The silence has got to end

Less than 24 hours after it emerged that leading Tory Brexiteers “jokingly” refer to themselves as “Grand Wizards” – a term borrowed from the Ku Klux Klan, the former Tory Undersecretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Suella Braverman, told a meeting in London this morning: “We are engaged in a war against cultural marxism. We’re engaged in a battle against socialism”.

That Tory politicians think the Ku Klux Klan is a subject for puerile humour tells us just how little Black people’s lives matter for them. Klan members, of course, also propagate Nazi-style antisemitism.

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Suella Braverman

As for “Cultural Marxism” this is a term popularised by far right, white supremacist, antisemitic, conspiracy theorists, directed initially at the mainly Jewish Frankfurt School Marxists whom they accused of undermining the Western world. It was a term liberally used by Anders Breivik, the neo-Nazi who massacred 69 young socialists at a youth camp in Norway in July 2011 and eight others in a separate car-bombing two hours earlier.

If this doesn’t persuade those spokespersons who claim to lead the Jewish community to pause their all-out war on Jeremy Corbyn – a politician whose anti-racism pulses through his veins – and to look at the kind of ideological world that the right-wing of the the Conservative Party now inhabits, then perhaps nothing will.

Some mainstream Jewish and Israeli newspapers have at least picked up on the “Cultural Marxism” references but from the Board of Deputies of British Jews there is silence on this matter. It is not that they are taking a day off today they have been busy tweeting away. Because today is a special day for them, almost ranking as a new Jewish holiday.

One year ago today, the Board of Deputies (BoD), then led by the Donald Trump admirer,  Jonathan Arkush, had his finest hour. He was teaming up with the Jewish Leadership Council, Tory Politicians, and the then Labour politician, Luciana Berger, to organise the “Enough is Enough” anti-Corbyn demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Given that part of their rhetoric was to allege that Corbyn has shared platforms with people of very questionable views, Arkush and Co seemed intensely relaxed at taking support on that demonstration from Norman ‘cricket-test’ Tebbit and a host of bigoted DUP MPs.

At the time I drew attention to the “stench of hypocrisy” surrounding this event welcomed so wholeheartedly by the Tory Party and the Tory-supporting press, given the direct and verifiable links of the Tory Party with antisemitic and Islamophobic parties and governments in Europe, such as Orban’ Fidesz party in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, the Sweden Democrats, not to mention the National Alliance in Latvia whose members recently supported the annual parade of Latvian Waffen SS veterans. The Board of Deputies has registered little more than a murmur of concern regarding Orban. In Europe antisemitism and Islamophobia ride in tandem yet the BoD refuse to support the calls of Baroness Warsi and a host of Muslim organisations for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory Party. They seem to regard anti-racism as a “pick and choose” activity. It is not.

But beyond the so-called “jokes” about the murderous KKK, and the casual antisemitism in fhostile-environmentar right tropes about “cultural marxism”, there is the brutality of the Hostile Environment for black and brown minorities in Britain, invented by Theresa May and renewed just as viciously by Sajid Javid, with May’s approval.

We are one year on from the “Enough is Enough” demonstration. We are also just over a year on from when the Windrush Scandal was exposed. Antisemitism is growing in British society alongside other racist hatreds and bigotry. All of this is happening on the watch of the Tory Party. But the only media focus on racism is on allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party – an issue inflated by false allegations parroted by a compliant media. (Of Margaret Hodge’s recently submitted 200 cases only 20 involved Labour Party members).  Recent statistics released by the Labour Party’s General Secretary revealed that they involved less than 0.1% of the members of the Labour Party. However small it is that must be addressed, but any objective analyst would conclude what is going on in the Tory Party right now, and with the power and influence they and their racist allies have in several nations, is far more serious.

The silence from the Board of Deputies and their allies has got to end. Anti-racist Jews are saying loud and clear: open your eyes, open your ears to what the Tories, who you think are your friends, are actually saying and doing.  You need to tell them: “Enough is Enough!”

 

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From one hostile environment to another

Last weekend far-right, identitarian and neo Nazi activists from several European  countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden, descended on the Bulgarian capital Sofia. They were joining their local Bulgarian counterparts, who included Kruv i Chest (Blood and Honour), National Resistance and Byal Front (White Front) for the annual “Lukov March”. This march commemorates  Hristo Lukov leader of a pro-Nazi Bulgarian legion, who was assassinated by two Bulgarian anti-fascist partisans in February 1943.

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Lukov march 16 February 2019

The two partisans were Ivan Burudzhiev, who fired the first shot, and Violeta Yakova, a Sephardic Jewish communist who fired two more shots and killed him after the wounded Lukov fought back and shot Burudzhiev. Yakova was later hunted down by the Bulgarian security forces (she had also assassinated the pro-Nazi chief of the Bulgarian police). In June 1944, she was captured, tortured and killed in the city of Radomir. After the war she was recognised as a “national heroine” and a memorial statue stands in Radomir today

 

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Violeta Yakova memorial

There were hundreds of counter-protesters to the Lukov march this year, organised through Antifa Sofia. They confirm that alongside openly Nazi parties there were participants from IMRO – the Bulgarian National Movement, who are part of the United Patriots alliance that is a partner in the Bulgarian government.  More significantly for anti-racists and anti-fascists in Britain, IMRO are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group of the European Parliament that is dominated by Britain’s Conservative Party and the Polish Law and Justice Party – a party that has antagonised Jews within and beyond Poland with its Holocaust revisionism and outlawing of narratives that suggest there was collaboration by some Poles with the Nazis as they exterminated Jews. The Bulgarian IMRO have helped to mobilise for the Lukov march, alongside other ultra-nationalists and open antisemites, for several years running, yet they  were welcomed into the Conservative Party’s European-group in 2014 by David Cameron.

Since Theresa May became leader in 2016, she has not questioned the participation of IMRO in the Conservatives’ Euro group, but has the gall to throw cheap accusations at the Labour Party, with regard to antisemitism, despite the Labour Party’s long record of involvement in anti-racist and anti-fascist causes.

The number of far-right and openly Nazi groups participating in the Sofia march last weekend (some of whom are banned in their own countries) is testimony to the alarming growth of Islamophobic, anti-Roma and antisemitic forces across Europe. All of them were boosted by Donald Trump’s election in America, and they benefit too from Trump’s former advisor, Steve Bannon’s, growing operations in Europe.

Statistics from surveys across Europe have shown a rise in antisemitic incidents ranging from physical threats and violent assaults, daubings of synagogues and cemeteries, to verbal abuse and incitement on social media. In pretty much every country concern about this is expressed first and foremost towards the governing party in each country. They are the people with the power to take action internally against far right groups, to promote educational work, and exert a positive influence on the national atmosphere towards one that promotes respect for minorities.

It is absolutely astounding that in Britain, where antisemitic incidents have been growing year on year recently under the watch of a Tory government, infamous for the hostile environment it has operated towards migrants and refugees, aided and abetted by the pro-Tory press, that undoubtedly boost the rhetoric of Far Right ideologues, that the fire has been misdirected away from the Tory Party and towards the Labour Party. It was misdirected there again yesterday, as one of the excuses for their door-slamming exercise by the Independent 7 who have splintered from the Labour Party.

They began to plan their departures in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, a

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Angela Smith at the launch

democratic decision that they refused to accept then, and again in 2016 when he was emphatically elected again by the membership. And while they were busy denouncing the party they have just left, as “institutionally racist and antisemitic” at their somewhat shambolic launch, one of their number, Angela Smith, made a disgraceful racist comment. Equally disgracefully, the figure among the 7 who has made the biggest noise around antisemitism (Luciana Berger), has not even commented on her colleagues’ remark, which was broadcast live yesterday.

That is not to say there are no incidents connected with Labour Party members. There have been many allegations, though 40% of the incidents reported to the Labour Party since April last year, for which Labour members were being blamed, were found to have nothing to do with any Labour Party members, and in a further 20% of cases the investigations found no evidence of a case to answer. In the remaining 40% of cases, mostly to do with social media comments, including hyperbolic comments about the Israeli government and military’s racist and repressive actions, there have been a range of sanctions and 12 members were expelled.

Woman-and-man-at-Windrush-protest-1024x683Such hyperbolic comments, sometimes mixed in with antisemitic tropes, are undoubtedly hurtful and need to be exposed and challenged. They also taint rather than help the Palestinian cause they allegedly support, but can anyone seriously suggest that such social media comments compare in any way with the Tory Party’s openly hostile policies towards the Windrush generation and a range of migrants and refugees, that have seen them lose their livelihoods, become destitute and face forcible deportation? Or can unpleasant social media posts really compare with the Tory Party’s verifiable links and collaboration since 2014 with a party that has participated with neo-Nazis  marching in Sofia not just last weekend but for several years in a row. We need to call out antisemitism wherever it appears, but we also need some perspective about where the real boost to the antisemites, racists and fascists in Britain and the wider world is coming from in 2019.

 

 

 

 

Far right footprints?

IMG_8048My anti-fascist antennae were twitching today. Before heading back to London from a few days break in Stow in the Wold, we took a short diversion to visit to Moreton in Marsh, a small market town at the head of the Evenlode valley, just a few miles a way.  We found a good parking spot on the High Street, opposite a pub – a 17th century coaching inn –  with a George cross flag: the Redesdale Arms.

Now that was a familiar name. “Family connection with Oswald Mosley. Lord Redesdale. Big-time antisemite!” I muttered to my partner.

034769_0b84a3dbWe didn’t go in there but took a little walk round the town. Many of the buildings on the High Street, were of similar age to the inn. As we returned to the car we stopped by a plaque on the side of a large impressive building that stood a paved area in the middle of the High Street. It was Redesdale Hall. The plaque helped me to piece together the connection. The building was put up by the 1st Baron Redesdale the Lord of the Manor in Moreton in Marsh, whose name was Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford.

In 1936, two days after the Battle of Cable Street, Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British220px-Diana_Mitford_Photo Union of Fascists, was in Berlin to get married for the second time. It was a small ceremony away from the attention of the press, in the House of the Goebbels family. Goebbels was chief Propaganda Officer for the Nazis at the time. Hitler was there as Guest of Honour. Mosley’s wife to be was Diana Guinness, who had previously been married to the aristocrat and brewing heir, Bryan Guinness. They divorced when after she started an affair with Oswald Mosley. Her maiden name though was Diana Mitford. she was one of the four Mitford sisters (Diana, Jessica, Unity, Nancy), and a first cousin, incidentally, of Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife. Winston Churchill was one of a group of four political figures who were close friends spending many hours at clubs in the late 1920s and early 1930s discussing economics and politics. The other three were Harold Nicholson, John Maynard Keynes and Oswald Mosley.

After Diana’s divorce from Bryan Guinness in 1932, she moved into a flat in Belgravia round the corner to Oswald Mosley, but he was still married to his ailing first wife, Cynthia Curzon, daughter of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India. Cynthia died in 1933, and Oswald wouldn’t leave her before then to live with his lover, Diana.

The first Baron Redesdale,  who paid for the Hall to be built in Moreton in Marsh was Diana’s grandfather. Her father, Algernon’s second son, David Freeman-Mitford, second Baron Redesdale, was the one I had remembered encountering in my researches for my book, Battle for the East End, published in 2011.

I’m glad I recognised the name today because it added other pieces to the jigsaw, as I looked up further information on Diana’s father. He was a hereditary member of the House of Lords, who attended the House conscientiously. Through the 1930s, both he and his wife Sydney, had developed a strong liking for fascism, and he became known more widely for his far right views and especially his open antisemitism.

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Lord Redesdale, 2nd Baron Redesdale

The 2nd Baron Redesdale was initially scornful of his daughter Diana’s enthusiasm for Hitler. As a British ultra-nationalist and xenophobe he was known to be dismissive of, and insulting about, both French and German people, describing them as “frogs” and “huns”. His wife Sydney, Diana’s mother, shared Diana’s enthusiasm for the Führer. After they all went to a Nuremburg rally in 1938 they were of one mind in their admiration for Hitler.

In the late 1930s, Lord Redesdale was a member of several far right bodies populated especially by the upper classes, such as the Link, the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Right Club. The latter had been formed by the Tory politician and antisemitic obsessive, Captain Archibald Ramsey, described by the Daily Worker as Britain’s “number one Jew-baiter”.

One more piece of the jigsaw. Oswald Mosley worked hard to build four large fascist branches in the East End. Two of the biggest were in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, where a layer of the working class lapped up Mosley’s increasingly strong antisemitism. More than 30 years earlier, though, much of the groundwork had already been laid by a populist right-wing anti-immigrant body called the British Brothers’ League. Their number one target was Jewish immigration.

One of their key figures who spoke at their largest local rallies was Major William Evans-british-brothers-league-posterGordon, a former Army captain in India, who later served as a diplomat in the British Raj. In 1900 he became the Tory MP for Stepney, in London’s East End. Evans-Gordon was a powerful lobbyist for the Aliens Bill, Britain’s first modern immigration law, passed by Lord Balfour’s government in 1905. A year before that act was passed Evans-Gordon’s niece,  Sydney Bowles, married Lord Redesdale, 2nd Baron Redesdale.

Facing up to antisemitism – real, denied and invented

Paper presented at an international symposium on the “Resurgence of Antisemitism: Realities, Fictions and Uses”, Brussels 12/13 December 2018

I want to start with some personal biography. My grandparents came to Britain as Jewish child immigrants from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1900s. I grew up in an economically struggling Jewish family in inner London, that gradually became more comfortable.

My extended family were mostly Labour voters, plus some communist-supporting relatives. My family were traditional; not very religious, not actively Zionist. They had no family in Israel, but sympathised with Israel at a general level.,

I became involved in socialist politics and antifascist activism when I was around 16 years old. My first demonstration was against the National Front, a group formed in Britain in 1967 by convinced Nazis, who recruited a wider layer of supporters from all classes, by condemning black immigration and promoting British nationalism.

I went to that demonstration with several Jewish friends from a Zionist youth group. I had illusions then about Israel/Palestine that I discarded long ago. Perhaps only one or two of those  Jewish friends I attended the demonstration with, would define themselves as Zionist now. People can be persuaded to rethink by convincing arguments and evidence. Today though, many leftists are better at condemning and proclaiming than persuading.

I broke with Zionism as a result of my deepening involvement in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, alongside a more serious engagement with the realities in Israel/Palestine.

Today, there is little involvement of left-wing or liberal Zionists within the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement in Britain. Debates around Zionism and antisemitism have become more toxic within the left. Many Jews claim that the left does not take antisemitism seriously, that it trivialises the existence of antisemitism; or dismisses it as a few cranks holding old prejudices. Many leftists insist it cannot be compared with the institutional racism that blacks, Muslims, migrant workers, and refugees suffer every day. There is some truth in all these assertions but we cannot generalise. Many left-wing Zionists are quick to label people antisemites who make genuine observations about the impacts of different kinds of racism.

brick-lane-black-white-unite-2In the 1970s I was inspired by slogans: “Black and white, unite and fight”, “self-defence is no offence”, and especially by: “here to stay – here to fight!”, which argued that the struggle was not only against discrimination, but it was also a positive assertion of the right of minorities to live as equals and develop their distinctive identities and cultures.

Another slogan from that time disturbed me: “Yesterday the Jews, today the blacks”. at street level, the National Front targeted Caribbean and Asian communities, but fascists do not replace targets: they accumulate them. Antisemitism still played a significant role for the fascists then and now. Two publications from that period explained this well: Racism, Fascism and the Politics of the National Front: a pamphlet, by David Edgar, a left wing playwright; and a book called Fascists: by Michael Billig, a social-psychologist, based on interviews with middle-rank National Front activists.

Edgar argued that although most fascists surface campaigning directed itself against non-white immigrants, the ideology shared by the movement’s inner-core said immigrants themselves were merely pawns of more powerful forces who promoted multiculturalism to undermine the white race. Who were these forces? The Jews. Billig’s book showed that the higher up the movement you moved, the more you were exposed to “world Jewish conspiracy” ideas of classic Nazi antisemitism.

the-43-groupMany people assume that, in Britain, you have to go back to the 1930s to find Jews in the front line at street level from fascists. You don’t. Just after the war, between 1946 and 1950 fascist groups re-emerged promoting antisemitism, but were beaten back by a physical anti-fascist campaign organised mainly by Jewish ex-army  servicemen and women called the 43 Group.

In the 1960s, thousands of anti-fascists broke up a rally where the platform had a banner across it saying “Free Britain from Jewish control”. In the early 1960s protests fringe far-right groups in Britain held banners proclaiming “Hitler was Right”. Those banners disappeared from view for nearly 50 years, as fascists began to use code-words to express antisemitism. But in the last few years similar banners have reappeared.

hitlerwas rightIn America, and especially in central and eastern Europe, antisemitism is still the glue that holds  neo-Nazis’ worldview together, that explains global economics and politics.

Racism against black and brown minorities in Britain has deep roots in Britain’s imperial and colonial past. Negative stereotypes of inferiority sustained themselves long after the Empire collapsed. They are still woven through institutions such as police, the criminal justice system and the education system.

Antisemitism has other deep roots in Britain society. Sometimes it has overlapped with more familiar anti-immigrant racism, but more often it stereotypes Jews not as inferior but as an intelligent, alien clique conspiring to undermine the nation

The mass immigration of Jews to Britain took place mainly between 1881 and 1905. In00aliensA2 1905, the Government passed the Aliens Act, which dramatically reduced Jewish immigration. The  Prime Minister who pushed it through was Lord Balfour, who, 12 years later, promised Palestine to the Jews. Balfour was responding to grassroots campaigning from organisations such as the British Brothers League, whose activists were from struggling working class communities bordering Jewish enclaves.

People whose work was precarious, and whose housing conditions were poor, were convinced by the League’s middle-class leaders, such as Major William Evans-Gordon, that all their problems were caused by immigrants. Some politicians and many newspapers described Jews as dirty, diseased, parasitic, culturally inferior, alien, as well as being criminals and anarchists.

Both Evans-Gordon and Balfour were personal friends of a young Zionist called Chaim Weizman, who later became the first President of Israel. Evans-Gordon and Balfour were Christian Zionists and imperialists in foreign policy but antisemites domestically.

The everyday racism Jews suffered at this time, though, was largely from white workers who saw them as rivals for scarce resources. It was very similar to the xenophobic prejudices later experienced by Caribbean and Asian immigrants,

Oswald MosleyA more ideologically articulated antisemitism emerged in the 1930s. The British Union of Fascists, formed by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932, portrayed working class Jews as rivals for the indigenous working class, but focused more on alleged machinations of wealthier Jews. It portrayed them as immensely powerful, accused them of controlling the economy, the media, and the political system. From autumn 1934 Mosley made antisemitism the central plank of his fascist ideology, defining a battle between “the cleansing spirit of fascism” and Jews as “an unclean, alien influence in our national and imperial life”.

Mosley preferred Mussolini to Hitler, at first, but in early 1936 his movement became the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, and embraced Hitlerite antisemitism. Street-corner speakers for the movement still cast Jews as criminals, bad landlords, and rivals for jobs and homes, but they also described Jews as “rats and vermin”, “subhumans”, a “pestilence”, or a “cancer” that had to be removed,

Antisemitism proved popular among sections of all classes in the population. The fascists had 500 branches around the country including 20 branches at  fee-paying schools for the wealthy. This helped to sustain an antisemitic mind-set among sections of the upper and upper-middle classes after World War 2, as they reached adulthood.

I sense that antisemitism in Britain is rising today together with other hatreds. That subjective perception is supported by the principal organisation collecting data on antisemitism – the Community Security Trust (CST) – a mainstream Jewish body that work closely with the police. They also work closely with the main institution claiming to represent the Jewish community – the Board of Deputies of British Jews – but are independent from it.

In political terms CST personnel comprise right-wing Labourites and mild Conservatives. They are pro-Zionist, and defensive about Israel, but not Netanyahu supporters. However, they are an increasingly reliable source of information on the kinds of incidents that occur and the profiles of the perpetrators. Mostly now, they differentiate between politically motivated abuse relating to Israel and Zionism and antisemitic abuse. They reject claims by Jews of antisemitic incidents which do not show a clear antisemitic intention. Their end of year report for 2017 recorded more than 1,300 incidents but left out several hundred more where anti-Jewish motives could not be proven.

Their facts indicate a significant, and gradually increasing level of attacks on Jewish individuals, sometimes on groups (such as schoolchildren), and on Jewish institutions such as  synagogues and cemeteries. A  typical attack involves verbal abuse, threatening behaviour and sometimes physical assault.  Victims of assaults are often ultra-orthodox Jews, attacked for how they dress. Muslim girls and women wearing the hijab face similar street harassment.

The language used in many attacks frequently references the Holocaust and Hitler. Jewish communal leaders claim that the principal threat to Jews in Britain comes from the Left, but where the CST can identify perpetrators, the majority are white far-right. However, increasing numbers of incidents are perpetrated by other minorities, who themselves experience racism. These perpetrators often utilise the same Hitler and Holocaust tropes.

The far right have flooded the internet with poisonous antisemitic ideas, alleging Jewishjacob-rothschild conspiracies by “Rothschild bankers”/”Rothschild Zionists”. These powerful conspiracy theories are entering mainstream and minority cultures.  Sometimes, they are unwittingly shared by Leftists who think they are sharing anti-capitalist or pro-Palestinian material. They are tainting both of these just struggles.

Jewish establishment responses to antisemitism and the far right, and to racism in general in Britain, have long been inadequate but have also undergone significant historical shifts.

Today the Board of Deputies seem to see antisemitism everywhere. Yet in the 1930 when working class Jews faced sustained abuse and assaults from organised fascists, the Board of Deputies and the principle Jewish establishment newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, dismissed the fascist threat as exaggerated, and treated the perpetrators merely as “Hitler copy-cats”.

They refused to believe that antisemitism could flourish in a country they characterised as fair, decent and tolerant. When that movement terrorised Jewish communities and threatened to march through the Jewish working class heartland, the Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle advised Jews to stay indoors and avoid protest actions that might lead to disorder. The community completely ignored them and inflicted a peoples’ defeat on the fascists through mass street action, in October 1936 in what became known as the “Battle of Cable Street”. Soon after that, Jewish leaders began to argue that Jewish behaviour was provoking antisemitism.

In the 1970s and early 1980s when the National Front were mainly targeting blacks and Asians – though antisemitism had not disappeared –  Jewish “leaders” acknowledged the problems were principally caused by the far right, but they trusted the same state authorities who were frequently mistreating immigrant communities to deal with it.

IMG_2856When a mass and broad-based anti-fascist movement – the Anti-Nazi League – was created by leftists in 1978, the Jewish establishment tried to dissuade young Jews from joining it, claiming that some ANL leaders were known for anti-Zionist activism. I believe that the Jewish establishment was less worried about Israel than the prospect of young Jews associating with militant leftists.

The Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) –a radical fringe group – openly challenged communal leaders  and helped recruit Jews to the Anti-Nazi League. A bigger confrontation with the Deputies came in the early 1980s. The JSG obtained and released information kept under wraps by the Board of Deputies about an increasing number of serious antisemitic incidents in London perpetrated by the far-right. Jewish leaders attempted to hide this from the community, because it might have alarmed the community or encouraged Jews to make common cause with other minorities. They preferred to deal with it privately in close cooperation with state authorities.

Contrast that with recent years where Britain’s Jewish leaders see antisemitism everywhere including where it is not present at all. This has coincided with their adopting a much more strident and explicit anti-left agenda, especially after Jeremy Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian radical socialist, became leader of the Labour Party. There is another paper at the conference on this so I won’t intrude on that, but just make a few observations.

The left, in its many organisations, have been the strongest and most militant fighters against racism and fascism in Britain, but they have not always recognised the continuing presence and significance of antisemitism.

Some elements of the left for whom Palestinian concerns are very important, who recognise that antisemitism provides the self-justification for Zionism, mistakenly believe that giving attention to antisemitism weakens their support for Palestinians. It doesn’t. Jewish communities are increasingly  polarising over Israel/Palestine and Zionism. Every reliable survey of Jewish community opinion in Britain shows a decline in self-identification with the term “Zionist” – down from more than 70% to 59% in the last decade. Increasing numbers of Jews speak out for Palestinian rights. Those numbers would be greater still if Jews felt that those speaking up for Palestine also consistently denounced antisemitism.

Jewish community leaders speak and act as if there is rampant antisemitism on the left. They cynically conflate opposition to Israeli policy, and critiquing of Zionism, with antisemitism. They promote the lie that Zionism is an intrinsic and eternal part of Jewish identity rather than it being one of several political ideologies that were vying for support among Jews at the end of the 19th century

There are two errors frequently made on the left that make it open to criticism from Zionists. Leftists often refer to Israel when mean the Israeli government or the Israeli

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Israeli anti-government protesters

military, or Israeli settlers. This homogenises Israeli Jews and erases the internal opposition. There are growing numbers of brave but harassed oppositionists within Israel – who are a mixture of anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, and left-wing Zionists. How they define themselves is less important than what they do. The left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe should recognise and broadcast what Israel’s internal opposition is doing.

The other error is to frequently make analogies between Israeli state practice and Nazism. This accusation seems more intended to wound rather than enlighten. It reveals a lack of historical understanding or empathy with Jews under Nazism. Racist discriminatory aspects of Israeli government policy are certainly similar to practices in the very early years of Nazism, but there are perhaps closer similarities with other racist, ultra-nationalist regimes, or with ethnic cleansers, for example, during the Yugoslav wars.

Why are we obsessed with making analogies? We can find all the arguments and evidence for promoting Palestinian justice in the practices of Israeli governments and institutions that are about dispossession, exclusion, discrimination and oppression. We don’t need to invoke Hitler.

Despite these errors, it is the left that consistently exposes and combats those who genuinely threaten the future well-being of minorities in Britain today. Leaders of the Jewish community highlight any perceived antisemitism on the Left even if the evidence is flimsy, yet they are silent on  regimes in central and Eastern Europe where antisemitism rides in tandem with Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and other forms of bigotry,  where such regimes are friends with Benjamin Netanyahu.

We are entering a dangerous period with regard to the growth of the British far-right where the traditional alliance between the Left and the Jewish community has broken down. We urgently need to fix this.

He didn’t get to first base

October 1934: The British Union of Fascists celebrated the launch of their first branch in London’s East End. Oswald Mosley, writing in The Blackshirt could barely contain his excitement:

Thursday October 4th… The Blackshirts marched in procession from Bow Branch premises … into Stepney Green, where a large crowd … had gathered which later increased to well over 1,500. The Blackshirts had a very noisy reception as the larger part of the audience were aliens who resented British people holding a meeting in what they considered to be their own territory… October 4th will go down in Blackshirt history as a memorable day

But October 4th became our memorable day. Two years later it fell on a Sunday. By then the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had four well organised branches in the East End, with Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse augmenting its Bow branch. Together they formed a horseshoe around the 60,000 strong, beleaguered Jewish community of Whitechapel, which bore the brunt of sickening verbal abuse from BUF street orators and physical violence from those they incited. Half the BUF’s national membership was in those four East End branches.

Two major parliamentary debates on antisemitic terror in the East End took place in 1936.  MPs detailed the wave of attacks on their Jewish constituents, but the only response Home Secretary John Simon could muster was to call for “all sides” to behave reasonably. Pathetic, though perhaps better than the sniggering of Tory backbenchers in the House in 1934 after violence erupted at a 15,000-strong fascist rally at Olympia in June that year.

The rally audience included 150 MPs looking for political inspiration, while some Tory

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Captain Ramsey – Tory antisemite

House of Lords members turned up in black shirts. The violence at Olympia was one way. Eighty anti-fascists needed medical treatment, yet Tory MPs parroted the BUF line that anti-fascists had attacked Mosley’s thugs. William Greene, Conservative MP for Worcester asked in the House: “Is it not a fact that 90 per cent of those accused of attacking Fascists rejoice in fine old British names such as Ziff, Kerstein and Minsky?” Frederick MacQuisten, Conservative MP for Argyll enquired: “Were some of them called Feigenbaum, Goldstein and Rigotsky and other good old Highland names?” A fellow Tory MP, Captain Archibald Ramsey frequently railed against what he called the “Jewish imperium in Imperio (empire within an empire),” claiming that the correct term for “antisemite” was “Jew-wise”.

On October 4th 1936, Mosley planned to show that his movement could dominate any Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 07.56.47streets they wished. Beyond the Jewish enclave Mosley supporters set up four platforms where their triumphant leader would make successive speeches after his invasion. The following week Mosley was due in Berlin for his second marriage, this time in the home of Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, with Hitler an invited guest. Mosley relished the prospect of boasting to the Fuhrer how he had invaded fearful Jewish streets.

He didn’t get to first base. The anti-fascist majority of Eastenders turned up in force to repel the Blackshirts. They blockaded Gardiners Corner at Aldgate, built barricades in Cable Street and engaged in hand-to-hand combat at Tower Hill where Mosley’s troops assembled and police were more thinly deployed. The fascists had tried hard to mobilise Irish Catholics against the Jews, but on the day, dockers and railway workers came from the Irish end of Cable Street to assist Jews building barricades at their end.

The front ranks of those blockading Gardiners Corner endured savage beatings from the mounted police but held firm. In Cable Street, police eventually dislodged the first barricade (an overturned truck), and ran through to check it was safe for the fascists. They were halted at a second barricade where they endured resistance on the ground and an aerial barrage of kitchen implements and slops including the contents of chamber pots thrown by women in the flats above Cable Street’s shops. The police had to retreat.

People came from beyond the East End to support local anti-fascists. The Independent Labour Party published a pamphlet: 300,000 workers say no to Mosley. They and the Communist Party, could take most credit for the mobilisation, but the Labour League of Youth (at odds with Labour Party elders), and a local grassroots movement – the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC) – played a huge part too.

It was the JPC that attracted nearly 100,000 signatures (Jews and non-Jews) that week on a petition demanding that the Home Secretary ban Mosley’s invasion. Local people’s desire to be free from fear was counterposed to Mosley’s “right” to invade an immigrant area, threaten, abuse and intimidate its population – in the name of his free speech and movement. The Tory government privileged Mosley’s rights, and sent 7,000 police, including every mounted policeman in London to uphold those “rights”. The JPC produced a further leaflet, addressed to “Citizens of London”, declaring “This march must not take place.” If the government refused to ban it then the people would, through force of numbers, which they did. Eighty four demonstrators were arrested, 79 of them anti-fascists, of whom 13 were women. Many were fined. Charlie Goodman and Jackie Shukman served custodial sentences, but then went to Spain to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s forces after being released.

Facing overwhelming resistance, Mosley was eventually ordered by the police to turn round, march his troops in the opposite direction, and disperse. He condemned the Government for surrendering “to Red violence and Jewish corruption.” The Blackshirt newspaper said “Jewry had humiliated Britain for a few short hours.”  The BUF swore revenge, and promised to rid the country of the ”unclean influence of alien contamination.”

But they were not the only people who were humiliated that day. Leaders of mainstream political parties who told people to stay indoors and let the fascists pass, were shamed for their cowardice. Apart from the fascists, though, none suffered greater humiliation than the arrogant, right-wing “leaders” of the Jewish Community. From the relative comfort of the West End, the Board of Deputies sent messages to be read out in synagogues the day before the fascist invasion, instructing the East End’s working class Jews to stay off the streets.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 08.27.07Their echo chamber, the Jewish Chronicle, published an “URGENT WARNING” advising Jews to “KEEP AWAY” from the Blackshirt march. Those who “become involved in any possible disorders”, it said, “will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting.” Middle-class leaders of Jewish youth clubs put on extra football matches that Sunday to divert Jewish youth from the counter-protest but the young people preferred to tackle fascists that day instead of each other. When the Board and the Jewish Chronicle finally roused themselves in the weeks following the people’s victory over the fascists, they directed most of their energy to attempting to undermine the Jewish People’s Council who had played such a crucial role in mobilising Jews and allying with non-Jews to defeat their opponents.

As recent political interventions have shown the “advice” offered to the Jewish community from its self-defined “leaders” has not improved in the decades since. The current Board of Deputies president, Marie Van der Zyl displayed either political ignorance or amnesia when she told an Israeli news channel recently that the Conservative Party have “always been friends of the Jewish community”. Meanwhile, anti-fascists must face up to the renewed threat to minorities, not just here, but elsewhere in Europe and America. We still have much to learn from those who united in resistance and built an anti-fascist majority in their communities in 1936.
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Britain’s first anti-fascist street battle?

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

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

I was the final speaker. This was my speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

siroswaldmosley

Oswald Mosley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many turned a blind eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paradoxes in Poland

In Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, a throng of visitors of many nationalities look round a set of beautiful 16th and 17th century synagogues that miraculously survived Nazi occupation. Some have begun to function again as synagogues servicing a revived community – others have been turned into museums, exhibition sites, and bookshops. A lively, outward-looking Jewish Community Centre, opened in 2009, runs a range of activities that appeal to secular and religious Jews, and curious non-Jews, and welcomes visitors warmly without fear. Restaurants serving traditional Jewish food are thriving and some have klezmer musicians regularly performing. The paranoid, heavy-handed security industry, typified by threatening, walkie-talkie-bearing Israelis in sunglasses, at the doors of Jewish institutions in Western Europe, is completely absent in a country in which neo-Nazi movements are supposedly thriving. Interesting.

synagogue wall

Stripped back walls of an old Krakow synagogue now used as an exhibition space about Jewish families from Krakow during the Holocaust

A couple of streets away is Plac Nowy – a small market area shared by pigeons and customers in the day and younger people in the evenings buying their beers and zapiekanki (pizza-style long breads). The stalls offer a mixture of food, clothes, souvenirs and cheap jewellery, including Stars of David. Also present are weather-beaten, middle-aged and older stall-holders, selling antiques and memorabilia. Old Jewish items, such as menorahs (candlesticks for Chanukah) surface here. You can’t help wondering about their provenance, or how comfortable those menorahs feel  standing a couple of feet away from Nazi medals and paraphernalia. There are other items bearing Stars of David – facsimile armbands of the type Jews were forced to wear by Nazis in the wartime ghettoes. Who makes those? Who on earth would want to buy one? The odd bit of antisemitic graffiti adorns Krakow’s walls, typically a Star of David with a diagonal line through it – indicating the intention to eliminate a Jewish presence. And yet Jews in Krakow go about their everyday lives, some in full ultra-orthodox garb, looking relaxed, comfortable, and at home.

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Warsaw Ghetto resisters Monument erected in the late 1940s

In Warsaw, where in contrast to Krakow, there was massive destruction of the city during the war, there are few synagogues but many memorials associated with the Nazi ghettoisation, oppression and deportation of the Jews, a task that some Poles enthusiastically assisted with, while others stood by, and some resisted and helped the Jews. The memorials are not hidden away. You encounter them in everyday places. Some were put there by the Soviet-controlled authorities in power until 1989, others have been erected more recently. Both sets indicate Poland’s willingness to face its past. You perhaps see more antisemitic graffiti in Warsaw, and yet there is no special security around memorial sites and no signs that they have been attacked.

My partner and I have just returned to Britain this week from a summer trip, more than half of which was spent in Warsaw and Krakow. We spoke to Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, among them Polish Christians whose academic studies have led them to learn Yiddish and delve into the history of the Bund, (the Jewish socialist workers’ movement), and also Poles brought up as Catholics who are delighted to have relatively recently discovered some Jewish heritage.

Given these experiences, and the impressions we were formulating, I was struck by two news reports we came back to, which both relate to the far right and antisemitism in Poland today. One, in the latest issue of the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, focuses especially on the NOP –  Narodioewe Odrodzenbie Polski (National Rebirth of Poland) – which it describes as “one of the largest and most violent Nazi groups in Poland.” The implication that they are part of a flourishing wider neo-Nazi scene in Poland is clear.

The article focuses mainly on the small number of NOP activists who have been coming to Britain under EU freedom of movement – a right they no doubt oppose ideologically while taking full advantage of it.  But Searchlight also describes the movement in the opposite direction – fascist activists from Britain First (a splinter of the fast imploding British National Party) – heading to Warsaw to find their counterparts and especially to seek out very right-wing, antisemitic Catholic church figures to invite to stir up trouble in Britain. That they can find such people testifies to a politically unhealthy climate in Poland. The individuals we spoke to on our visit were certainly alarmed at the tendencies within the mainstream right, who hold power, to provide a more favourable climate for those pushing far-right ideologies. But there are also countervailing tendencies. These are found not just in antifa activism – which also came up in our conversations, and whose graffiti work was also prominent. It was also in the clear evidence of a reviving Jewish life in both cities we visited.  Jewish communities are now  firmly established in 15 Polish cities.

The second report was from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) who were describing an apparent rift within the reviving Jewish communities about whether or not antisemitsm is growing, and whether the government is doing enough about it. The JTA quoted Anna Chipczynska,  President of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland describing  far-right circles acting with impunity, an increase in racist rhetoric online, antisemitic remarks by lawmakers and even Cabinet ministers, as well as expressions of revisionism by historians. One of her examples was Bogdan Rzonca, a prominent politician in the Law and Justice Party  who recently tweeted: “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.”  Chipczynska accused certain leading Jewish individuals such as Artur Hofman, the President of the TSKZ, Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organisation, and representatives of the ultra-religious Chabad movement, of cosying up to Poland’s very right-wing government rather than being openly critical of it when they needed to be. Last week, the JTA reported that the European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concern over the dramatic rise in antisemitism in Poland.”

This dispute cuts across other battles waged among Jewish tendencies internationally. Chabad for example, is very pro-Zionist, and Zionists are usually determined to prove how bad things are in terms of antisemitism, in order to bolster support for Israel and encourage emigration there, but Chabad also wants to expand its influence and grow within Poland, and here its local empire-building overrides its Zionist imperatives.

We found more nuanced thoughts on these issues through individuals we talked to

brodnostones

The devastated Brodno cemetery which served the Praga district of Warsaw

, such as Andrzej, a young man who didn’t know of his family’s Jewish identity until he was around 10 years old. He now works on a long-term reconstruction project and exhibition at Warsaw’s devastated Brodno Cemetery on the poorer east of the city. He identified how the very socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee right-wing policies of the governing party open up more space to those even further right while simultaneously blurring the space between them. But he was cautious about accepting that there was an upsurge in antisemitism.

He felt the far right were concentrating their sights more on attacking gays and Muslims, and even the antisemitic graffiti was more directed at one set of football fans by another rather than being directed at Jews per se. Though it is surely a worry that “Jew” is used as an insult between non-Jews. That needs to be tackled, and the case for solidarity between the targets of the far right – gays, Muslims, refugees, Jews – surely makes sense. As one of Warsaw’s heroes – Marek Edelman, the Jewish socialist who was the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto –  said: “To be a Jew is always to be with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.”

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Mural of the Bundist Ghetto Resistance commander Marek Edelman in the garden area of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Krakow

Like other people we met, Andrzej expressed an optimism about the renewal of Jewish identity and life in Poland, which  was advancing more quickly and deeply than the antisemitic tendencies. Let’s hope he is right, and let’s hope that in the not too distant future, Poland’s rightward drift can be reversed.

Burning like a volcano under our feet

“Fascists resemble nothing so much as the Death Watch Beetle. Tirelessly they attack the great timbers of our society until the whole fabric is so riddled and honeycombed that the structure crashes on the heads of the people. As long as the are allowed to work, the Death Watch is in our own homes and in our own futures. They are capable of pulling down the whole of civilization in their effort to grab power.”

It is such a powerful metaphor. And astonishing too when I discovered that the author was barely 23 years old at the time it was written, in 1946. I found his pamphlet the other day, rummaging through archive materials on Post-war fascism at the Bishopsgate Institute Library.

The author continues: “Throughout Europe and Asia gas-chambers and mass graves were opened, families were torn apart, trade unions and hard-won freedoms were bloodily stamped out, our cultural inheritance was defiled and burnt. The trees in the parks of beautiful cities were turned into gallows, jackboots passed up and down under the windows at night”

In this searing account of the global destruction that fascism wreaked, it is the image of the trees transformed into gallows that is etched most powerfully and painfully in my mind. The writer’s own brother was brutally killed by fascism. He was on a parachute mission in Bulgaria during the war but was captured and executed by Bulgarian fascist forces. In the new post-war Bulgaria they erected a monument to him.

The writer of the pamphlet makes visible the combination of methods that bring fascist groups to power, as they opportunistically utilise any democratic outlet offered to them: “Fascists,” he says,  “have no use for the democratic rights which they demand for themselves. They prefer to gain power by lies, rumour-mongering, forgeries, intrigue, lead-piping and jackboots, assassination by terrorism, than by straight political argument. Once they seize power the whole force of the state is turned to organised gangsterdom.”

In 1946 he was recording the manner in which the British far right was beavering away,  reorganising itself, making one or two ostentatious appearances but keeping most of their activities “quiet and underhand”. He states, “…old supporters in business and political life, in the high ranks of the Services, on national and local newspapers and among spivs and drones of high society have been contacted once again. Chains of ‘study groups’ or ‘ex-service groups’ of dupes and criminals established.”

11e9ae26d492cff11a46fbbe83cb90cbHe notes that Britain’s pre-eminent fascist leader of the 1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley, who had led the British Union of Fascists, had formed a new “British Union” and was ready to work openly to rekindle his thwarted dreams, so rudely interrupted by a war with fascism.

In common with more than 1700 other suspected fascist fifth columnists, Mosley had been imprisoned for much of the war under a piece of quite draconian legislation – Rule 18b – but let out early protesting health problems. He feared that he would need to have a leg amputated because of thrombo-phlebitis, In December 1945, just months after fascism was defeated, the writer informs us that an 18b Reunion Dance had taken place at the Royal London Hotel.

He goes on to warn of the threat that a new fascist movement posed to Britain’s “glorious freedoms” which he reminds us, “were not written into the Magna Carta or granted from on high. They were wrested from the capitalists after bitter struggle by the people. By men like Thomas Hardy the shoemaker and Richard Carlile the bookseller. The right to vote was won by the Chartists and their successors, by the workers from the cotton mills of Lancashire, who met in torchlight demonstrations on the Moors”.  He adds that “these freedoms we have won are worth our care. We should defend them with inflexible purpose. We should deny them to fascists.”

The pamphlet closes with a call to action through a dire warning: “As long as capitalism and big business remain, and are threatened by the people, fascism burns like a volcano under our feet. We may block it here and there. But it will burn up again in another place.”

Who was this young writer?  Some readers may have guessed by now. I first knew him through his incredible work published in 1963 which I was reading in my student days in the late 1970s: The Making of the English Working class. His other great works included a biography of William Morris published in 1955, subtitled From Romantic to Revolutionary.

cndmarchIn addition to his written output, I admired him for his work in the peace movement, especially through CND.  I recall seeing images of him on a CND march (I was on the same march but sadly in a different section) where he and his close colleagues are parading under a banner with a slogan against nuclear destruction that only radical historians could have dreamed up: “We demand a continuing supply of history”

He is, of course, E P Thompson, the gifted writer and great campaigner who died far too young in 1993. He had begun his history studies at Cambridge, and was elected President of the Cambridge University Socialist Club at the age of 19 in 1942. He joined the Communist Party that same year.

IMG_2895Within the Party he added considerably to the work of an emerging group of brilliant historians who were Party members, who were articulating a “history  from below” that told the story of Britain through the struggles of ordinary people for social change. He left the Party in 1956 in the wake of the revelations about Stalin’s crimes and the invasion of Hungary, and then contributed much to the more radical New Left movement, that filled an intellectual vacuum as the Party declined. It was such a pleasure reading this incredible pamphlet penned when he was so young.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.