10 years after Powell predicted rivers of blood

People remember Enoch Powell’s chilling “Rivers of Blood” speech delivered inpowellL0411_468x825 Birmingham on 20th April 1968, which happened to be on Hitler’s birthday. At that time Powell was a Conservative politician, and through that speech he deliberately set out to embolden already growing racist and anti-immigrant forces and spread fear through ethnic minority communities working all hours to eke out a living and provide better opportunities for their children. Intimidation and violence against those minorities inevitably followed in the weeks and months after that hair-raising speech. People, though, are far less familiar with Powell’s speech at a public event in Billericay, Essex, a decade later, on 10th June 1978. By then, of course, he was outside the ranks of the Conservatives and was representing Ulster Unionists in South Down. What happened the very next day may have just been a coincidence but on that occasion he talked explicitly about violence: “Violence,” he said, “does not break (out)… because it is willed, or contrived… but because it lies in the inevitable course of events.” He predicted that, within 20 years, “one third of the inner metropolis of key cities will have passed to the control of a population which by reason of the strongest impulses  and interests of human nature, neither can, nor will identify itself or be identified with the rest.”

He continued menacingly: “…those who foresaw and feared they would be swamped will be driven by equally strong impulses and interests to resist and prevent it.”

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Local NF leader Derrick Day and some of their followers at the corner of Brick Lane

For several months during 1978, there had been a regular National Front (NF) presence on Sunday mornings on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane, right outside a shop selling camping equipment, which was owned by a middle-aged Jewish couple. The NF sold papers – usually National Front News and sometimes Holocaust News. They set up a bookstall with choice titles such as Did 6 Million Really Die? and shouted abusive racist slogans. All within a stone’s throw of two Jewish-run beigel shops and the groceries and cafes that the newly-settled Bengali population had established in this section of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End.

Many of the fascists who gathered on that corner were relatively local, from Hoxton and Shoreditch. And their threatening mob included more and more young skinheads as the numbers grew generally and as their own influence among skinheads increased. But fascist supporters were also coming there from out of the area – from Hackney, Tottenham, and into Essex.

On 11th June, 1978, just 24 hours after Powell’s incendiary Billericay speech, the NF concluded their gathering that day with a terrifying rampage down Brick Lane. Some 150 skinheads, grabbing  bottles, bricks and rubble as they went, smashed windows, threw bottles and lumps of concrete, and chanted hate slogans while attacking people in their way. In a manner reminiscent of the response to the outrage against worshippers near two Finsbury Park mosques very recently, some of the attackers in June ’78 were kettled and held by the community until the police arrived. The police made a tiny number of token arrests.

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Altab ali

This was just five weeks after Altab Ali, a 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker had been stabbed to death on his way home from work by a teenage gang whose minds had been poisoned by the NF’s racism. After Ali’s death, protesters held a huge march to Downing Street behind his coffin. A range of Bengali and anti-racist organisations were created especially among the youth, and they challenged both the fascists and the wider racist atmosphere the fascists were benefiting from.

Just two days after the rampage, anger was expressed not just on the streets, but in a public hall – the Montefiore Centre on Hanbury Street off Brick Lane. The anger was directed that night not principally at the NF but at a harebrained scheme to make Bengalis safer from racist attacks, dreamed up quite a distance from the East End  in County Hall by the Conservative controlled Greater London Council (GLC). They proposed to create Bengali-only estates. Bengali organisations and spokespersons had certainly demanded better, safer housing and had expressed a wish to live near each other, but no Bengali organisation had asked for segregated or ghettoised housing. They wanted to live on multi-racial estates building good and lasting relations with their neighbours.

These explosive situations occurred in a tumultuous decade of East End history. During that decade, as around 15,000 new Bengalis immigrants supplemented the 3,000 or so who had already settled by the end of the 1960s, the overall population of the borough of Tower Hamlets plummeted to its 20th century low – just 139,000 people. The boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, which were amalgamated into Tower Hamlets in 1965, were home to nearly 500,000 people in the late 19th century, when the wealthy Victorian businessman-cum-social researcher Charles Booth was tramping the streets gathering demographic data.

From the 1980s that population grew again, not least as the fairly recently settled Bengali population had children, and more families were reunited. But the social, economic and cultural dislocation of that decade – white flight to Essex and Kent as the Bengali population grew substantially; the loss of half the remaining jobs on the London docks; the closure of longstanding local firms – created an environment in which groups like the NF with their scapegoating methods could flourish, and malevolent politicians within the mainstream, such as Powell added to the incitement.

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Brick Lane late 1970s through the eyes of the artist and activist Dan Jones

Fast forward to today and the very recent penchant for acid attacks which has included those in East London, some of which have been carried out for reasons of Islamophobic race hate. And the police, for all their experience of race attacks, still remain so slow to acknowledge that element when it is obviously there. Though, it is true that the majority of attacks are not on Muslims specifically but on a wider category, the poor and economically marginalised of all communities black, brown and white, including for example Latin American migrant workers most likely raised as Catholics, who are compelled to take risky precarious work as moped-riding delivery drivers. Other victims have been white middle-class moped riders using them as a lifestyle choice. Many attacks are being used to steal mopeds which are favoured vehicles by drugs gangs for quick sales and quick getaways.

And, Tower Hamlets residents continue to face housing problems. Bangladeshi Muslims in East London make up a significant proportion of those who face a housing crisis today, but it is  one that is less concerned with physical safety from racists than a crisis fuelled by increasing gentrification of the area’s prime sites, with its knock-on effects on the prices of everything and the reduction of public housing stock.

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Demonstration 1978: youth in the forefront

However, as we face our current troubles, we still have so much to learn from the experiences of those populating the streets in and around Brick Lane in the 1970s, not least about the spirit of resistance, solidarity and determination to bring about change that was so much in evidence then and ultimately pushed the fascists away.

The story of this dramatic decade is the subject of my newest walk, which will be having  its third outing on the morning of Sunday 30th July. Further details and booking information are here:

Battleground Brick Lane 1970s is a 2.5 hour guided walk through a dramatic decade in the life of the East End and London as a whole, taking place next on 30th July. Fee £8 (£5 unwaged). Book online at: http://www.eastendwalks.com/?page_id=82

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entering the House with honest intentions?

It’s an important political anniversary today. Exactly 125 years ago, on 4 July, 1892, voting began in the General Election that saw the first two socialist MPs elected to Parliament. They were James Keir Hardie in West Ham and John Burns in Battersea. Both came from backgrounds vastly different to most of the puffed up toffs they would be sitting among. The moment they both entered parliament was captured in a beautiful observation by the extraordinary socialist and feminist activist Charlotte Despard. I will come back to that later as it has a bearing on current political arguments.

IMG_4832So who were these two new kids on the Westminster block? John Burns was one of 16 children born in Lambeth to a Scottish father and English mother. After his father disappeared from the scene, John Burns’ mother moved the family into a basement in  Battersea. Burns left school at 10 to be apprenticed as an engineer.  One of his fellow workers was Victor Delahaye – an exiled Paris Communard who became Burns’ early political mentor.  In the early 1880s Burns helped form the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF was Britain’s first Marxist organisation.

Henry Snell described Burns as “one of the SDF’s best speakers…(whose) power as a popular street-corner orator was probably unequalled in that generation. He had a voice of unusual range… and he possessed great physical and nervous vitality. His method of attracting a crowd was, immediately he rose to speak, and for one or two minutes only, to open all the stops of his organ-like voice. The crowd once secured, his vocal energy was modified, but his vitality and masterful diction held his audience against all competitors.” The trade unionist Tom Mann said Burns’ voice “could fill every part of the largest hall or theatre, and, if the wind were favourable, could reach a 20,000 audience in the parks”.

Burns took up many causes and was especially committed to demonstrations about unemployment. In 1887 he began leading processions of unemployed workers to Sunday services at fashionable London churches. In my book Rebel Footprints I highlighted an  occasion in St. Paul’s Cathedral where Reverend Gifford began preaching against socialism at a service when John Burns was present. According to reports, “Burns promptly rose to his feet and sang a socialist parody of a well-known hymn. A ‘disturbance’ inevitably followed.”

When Burns stood for parliament in 1892 he had the backing of local socialists and trade unionists but also the local Liberal association: what some might call a “progressive alliance”.

Unlike Burns, Keir Hardie had no formal schooling at all, bHardie_electut his mother taught him to read and write. His working life also began at the age of 10 – down the mines. Just like  Burns, though, he became a well-respected orator at a relatively young age, highlighting the grievances of miners in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. As he began exploring political parties and groups he initially hoped that the Liberals would be able to enact social change that would benefit workers, but came to the stark conclusion that “we need a Labour Party to replace the historic Liberal Party”.

So what did Charlotte Despard actually say on that day in July 1892? She had been less impressed than many others by Burns’ claims that he stood above all for the needs of the “common people” and his declaration that “I am not ashamed to say I am the son of a washerwoman”. He had also stated “The better the dress and position, the bigger the snob and the greater the rogue.” And yet, as Despard observed, while they were filing into the newly elected Parliament in that summer of 1892, Keir Hardie wore plain simple clothes and a cloth cap, whereas “Burns wore an exclusive suit paid for by his supporters”. This surely told us something. In the years that followed Keir Hardie consolidated the Independent Labour Party with its principled ethical socialism, but Burns edged closer and closer to the Liberal Party hierarchy, finally accepting a Liberal Party Cabinet post in 1906. Despard was neither shocked nor surprised by this “development”.

by Mrs Albert Broom, cream-toned velox print, 1900-1925That 1892 election did hold one surprise though. In Finsbury Central the liberals beat the Tories by a whopping majority of three votes and returned the first Asian MP to Westminster – a Parsee named Dadabhai Naoroji who had been one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. When Naoroji chased a seat in a neighbouring constituency at the previous election, Lord Salisbury had said, “I doubt whether we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency will take a black man to represent them.”  This time around, in a letter to The Times, Sir Lepel Griffin, a former colonial administrator in the Punjab, described Naoroji as “an alien in race, in custom, in religion, destitute of local sympathy or local knowledge,” and claimed that “no more unsuitable representative could be imagined or suggested.” Griffin described Parsees as “the Jews of India”. That was not intended as a compliment.
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Naoroji stood for the Liberals when Parliamentary elections were principally a two-horse race of Tories and Liberals. Burns and Keir Hardie broke the mould with openly socialist programmes. Naoroji had close associates well to the left of the Liberals, but was unlikely to get anywhere near succeeding without the endorsement of a more mainstream party.

What to make of the Liberals or as they are now – Lib Dems. In the last two months some of my friends have been urging me to see them as potential partners in a “progressive alliance”. Unlike John Burns I have recoiled from that, basically not trusting them as far as I could spit (not very far these days). Just after the election I told these friends to expect the Tories to stitch up a new grubby deal with the Lib-Dems. Instead we had an even grubbier deal with the DUP, but just this morning it has emerged that the Tories have indeed also been having behind the scenes talks with the Lib-Dems. I am about as surprised as Charlotte Despard was about Burns throwing in his lot with that band of opportunists.

Tale of two cities

When Jeremy Corbyn visited the community around Grenfell Tower and comforted  survivors of what his fellow Labour MP David Lammy has called “corporate manslaughter”, he said, “Kensington is a tale of two cities – it is among the wealthiest parts of this country but the ward where this took place is one of the poorest… residents must be rehoused, using requisition of empty properties if necessary in the community they love.”
0yntjsyje6ufcgtpabudkactnrnxbhld-smallThere is a history of demands to requisition empty properties in this locality and use them to address housing injustice and housing needs that goes back to 1946.

At the end of July that year, a squatting campaign by homeless and inadequately housed people began in several locations. At first they took over disused army camps but soon empty flats and houses were entered.

In London, hundreds of homeless people, organised through the Communist Party (CP), temporarily took occupation of empty residential flats owned by the wealthy, and this took place particularly in Kensington and Marylebone in estates such as that owned by the Duchess of Bedford.

A year after the war ended, 3.5 million soldiers had been demobbed and absorbed into industry but wages were declining, there were 300,000 unemployed, and a housing crisis. in 1946, the number of families needing homes exceeded the number of suitable dwellings by 9 per cent nationally. In London, a city that had endured the Blitz, that figure was up to 21 per cent.

The Labour government set about a crash programme of temporary housing such as prefabs. They concentrated new-build in local authority hands by increasing subsidies for local authority housing. They also extended the  powers to requisition properties for war purposes, to peacetime purposes, so there would be more properties available for those who were inadequately housed.

But some local authorities reacted slowly to this urgent need. In the Westminster district of Marylebone there were 3,360 people on the housing waiting list but they had rehoused only a handful of families. In Kensington, the local council returned properties requisitioned in wartime to their wealthy private owners, who would attempt to re-let them at steep rents.

The Communist Party in London held an internal meeting on 6th September, a Friday night. The next day CP members got in touch with people they knew living in bad conditions, who were mainly non-Party members, and told them to meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon and bring whatever bedding they had with them.

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Moving on to the Dutchess of Bedford estate

On the Sunday night the CP held a meeting at the Palace Theatre, central London where  their London District secretary, Ted Bramley, read out a BBC report:

“Between 2 and 3 o’clock, about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas”

Over a period of 24 hours they contacted families from several boroughs, and got around 400 families involved. Communist Party spokespersons described it as a “shock for the government, landlords, private exploiters and their profits”, and a shock too “for their dear, objective, impartial friends in press.”

It was a powerful piece of direct action, though they knew they would not be able to hold out long. Within a few days writs and possession orders were issued and police arrested the party ringleaders, such as Ted Bramley, who had organised the actions. The state disinterred the Common Law offence of Conspiracy. There was discussion within the Party and among the squatters about how to respond. Some wanted a forcible stand against ejection; many others felt that given the number of young children among the squatters that would be a very risky course of action for the families involved. They had made their point very effectively and this would affect the national debate and public policy.

IMG_1240In contrast to Corbyn today, Labour ministers then did not display much human sympathy for those involved, but nevertheless promised there would be no further action against squatters who left peacefully, and reassured them that none of them would lose their existing place in the housing queue.

The squatters left with their dignity intact. They marched out holding banners aloft and with bands playing music. They issued a public statement that said:

“We came in here not for ourselves alone but for the hundreds and thousands of others in a similar plight… Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless… We came in together and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. Those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed. When we march out … we expect the authorities to show us that human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We ask that a rest centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated and that we take our place with the other Londoners fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight… for all local authorities to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of decent homes for London’s people.”

squattersMany of the squatters went to halfway houses and all were eventually rehoused. In the aftermath, there was much more movement by local authorities to house homeless families in requisitioned properties.

Those who were prosecuted for leading the action gave a very good account of themselves in court. They were convicted but merely bound over  to keep the peace for two years to a sum of £5 – a token gesture. Hopefully those deemed responsible by the Public Inquiry for the appalling outcome at Grenfell Tower will have the law falling upon them much, much more heavily.

Reasons to be Cheerful: part 3

Back in 1997 when Labour swept to power in a tidal wave of sentiment against Thatcher, its theme song was D: Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Of course they did, temporarily, and then Blair and his New Labour cronies took us steadily rightward, took the country into unjust and unnecessary wars, ignored the desire in the country for real and radical change, and, over time, threw away the several millions of votes Labour had gained.

THE-VERY-BEST-OF-IAN-DURY-AND-THE-BLOCKHEADS-REASONS-TO-BE-CHEERFULAfter last Thursday’s election, the song in my head is classic Ian Dury: “Reasons to be Cheerful: Part 3.” May said Corbyn would take us back to the 1970s. The song was released in 1979.  Parts 1 and 2 were clearly the two leadership elections Corbyn had to fight to establish himself as leader, and Part 3 was this incredible General Election we have just experienced. While the most ostrich-like commentators will try to pretend that Labour lost the election, they know the truth only too well.

This election was called opportunistically by a Tory PM who believed the lazy propaganda of the media commentariat (with the honorable exceptions of the Daily Mirror and the Morning Star) that there was a strong likelihood of a Tory-landslide that would humiliate Jeremy Corbyn and destroy the Labour Party; that May was a “credible leader” and Corbyn wasn’t; that the Conservatives were poised take seats where they hadn’t before in traditional Labour strongholds such as Wales.

The result was a net loss of 13 Tory seats, which meant they had completely squandered their parliamentary majority, and net gains by Labour of 30 seats, gaining in seats in Wales and also including several that would have simply been described as “impossible” never mind unlikely (think Kensington or Warwick Leamington). Labour gained 3 million more votes than its last effort just two years ago, and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings have been shooting up. He calmly brushed aside every ridiculous smear that the Tories, the Blairite remnants, and the compliant media tried to throw at him, and they will have none left to offer next time around. Far from being humiliated, Corbyn is now secure and admired by a much wider spectrum of people. It is May who looks isolated, friendless and demoralised.

In the weeks leading up to Polling Day, I had the occasional wobble, including on election2605c6e63a3c06e3e7ea39f1dcd1c846 day itself, when I woke up and asked myself, “What if they are right? What if I am living in a left bubble?”. But despite everything I had read in mainstream media outlets, from Jonathan Freedland, Andrew Rawnsley, to Paul Dacre, during the campaign, a couple of weeks ago  I was confident enough that they had so seriously misjudged the real picture, that I put my money where my mouth is and placed a bet at 11/1 odds on a hung parliament. Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell are driven by a redistributive principle, and even before they have taken office it seems they have already helped me to redistribute some of William Hill’s excessive profiits.

The Tories are in crisis, with Theresa May just about clinging on. Back in 2010, Cameron could be a bit more choosy and take in Lib-Dems as his dupes to prop up his coalition. May has been forced to be less choosy. Her only option left was to call on the swivel-eyed loons (climate change-deniers, homophobes, creationists, fellow-travellers of Loyalist terrorism) of the DUP, for Christ’s sake, for a “confidence and supply” deal. The DUP will surely try to extract a price that will be unpalatable for significant numbers of Tories. Then what?

Boris Johnson claims he is 100% behind Theresa May. I’m sure he is (with a 6-inch steel bladed knife). Another  possible replacement, Amber Rudd, is effectively out of the contest after her own majority in her constituency was reduced from several thousands to a few hundred. Rudd only just survived this election – she knows she won’t survive the next. And while they are tearing bits out of each other, the clock is ticking for their EU negotiations. It’s not pretty. There are no strong and stable leaders in sight among the Tory ranks.

Labour, meanwhile, is bouyant. It has instantly gone up five points in polls taken since the election, while the Tories have dropped five, and the leaderless UKIP have enjoyed a slight recovery. The feelgood factor across the Labour Party is palpable. Labour has already recruited an astonishing 150,000 new members since the polls closed, and if it was people-power and the ability to mobilise armies of activists for canvassing in marginal areas that was so crucial to the result, Labour will have already enhanced its capacity to do that next time with even greater impact. All those young people who registered before the deadline, are now registered for the next election, which surely will not be more than six months to one year away. The party has an exciting new, popular, coherent and costed manifesto, which fundamentally breaks with the failed Blair agenda. It will not need much tweaking before the next election. And finally the simple figures in the results themselves reveal where the Tories’ most marginal constituencies are and where canvassing, public meetings and events should continue now. Just a very small swing will bring another 20 seats and Labour would have high hopes of  gaining in several others.
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Make no mistake. This is a crisis, and a nightmare, not just for the Tories, but also for the Labour Right. More right-wing Labour MPs may have been elected, but they owe their majorities to Corbyn’s campaign, and the centre of gravity among the Party membership has shifted leftwards. Any actions of sabotage and serial disloyalty to the leadership this time round will surely merit re-selection procedures. They will have no desire to risk that when the Party is poised for power. Meanwhile Several centre-Left Labour MPs who had opposed Corbyn in the last two years are now openly and honestly acknowledging his achievements in this election, which further isolates the right. The old Chinese curse of living in interesting times is surely upon us. Theresa May and Tony Blair are running into the obscure wheat field of history, and we really do have many reasons to be cheerful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy must answer back to terror and Theresa May

A woman holds a placard as they take part in a vigil for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena, in central ManchesterIt was surely right to pause national election campaigning in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack in Manchester. It gave us time to absorb and respect the incredible responses by ordinary people in Manchester as the tragedy unfolded, and to acknowledge the vital role of emergency services cut to the bone by Tory austerity policies. We have witnessed outstanding examples of solidarity and support. Full credit too to Jeremy Corbyn for his deeply humane public statements, which got a short-lived full airing by the media before they reduced them drastically to a single sentence.
Theresa May, who had looked so weak and distraught in the face of the press posse on the day of her u-turn on social care, did not miss a trick in hogging the limelight with confident, belligerent and unchallenged pronouncements in front of Downing Street about security and the national interest, while the Tory-supporting press had a campaign-free day to continue spreading their smears attempting to link Corbyn and McDonnell to terrorism.
As May unleashes a narrow and transparently militaristic response, with soldiers on the streets, she is simultaneously trying to suspend national campaigning until Sunday – in the middle of the Bank Holiday weekend (even though her canvassers were already back on the streets in some areas yesterday evening, including within Manchester itself).
The last thing she wants is Corbyn and his team continuing to address mass outdoor meetings reviving the themes that were biting so hard into the Tory polling lead last week. Nor would she want Labour to be able to amplify its critique, expressed early in the campaign, of the Tories’ hypocritical approach to national security, centred on an aggressive foreign policy, arms sales to murderous dictatorships and intimate friendship with Donald Trump. While she was talking about security, her new best friend was completing more arms sales and strengthening reactionary political alliances in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
If the Manchester outrage was an attack on democracy then democracy has to answer back, and Labour must revive its national campaign no later than tomorrow. If May is forced back on to the campaign trail, rather than being able to hold forth in front of Downing Street as a stateswoman, she will try to make the debate in the next few days all about terrorism. Labour has the arguments to deal with that, and then park it, as it returns to the themes the election is really all about – poverty, the NHS, education, housing, zero hours contracts, foodbank Britain, etc.
She had already tried earlier in the campaign to make the election solely about Brexit (aided and abetted by some sectarian sections of the left/anti-racist movement), but Corbyn’s team exposed and destroyed that cynical manoeuvre when they unleashed their brilliant and exciting manifesto, which took on the full range of failures of the Tory administrations since 2010, well before Brexit was even dreamed of.
Yesterday I was feeling sickened and numbed by the horrifying details of what occurred in Manchester, and also by the crashing halt to the momentum Labour built up last week. I felt despair about their prospects of reviving that campaign in the post-terror attack atmosphere, with a little over two weeks to polling day. I will leave it to the conspiracy theorists to speculate about this attack happening in the immediate aftermath of a full-blooded media assault alleging that Labour’s leaders were friendly to the IRA, in a city where a major IRA attack occurred back in the day, and to ask how much the security forces knew about the person identified by them as the perpetrator. We won’t know the truth of that for many years to come, if ever. But we cannot afford to dwell on that today. Our response has to be to seize the initiative once more and be out on the streets canvassing and campaigning on the real issues of this election. We know what they are.
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And this morning I feel a little more positive having read that some 622,000 people registered to vote on the deadline day, 22 May. They included 246,000 in the 18-24 age bracket and 207,000 who were 25-34 year olds. A luta continua!

A Holocaust victim who died in London

When I heard recently of an academic researcher questioning the number of Jewish Holocaust victims, I felt enraged, and if I was honest, perhaps a little murderous. But my reaction was misplaced. This was not someone trying to hide, erase or deny Nazi crimes, but someone who thought that actually the iconic figure of six million Jewish deaths may actually be an underestimate. One thing I am sure of is that revised figures should include one Holocaust victim, a Polish, Jewish, anti-fascist, who died far from the death camps that the Nazis established on Polish soil. He died here in London. Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of  Szmul “Artur” Zygielbojm, who committed suicide at his Paddington flat on the night of 11/12 May 1943 as the heroic Warsaw Ghetto resistance was finally extinguished. His story was a remarkable one.

A factory worker at 10 years old, and apprenticed as a glove maker at 12, Zygielbojm became a renowned trade union figure in Poland. He was a leading member of the Bund, the Jewish socialist party that was active throughout Poland but especially in Warsaw and Lodz, where, in the 1930s, one in three residents were Jews. At that time, antisemitic, pro-fascist forces flourished in Poland, and the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party-Left (PPS-Left) led the anti-fascist resistance. Zygielbojm helped to organise a half-day general strike by Jewish and non-Jewish workers protesting a pogrom in Przytyk in 1936 in which three people died and many were wounded.

When the Nazis invaded in September 1939, Poland’s right wing political establishment fled, but the Bund and PPS formed workers’ battalions, which tried to repel the invaders. Zygielbojm was central in this resistance. To ensure Warsaw Jews’ acquiescence, the Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council). In November 1939 they commanded the Judenrat to create a walled ghetto. When they heard this decree many Jews descended on the Judenrat building. Zygielbojm, a reluctant Judenrat member, could not convince his fellow councillors to oppose the decree, and resigned. But he seized the opportunity to address the crowd from a balcony, urging defiance: “Don’t go voluntarily to the ghetto. Don’t lose courage. Remain in your homes until you are removed by force.” He was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters “to discuss important matters”. But instead his Bund comrades hid him, then organised a daring escape in which he travelled in disguise through Nazi Germany on a false Dutch passport. They entrusted him, though, with a formidable task: to tell the world what was happening to Poland’s Jews and mobilise for their defence and rescue.

Zygielbojm emerged in Belgium and attended a meeting of the Socialist International. He shocked delegates with eye-witness reports of the atrocities the Nazis were already committing. But when the Nazis sent their occupying forces westward as well as east, Zygielbojm had to flee once more, eventually reaching America. He told Jewish and labour movement audiences there about the barbaric nature of the Nazi occupation and urged exceptional action to rescue the Jews.

In early 1942, the Polish Parliament in Exile invited Zygielbojm to join their National Council in London. From here he maintained a network of clandestine contacts – Jewish and non-Jewish – relaying detailed information on the tragedy unfolding in his homeland. In May 1942 he received a report from Warsaw Bundists that contained a list of mass murder sites. It estimated that 700,000 Jewish civilians had already died through starvation, shootings and gassing. Zygielbojm released this report to the Daily Telegraph and several other newspapers before giving it to the Jewish press. He believed this would ensure it reached a wide audience. Given the antisemitism that existed among the British establishment, he feared that, had it surfaced in a Jewish newspaper first, there would be many who would question its authenticity.

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Szmul Zygielbojm

He sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders and conveyed information to the general public by broadcasting on the BBC, addressing public meetings, and bombarding the press with letters and information. At a packed Labour Party meeting in Caxton Hall in September 1942, Zygielbojm revealed gruesome facts that, would, in his own words, “make blood curdle in the veins”. He asked the audience to “imagine the people who see their nearest ones being dragged away to their death every day.” Each one, he said “knows that their turn must come. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.” He called on people of all nations to “force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people.”

Three months later, Zygielbojm was visited at his Paddington flat by Jan Karski a remarkable figure in the Polish underground, whose promising diplomatic career was halted when his country fell under Nazi occupation. Karski smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay messages between underground resisters. In London he handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto. The letter asked Jewish leaders in the West to go on hunger strike outside British and American Government offices until they obtained guarantees of action to save the Jews. “Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.” Zygielbojm promised Karski he would act on this letter.

In spring 1943 Zygielbojm wrote a sombre letter to his brother Fayvel in South Africa. He expressed frustration that his strenuous efforts had failed, and grief for his wife Manya their sons Yossel and Artek, and other close relatives he presumed had perished. He never knew that Yossel had actually survived and was a Red Army partisan fighter.

Two crushing events coincided on 19th April 1943. While Nazi tanks and soldiers entered the Warsaw Ghetto to destroy it and massacre its remaining inhabitants (most had already been deported to death camps), American and British leaders convened the Bermuda Conference where they ruled out taking significant numbers of Jewish refugees. The conference concluded on 30th April. Inside the ghetto, though, Bundists, Communists and Zionists under a joint command, boosted by a small number of weapons received from the Polish resistance outside, fought a courageous three week guerrilla campaign to defend the ghetto. It was the most unequal of battles but the Nazis paid a high price for their eventual victory.

On the night of 11th/12th May, 1943, Zygielbojm gassed himself at his Paddington home. He left letters – one to his landlady apologising for the shock she would experience; others to political leaders and to his Bundist comrades and friends, confirming that his suicide was a premeditated act of political protest:

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 Extract (Yiddish) from one of Zygielbojm’s suicide letters – this one addressed to the Polish President and Prime Minister

“I cannot remain silent; I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland, whose representative I am, are being exterminated. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto perished with their weapons in their hands in their last heroic battle. It was not my destiny to die as they did, together with them. But I belong to them and in their mass graves. By my death I wish to make the strongest possible protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people …  as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall help to break down the indifference of those who have the possibility now, at the last moment, to save those Polish Jews still alive from certain annihilation. My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and, therefore, I give it to them. I wish that the surviving remnants of the Polish Jews could live to see, with the Polish population, the liberation that it could know in Poland, in a world of freedom and in the justice of socialism.”

Zygielbojm’s suicide was a protest not against the Nazis – he condemned their atrocities daily – but against the allies’ failure to help the Jews in their moment of greatest need. Newspapers across the world reported his suicide. It had a powerful public impact, but the allied governments did not change their policy. Zygielbojm’s son, Yossel, learned of his father’s death when his partisan unit took over a former Nazi base on the River Vrbas in Yugoslavia that same month. A newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, was left behind. It contained an article mocking his father’s suicide.

In Warsaw today, where the ghetto once stood, an artistic memorial is etched in glass on a building in Zygielbojm Square. Montreal has a Zygielbojm Memorial Park. In Israel, a Tel Aviv street is named after him. Here in Britain, where his life ended, there was no memorial. But in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in April 1993, Jewish Socialists’ Group activists and several elderly Bundist survivors established a Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee to campaign for a local memorial. With endorsements from writers, historians, rabbis, trade unionists and MPs, the committee requested Westminster Council –a notoriously right wing council – to mount a plaque to honour a Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist resident.

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IMG_2189.jpg Bundist committee members gave me a Yiddish biography of Zygielbojm

A young council officer responded enthusiastically but met repeated hurdles. It took three years to succeed. The committee established contact with Zygielbojm’s surviving family. Yossel (now known as Joseph) had settled in California with his wife Adela, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They had two sons, Arthur and Paul. Joseph was determined to attend the ceremony. Sadly, he died a year before the plaque was unveiled. But other family members flew over. Adela Zygielbaum unveiled the plaque together with Britain’s then Polish ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, in front of 200 supporters. The elderly Jan Karski, still alive then but very frail, and living in America too, sent a handwritten message regretting that he was “not strong anymore” and could not travel, much as he would like to.

The unveiling was followed by a celebration of Zygielbojm’s life at the nearby Yaa Asantewaa African Community Centre, where Paul Zygielbaum spoke movingly of his grandfather’s sacrifice.   “Zygielbojm’s sacrifice,” he said, “was not for the Jews alone. His words and deeds embodied vital lessons for mankind about what it means to be a human being. About compassion, dignity, commitment and courage. About the ultimate value of life and of each human culture… with his death he invoked the vision of a world of freedom, justice and peace, in which brutality would have no place… Let us look ahead  with determination to the building of a world in which all people can live in peace and mutual respect. This is what Szmul Zygielbojm would have wanted.”

wpfe54aaeb_05_06Sadly, only one of the Bundist survivors who were part of our Memorial committee, is still alive, Wlodka Blit-Robertson, whose father Lucien Blit was a prominent Bundist activist in Warsaw. But with the plaque in place, Zygielbojm’s memory here lives on. You can find it on Porchester Road, near the corner with Porchester Square. Go and visit, celebrate his life, reflect on his sacrifice, and rededicate yourself to the struggle for freedom and against fascism wherever it shows itself.

 

Tables turning?

“I didn’t see that coming!” has been the repeated refrain of the last two years. Political shocks and tremors have taken place in several countries, challenging expectations and surprising those who have taken their eye off the ball. Just now, another one seems to have happened that affects the Israel/Palestine conflict, and many activists who have following developments there much more closely than me are unsure how to react.

The most right-wing government in  Israel’s history, whose tired mantras that it has no one to negotiate with, that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it is constantly faced with existential threats, has just suffered a body blow. But no one died or was injured. There was no rocket or suicide bomb. The weapon on this occasion was a piece of paper. A piece of paper that undercuts Israel’s position and holds out the promise of a more united struggle by the Palestinian people that the Israeli Government continues to oppress. For many years, the fiercely expressed internal political divisions between Palestinian parties and factions have suited Israel well, and historically it had a part in fomenting them. But perhaps the tables are starting to turn.

Israeli leaders always claim that their citizens are in fear of military attack, but they are actually much more frightened of peace than war. There real existential fear is having to account for and face up to the injustices they perpetuate. The most hopeful time for a breakthrough for the Palestinians in recent decades was towards the end of the 1980s at the time of the first intifada – an uprising by all of Palestinian society from the ground up – which engendered a build-up of sympathy and support around the world for a people suffering under a brutal and long-running military occupation. The exiled Palestinian leadership, based in Tunis, played a role, but in many ways this was a locally organised popular grassroots rebellion on the political principles the PLO had helped to establish.

The Israeli Defence Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, famously ordered his soldiers to “break their bones”. His internal opponents on the more explicitly right-wing of the Zionist movement, called Palestinians “cockroaches” who needed to be crushed. But the deep Israeli state had softer, more cynical methods too to disrupt the Palestinian resistance. As the PLO – a secular resistance movement with Muslims and Christians and less religious people in its leadership – grew in stature, despite operating from exile, the Israelis began covertly funding an Islamic religious organisation, led by Sheikh Yassin, to help establish a religious counterweight to the PLO; one that would undermine its ability to represent the vast bulk of Palestinians. Yassin’s organisation eventually developed into Hamas.

It was a risky strategy for the Israelis. As the PLO became more trapped in talks about talks about talks, that were going nowhere, but not wanting to miss out on gaining even a  minimal and fragile autonomy within the Occupied Territories, Hamas became something of a Frankenstein’s monster for Israel, developing an increasingly militant and fundamentalist politics. It adopted a charter that did not distinguish between people and governments, or between Jews in the world and Israeli policy makers and military representatives. Indeed the charter, drawn up by one person within Hamas, borrowed from the infamous antisemitic document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

As Hamas incorporated terrorism into its methods, the lives of ordinary Israelis and also Jews outside of Israel suddenly became more perilous. But for increasingly desperate Palestinians on the street, with the PLO’s main faction, Fatah, laying emphasis on diplomatic manoeuvres, Hamas’ militant stance became attractive. There was a sense they were actually fighting back, even if Israel greatly exaggerated the threat from their rockets. Israel’s establishment basked in the continued divide, knowing also that Hamas’ conception of the struggle as a religious struggle could not bring political successes against it, and it would be easy to cast it as antisemitic rather than simply anti-Zionist.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts over the years to broker some kind of pact between Hamas and Fatah, but until now there has been a gulf between the aspiration of Hamas to liberate all of Palestine in the name of Islam and the de facto acceptance of two states by Fatah in the name of realpolitik.

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Marwan Barghouti

Now that Hamas has abandoned its charter, distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, described the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle against Zionism, not a fight against Jews, and now that it has spoken of an aspiration to create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West bank on the pre-67 boundaries including East Jerusalem, and the return of refugees, both it and Fatah are increasingly working on the same page.  Both movements remain strongly committed to the welfare of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The current hunger strike by more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israel, led by Marwan Barghouti, who maintains the traditional secular Fatah philosophy, is helping also to prepare the ground for greater political unity.

Hamas’ move will surely be regarded as constructive by many states around the world, and will increasingly isolate Israel’s apartheid rulers. The Israeli government, which thought that with Trump at the helm, it could get away with more land-grabbing and establishing more new settlements, now has to justify once again on the world stage why it should maintain the occupation, let alone build more settlements. That is a significant gain for the Palestinians. But it is also uncomfortable for large sections of the anti-Zionist Left in the world who are now wedded purely to a single state solution.

I suspect a number of them will denounce Hamas for “selling out”.  I’m more relaxed about it. It is the principles of self-determination, equality, democracy, not the number of states, that counts for me. These principles can be fought for in either a one or two states arrangement. I would prefer one state, but a fight for two secular democratic states, to be states for all their citizens on an equal basis, instead of one state, would liberate a large chunk of Palestine, would challenge Israel as an ethnocracy, and still represent a progressive agenda in my book. We need to follow events closely and intervene in supportive ways, but in the coming period it is very important for the Palestinians themselves to determine their mode of united struggle. In a world where currently so many situations are stacked against progressive forces, this is a rare chink of light. There are dangers and traps but, at last, there are also some real opportunities.

 

 

When the unjustly poor take on the unjustly rich

Just over a week into the General Election Campaign it has been the party leaders who have been grabbing most of the headlines: Theresa May with her defiant refusals to debate on television or take questions from the press or public, and her studied mantras about “strong and stable” government; Tim Farron, struggling with his own conscience as much as with his PR strategies as he tries to deal  with the question of whether a Liberal Democrat leader needs to be liberal enough to consider gay sex as something other than a sin; and Jeremy Corbyn, appearing remarkably upbeat and combative, despite 20 months of insults, smears and put-downs from political opponents, the media, and the disgruntled within his own party. Corbyn is clearly relishing the opportunity to take the campaign to the terrain of the streets and public spaces, where he feels at home, and was so successful during his Labour leadership battles.

_85510468_8a41d8d1-f479-4eda-a6f7-41552fbc136bBut there is another figure looming in the background who clearly resents the attention the leaders have been getting. He thinks he deserves to be in the headlines instead, and is trying to muscle in, with a little help from the media friends he cultivated so assiduously when he was in power. Tony Blair. He may, in name, be Labour still, and he assures us he will be voting Labour, but his message to Labour voters is to think carefully about the country and who they should vote for in order to strengthen opposition to the Tories’ hard Brexit. Yes, it might be their Labour candidate but it might just be a Tory or a Lib Dem Remainer instead.

To say his interventions have riled Labour campaigners going all out to reverse the torrent of negative opinion polls and anti-Labour headlines, is of course a great understatement. People are outraged as they recall how casually thousands of Labour members were suspended and denied the opportunity  of even voting in Labour leadership elections for as little as praising a statement or policy of a Green politician for example. Yet here, a prominent Labour figure who encourages Labour supporters to consider putting their vote elsewhere, remains untouched. He is feted by the sycophantic media who thrown open their columns for his “statesmanlike” words of “wisdom”.

This man whose achievements can actually be enumerated, grotesquely, in the mass corpses of Iraqi civilians, the size of his property empire,  the 4 million-plus Labour votes that he lost between 1997 and when he stood down, in the hundreds of thousands of pounds he demanded for giving a talk to an international hunger forum, is utterly, utterly, desperate for attention. And sadly our own side are providing some of that attention.

On social media, Labour members and supporters are being urged to sign petitions to expel Tony Blair. But that kind of response is exactly what he craves. He wants to distract you from Jeremy Corbyn’s and Labour’s popular, bold, well-targeted policies that are challenging people like him, challenging the rule of the establishment, the rich and powerful.

Back in the mid-1880s, the radical journalist Annie Besant lambasted the “present state of society, with its unjustly rich and its unjustly poor, with its palaces and its slums, with its millionaires and its paupers”. Look at the streets of our major cities in 2017, the foodbanks, the rough sleepers, the desperate individuals wandering around. It seems that we are returning closer and closer to the situation that Annie Besant described . But now, we finally have a party (albeit divided), with a combative leader who is serious about taking on that rigged system that diverts more and more wealth to those who already have too much.  Jeremy Corbyn, and those rallying around him, are deadly serious about radically transforming that reality if they get the chance to do so. No wonder the likes of Blair are worried, let alone May.

So my advice to fellow Labour members and supporters is simple: Ignore Tony Blair. Don’t bother with petitions asking Labour’s discredited Compliance Unit to expel him.
He may want to be the story. But this story needs to end. Don’t feed Blair’s ego. Starve it instead. Remember that when Maggie Thatcher was asked what her finest achievement was, she quipped: “Tony Blair”. Remember too that “Tony Blair PM” was always an anagram of “I’m Tory Plan B”. And it remains so. Concentrate your vital energy instead on fighting for every vote you can win for Labour, especially in the marginal seats.

This battle has only just begun.

 

 

“We fought for dignity and freedom, not for territory, not for a national identity”

Before you go to sleep tonight, take a few moments to reflect on what happened in Warsaw in the early hours of 19 April 1943. That was when troops and tanks of the most powerfully equipped army in the world – the German Nazis – entered the Warsaw Ghetto to burn the ghetto buildings to the ground, massacre the remaining inhabitants, or deport them to death camps.  At one time the ghetto, comprising just 1.3 square miles, had held more than 400,000 people – almost all Jews, but also several hundred Roma Gypsies.  By April 1943 the inhabitants still numbered 30-40,000 – starved, diseased, beaten – but still holding on to life, just.

In those early hours the Nazi army were shocked to meet armed resistance from a united fighting organisation comprising around 220 people, the oldest of whom was 40. The youngest was a boy called Luciek, a member of the Jewish Socialist Bund’s children’s organisation. He was just 13 years old. They fought with home-made weapons created and smuggled in by Jews living secretly outside the ghetto who were hidden by sympathetic non-Jews, plus a small number of other weapons clandestinely received from the non-Jewish Polish resistance outside.  It took the Nazis longer to defeat those resisters than to occupy whole countries.

Those 220 fighters represented an alliance under a joint command of three conflicted political tendencies: Bundists, Communists and left-wing Zionists. The Bundists and Communists disagreed with each other over centralism, authoritarianism, inner-party democracy, cultural politics, and more. They had been bitter rivals for the allegiance of socialist-minded Jewish workers in 1930s Poland.  Left-wing Zionists believed that Jews needed a territorial state in Palestine to solve the recurring problems that Jews faced in different countries. Both Bundists and Communists warned that any attempt to impose a Jewish state in Palestine would not only lead to permanent bitter conflict with the population who lived and worked the land there, but also could not solve the problem of antisemitism and fascism in the world. In the ghetto, faced by a deadly enemy, these three disparate tendencies united in action as one.

In the last few weeks a lot of heat, but not much light, has been generated by those who would like to tell the story of Jews, Zionists and Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s in the most simplistic terms of good and evil, and wish away or dismiss any contradictions. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters ought to be told for other reasons, above all to restore names and dignity to those who fought in the most unequal of battles. In telling their history we should embrace the contradictions rather than dismiss them, but also recognise how and why that memory continues to be fought over.

The first moments of the Uprising were described during the 1961 trial in Israel of the leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

The resistance had organised itself into small units in different locations: “I was standing in an attic on 31 Nalewcki street when I saw thousands of Germans armed with machine guns surrounding the ghetto. Suddenly they entered… and we, some 20 young men and women (with) a revolver, a grenade, some bombs, happily standing up against the heavily armed enemy. Happy because we knew their end would come. We knew that ultimately they would conquer us. But we knew… they would pay heavily for our lives… When… we threw our hand grenades and bombs and saw German blood pouring over the streets of Warsaw where so much Jewish blood had poured, we rejoiced. The future did not worry us. It was a joy… to behold the wonder of those Germans retreating… they had enough… ammunition, bread and water, which we did not have. Reinforced with tanks they came back on the same day, and we, with our Molotov cocktails set fire to a tank… And when we met in the evening… the number of our dead was small, two men, while hundreds of Germans had fallen either dead or wounded.”

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Tsivye Lubetkin

That powerful testimony was given by Tsivye Lubetkin, the only woman in the command group, and a left-wing Zionist. Before this trial, Israeli schools had become used to teaching that during the Holocaust, Jews had gone, “like lambs to the slaughter”. The narrative incorporated these heroic stories of Zionist involvement in the resistance and drew a direct line from resistance fighters in Warsaw to the fighters for a Jewish state.

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Marek Edelman

Inconveniently disrupting that narrative was Marek Edelman, who wrote the most comprehensive memoir of the Ghetto Uprising, in Polish, in 1945. It was translated into Yiddish and English in 1946. Second-in-command during the Uprising, and the last surviving member of the command group until his death in Poland in 2009, he wasn’t even called to give testimony at the Eichmann trial. Despite his own heroism, Edelman was persona non grata in Israel, a country which leaned on the terrible experiences of the Holocaust to underpin its necessity and legitimacy. That was because he insisted on maintaining his pre-war Bundist ideological beliefs: He was a socialist, an anti-Zionist, an internationalist and anti-nationalist until his dying day. He spoke out in support of justice for the Palestinians. Disgracefully, Edelman’s ghetto memoir remained untranslated into Hebrew until 2001.

Having successfully linked resistance in Warsaw to fighting for Israel, Zionist ideologues drew a sharp distinction between those who fought and those who “passively” and “cowardly” submitted, emphasising brave Zionist fighters, and downplaying or even air-brushing out the Bundists and Communists. Edelman challenged this narrative and could stretch the line of resistance further back in time than the Zionists could. In 1930s Poland the anti-Zionist Bund led the fightback against fascist and antisemitic tendencies in Polish society, whether in the form of Government-backed economic discrimination, street violence or attempted pogroms. In this fight, the Bund could not rely on any support from Zionists except from the small “Left Poale Zion” faction. The communists  were too busy engaging in sectarian political wars against the Bund to help. But the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party worked closely with the Bund.

In Poland’s last municipal elections before the war the Bundists swept the Jewish vote. Many historians attribute that to their leadership in the daily fight against antisemitism. It also enabled the Bund to play a pivotal role inside the ghetto resistance, well before an armed battle command was formed. The first underground  resistance newspapers that were distributed in the ghetto flew off underground Bundist presses. It was Zalman Frydrych, a Bundist “courier” (the term for those who smuggled themselves in and out of the ghetto on various dangerous missions) who, with assistance from a non-Jewish Polish socialist railway worker, made a gruesome discovery: that deportation trains leaving the ghetto were not transporting Jews in their thousands for “work in the east” but sending them instead to a death camp at Treblinka.

I was fortunate to briefly meet Edelman, whom I regard as a hero, in Warsaw in 1997. But he preferred to be an anti-hero. He did not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. He spoke of the courage of those Jews who stayed with their families rather than fight; the strong accompanying the weak to a certain death. Edelman said:  “These people went quietly and with dignity… Humanity had decided that dying with a gun is more beautiful.” He described the armed rebellion, though, as “the logical sequel to four years of resistance by a population incarcerated in inhuman conditions, a humiliated, degraded population treated as sub-human”, but who had nevertheless established clandestine universities, schools, welfare institutions, orchestras, theater groups and newspapers. For Edelman it was these acts, resisting to whatever threatened their right to a dignified life, that culminated in rebellion.

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Mikhal Klepf

A significant number of the arms used by the Warsaw ghetto fighters were manufactured by hand by another Bundist called Mikhal Klepfisz who was being hidden by Polish Catholics in a flat a short distance beyond the ghetto wall. He was 30 years old at the time. That family also hid an 11-year-old called Wlodka, smuggled out of the ghetto  – who survived and lives in London today. Wlodka has told me that Klepfisz showed her exactly what he was making and how. He delivered his last consignment after the battle had begun knowing he would not come out.

In sharp contrast with the retrospective Zionist narrative regarding the ghetto fighters, Edelman insisted: “We fought for dignity and freedom, not for territory or a national identity.” He upset the Israeli establishment by declaring that there were no nationalist lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, only general lessons for humanity, adding that, in his view, the memory of the Holocaust did not belong solely to the Jews but to everybody.

One of the most stirring documents smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto was a “Manifesto to the Poles” – directed to the underground non-Jewish Polish resistance. It had the slogan “For our and your freedom” – also the motto of one of the Bund’s underground ghetto newspapers.

There was courageous resistance in many ghettoes. In Vilna (Vilnius), after the ghetto was destroyed, survivors formed a United Partisan Organisation led by an anti-Zionist Communist, Itsik Wittenberg. Both Bundists and left-wing Zionists took part in its operations.

Despite some of the wilder claims aired recently, deeper investigations of the experiences in Poland and in other countries under Nazi occupation reveal that the dividing line between those who fought and those who didn’t cannot be mapped by attitudes to Zionism. A Hungarian survivor, Louis Marton, who was a Zionist in his youth and became an opponent of Zionism in later life, made this point, and also argued that those who went into the ghetto with an idealistic political background, dreaming of a better world, and with a commitment to a politics of change, whether Bundist, Communist or Zionist, were best placed to lead resistance activities.

The recent controversies have focused on the heart of the Nazi beast – Germany – and the actions of some among the (significant) minority of German Jews who were Zionists, but German Jews (largely middle class and more assimilated) were not that representative of Jewish communities in Europe, especially of the larger East European ones which were much more working class and generally more impervious to Zionism, which they saw as a pipe-dream totally divorced from the realistic aspirations of ordinary people..

The Polish Jewish population was more than five times bigger than Germany’s and the fight within Jewish life over attitudes to Zionism and antisemitism was acted out much more sharply there in the 1930s. Bundist leaders in Poland were incandescent about the complacent and defeatist attitude that Polish Zionist leaders had towards antisemitism, and their public statements, echoed gleefully by antisemitic Polish politicians, that there were “100,000 superfluous Jews in Poland” and that “Jews pollute the air of Poland”.

One Bundist leader, Henryk Erlich, described Zionist ideology as “a Siamese twin of antisemitism and every kind of national chauvinism” and characterised the Zionist movement in Poland as the “open ally of our deadly enemy – antisemitism”.

In 1938, Erlich wrote these chilling words: “…if the future of humanity really belongs to fascism… then what truly awaits us… is death and destruction. But death and destruction will be the destiny of all human civilisation and culture. Would Zionism be capable of saving us alone from the fascist deluge. It is ridiculous to even think about it.”

Of course, the relatively small numbers of Jews of Palestine did survive, not because of Zionism though, but because the allies defeated the Nazis at El Alamein.  Those polemicists who have been waving around the Ha’avarah Agreement to score a political point against Zionism today, need to ask themselves what would have happened had the Nazis reached Palestine? Would they have tracked down the 60,000 Jews who got there under the Ha’avarah agreement, separated them out and said, “we’ll exterminate the others, not you”? Of course not.

They also need to acknowledge that most German Zionists stayed in Germany and shared the fate of nearly all German Jews there and elsewhere under Nazi occupation, whether Zionist, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Reduced to ashes. Cremated equally.

Unfortunately, many people who have justifiably critiqued Livingstone’s half-baked history, and poured scorn on those who unthinkingly defend him, don’t apply the same critical scrutiny to Zionist ideologues and the Israeli political establishment, who have cynically tried to appropriate the history of the Holocaust, and episodes within it, and harness it to their ultra-nationalist and revanchist political outlook today.

The fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, whether Bundists, Communists or Zionists, who took up arms on April 19th 1943, and were still defiantly fighting against the might of the Nazis in the second week of May, deserve better. Koved zayer ondenk! (Yiddish). Honour their memory!

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial

Memorial in Warsaw to the Ghetto fighters

Making the best of a balls up

This time last week I was in Nottingham, feeling incredibly relaxed, happy and at one with the world. I was at the annual British Juggling Convention for the first time in 16 years.  Back in the 1990s not just me, but our family, had discovered the joy of juggling. Between 1995 in Norwich and 2001 in Cardiff we only missed one national convention, and took in quite a few local conventions along the way. We packed the car full of juggling equipment and usually came back with more. It is addictive. I thought I could handle the addiction, but came back this time as well with new equipment.

So what does a juggling convention look like? Hundreds, sometimes more than a 1,000 jugglers of all ages and sizes sharing a 24/7 practice hall, usually in a purpose-built sports centre; people practicing and practicing by themselves, or with a partner or small group with all kinds of equipment not just balls: hula hoops, diabolos, rings of all sizes, silk scarves, flower sticks and devil sticks (look them up!); smaller groups gathering for workshops in studio spaces or squash courts – in Nottingham’s case – or in small circus tents at some previous conventions.

IMG_1755People generously offer workshops to freely share their skills with learners. Late in the evening the “Renegade Show” offers anyone attending the chance to do a little turn in front of an always friendly and supportive audience. There is also one professional show put on at a proper theatre in the town where the convention is happening. The skills on show are breathtaking, but there is also something very pleasing when you suddenly see on stage that person who has just been practicing very quietly and seriously near you in the 24/7 hall space.

Also there are the “juggling games” when we take over a place in the town. In Nottingham’s case it was a large green within the grounds of Nottingham Castle. At previous conventions it has been a pedestrianised city centre. All manner of strange collective games and endurance tests follow, mainly using juggling balls, clubs, diabolos, and human balancing skills. Sometimes there is a carnival style procession to the games venue.

IMG_1776.jpgAlthough I was completely fascinated with circus since I was a child, my story as a juggler started in the early 1990’s (shortly before I trained as a primary school teacher). With three bean bags and a small instruction sheet – a present just before a family holiday in Cornwall – I practiced for half an hour a day, until I got the hang of it. When we came back I progressed to balls, and then in subsequent months and years to rings, clubs, knives, and I’ve since dabbled a bit with fire clubs too.

People ask me whether juggling is meditative. I don’t think so, but what does happen is that all inhibitions and anxieties temporarily drop out of your head and disappear. That is a state that those of us who are political activists really need to build into our lives to maintain our sanity in these very fraught times. I guess other people do it by playing music, going jogging or climbing a mountain.

Juggling turned out to be a very useful skill in my 22-year career as a primary teacher in inner-London. I resorted to it at moments when I really needed to calm situations down in the class, and I also regularly visited each classes’ annual Christmas party to do a brief entertainment slot. For around 10 years from the mid-1990s, I ran a weekly  after-school Juggling Club for 7-11 year olds  which gave me insights on the question of “natural” talent and also on the negative cultural changes our children have lived through and are still living through.

My first five or six years of running the club were the most creative and enjoyable. The club was populated by children who fully bought in to the non-competitive spirit I tried to establish. They appreciated each other’s efforts and supported each other. Juggling came more easily to some children than others, but those who were willing to persevere with something they found hard, and who could cope with others around them progressing at a faster pace would succeed too. I usually had up to 12 children in the class. We would play some games then I would demonstrate some techniques and leave them to practice. While they practiced, I went from child to child giving individual help. We closed the sessions with children volunteering to show the others what they had improved on that week.

IMG_1767I had one child, P, who started in the club when he was nine. Despite the fact that in other spheres he was well coordinated – he played guitar with considerable proficiency – he had terrible coordination problems with juggling. The first exercise I gave him was to hold a ball in his favoured hand (his right) and throw it in a loop reaching just over head height to catch it as it fell into his left. I told him to hold his hands low palm upwards and placed a ball in his right hand. As he tried to throw it, it just stayed there. the first limb that moved was actually his left arm; then his left leg; then his right leg, then finally his right arm. And the ball didn’t really land anywhere near his left hand.

Some children got the hang of it quickly as I progressed them through the basic exercises for the “cascade” – the most basic 3-ball pattern. Within two or three weeks most of them could keep the balls in the air in that pattern for 5-10 throws. P showed fantastic perseverance – aided by the support of others in the club. By the time he was 11 – he could finally keep a three ball cascade going for at least 10 throws.  He proved to me that it didn’t matter how uncoordinated you were, you could get there. I hope he is still juggling.

But the last few years of the club were more challenging. This was a period when two simultaneous processes were happening. Children were getting sucked more and more into the passive culture of electronic games which provided instant gratification with very little physical skill/agility involved; and a competitive spirit was being insinuated by Blair’s New Labour into almost every aspect of the education system, setting borough against borough, school against school and ultimately child against child. Children imbibed it unconsciously. They were harsher not only towards other children but also towards themselves.

With children leaving for secondaries at 11 there was a natural turnover in the club each year, but many of the new recruits simply gave up if they couldn’t succeed at it really quickly, especially if they saw others proving more adept. I tried to maintain the collaborative, mutually supportive atmosphere, and to see themselves only in competition with themselves and their previous achievements but I couldn’t compete strongly enough against the other cultural pressures they had internalised.

I know that some of my early recruits to the club eventually became much more proficient, fluent and skilled than myself. I even bumped into some at juggling conventions. I hope that juggling is still a part of their lives. I’ve come back from Nottingham determined to build on what I can already do with my juggling equipment and determined to make the space in my life for the serenity and pure pleasure it brings. And for those of you who haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too early or too late to learn to juggle.