Don’t play Tommy’s game

Last week saw a vibrant and united anti-racist and anti-fascist march through London. It was cross-generational and multicultural. It had a big turnout from several trade unions and a bigger Labour Party representation than I can remember over many years. It was built through blocs representing different sections, interests, identities, each of whom gave their segment of the march its own character. And it was internationalist -– personified by the large bloc of Brazilians (which included  a separate women’s section) and supporters of the Brazilian left in the wake of Bolsonaro’s frightening victory.

IMG_7453What we witnessed last week were signs of a renewed confidence within a movement that any honest participant or observer would recognise has gone through difficult times in the last year, in the wake of global developments, but has begun to wake up to the urgent need to broaden its reach. Unfortunately, it has been the far-right in Britain, boosted by the advances it has made in America, and in Western and Eastern  Europe, that has had a spring in its step. Although individual, centralist, far-right UK organisations remain small, their ability to mobilise huge numbers of atomised cross-class forces around common racist and nationalist themes, and around a figurehead, has shown their strength and potential.

18-Tommy-Robinson-GetThat figurehead – Tommy Robinson – has been ridiculed as a “poundshop Enoch Powell”. From a platform at one of our recent anti-fascist mobilisations I called him “the lummox from Luton” and a “two-bob Oswald Mosley”. Intellectually, that is probably true, but he is dangerous. And the people especially in the USA and Canada, that have been pouring money into his account are banking on him becoming a lot more dangerous.

This week, though, he has been given a huge boost by the actions of two seemingly diametrically opposed movements. One is UKIP, which has been taken step by step on a journey to the very far right under the caretaker-leadership of Gerard Batten. The other is a movement which ostensibly includes people from the centre-left to the far left – Another Europe is Possible.

Robinson is not just some populist pub-brawler, but is a convinced racist and fascist. He Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 09.14.22is a former BNP member and EDL leader, who poses as a martyr to free speech, as a representative of the left behind (white) working-class, and a bulwark against a mythical Muslim takeover of British society. From his EDL days he was seeking to create division between Muslims and Jews by handing out Israeli flags on their demonstrations, while at the same time hob-nobbing with convinced Nazi antisemites with swastikas tattooed on their chest, and with anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists.

UKIP’s “temporary” leader, meanwhile, has kept very close to Robinson, and has been converting UKIP from a sanctuary mainly for disgruntled, hyper-nationalist but traditional, imperialist, Tories, which operates as a particular kind of protest vote at the ballot box, into a more openly cross-class movement. And most significantly, he has taken it on the streets to blend with largely working class far-right street protesters, many supplied by Islamophobic football firms.

Of course Brexit has been a major driver of that movement, but what drives their attachment to Brexit has been less a concern to maintain British independence from Brussels bureaucrats than an increasingly open racism, mainly expressed through Islamophobia but also a hardening of vicious anti-refugee sentiment, and under Batten’s leadership a sentiment against those he calls the “globalists” and “elites” who he believes are fostering multiculturalism and undermining the nation. More longstanding anti-fascists don’t need help decoding these antisemitic tropes.

DbPNcfbX4AAa45WBatten has met resistance within UKIP from more traditional Tories to his desire to bring Tommy Robinson into the fold, as a fully-fledged UKIP member, so he has by-passed that section of the membership this week by employing Robinson as an advisor (on grooming gangs and prison reform). Batten has pledged to work with him in a street mobilisation called for 9th December opportunistically railing against what they call the “Brexit Betrayal” represented by the chaotic “deal” being put together by Theresa May and her shrinking band of loyal followers. Brexit will be the slogan but the themes for this Robinson and Batten-led march and rally that will assert themselves will be open and blatant Islamophobia, coded antisemitism, vicious anti-left rhetoric and selective anti-establishment posturing.

The same forces that organised last week’s successful and positive march have called a counter-protest to Robinson and Batten’s plans. We will need as many people as possible who turned out on last week’s anti-racist and anti-fascist unity march to provide a solid opposition to them that will prevent them taking over the streets as they did in June and July.

The strength of that mobilisation last week was its ability to unite left wing Leave and Remain voters in a common cause. But Another Europe is Possible have called a separate protest which ties their opposition to the Far Right explicitly with anti-Brexit politics and a people’s vote, simultaneously splitting the anti-Robinson forces into Remainers and Leavers, while crowning Robinson the King of the Leave cause.

There is no doubt that, at the time of the referendum, those pushing the left’s scepticism about the capitalist club that comprises the EU barely got a look in. Hard right racists seized the initiative in gathering the Leave vote, and there was certainly a spike in racist attacks after the Leave victory in the referendum, by emboldened racists. But the reality was always more complicated and has become more so.

Leave also picked up a lot of votes for reasons other than racism. There are not 17 million hard-right racists in Britain, but there is a growth in far right racist forces right now. There are many trade unionists who are fighting for a more equal society, and who are anti-racist, but are thoroughly unimpressed with the EU, and voted Leave. Last week they turned out in big numbers on our march and were united with Remainers in their unions and in wider society. They can see the danger signs of a renewed far right. It would be disastrous if we let our forces be split on this basis, and if we gave people the impression that the natural leaders of the Leave movement are the likes of Tommy Robinson.

In the face of immense pressure from the right wing of the Labour Party and the pro-corbyn-refugeesAARemain establishment media, Jeremy Corbyn has steered a difficult path to keep on board those Labour members and voters who voted in either direction. He has sought to prioritise discussions of housing and homelessness, foodbanks, poverty, education cuts, trade union rights, the need for greater public ownership, and the threat from the growing far right in Britain and across Europe. Corbyn has been assiduously maintaining close connections with socialists in Europe, and pushing for an early General Election here as the means for social transformation.

I was a reluctant Remain voter, who, like others, saw what the EU did to Greece. I have witnessed the far-right and right-wing populist forces getting stronger across Europe and fear that the next European Elections will strengthen the most reactionary, authoritarian and racist forces within the EU. I also fear the potential for the far right to become much bigger here. This is not at all the time to split our forces on the question of racism and fascism, so I appeal to Another Europe is Possible to join a united effort to stop Batten and Robinson’s street movement in its tracks.

Whether there can be any coordination on the day with the forces around Antifa including the Feminist Anti-Fascist bloc and Plan C, who held a successful, separate mobilisation against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, remains to be seen but they will surely turn out in numbers and won’t allow themselves to be divided on questions of Leave/Remain.

4906429_origOn 7 December, it will be the 80th anniversary of the return of the British Battalion that fought against Franco’s fascists in Spain. They docked at Newhaven, then came by train to Victoria Station where they were welcomed by huge numbers of anti-fascists and and were greeted by prominent political personalities including Clement Atlee. 1657923_orig

They then went by bus to a dinner at the Cooperative Society in London’s East End, where the fight against fascism in Britain had been at its sharpest through the 1930s. Let’s honour the memory of those who fought in Spain with a united mobilisation against racism and fascism on 9 December. And let’s turn the popular slogan in the Spanish Civil War, “No Pasaran”, into a reality on the streets of London!



Sadness and rage: Auschwitz 2018

IMG_7378We placed chairs in a circle and waited to see who would come. Half an hour earlier our group of 60 anti-racists and trade unionists had returned from a day visiting Auschwitz and the remnants of the vast expanse of crumbling barracks, cut through by a railway line, that had been the death camp of Birkenau.

This was my third consecutive year on the organising team of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) for this visit. We usually encourage people to share their reflections on our return to the hotel, but that is voluntary. Some prefer to be alone immediately afterwards. Others just want to lie down in their rooms, and let the experience wash over them. This year the circle was full, and we had to add more chairs.

I wrote some prompts on a sheet: What surprised you? What made this different from reading books about the Holocaust? What emotions did you feel? What will you take back into your normal life…?

The participants began to unpick and analyse the shattering experience they had just been through. Two main emotions predominated: deep sadness but also rage and anger that the world could let such a thing happen. That people in power had failed to heed credible reports of what was unfolding, or intervene by bombing railway lines to the camps or the gas chambers, even though they had aerial photographs of them.

Our group included people with strong personal ties to this history. One participant’s mother and grandmother arrived together in 1944 in a crammed cattle truck. As they disembarked, her mother, Esther, just 16, was advised by another transportee to lie about her age. She said she was 18 and was put in a line for slave labourers. Esther’s mother could not hide her age, and probably looked even older than her 44 years, having endured starvation in the Lodz Ghetto. She was placed in the line for immediate extermination.

Esther survived, just. She was transported to a slave labour camp in Germany. As the war was ending, the Nazis force-marched the remaining slaves to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp. There, Esther contracted typhus and shared a bunk with three other young women in a similar condition. She slept right through the day of liberation and then awoke next to three corpses.

The traumatised father of another group member was in a British army unit that helped liberate Belsen. The only Jewish member of his unit, he witnessed the piled up corpses and was tasked with guarding the captured SS men who remained at the camp.

The connections were not only with the victims. Another group member of had grown up very close to her Austrian relatives who were unrepentant Nazis.

The nearest major city to Auschwitz is Krakow – the base for our visit. Only a small proportion of Krakow’s pre-war Jewish population of 68,000 (26% of Krakow’s residents) were sent to Auschwitz. Most were deported to Belzec, 190 miles away.  The Nazis tried to to hide the reality of extermination from the local population, but they did not hide their brutal policies of separation, discrimination, and ghettoisation of the Jewish residents of various cities under occupation. Some Catholic Poles benefited materially from the Nazis’ antisemitic policies in the short term, though they too would ultimately suffer huge losses. The walls of one block in Auschwitz 1 camp – converted into a museum – are lined with photos of mainly non-Jewish Polish political prisoners who perished there.IMG_4108

In several cities Jews had formed an even larger proportion of the population than Krakow, such as the textile town, Lodz, and the capital, Warsaw. In both, Jews comprised a third of the pre-war population. Warsaw had been a cosmopolitan, multicultural city, and Yiddish was one of eight main languages you could hear on the streets. Not so today. Poland’s menacing far right groups try to induce paranoia about migrants, refugees and “Muslim invaders”, among the white, mainly Catholic, Poles who make up 96% of the national population.

Auschwitz attracts thousands of visitors every day, both educational groups and tourist day-trippers. In our reflections we discussed the merits of short visits. Some questioned the motives of day-trippers –horror as entertainment – or thought their experience could only be superficial, but others felt that even such superficial exposure would have a significant impact on them.

What makes UAF’s trip outstanding, though, is the painstaking attempt to provide crucial context in the 36 hours before we visit Auschwitz, and follow-up sessions to deepen reflection on the experience and focus on Europe’s growing far right today, not least in Poland.

I gave the opening talk – on Jewish life, death and resistance in Poland – tracing moments in the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland, but focusing most on antisemitic policies and the growth of far right movements in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the resistance both before and during the Nazi occupation. I highlighted the courageous role of Bundists (Jewish Socialist) resisters and described the incredible bravery of the few hundred fighters aged 13-40 who led the three-week Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

The next day, Mary Brodbin led the group on a walk around the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where synagogues hundreds of years old survive intact. The Nazis did not bomb Krakow because they planned to turn it into a German city. Mary took us over the river to the walled ghetto where the Nazis forced Krakow’ Jews to resettle. Fragments of the ghetto wall – shaped by the Nazis to mimic Jewish gravestones – survive to this day. IMG_4077We saw the poignant artistic monument created at the Umschlagplatz (where Jews were assembled for deportation) of 70 large wooden chairs across this square, each one symbolising 1,000 pre-war Krakow Jews, who died in death camps, in the Krakow ghetto, or at the nearby slave labour camp. The walk ended at a museum on the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, telling the detailed story of how the Nazis subjugated and separated Krakow’s population and ghettoised the Jews before deporting them for extermination. That evening, a further talk by Donny Gluckstein, dissected the economics and politics of 1930s Europe, to analyse how the Holocaust could have been possible.

The most harrowing material evidence of mass murder is displayed at Auschwitz 1, but it is in the bleakness of Birkenau that the sheer scale of the industrial slaughter hits home. Beyond the railway line is a monument with the same inscription on stones in more than 20 languages, representing the nations from which Jews were transferred. We gathered by the stone inscribed in Yiddish, the language of most deportees, and collectively sang the Hymn of the Partisans written by Hirsh Glik who was murdered aged 22 years old. It ends with the words, “Mir zaynen do!” – We are here!

Our post-Auschwitz reflection session was followed the next morning by Lorna Brunstein, telling her mother’s life story. Esther Brunstein survived Auschwitz and Belsen but died in 2017. Lorna showed film clips of her mother re-living her traumas to educate young people about her experiences, through Anti-Nazi League events, school visits and TV interviews. Our final session in the early evening brought the past into the present. UAF’s Co-Convener, Weyman Bennett, was joined by Robert Ferguson, whose Jewish Hungarian mother survived the war but lost several relatives in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis assisted by Hungarian authorities. Together they illustrated the continuities in the way antisemitic ideology is weaponised, and the newer forces organising particularly around Islamophobia.

During that day news was filtering through from Warsaw about the planned nationalist march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, sponsored by the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party, a populist right wing party that has itself inflamed Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma and anti-refugee sentiments while also opposing gay rights and women’s rights.

In recent years, Independence Day marches have attracted a growing far right presence. Many municipalities are controlled though, by Civic Platform, a liberal-conservative opposition formation. Warsaw’s Mayor sought to ban far-right bodies and neo-Nazi-banners. This was overturned by the High Court. The PiS – the principal partner of Britain’s Conservative Party in its European Parliament group – then negotiated with the far-right’s representatives over their presence on the march. Government officials led the march and were separated by ranks of military police from the far-right groups including the National Radical Camp – who have revived the name of a virulently antisemitic organisation of the late 1930s – and All-Polish Youth, who combine ultra-nationalism especially with homophobia.

Contingents from the Italian Forza Nueva marched alongside them, as did Generation Identity activists from Britain, and a group wearing hi-vis jackets sporting the slogan “Free Tommy”. Young Polish soldiers were pictured marching close to the Polish Far Right contingents, as more than 200,000 people took to the streets. But the spirit of anti-45862146_2154956614569013_320453179311390720_ofascist resistance was also present in Warsaw as progressives held an alternative march and anti-fascist rave. This march was led by two banners in Yiddish and Polish held side by side, translating to “For your and our freedom”. This slogan was first used in a Polish rising against the Tsarist Empire in 1831, then revived in the Spanish Civil War by the Botwin Company of the Dombrowski Battalion, and later by Bundists in the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.

We came back from our visit determined to share the knowledge we had gained, and play a greater role in actively opposing racists and fascists, starting with the national unity march against racism and fascism in London today. Our discussions affirmed that we need to operate on an international level and also broaden the ways in which we challenge the far-right, recognising they don’t rely purely on street activity but are recruiting many adherents through online platforms. During the visit we formed a WhatsApp group to share reflections. On the day we departed, one participant who came with her son, messaged: “Thank you so much for an unforgettable experience… so well organised. Hope that Saturday is so big that we won’t bump into any of you.”

This article was also published in the Morning Star 17th November