October 15, 2006

Geoffrey Alderman: Jews were wrong to fight fascism

Here's a comment in last week's Jewish Chronicle by Geoffrey Alderman [subscription only]. In it he argues that Jews and leftists were wrong to oppose the British Union of Fascists' invasion of the East End 70 years ago.
The BUF was fully entitled to hold such an event under the then existing law. Nor would this have been the first time the BUF had marched through the East End; there had been previous marches without serious incident. But an alliance of left-wing groups, led by the Communist party, decided to pick a fight with the BUF in order to heighten awareness of the Fascist threat and to engineer a situation in which — as they hoped — the BUF would be banned, or its activities severely restricted.

The Spanish Civil War had broken out three months previously and British Communists were going to show, at Cable Street, that they, too, could fight Fascism. Or, as one of them confessed at a seminar I chaired at London University in 1986 (at which Cable Street veterans from all sides were brought together for a civilised discussion), physically confronting the BUF was going to make us “feel good.”

So, in order that a motley collection of left-wingers (many of them Jews) could “feel good,” the civil rights of the BUF were going to be swept aside. The police were out in force to protect these rights. And the “battle” that took place was not (as it turned out) between the anti-Fascists and the BUF, but between the anti-Fascists and the police. That was what the Battle of Cable Street was really about.

Mosley and his followers were indeed prevented from marching to Victoria Park. But they reaped a rich reward. It is owing to the research of Dr Linehan that we now have an authoritative account of the effect of Cable Street on BUF popularity. There was, concludes Dr Linehan, a “spectacular leap” in BUF recruitment in east London following the events of Cable Street. The membership of the BUF rose steadily to a peak of around 40,000 in 1937. At the London County Council elections that year, the BUF polled 14 per cent of the votes in Shoreditch, 19 per cent in Limehouse and a stunning 23 per cent in Bethnal Green.
This is an interesting viewpoint and some may say, given the general consensus that it was right to oppose Mosley on the streets, courageously expressed but then Alderman goes on to justify antisemitism, or at least to blame Jews for it.
Why did upright tradesmen and shopkeepers, and even professional people, support and join the BUF? Why was there so much hostility in the East End towards Jews?

These questions obsessed the Board of Deputies. Ten days after Cable Street, the Board’s president, Neville Laski, had a secret meeting with the Communist leader Harry Pollitt and the Labour MP Herbert Morrison. Both agreed that Jews carried much of the responsibility for the prejudice against them. This resulted from such behaviour as flouting the Sunday trading laws; the use of blackleg labour to undermine trade unions; and sharp practices by Jewish landlords and estate agents. The impact of Cable Street was to add to this list by enabling the BUF to brand Jews additionally as enemies of the freedoms of speech and of lawful assembly.
It'll be interesting to see if the JC gets any complaints about that next week.

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