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Remembering Max Levitas – Jewish Communist and last survivor of the Battle of Cable Street

MARY DAVIS pays tribute to a legendary anti-fascist fighter who died on November 2, aged 103

HISTORIANS have given scant recognition to the significant Jewish contribution to the history of the Communist Party in Britain particularly during the period 1935-55. 

Mainly centred in the East End of London, the party’s membership among Jews was out of all proportion to the size of the Jewish community in Britain and constituted roughly one tenth of total CP membership. Stepney alone had over 1,000 members in the 1930s. 

In 1947 the Stepney CP Borough Committee reported that it had “the highest proportion of party members per capita in Great Britain — one member per 175 of population,” most of whom were Jewish. 

This has raised an important question, first discussed by the party’s Jewish bureau (later, in 1943 to become the national Jewish committee) — namely, were Jewish members either communist Jews or Jewish communists?

For Max Levitas, who died on November 2 2018 aged 103, this question would have been redundant. He was both. 
Max saw no contradiction between his Jewish (non-religious) identity and his identity as a communist. 

He is buried alongside his wife Sarah (Sadie), who died in 1988, in an orthodox Jewish cemetery where the officiating rabbi recognised Max’s atheism but spoke of his support for the synagogue founded in 1903 on Commercial Road, the Congregation of Jacob (Kehillas Ya’akov). 

Similarly, Max identified as a communist very early in his life. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in Glasgow when he was 16 and remained an active communist throughout his long life. 
Max and his family moved to Glasgow in 1927 from Dublin where Max and his younger siblings (Maurice, Solomon, Yitzhak and Celia were born). 

Max’s youngest sister, Toby, was born in Glasgow. His parents Leah and Harry were Yiddish speaking “Litvaks” having, like thousands of other Russian Jews, escaped anti-semitic persecution in Latvia (Leah) and Lithuania (Harry). 

Harry was an active member of the Tailors’ and Pressers’ Union. This made it difficult for him to find work, hence the move to Glasgow, and thence four years later, to London’s East End — the centre of the garment industry. There Max joined his father in the tailoring trade.

Max, already a communist, threw himself into the two main campaigns which drew ever increasing numbers of Jewish East Enders into membership of the Communist Party. 

The first question which affected Jews primarily was fascism, which in the 1930s, under the shadow of the nazis, took the form of anti-semitism.

The second issue was housing. Rack rents and overcrowded slum conditions affected everyone, but given the high concentration of Jews in Stepney, it was a major problem for this community and a locus of struggle.

The anti-fascist fight was conducted on the battlefield and on the streets. 

The battlefield was Spain where Max’s brother, Maurice, along with many other East End Jews joined the International Brigade. 

Max fought in London. As an active member and secretary of the Mile End (and later Limehouse) branch of the Young Communist League in the 1930s he worked tirelessly, alongside others, to combat Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). 

In 1934 Communists disrupted Mosley’s mass “respectable” ticket only rally in Olympia. They were met with unrestrained violence. 
Later in the year Max was arrested and fined £5 in 1934 for painting “All out against fascism” on the plinth at Trafalgar Square.
Two years later in 1936 Max was a runner at the pivotal and inspirational Battle of Cable Street when working-class East Enders — Jewish, Irish, and English — turned out to blockade the streets, successfully preventing Mosley’s black-shirted BUF thugs from marching through the streets under police guard. 

The East End was home to 90 per cent of British Jews, which is why Mosley provocatively targeted this area. 

The Jewish Peoples’ Council against Fascism and Anti-semitism, alongside the Communist Party, succeeded in mobilising the entire community. 

The Peoples’ Council serves as a model for a broad front anti-fascist organisation. It was formed of 86 Jewish organisations, including most East End synagogues (despite “stay at home” advice from the Board of Deputies), zionist organisations, workers’ circles, trade unions and dockers.

As the last surviving participant in the battle, Max was frequently interviewed and spoke at anniversary commemorative events, most recently the 80th anniversary in 2016 when he was 100 years old.

He rarely mentioned his own role, only the importance of the collective struggle and the political lessons to be drawn from it.

But for Max, the Battle of Cable Street was only the beginning of the fight against anti-semitism and racism. In 1943 the Stepney Communist Party branch published a pamphlet Stepney; A Borough to Be Proud Of. 

The pamphlet contains section on “Jew & Gentile Together” authored by Max (A Jew Writes) and Tommy Rampling (A Gentile Writes). 

Because Max was well known as an orator, it is worth quoting an extract from his written contribution: “What is true for me is true for all Jewish workers. We Jews have the same enemies as our fellow citizens who are gentiles … It was in unity that we defeated Mosley in 1936. It was in unity as tenants that we won our victories over the landlords … Before and during this war bestial fascism has committed the foulest crimes … All progressive people have been its especial victims, but our people have been done to death merely because they were Jews … we must never forget that anti-semitism and racial hatred existed before Hitler and fascism … All oppressors of the people have, when things grow difficult for them, diverted the just anger of the people by pogroms against Jews … such people are already at work. To defeat them we Jews must stand together, and we must maintain the unity of Jew and Gentile.”

Max saw the fight against anti-semitism was indissolubly linked to the fight against racism. A very early example of this is a notice in the Daily Worker of him speaking in 1934 at a meeting of the Negro Welfare Association in support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers, falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white American women on a train. 

In later years, the locus of struggle in the East End shifted from anti-semitism to opposition to anti-Asian racism. In his nineties Max repeatedly displayed his solidarity with the Bangladeshi community and was asked to speak at anti-racist rallies, most recently in 2013, in opposition to the English Defence League.

Again in his later years Max returned annually to Ireland for Holocaust Memorial Day events organised by the Irish Holocaust Educational Trust, particularly poignant because both his father and mother had relatives who had remained in Lithuania and Latvia and were murdered by the nazis.

In addition to being an active trade unionist (a shop steward for the Tailor and Garment Workers Union in one of the East End’s largest factories), Max was an organiser in the tenants’ movement. 

There were sporadic rent strikes in Stepney from 1935. The Communist Party decided to make housing a major focus of its work locally, linking it to the fight against fascism. 

The party recognised that latent anti-semitic tendencies persisted among poor, often unemployed, rack-rented workers. 

Instead of providing fodder for the BUF, the party, in Phil Piratin’s words, should “cut the ground from under the fascists’ feet” by helping the people “to improve their conditions of life … [and] show them who was really responsible … their real exploiters.”

Thus in 1937 the Stepney Tenants Defence League was formed and waged a remarkable fight against corrupt landlordism. 
Max lived (as did his future wife, Sarah) in a tenement building ironically named Brady Street Mansions. In 1938 he organised a famous rent strike there.

Monty Goldman’s booba (grandmother) also lived in the “mansions.” Sixteen years Max’s junior, his friend Monty (also an East Ender) was brought up on stories of the rent strike, which, he recounts, greatly improved the trade of the local kosher butcher! 

After pitched battles with the police and a mighty demonstration of 15,000 people organised by the YCL, the landlords negotiated a compromise. The rent strike had been successful.

During World War II rent control was introduced, but the East End suffered extensive bomb damage during the Blitz. However, there were inadequate bomb shelters in this, arguably the worst-hit area in London. 

In September 1940, Max and Phil Piratin led an occupation of the luxurious deep bomb shelter at the Savoy Hotel in order to highlight the inequality of sacrifice — a clear case of “for the few but not the many.” 

This was a successful protest because, a few days later, Tube stations were opened to provide better protection for working-class Londoners. 

Max served briefly in the army during the war. His niece, Ruth Levitas, relates the unwritten tale that he was dismissed from the army during training as unfit for military service (but not dishonourably discharged), after punching an officer for an anti-semitic insult. Thereafter, according to Stepney: A Borough to Be Proud Of, he was a deputy senior fire guard.

The amazing mass mobilisation led by Stepney communists on the housing question and the anti-fascism campaigns led to stunning electoral victories. In 1945 Piratin was elected as Communist MP for Mile End and in 1946, 10 Communists were elected to Stepney Borough Council. 

Seven of these were Jews, Max among them. He served as a councillor intermittently for a total of 15 years. He and Solly Kay remained as councillors until 1971. 

Max lived in the borough now called Tower Hamlets for the rest of his life where he remained active locally, especially on housing issues. 

For 40 years Max lived on the third floor (no lift) of a council flat in Sidney Street. From there, aged 99, Max waged another battle when he and all the other residents, now “owners” of their flats, were faced with enormous repair bills. He refused to pay.

In 1947 the Stepney Party congratulated Max on winning 150 new Daily Worker readers. This was not a one-off event. Max continued to sell the paper, now the Morning Star, everywhere he went well into his nineties. He regularly attended (travelling by public transport) meetings of his Hackney and Tower Hamlets Communist Party branch until he was 100 years old.

Before meetings he and I would often have a chat in Yiddish over a cup of tea. In his stentorian voice at our meetings, he would tell us, in a comradely way, what we should be doing to win more members and more daily readers. His energy was boundless. 

When asked how it was possible to remain so fit at such a great age, he said: “I go to the gym twice a week, I go to the Turkish bath twice a week, and I walk everywhere.” 

The “shvitz” bath was at York Hall — quite a walk from where Max lived. He also relaxed watching football. Unsurprisingly he was massive, life-long Spurs supporter — the “Yiddos” team. He attended games with his son Stephen until tragically Stephen died of a brain haemorrhage in 2014. 

On his 100th birthday he received a card and pennant signed personally by every member of the Spurs team.

Although Max lived in London almost all his life, he still retained his Irish accent despite the fact that he was only 12 when he left Dublin. 

He visited Ireland many times. In 2002, when he was 87, he was invited to Dublin to unveil a plaque commemorating the Camden Street Synagogue and the Tailors’ and Pressers’ Union which was upstairs. 

His last trip to Ireland was a week-long trip with niece Ruth and her husband Rob shortly after his 100th birthday in 2015. On that visit he was received by the mayor and deputy mayor of Dublin.

On his 100th birthday held at the library (Idea Store) in Whitechapel Road, Max received many messages. He was particularly pleased with the letter from Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland who wrote: “To live so long is a remarkable feat, but to have lived such a full and rich life in the service of others is something truly worth celebrating. As President of Ireland, I want to mark this special occasion by expressing the gratitude of the Irish people with you, and the wider Levitas family for the great contribution you have made to the cause of liberty in Ireland, in Britain, in Spain and internationally. You are truly a citizen of the world Max, but we are proud to call you a son of Ireland.”

With Max’s death an important page in British Labour and Communist history has been turned. Max was the embodiment of a glorious phase of this history — but it does not end with him.

He always insisted that past battles have a contemporary political relevance. For him our history, the history of class struggle, was important, but only if we learn from it. We are the proud inheritors of that history. 

The only way to honour our inheritance, and Max’s contribution to it, is by continuing the struggle to which he devoted his life. His flag stayed red and so must ours.

 

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