Remember the 43 Group
Maurice Podro, the last surviving member of the 43 Group, died in June. He was 91. The group fought against the postwar fascism of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts using many of the tactics still favoured by anti-fascist organisations today. Like many Jews returning from the war, Podro was devastated to find fascism thriving in the UK. Mosley had reappeared with a new party, the Union Movement, which, like the British Union of Fascists in the interwar years, sought to stir up resentment against Jews in working-class neighbourhoods by holding rallies at such places as Ridley Road Market, home to East London’s largest Jewish community. In April 1946, the final report of the government committee on fascism concluded it would be neither ‘desirable’ nor ‘in the best interests of the Jews themselves to introduce any special measures against anti-Semitic propaganda’.
In We Fight Fascists,one of the few histories of the 43 Group, Daniel Sonabend describes the way it emerged to defend East London communities and gradually expanded into a city-wide organisation. Its members would turn up at fascist meetings and rallies, throw stones at speakers and, in many cases, physically assault fascist activists. The press denounced them as communist, but the 43 Group wasn’t a revolutionary organisation; it acted only because the Labour government was failing to deal with fascism on Britain’s streets.
Telling the story of the 43 Group means acknowledging the UK’s fascist past, both before and after the Second World War, as well as the failures of the postwar Labour government. It also involves reimagining a history that has mostly sought to confine Jews to the role of passive victims.
Today, as in the 1940s, inaction on anti-Semitism is posing as action. Keir Starmer has decided to settle the Panorama libel case by apologising unreservedly and agreeing to pay ‘substantial damages’ to former staffers and the journalist John Ware, admitting Labour had defamed them after an investigation into anti-Semitism in the party. ‘I want to draw a line under anti-Semitism in the Labour Party,’ Starmer said.
Last month he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary for retweeting a link to an interview with the actress Maxine Peake, who had falsely asserted that the US police learned the knee-on-neck tactic that killed George Floyd from Israeli secret services. Commentators applauded Starmer’s effort ‘to convince the public that his party will be very different to the one they rejected by such a crushing margin back in December’. But this is precisely the problem: Starmer’s sacking of Long-Bailey was a virtue signal to the British electorate (and a convenient way to marginalise the party’s left) rather than an overture to a wider strategy for tackling anti-Semitism. With his muscular response, Starmer cast himself as a strongman protecting a weak minority, but achieved little for British Jews.
Two weeks later, the new leadership turned out to have slightly more than zero tolerance for anti-Semitism. The shadow local government secretary, Steve Reed, a close ally of Starmer’s, tweeted about the ongoing cash-for-favours scandal involving the Jewish businessman Richard Desmond and the housing minister, Robert Jenrick: ‘Is billionaire former porn-baron Desmond the puppet master for the entire Tory cabinet?’ Considering Starmer’s previous no-nonsense stance, you might think that a tweet containing the ‘puppet master’ trope – among the most pernicious and long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories – would warrant disciplinary action, but Reed went unpunished. (Like Long-Bailey, he deleted the offending tweet and apologised.)
Earlier this month, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a shadow environment minister on the Labour left, apologised for an allegedly anti-Semitic Facebook message from 2009 (before he became an MP), after coming under pressure from the party. He resigned from the cabinet on 16 July, citing abuse that he and his team had received. In the Facebook post, Russell-Moyle had asserted that the ‘idea of inheriting a land that you may have never visited or seen but have a “heritage” claim for is not progressive in its very nature’. He also described Zionism as a ‘dangerous nationalist idea’. His comments don’t contravene either the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism or Labour’s support for a two-state solution. The inconsistency of the Labour leadership’s responses to Long-Bailey, Reed and Russell-Moyle implies that they are motivated as much by factional interest and concessions to the worst form of Israeli ethno-nationalism as by any genuine wish to stamp out anti-Semitism.
I’m not trying to excuse Maxine Peake’s interview, which plainly included an anti-Semitic dogwhistle, or to say that Long-Bailey wasn’t wrong to retweet a link to the piece, or to deny that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulate on the crank left. But it should be possible to recognise and fight anti-Semitism, and at the same time to allow MPs to criticise Israeli atrocities. That isn’t achieved by sacking one member of the shadow cabinet and forcing another to resign over an old Facebook post, while effectively overlooking yet another’s tweeting of an anti-Semitic trope.
The problem is by no means exclusive to Labour. A few days before Long-Bailey was sacked, a piece in the Telegraph made the somewhat staggering claim that Black Lives Matter protests are a ‘catalyst for anti-Semitism’. The article floats towards the conspiratorial mood it claims to find in the BLM movement, insinuating a link it cannot prove. It places Jews in opposition to a movement with explicitly anti-fascist aims and, by default, on the side of those who are, in Donald Trump’s term, ‘against antifa’. As accusations of anti-Semitism are increasingly used to disgrace political adversaries – in the BLM movement or on the Labour left – the very real threat to Jews from the far right is wilfully forgotten.
Our failure to tell a national story that allows Jews anything more than the part of victim has left a minority vulnerable to this politics of protection, where anyone can step in and claim to be safeguarding Jewish interests. History provides little evidence of the British establishment actually protecting Jews. Most of the refugees from Nazi Germany who sought asylum in the UK were refused. Those who were allowed in were met by Mosley’s Blackshirts, terrorising the East End with anti-Semitic graffiti, loudspeakers blaring attacks on refugees, and physical assaults by uniformed thugs. In the background was an ambient fear of refugees taking British jobs. ‘Anti-Semitism was in the air,’ Malcolm Muggeridge later wrote, ‘an unmistakable tang.’ After two British soldiers were killed by the Irgun in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Semitic riots in Manchester’s Jewish community of Cheetham Hill, which subsequently spread across the country.
As the 43 Group demonstrate, Jews were not simply victims; they took to the streets and fought back, because the British establishment failed to take seriously the far-right threat to Jewish communities. With the death of the last member of the 43 Group, politicians and pundits would do well to remember this failure, and the lengths Jewish communities had to go to in the postwar period to protect themselves. Yet it’s difficult to imagine the group’s role in defeating postwar fascism ever being properly acknowledged, because it’s harder to make Jews into passive vessels for other people’s political interests if they’re seen as active participants in British history.