice Party who have engaged in Holocaust Revisionism and played up antisemitic themes in the run up to the recent Presidential election in Poland.
What have we heard about this from those leading the charge in the Jewish community against Corbyn or those supporting him within Labour, such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the misnamed Campaign Against Antisemitism? Not a peep. Why is that?
Meanwhile, left wing Jews in the Labour Party, myself included, are getting seriously alarmed at the number of Jewish members apparently being profiled and suspended by the “new leadership” of Labour. That, together with Starmer and Rayner’s stereotyping of the Jewish community as holding one homogenous “official” political view, which they approve of, and helping them to delegitimise other Jewish views, is starting to feel like institutional antisemitism.