Feigenbaum and the Yom Kippur feast

Tonight, at sunset, the highest holy day begins. The Fast of Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement, when religious Jews and many less religious Jews spend the day in synagogue, praying to God, so they will be inscribed in the book of life for another year at least.

Cards on the table. I am not a religious Jew, but an atheist one, and I haven’t been to synagogue on Yom Kippur for decades, but I usually fast, I also usually work, but manage to find some time for reflection during that day on the last year and what I might try to do better. How I might contribute in different ways over the next 12 months to making a better world.

Atheist Jews who don’t go to synagogue are not a post-millennial invention. We have  been around for many generations. When the majority of Jews came to Britain as immigrants from the Tsarist Russian Empire, they didn’t come as a homogenous community. They did not all think or believe the same things as each other. They ranged from complete atheists through to ultra-orthodox and every grade between. Worth keeping in mind when many mainstream media outlets still tend to homogenise minority communities, and marginalise, riducule or make invisible the dissenters within them.

Tomorrow, during the day of Yom Kippur I will be taking some new students at Queen Mary University of London, studying  History, Politics and International Relations, on a walk of the Radical Jewish East End, and I’ll be telling them, among other things about how Benjamin Feigenbaum, a Yiddish-speaking anarchist, marked this Holiest of Holy Days.

He had been born in Warsaw into a hasidic family, but in his teens had become a passionate atheist. He emigrated from Poland to Belgium in the 1880s, working in sweatshops, and planning ways to ensure better lives for the workers. He had the idea of creating a  radical newspaper in Yiddish to popularise his beliefs among his fellow wage slaves. But one person he shared this idea with told him there already was one – in London – called Arbeter Fraynd, established by socialists and anarchists in 1885 (it would become distinctly anarchist from 1891). Feigenbaum wrote to Krantz, the editor, who invited him to London. Long story short; he came to London, joined the Arbeter Fraynd collective and spent three years here agitating, organising, educating and satirising.

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Arbeter Fraynd newspaper

Feigenbaum’s comrades dubbed him the master of anti-religious satire. He wrote and published The Passover Hagaddah: According to a New Version, taking the book that Jews read on the Seder Nights at the beginning of Passover, telling the stories of their exodus from slavery in Egypt and subverting it. His version was a parody of religion and ritual, a serious commentary about contemporary political and industrial struggles, and a call to arms. He knew his way round the bible like the back of his hand and many of those who were the audience for his materials  were very familiar with the religious sources and idioms he referenced to emphasise political points.

He parodied the official Yom Kippur liturgy which said: “Repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree” and offered a more insurrectionary take: “Brutality, rebellion and force will avert the evil decree”. He took out: “The Lord reigns for ever and ever” and replaced it with a truth and a hope: “Mammon reigns – but not for ever”

But in his short stay in London, before he took his anarchist ideas and energy to New York, his most (in)famous piece of activism was a lecture he gave at 22 Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane on Yom Kippur in 1890. It was in Christchurch Hall – named after another Jewish boy who strayed from the orthodoxy he grew up with. The lecture, on this Holy Day, was entitled: “Is there a God?” well, if you are going to challenge, upset, annoy, and anger the coercive religious establishment of the local Jewish community, you might as well go the whole hog, so to speak.

Thomas Eyges, an eye-witness to this extraordinary event, described Feigenbaum (of whom unfortunately I haven’t tracked down any  photo) and what followed:  “He was of medium height with broad shoulders and gesticulated as he spoke.”

Eyges describes Feigenbaum speaking for one hour, parsing the philosophical questions.

…What is god? It is an abstract word coined to designate the hidden forces of nature, while the belief in God is but a  mechanical habit of childhood, a prejudice handed down from father to children…”

“Then he shouted: ‘If there is a God and if he is Almighty as the clergy claims he is, I give him just two minutes’ time to kill me on the spot, so that he may prove his existence!’ Two minutes passed, Feigenbaum exclaimed: ‘See! There is no God!’ The band struck up a revolutionary song. Then he announced a Yom Kippur ball – where pork was to be eaten…”

Sadly, for the radicals, freethinkers, anarchists and socialists of London, Feigenbaum left for America in 1890, but continued to be active in anarchist and trade union movements there. The Tradition of Yom Kippur balls continued though, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In subsequent years, others followed in Feigenbaum’s footsteps. Saul Yanovsky who ended up in New York too, also gave Yom Kippur lectures at the anarchist-inspired International Workers’ Education Clubs. In one, Yanovsky identified other hands writing  and editing the “Book of Life”:

“It is not the Supreme God who determines the kind of year you should have. It is a different god, an earthly one and his name is Mammon… He writes down that before the year is over… there will be widows and orphans swollen with hunger, cast out, barefoot and naked into the cold dark streets.”

Yanovsky described the interior of the synagogue on the High Holy Days as a classic representation of class distinction — “the rich overdressed and overfed in seats set aside for the sheyne layt  (the beautiful pampered ones), “while the poor are “pressed together by the door, hungry and ill-clad, with no prospects of a sumptuous fast-breaking meal to return to.”

From 1898, the Arbeter Fraynd was edited by a remarkable individual called Rudolf Rocker, raised in a Catholic orphanage in Mainz, Germany, who had arrived as a political exile in 1895, fell in love with Milly Witkop, a Yiddish speaking sweatshop worker from Ukraine, and dedicated his life to liberating the sweatshop workers, (and then the world), from exploitation and oppression.

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East End anrchists. Rocker, second form left, Witkop first left , front row

Rocker had learned to read and write Yiddish (it is written in Hebrew characters), in order to agitate among the local workers for whom that language was their mame-loshn (mother tongue). In 1906 he was the leading figure in founding the most successful of the radical workers’ club in  the East End  the Jubilee Street Club, which was closed down by a repressive government in 1916, during the First World War.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the East End anarchists developed another tradition on Yom Kippur: standing opposite prominent synagogues, eating sandwiches on this fast day…  well not just any sandwiches, but ham sandwiches. For the local Jewish anarchists this was a popular activity, a day on which they would enjoy themselves while asserting their resistance to the rabbis, who not only tried to coerce the community and enforce strict moral codes on Jewish behaviour, but also, whenever there was a strike, would use their sermons to berate the workers for taking unjustified industrial action against those they portrayed as fine upstanding members of the community. The rabbis knew which side their baygel was buttered, and who was really contributing most for the upkeep of the synagogue. It wasn’t the workers.

But there was a dissenting voice among the dissenters. It belonged to the non-Jewish anarchist, Rocker, who said: “The place for a believing Jew on Yom Kippur is in the synagogue. The place for anarchists should not be in the streets trying to deny someone else’s right to do what he wishes on that day.” He believed that even if the targets for the action were the coercive rabbis, their stunt was actually insulting everyone who walked through the doors of the synagogue that day, many of whom were ordinary workers who the anarchists were trying to influence in their everyday campaigning. But Rocker was over-ridden. Personally, I like political stunts but, speaking as a vegetarian, their choice of filling was appalling!

One enthusiastic member of the Arbeter Fraynd group, Rose Robins, described strange goings-on at Jubilee Street club, during the Yom Kippur fast:

“Shul (synagogue)-goers would creep furtively into the club to snatch a meal with their taleysim (prayer shawls) under their arms. On that night, we were kept really busy preparing the extra food required, while Kaplan (editor of the ArbeterFraynd]) took advantage of the situation to lecture the invaders on the falsity of religion. It was a profitable night — for the khaverim (comrades)!”

Whichever way you are marking Yom Kippur, keep it real, keep it meaningful and fast well if you are fasting. And let us pray to a deity or to ourselves, for a better year ahead for the 99%, struggling now, in whichever part of the world, against exploitation and oppression!

 

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Don’t be disappointed, get angry!

Even if you feel internationally minded, and you like to move in cosmopolitan circles, here is a group of people you might choose not to socialise with: Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Italy’s League, Ukip, the French National Front, the Sweden Democrats, and Austrian Freedom Party. The common factor among all of them is of course that commentators regularly refer to them as “extreme right”, “far right”, or “right wing populist”.  The last three have a further similarity. They all have their roots in post-war pro-Nazi circles formed by people either didn’t think the Holocaust happened or that it was no bad thing. But they have sought to rebrand and present themselves now in a more respectable way. Nevertheless, they are still described by commentators as “far right” especially for their extreme nationalism and very negative attitudes towards migrants.
180405-victor-orban-mc-14313_866751dacde861b3e6e6ec706dcd5c37.fit-560wThese are also the main unsavoury groups that Tory MEPs had no scruples about lining up with, in a whipped vote, to defend the populist Hungarian regime, led by Viktor  Orban from censure and possible sanctions. Like those movements listed above, his regime draws support from those who appreciate its Islamophobic and viciously anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric and actions, and are equally happy when he adds open antisemitism and anti-Roma prejudice to the mix.
You could say that this hasn’t gone down too well with some of the Tories’ loyal supporters. Marie Van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who just a couple of weeks ago was telling an Israeli news channel that the Conservative Party has “always been very friendly to the Jews”, (pause for hollow laugh) issued a statement yesterday that fell short of “condemnation”, but nevertheless expressed “disappointment”, and found it “concerning” that Tory MEPs voted to support Hungary in this vote.

Clearly Van der Zyl cares about the sensitivities of the Tories much more than she does about those sitting in power in Hungary. She didn’t mince her words about them: she attacked Orban’s description of migrants as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” and decried his “vivid antisemitism” expressed in a “relentless campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.”

I am rather hoping she will copy this statement to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who recently hosted his good friend Viktor Orban on a state visit, but never seems to draw any official criticism from the Board, whether for his apartheid policies within Israel, repression in the West Bank and Gaza, or his very cosy alliances with far right governments. It’s a funny old world.

On the day before the vote happened, Orban arrived in Strasbourg later than scheduled, and then made a bullish speech saying Hungary was being punished simply for not becoming a “country of migrants”. He reminded MEPs (and no doubt the minority populations in their countries, such as Muslims and Jews,) that Hungary had been part of the “family of Christian nations for a thousand years.” Appeals to Christianity and defence of the Christian family are going down well with white working class voters in central and eastern Europe.

Our Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, regularly stretches Britain's Prime minister Theresa May attends the One Planet Summit at the Seine Musicale center in Boulogne-Billancourtcredulity when claiming anti-racist credentials, and she knows it, do, but what does she do when she sees her MEPs taking the side of the racists and fascists? She refuses to take any responsibility for the way her MEPs were voting to defend such a man, and such a regime.

She insists it is nothing to do with her. But who then is it to do with? Her predecessor David Cameron clearly had enough authority to remove the Tory MEPs from the Euro group they previously inhabited, and place them in a new group (Conservatives and Reformists) that the Tories were fashioning together with the Polish Law and Justice Party. Why doesn’t she have the same authority? And if not now when? (in the words of someone probably dismissed by Orban as “not national, but international… not generous but vengeful.”)

While any distance that appears between the Board of Deputies and the Tories, over matters of antisemitism and other forms of racism, is welcome, it is hard not to notice a very stark contrast between the gently expressed “disappointment” with their “friends”and the much more strident, even rabid attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when allegations of antisemitism surface. He is incidentally believed to be responsible and castigated for every person around the globe who says something stupid but claims to be a Corbyn supporter. She gets away with saying that the Conservative Prime Minister has no say on what Conservative MEPs do.

And while Labour’s press team have rightly contested allegations of antisemitism where any hard evidence is wanting, these real and verifiable links between the Tories and antisemitic and Islamophobic parties in Europe are plain for all to see.

Even apart from the way the Tories’ MEPs voted to defend Hungary, they (with their partners in crime, the Polish Law and Justice party) are also guilty of welcoming  the Sweden Democrats into the Conservatives and Reformists Group  and of using this group to build alliances with a range of ultra nationalist, populist, far right parties that stretch back several years, with none of the media establishment batting an eyelid.

A previous slightly left-leaning president of the Board of Deputies, Vivian Wineman, expressed concern in 2010 about David Cameron’s decision to link with the Polish Law and Justice Party in founding the Tories’ current Euro Parliament group. Unfortunately that seems to have been the very last time the Board commented negatively on Tory behaviour and alliances in Europe. There is really no excuse for the Board of Deputies’ shameful silence that has persisted until this week’s events. And there are certainly no excuses now, having expressed concern, for the Board of Deputies not to demand some action by the Tories now that the vote has taken place .

It was discontent with the Board having the temerity to speak out in 2010 that led a group of Jewish businessmen and professionals to announce the formation of the (unelected) Jewish Leadership Council as a rival source of authority in the Jewish community.That Jewish Leadership Council, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who all enthusiastically waded into rows over Jeremy Corbyn and alleged antisemitism have been strangely quiet since the Tories lined up with some of the ugliest right-wing forces in Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament. Maybe it has been a Jewish holiday that I didn’t know about where you are not allowed to criticise Tories – or maybe it is just the case that their concern about antisemitism is more politically selective, and they certainly haven’t wanted to upset either the Tory Party or their friend Benjamin Netanyahu.

Diane+Abbott+David+Lammy+cu6YCX5TtvumLabour meanwhile, in keeping with its traditions, has reiterated its opposition to all racism. Its MEPs voted unanimously against Hungary this week, with the same determination that their MPs in Westminster, led by Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Dawn Butler, are chasing down  the treatment of minorities and migrants in Britain, be they the shamefully treated and destitute citizens of the Windrush generation or the brutally treated inmates of immigration detention centres.

At least momentarily our national debate over racism, which has taken some very weird pathways recently, has returned to normal and we can see all too clearly who is on which side.

Britain’s first anti-fascist street battle?

A long neglected piece of radical working class and anti-fascist history was  movingly celebrated at a ceremony in the Market Square of Stockton this morning. In September 1933, it was one of several small towns in the North East of England devastated by the economic depression that was targeted by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists for recruitment to his street army and political project. The 30 or so members of the fascists resident in Stockton were joined by 100 more drawn from other northern towns and cities. They planned to march along the high street and then rally in the Market Square by the Town Hall. Local anti-fascists had got wind of this but the police hadn’t. Barely a handful of police were present when the BUF  were ambushed by more than 2,000 anti-fascists drawn from the Communist Party, Independent Labour Party, National Unemployed Workers Movement, Labour Party and trade unions. It was a violent clash. The BUF rally was closed down and their activists chased out of the town.

IMG_6805This morning a plaque was unveiled, by Stockton’s mayor in that same Market Square, who spoke of her pride as a trade unionist in the anti-fascist spirit of resistance that day. She was one of several platform speakers, which included local MP Alex Cunningham, Jude Kirton-Darling an MEP for the North East region and granddaughter of a Czech-born Holocaust survivor, and Marlene Sidaway, of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, born locally, whose late husband fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

I was the final speaker. This was my speech:

I am so honoured to be here for this commemoration of the people of Stockton who understood so early on the danger posed by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and showed by their collective action that they had no use for fascism.

Mosley could only hope to build a movement at a time of crisis and the key to that crisis was unemployment. In 1929 Britain’s unemployment reached an unprecedented total of 1.5 million. 2 years later doubled 3 million – 20% of the workers nationally, but we know it was not evenly spread. Everywhere was hit badly, but nowhere worse than the northeast where in some parts it 80% of the workforce were out of work.

In October 1932, the same month that Mosley created the British Union of Fascists, there was a conference in East London about unemployment, organised by father Groser, an Australian born Anglo-Catholic priest, who studied theology in Yorkshire and would go on to play a key part in the anti-fascist movement. In his earlier days Father Groser acknowledged that his political ideas were conservative and imperialist. All that changed with his first placement – in a slum parish in Newcastle. And everything he learnt in Newcastle about supporting the poorest people, he brought with him to London’s East End.

In his conference invitation Groser described the effects of long-term unemployment: “physical depression, ill-health, frustration of personality, the loss of proper self-respect, which created an embittered and hopeless section of the community.”

People devoid of hope were ripe for receiving fascist messages that promised to make them feel good about themselves and their country again. Mosley denounced the political system of democracy that, he said, had created the crisis and given us the tired old gang of politicians who could not navigate their way out of it. He promised strong and effective government unencumbered, as he put it, by a daily opposition.

Like other fascist leaders in Europe – he portrayed himself as a saviour and redeemer who would fight for the disempowered and disenfranchised, and make the country great again. The day his party was formed he launched a book called The Greater Britain, but it was really about the greater Mosley.

He made a special appeal to youth, saying his party alone would offer young people a chance to serve their country in times of peace, not just as fodder in times of war. he promised a party of action that would mobilise energy, vitality and manhood to save and rebuild the nation.

Between 1932-34 the BUF built a national infrastructure of 500 branches and that included fascist groups in Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead, Durham and here in Stockton.

In the North East and in south Wales, Mosley’s movement made an appeal to miners; in Lancashire they sought support from Cotton workers, in south-west England it was farmers. In many small towns Mosley sought support from small shopkeepers and the lower middle class. He appealed to the unemployed, especially those who served in wartime but were now on the scrapheap.

In London, by contrast, he sought out the wealthy and powerful. In late 1933, three months after the events in Stockton, that he won the support of one of the most powerful people in the land, Lord Rothermere – the publisher of the most widely read newspaper in Britain the Daily Mail.

Unlike other political movements who tried to capture town halls and parliament they

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Oswald Mosley

tried to capture the street. Mosley told his followers that they were invincible, that the streets belong to them, and that is why the courageous actions of people in Stockton were important. You recognised what his movement was about very early on and showed that Blackshirts were not welcome here. Other parts of the country took longer to wake up to the menace of fascism. They thought Mosley had something to offer.

In London in 1934 he held a huge rally in London’s Olympia Exhibition Centre. It was packed with 15,000 people. Among them were 150 members of parliament looking for inspiration. Members of the House of Lords came in Blackshirts. They had already been inspired. But there were also protesters – thousands of them outside the venue – mobilised by the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, but also protesters inside, who obtained tickets in an interesting way. The Daily Mail ran a competition and you could win £1 and a ticket to a Mosley rally if your letter was published in the Daily Mail but for the purposes of this competition your letter had to begin with the words: “why I like the Blackshirts”. Anti-fascists wrote spoof letters, got tickets and forged more.

When Mosley walked up to the platform through a guard of honour with a spotlight on him he had no idea demonstrators were inside as well as outside, but he had 1,000 uniformed, jackbooted, stewards, just in case.

Just three minutes into his speech a protester stood up and shouted “Down with Mussolini, down with Hitler, down with Mosley, fascism means hunger and war” and sat down again. Every three minutes a protester stood up with a similar heckle, until Mosley gave a sign. The next time it happened the heckler was yanked out of their seat by 15 fascists who beat the living daylights out of him in front of everyone Mosley wanted to impress. It was a chaotic and violent evening –  80 protesters needed hospital treatment. And amid the violence, Mosley made his most anti-Semitic speech to date.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 19.26.33It needed both a physical and ideological response. Stockton had shown the way in terms of a physical response. That was repeated in three other northern towns – Liverpool Manchester and Leeds. But the biggest confrontation would come in October 1936 in London’s East End, when a march and show of strength by 4,000 fascists, protected by 7,000 police, was stopped by around 200,000 people taking to the streets mounting a mass blockade of the streets the fascists wanted to march through then putting up barricades in Cable Street the alternative route.

In Cable Street two remarkable things took place. The first two-thirds of Cable Street was mainly Jewish the last third mainly Irish. Two poor communities bordering each other. Mosley tried to win Irish catholics against their Jewish neighbours. The anti-fascists had tried to unite both communities against the fascists. On the day Irish people came from their end of Cable Street to help Jews building barricades against the fascists.

The second remarkable thing  – the first barricade was a truck on its side. The police could not see beyond it, but other barricades were built behind reinforced with furniture. Eventually the police dislodged enough of the first barricade to run through and check if they had a clear path, but they got stuck between that barricade and the next one. Women in flats above the shops saw this, picked up everything to hand in their kitchens, and rained down on the police. With resistance from above and at ground level they had to retreat and tell Mosley he could not march.

Stockton was a battle, Cable Street was a battle, but the war against fascism in 1930s rentstrike_langdaleBritain was ultimately won on housing estates, especially in East End, where anti-fascists helped  to set up tenants defence committees to bring the communities that Mosley had tried to divide with hate – the Jewish and the Irish – into a common fight for better housing. The unity and solidarity they forged made it much harder for the fascists to get a hearing among them.

In an age of plenty when each person felt secure and valued and none experienced pangs of hunger and resentment, Mosley’s malicious sentiments would have floated away with the wind. The beliefs of his movement could only manipulate people’s consciousness when there was profound and pernicious social inequality, in a society beset my mass unemployment, low pay, poor housing, poor access to education, neglect by those with power and wealth, a widespread hopelessness, and a longing for personal and national salvation. Such problems though are not confined to the past.

The fascists were beaten back in the 1930s but they have returned with new names, new flags; Britain First, English Defence League, The Football lads Alliance, National Action… If we are to stay true to the traditions of resistance established in Stockton and in Cable Street we must  stand not just against fascism but every manifestation of racism and authoritarianism that feeds it, and work to  strengthen an anti-racist and anti-fascist majority in our society. No Pasaran! They shall not pass!

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As the speakers finished a male voice choir dressed 1930s style crossed the road  into the square to sing songs of resistance