Too many turned a blind eye

Speech given on a panel at a Stand Up To Racism national conference, 21 October 2017

Greetings from the Jewish Socialist Group. And solidarity with those kept busy week in, week out, tracking the new configurations among our enemies and their new offensives. Just keeping up with who Tommy Robinson’s latest friends are, is a task in itself.

We would have been even busier if Donald Trump had visited this month. Thank you for being part of the reason he didn’t. We must credit him though with one unwitting, achievement. In a world where many want Muslims and Jews to be enemies, Trump’s rampant Islamophobia and his open door for antisemites have generated beautiful and defiant acts of solidarity between Jews and Muslims.

When Trump threatened to create a register of Muslims, thousands of Jews said they would sign that register too. When a Texas Mosque burnt down the night after he was elected, a rabbi gave his synagogue keys to the local Imam. When Jewish cemeteries were attacked several months ago, a Muslim, Palestinian, American, raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay the repairs and restoration.

There are hopeful signs that unity is spreading. A couple of weeks ago a synagogue in Leeds was daubed with swastikas and the message. “Kikes go home!” The next day four Muslims representing local organisations brought flowers and messages of condolence to the synagogue and they were warmly welcomed.

501466-610x402Some of you are too young to know the old anti-Jewish term “Kike”, but the far right are into retro. It is more than 50 years since anyone in Britain dared to unfurl a banner saying “Hitler was Right”, but that has happened on several occasion within the last two years.

This may surprise those who think antisemitism is past history, that other victims have replaced them, but racists and fascists don’t replace, they accumulate. They switch targets quickly, attack many at once. One moment Muslims are in the front line, another moment it is Roma, its Poles, its refugees. And young black men dying at the hands of the police show us that institutional racism persists.

But our resistance also persists. There are only two things though that can weaken our resistance. One is a feeling of helplessness, that it’s always getting worse. The other is a kind of “oppression olympics” where different groups vie with each other over who is the greater victim. We need to challenge both these mindsets.

We must of course recognise that the attacks and injustice each group suffers differs in scale, specifics, and histories, but we must also be clear that the perpetrators of each are enmeshed in the same system of domination that keeps victims from many communities in fear, and privileged white supremacists at the top. We can only challenge that through unity and unconditional solidarity with all victims of racism, and confidence that we can, and we will, win.

I know many Jews who fear antisemitic attacks. Statistically they are more likely to be attacked if they were Muslims or recent refugees – but the fear is there and antisemitic attacks are also growing from verbal abuse to physical assaults on synagogues and individuals. Much of the verbal abuse when I was younger used to be about Jews and money. Today it is about Hitler, the Holocaust and gas ovens. And what is worrying is that this kind of abuse today emanates from individuals in a range of communities. Despite the examples I gave earlier, there are currently some Jewish people using Islamophobic arguments to try to prevent an Islamic charity establishing itself in Golders Green. Let’s not get defensive but instead face up to the educational task we all have in our own communities.

Finally, next month I will be contributing to that education as one of the group leaders on img_0177a trip to Krakow and Auschwitz organised by Unite Against Fascism, and what I will emphasise is that Auschwitz was the final destination. But for several years preceding it, there were processes that far too few noticed and far too many turned a blind eye to: scapegoating, discrimination, exclusion, dehumanisation, desensitisation of the perpetrators. This is going on around us right here, right now in Britain, in Europe, in America, every day. Don’t be a bystander – be an up-stander for the rights of all. Solidarity!



Separate and unequal

In 2015 I took early retirement from primary school teaching after 22 years working at the same inner-London school.  Moments, incidents and conversations with particular children remain hard-wired in my head. Like the one that involved Olima, a serious and determined Bangladeshi girl I taught when she was seven years old. I had taught one of her brothers earlier and later would teach other siblings. There were ten children in the family. Her parents dressed quite traditionally but none of the girls wore hijabs. They were absent on Eid but seemed relatively secular. One Friday afternoon, heading out to the playground, I noticed Olima  on her own, frowning, and generally looking fed up. I asked her what the matter was, and she said:
“I wish I was a boy.”
“Why is that?” I asked?
Quick as a flash she said: “Cos it’s crap being a girl!”
We talked about it more, and she described situations at home, out and about, and at school, where she felt boys were advantaged or treated themselves and others as though they were superior. Now I was drawn to teaching, above all, to fight for equal opportunities. Before I trained as a teacher, in my early 30s, I worked in the voluntary sector for around 8 years, more than half of them at the Runnymede Trust – a research and information body challenging racism and discrimination. As their Publications Officer I saw through and promoted dozens of reports, resource materials, books and pamphlets. As more an more of these highlighted racism in schools and education I became convinced that the real fight for equality needed to be done face-to-face rather than mediated through the written word.

I taught Olima in my first few years of teaching, when I used much of my mental and physical energy working to establish a classroom that all  children, of whichever gender, cultural group, or socio-economic background, felt that it completely belonged to them; where all felt valued, and everyone felt they could participate on equal terms. I paid special attention to those who were quiet, and seemed to lack confidence, to girls and those from visible minorities who knew that, out there, society doesn’t value or treat them equally.

There was absolutely nothing that I asked boys to do that was not open to girls too. I was committed also to the children’s voices, recognising that they often know better than their parents what they really feel and want. To the extent that it was possible I tried to make it a democratic classroom. And I made discussion of all manner of equalities part of my teaching regardless of whether it was “in the curriculum” or not.

That is the lens that I look through at the appeal court case which has just found against the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, who had a policy of educational apartheid – segregating boys and girls within this voluntary-aided co-educational state school when they reached year 5 (9-10 year olds). Girls and boys were taught in different classrooms, they had to use separate corridors and play areas, and attend different school clubs and go on different school trips.

The school’s spokespersons defended their practice as “separate but equal”. Take a moment to think of the different contexts where you have heard that phrase before, and you know it is invariably “separate and unequal”.

There was only one time we segregated pupils when I was teaching:  during one of our series of sex education sessions where we provided a girls-only session with a female teacher, and a boys-only session with a male teacher, where particularly sensitive matters could be more freely discussed. We felt it really important that in other sex education sessions boys and girls were actually together learning about each other and what happens as they each go through puberty and through their adolescence.

Many anti racists will be tempted to see this case purely through the lens of Islamophobia and disregard or push to the far margins other equality issues it raises. I think they are wrong.

In the period of the mid-1990s when I was taught Olima, there were certainly racist attacks in the neighbourhood – her family suffered one. One reason there were few Bangladeshis at our school at that time was that they were chased off the nearest estates by racist gangs, and made extremely unwelcome by residents associations dominated by white racists. It took a while for the Bangladeshi community to establish itself in numbers. But the word “Islamophobia” did not figure then.

The right wing newspapers at the time, in time-honored divide and rule manner played  minorities off against each other. They claimed to “admire” the moral values of Asian communities, especially Muslims. They concentrated more on attacking and undermining the Caribbean community. The Mail and the Express  wrote nausea-inducing features urging Black youth to be more like their “hardworking” Asian counterparts who lived quiet “family and community oriented” lives.

That’s was then, this is now. The oppression and discrimination suffered by Caribbean youth has not receded, but a specific anti-Muslim racism has come obsessively to the fore on the mainstream right. The far right groups, though, have not forgotten the others they hate and despise, though sometimes it seems the anti-racist movement does.

the-sun-never-sets-on-the-british-empireIslamophobia and the colonial mindset was certainly present in an earlier instance where al-Hijrah school hit the headlines, condemned by OFSTED for not teaching “British Values”, which the last time I looked were more rooted in empire, slavery and racial superiority. The values of democracy and equality were born more in the communities around the world that resisted this oppression. Defending Muslim schools from that kind of attack does not mean endorsing their practices, especially when it is to the detriment of significant numbers of Muslims who happen to be female and children. if we are principled in our stand for equality for Muslim communities in the face of anti-Muslim racism (Islamophobia), then we will also stand with those oppressed within their own communities and fighting for equality. The fight against educational apartheid is right  whether it occurs in Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other schools and the judgement made it absolutely clear that schools from each community were now obliged to end educational apartheid.

And before anyone holds up the straw-person of “but there are other single sex schools in Britain”, I don’t approve of them either, but here we have one school, one institution, not single-sex, treating half of its school population differently.

I don’t know what Olima is doing now but I hope we are fighting for a world where we don’t let down the young Olimas of today by saying “yes, but the main thing is Islamophobia.” We can and must challenge racist oppression and sexist oppression together, and simultaneously, for the benefit of all who need equality in every aspect of their lives.

“This Jew Business” – a taste of the 1930s

Antisemitism in 1930s Britain is most commonly associated with the aristocratic politician Sir Oswald Mosley (6th Baron of Ancoats), and his Blackshirt movement – the British Union of Fascists, which mobilised its mass base in working class areas. But the negative and hostile attitudes to Jews that he expressed were more widely shared within British society’s upper echelons. perhaps they still are. These views are illustrated in an extract from my book Battle for the East End  that I was was very proud to launch six years ago today at a festival held at Wilton’s Music Hall just off Cable Street at which we were celebrating the 75th anniversary of a momentous day of struggle against the fascists. 

In 1930s Britain… there were people holding high positions in political or social life, or renowned through the arts, who were widely respected and reported… Several of them explicitly pledged their allegiance to the cause of combating antisemitism and fascism, such as Vera Brittain, Cecil Day-Lewis, Margaret Storm Jameson, Henry Nevinson and Naomi Mitchison. There were others, though, whose role in relation to antisemitism was ambivalent at best and often they displayed hostility.


H G Wells

The author HG Wells engaged in a series of polemics with the Jewish Chronicle in which he consistently denied the legitimacy of Jews as a self-defined group. He claimed that Jewish culture was narrow and racially egotistical, and that Jewish insistence on separation provided a justification for antisemitism. “It may not be a bad thing,” he argued, “if they [the Jews] thought themselves out of existence altogether.” The playwright George Bernard Shaw, in an interview in the American Hebrew, offered the following advice for Jews: “Those Jews who still want to be the chosen race – chosen by the late Lord Balfour – can go to Palestine and stew in their own juice. The rest had


J B Priestley

better stop being Jews and start being human beings.” Fellow author JB Priestley became embroiled in a controversy over the participation of Jews in enterprise and finance. In an article entitled “This Jew Business”, which was ostensibly a reply to antisemitism, he suggested instituting a quota system through which there would be one Jew in every business, but, he added as qualification, “not at the top”.

Elsewhere in the publishers’ lists was Douglas Reed, a former foreign correspondent of The Times, who emerged as a prolific and popular writer with a set of searing social commentaries, such as Insanity Fair, Disgrace Abounding, All Our Tomorrows, and Lest We Regret, which were eagerly devoured by a growing readership. Each of these eminently readable books, which ran to several reprints, typically contained at least one colourful chapter incorporating a multi-faceted attack on Jewry.  Reed would attack Jews’ foreignness, make allegations of clannishness, and denounce their corporate action,


Douglas Reed

which, he claimed was not merely inimical to the national interest, but expressed their striving for power and dominance.  “When you give Jews full equality,” he argued, they “use it to become a privileged group, not to become equals”. Such arguments registered with non-Jewish readers feeling economic hardship and looking for someone to blame. Through his journalistic role as a foreign correspondent he knew Berlin and other German cities  very well, and although he had a low opinion of Adolf  Hitler, whom he regarded as crude and unsophisticated in his propaganda, he nevertheless attempted to justify  the pre-war actions of the Nazi party that had stripped Jews of their place in German society.

Among political figures, Norwich MP George Hartland alleged and then attacked “Jewish control” of the cinema.  He claimed that: “There are millions of boys and girls in  this country… [whose] …souls are being taken from them  as blood money for a syndicate of dirty American Jews –  the Hollywood magnates.”

Admiral George Cuthbert Cayley, a patron of the British Israel World Federation – a very


Admiral Cuthbert Cayley

right wing body claiming to defend “Christian constitution and divine destiny”  – was addressing a fête held by the Berwick  Conservative Association when he commented on the  aspirations of Herbert Samuel by asking: “Why should we  want a Jew to lead our party?” He added for good measure,  “Hitler is quite right to a certain extent in getting rid of some of the Jewry of Germany. I am inclined to think we may have to do the same at home.”

Other political figures focused on the popular antisemitic theme of linking Jews and communism. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kerr, the National Liberal Chief Whip, claimed  that there were “many influential people in this country  supporting the Communist Party, the insidious propaganda  of which is backed by the Jews”. Lady Ninian Crichton-Stuart, wife of Captain Archibald Ramsey, MP for  Peebles and Southern Midlothian, put a similar message  even more emphatically: she believed that there was “an international group of Jews behind world revolution in  every single country at the present time”. When challenged through the Jewish Chronicle, she reiterated the charges with full backing from Captain Ramsey.

Ramsey himself, an aristocrat deeply involved with fundamentalist Christian organisations, became convinced that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were true.  He was unabashed by the accusation of being anti-Jewish, although he considered the terminology used by his accusers often lacked rigour. He openly acknowledged and justified his oppositional attitude to the Jews:

NPG x152544; Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay by Bassano

Captain Archibald Ramsey

“The only correct term for the mis-called ‘antisemitic’ is ‘Jew-wise’. It is indeed the only fair and honest term. The phrase ‘antisemite’ is merely a propaganda  word used to stampede the unthinking public into dismissing the whole subject from their minds without examination: so long as that is tolerated these evils will not only continue, but grow  worse. The ‘Jew-wise’ know that we have in Britain a Jewish Imperium in Imperio, which, in spite of all protestations and camouflage, is Jewish first and  foremost, and in complete unison with the remainder of World Jewry.”

The instances of discrimination and expressions of  ideological conviction described above testified to the  existence of a widespread belief, though held to different  degrees, that Jews were an alien and disruptive force in  society. The essence of their threat was seen as being rooted in Jews’ corporate action. When Jews shared an  activity it was evaluated differently from a group of  Gentiles engaged in exactly the same activity. This was particularly the case in relation to Jews entering the professions.

The Nobel Prize winner Sir Henry Hallett Dale, Director of the National Institute of


Sir Henry Hallett Dale

Medical Research, unwittingly caused a few eyebrows to be raised during  his guest of honour speech to the 10th annual dinner  hosted by the Jewish Hospital Medical Society at  Piccadilly’s Trocadero Restaurant in December 1937. He  argued forcefully against Jews “crowding” the professions,  claiming that he did not believe it more healthy for  a predominantly non-Jewish people to receive all or most  of their medical attention from Jews, “than it would be  for a Gentile nation to be subjected to a wholly Jewish  government.

41hZ4VmFjXL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s, is published by Five Leaves Publications, 12.99. You can order it here to avoid going to Amazon: