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NEXT WEEKEND I will march with other anti-racists through East London and then co-chair a rally with local Bengali activist Julie Begum to mark the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.
In 1936 fascism was advancing across Europe. Here in Britain, with nearly three million unemployed, mass hunger, hopelessness and a loss of faith in conventional politics, a wannabe aristocratic politician, Oswald Mosley, planned to make a show of strength in East London where his movement — the British Union of Fascists — had its biggest branches.
Those four branches with thousands of members and supporters, formed a horseshoe around an enclave where 60,000 working-class Jews lived in fear of daily violence from Mosley’s Blackshirts.
But that fear began to lift after an incredible victory for people’s power over the fascists and over thousands of police sent by the Home Secretary to facilitate the fascists’ invasion of the area.
On October 4 1936, Jews and non-Jews, many trade unionists among them, formed a mass blockade at Gardiners Corner in Aldgate while Jewish and Irish workers united to erect barricades in Cable Street to stop Oswald Mosley’s troops in their tracks.
More than 100,000 people were on the streets. Nearly 80 anti-fascists were arrested; some served custodial sentences. But the fascists did not pass. The crowd braved charges by mounted police and were battered with truncheons. But having failed to clear a path either at Aldgate or in Cable Street, the police ultimately instructed Mosley to turn his marchers around, head west and disperse. Which they did, dejected and humiliated.
Our commemoration happens every five years and its power is precisely because it marks a living history. Fascism was stopped then but has had later incarnations. Racism still scars our society.
At our rally Jews and Bangladeshis will speak side by side. The violence and intimidation Mosley’s thugs meted out to the immigrant Jewish community in the 1930s, was echoed against newer targets in the 1970s by the National Front.
But so was the resistance. Bengali youth movements emerged and found allies among local anti-racists and trade unionists. Together they drove the National Front from the area in confrontations described collectively as “The Battle of Brick Lane.”
In more recent years, anti-racists across London and the local community have united to resist efforts by the English Defence League and Britain First to make incursions into the East End.
The early resistance to Mosley’s movement in the 1930s came principally from the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth and grassroots trade unionists. But by 1936, when it focused especially on East London, that resistance was bolstered by the Jewish People’s Council (JPC), a militant local body seeking to maximise local Jewish participation against fascism and anti-semitism while simultaneously building unity with non-Jewish anti-fascists.
The JPC believed that Mosley’s movement could only be stopped by building an anti-fascist majority in the area. In their anti-fascist campaigning at both indoor and outdoor meetings, they always had Jewish and non-Jewish speakers sharing their platforms.
But they had an additional fight — to overcome the complacency and aloofness of the Jewish community’s middle-class dominated “official” leadership: the Board of Deputies, the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Jewish Chronicle newspaper. These conservative bodies consistently ignored or downplayed the threat from Mosley’s fascists and obstructed the resistance by calling on Jews to stay indoors on the day of Mosley’s attempted invasion.
The Jewish Chronicle warned its readers to “keep away for the route of the Blackshirt march” and added: “Jews who become involved in any disorders will be actively helping anti-semitism and Jew-baiting.” The opposite was true. Thankfully the community ignored them en masse and helped to win a crucial victory.
This Sunday’s march and rally will be particularly poignant and tinged with the sadness that our commemorations can no longer be addressed by the brave veterans from 1936. That sadness, though, will be offset as we will hear, at the rally, from their close relatives who have inherited their parents’ lifelong anti-racism.
The poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen will speak about his parents’ involvement. They met in the Young Communist League. He describes Cable Street as “their first date!”
Ruth Levitas will talk of her pride in her dad Morry Levitas and her uncle Max who both played their part. Jewish Voice for Labour member Tony Booth will remember his dad, Albert, who was one of those sentenced to three months’ hard labour.
And June Legg will talk of her mum, Beatty Orwell, still alive at 104 but housebound after breaking her hip. June says: “She was brave enough to go out there and fight for her beliefs.”
They will be joined by local MP Apsana Begum, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rabbi Herschel Gluck, several trade union speakers and community campaigners including representatives of the Altab Ali Foundation, Bangladeshi Workers Council, Indian Workers Association-GB and the Jewish Socialists’ Group.
The march assembles at 1pm at the junction of Cable Street and Leman Street and will move off at 1.30pm towards the Cable Street mural for the rally.
David Rosenberg was convener of Cable Street 80 and is part of the planning committee for this year’s commemoration.
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