‘Lessons for today from our history in London of combating racism’ by David Rosenberg

This talk by David Rosenberg comes to you courtesy of Donal Kennedy

My talk as a panellist on 25th November at the AGM of Barnet Stand Up To Racism

Thank you for inviting me.

I was asked to discuss what lessons anti-racist campaigners today can draw from our history in London of combating racism.

It’s a huge subject. I will focus on the area I know best and have written about – London’s East End – where my own grandparents arrived from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1900s.

I will start in 1895, when Tory Politicians and newspapers were railing against Jewish immigration. They weren’t alone. That year, Jewish and non-Jewish workers published a pamphlet called Voice of the Aliens, addressed to Trade Unionists. The TUC demanded immigration control. The pamphlet explained that capitalism was to blame for economic problems not migrants. It urged unions to organise migrants instead of excluding them. Sadly, that struggle persists in some areas.

That year the East End had a new MP in Bethnal Green – Mancherjee Bhownagree, the second Indian MP in the British Parliament.  But anti-racists were not celebrating. He was a pro-Empire Tory who won on an anti-immigrant manifesto. A warning about identity politics.

In 1901 a populist, anti-immigrant movement called the British Brothers’ League was formed. Its leading figure was Major William Evans Gordon, Tory MP for Stepney. Their propaganda spoke of “floods” of immigrants, “swamping” our cities, when of course, the relevant water reference is that immigrants and refugees are still drowning.

There was resistance though – an Aliens Defence League led by Jewish and non-Jewish socialists, anarchists and progressives held rallies and heckled British Brothers League speeches. Sadly, two Jewish Tory MPs backed the league’s demands.

Its campaign resulted in the Tories passing Britain’s first peacetime immigration law – the Aliens Act of 1905 – which massively reduced Jewish immigration.

The liberals opposed it. But when the Tories lost a general election the Liberals implemented the act they had opposed. The lesson? Not just “don’t trust liberals”, but don’t place faith in politicians. Keep up the pressure from below.

That Aliens Act created Britain’s first Hostile Environment. Even those permitted to enter, if they were found later wandering the streets with no visible means of support, could be arrested and deported. More than 1,300 were deported in the Act’s first 4 years. The number of refugees allowed to get asylum rapidly decreased.

The most dramatic clashes in the East End over antisemitism took place in the 1930s with the rise of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Many people know of the Battle of Cable Street when through sheer numbers, blockades and barricades, Jewish and Irish minorities stopped Mosley’s fascist from invading the East End. A real Prevent strategy! The key lesson? Unity in action. The Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth, trade unionists, and a militant local grassroots body, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and antisemitism, combined to keep the fascists out. They didn’t need to all be in the same organisation but they needed to act in complementary ways.

The reason that the Jewish People’s Council was created was because when Jewish people were under siege from fascist violence and they were let down by two institutions. The police – who often sided with the fascists – and let down too by the complacency of the self-proclaimed leaders of the Jewish community based in the West End – the Board of Deputies. These days the Board of Deputies fails us through its right wing political agendas.

The Jewish People’s Council sought to mobilise the Jewish community into anti-fascist activism and simultaneously create alliances with non-Jewish anti-fascists in order to build an antifascist majority in the area.

It helped to unite the two impoverished minority communities that the fascists sought to divide – Jews and Irish –not through moralistic slogans but by showing how those communities could benefit through working together. They embedded the fight against antisemitism and fascism within a fight for jobs, housing, and better lives for all.

On outdoor platforms the Jewish People’s Council always had both Jews and non-Jews speaking. They fought to change hearts and minds, but not through approaches such as “Zero Tolerance” which entrenches rather than challenges divisions.

Anti-fascists, especially from the Communist Party, helped create the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League which brought divided communities together against common problems of bad landlords through successful rent strikes between 1937-39.

The fascists were defeated on the streets and estates, but their ideas still had influence and helped to encourage the government’s harsh refugee policies especially against those fleeing Nazi persecution. A few thousand children were brought here – not their parents.  All the work supporting them fell to voluntary groups not the state.

Fast forward to the 1960s and ‘70s. Around 15,000 Jews still in the East End but gradually dying out and moving out. Asian immigrants were moving in, especially from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971.

Many people will know of the 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali, attacked and stabbed by three youths whose minds were poisoned by the National Front, as he walked home from work in May 1978. The resistance to the National Front, led by Bengali youth movements, assisted by trade unionists, anti-fascists, progressive church people and others, marked a real turning point, but it wasn’t the first racist murder there. That happened 50 years go in 1970.

Tosir Ali, who worked in a West End wimpy bar, was making the short walk back home from Bromley-by-Bow tube station around midnight when he was attacked and stabbed by two 18-year-old skinheads.

There were community meetings and protests. At one, a veteran Jewish anti-fascist and Communist local councillor, Solly Kaye, said: “The purveyors of racialism can be defeated by united action… it would be the greatest error and worse, if the struggle were left to the immigrant organisations to bear the brunt of the fight… the fight against racial discrimination and violence is part of the fight for a new and better society.

We can learn so much from that quote – racism can be defeated, no minority under attack should feel isolated – their fight is our fight, and we don’t wait for a better society before we combat racism but we tackle it right now as part of building a better society”

The responses eight years later when Altab Ali was killed owed a lot to these ideas. In 1978 when Altab Ali was killed, there were placards saying “Who killed Altab Ali?” The simple answer was three young people. The more substantial answer implicated adults – the National Front propagandists, the media with their constant anti-immigrant headlines, the police who failed to deal with racist incidents,  and the government who largely ignored racism.

I want to finish on a positive memory from 2016 when we were celebrating our history. Working with a team of organisers and volunteers, I was overall convenor of two rallies and a 3,000-strong march marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. That was the first time I met Apsana Begum – on that day a volunteer from the local Bengali community – today an East End MP.  We brought together Jewish, Irish and Bengali, organisations, black and white trade unionists and politicians, anti-racist and anti-fascist groups, and a Yiddish marching band!

Our platform included 101 year old Max Levitas, a Cable Street veteran. But we gave the final speaking slot to one of the most honest, principled and committed anti-racists and anti-fascists I have ever met, whom I am fortunate to regard as a personal friend, my MP – Jeremy Corbyn. Total solidarity with all fighting any racism and bigotry from whichever quarter, and total solidarity with Jeremy.

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