Remember the 43 Group

Phil Jones

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.


  • 24 July 2020 at 7:42pm
    Greencoat says:
    It looks as though the Labour Party is happy to dig the same old grave with the same old shovel.

    • 4 August 2020 at 10:05am
      Peterson_the man with no name says: @ Greencoat
      However shameless the performed outrage of the Moderates, it is indeed true that, by blurring the distinction between feeling oppressed and being oppressed, the left laid themselves wide open to an attack of this type. The left bears only a small part of the responsibility for the fact that we now live in a culture where using an offensive word on Twitter is a worse crime than starting a war; but it does bear some responsibility, all the same.

  • 25 July 2020 at 11:40am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Surely the phrase ‘puppet master’ isn’t anti-Semitic? No matter how often it has been used as an insult against Jews, and despite the fact that the subject is, in fact, a Jew it remains simply a vivid metaphor for the type of alleged relationship between the press baron and the government minister. I don’t know if the allegation is true but I know exactly what the accuser means when he quotes ’puppet master’.
    And criticism of Israel does NOT equate to anti-semitism.

    • 25 July 2020 at 3:26pm
      Rory O'Kelly says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Suppose that Desmond had been compared to an organ-grinder and the tory cabinet to his monkeys, would this be regarded as an anti-Italian slur, on the ground that organ-grinders are stereotypically thought of as being Italian?

    • 26 July 2020 at 1:04pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      One recalls that that other great press tycoon, Robert Maxwell regularly played the anti-semitic card whenever his buiness ethics were challenged.

    • 26 July 2020 at 6:26pm
      Greencoat says: @ Graucho
      The problem with all this sophistry is that no-one understands the obsession with Israel when the unabashed horror of the Chinese and North Korean regimes are there in plain sight.

    • 28 July 2020 at 11:28am
      EnoahBallard says: @ Greencoat
      Ah, nice pivot there, I see what you did.

      On the flip side, adults can surely be outraged at the “unabashed horrors” of Chinese and North Korean regimes AND those originating in Israel. And they can even write articles about them.

    • 30 July 2020 at 7:29pm
      Squeeth says: @ Greencoat
      The vile apartheid regimes of Rhodesia and Boer South Africa are things of the past, there's nothing wrong with wishing the same fate on the last apartheid tyranny; it is the opposite of antisemitism. Why bring in North Korea and China but not the US and the Saud perverts?

  • 25 July 2020 at 1:27pm
    jwripple says:
    Simply to say that I do not think the term puppet-master is exclusively an anti-semitic trope.

    • 30 July 2020 at 7:29pm
      Squeeth says: @ jwripple
      I there a list of antisemitic tropes anywhere?

  • 27 July 2020 at 5:42am
    bentoth says:
    The tenuous connection with antisemitism in Maxine Peake's remarks makes the point. She was drawing a parallel between the treatment of minority groups by two increasingly illiberal states. She could have referred to China, Burma, or Turkey. But she chose Israel. Not because of some latent antisemitism but because of the long-standing reciprocal arrangements between police forces in the US and Israel. Discussing antisemitism in literary theoretic terms or psychologism has become a way of avoiding political reality internationally while stamping the boot domestically. It was the bad luck of a fine actor to do this at a time when 3rd rate actors and quiz show hosts get the cultural red carpet.

  • 27 July 2020 at 1:21pm
    stettiner says:
    Once more, since you don't seem to understand:

    From a left-wing American blog:…

    " We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism".

    • 27 July 2020 at 4:58pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ stettiner
      Perhaps I do misunderstand but why does the fact that a small minority has “a particular way of thinking” that renders a comment “plausible or resonant” mean that the majority, who don’t think that way, has to tiptoe around its phraseology in case they are misunderstood?
      For example I do not see an exact equivalence between the terms “Jews” and “Israel” so I didn’t find the reference to Israeli police methods in any way anti-Semitic.

    • 27 July 2020 at 7:52pm
      bentoth says: @ stettiner
      The connection between US and Israeli police forces is a pretty thick reed. Ms Peake’s comment was not antisemitic and not particularly noteworthy, nor was a retweet by her MP. Until it became part of the drama of reconfiguring the Labour Party and giving Kier Starmer an easy news story.

    • 28 July 2020 at 6:01pm
      stettiner says: @ bentoth
      Another excerpt from David Schraub's blog:

      "In apologizing for her comment, Peake said something very interesting: she said "I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources." Assumption is the key word there: she had, presumably, read about Israeli and American police training together, and so she assumed that the bad American practices had Israeli roots. But the only evidence was the bare fact of contact -- that's what's driving the narrative. Hence: contagion.

      This, I submit, is something antisemitism does. It allows such assumptions to become naturalized. They feel right. American police have done exchange training with counterparts in dozens of other countries, ranging from the UK to Germany to Mexico to Tanzania. Even those who take a dim view of, say, the Mexican police however would likely not jump from mere contacts to causality. If someone said "American police learned chokeholds from Tanzanian police," they'd ask for evidence. If the only evidence is "there are exchange programs between American and Tanzanian police", that likely wouldn't be sufficient. But antisemitism gives a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable. It is not accidental that the narrative is about Israeli police exchanges and not German or Mexican or Tanzanian ones".

    • 28 July 2020 at 7:42pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ stettiner
      No, I contend that this is not “what anti-semitism does”. Rather, this is what anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism (?) does. There is a widespread belief that Israel is a foul state, thus, by a kind of logic, its practices, police and other, are infected by the foulness. No connection whatever with anti-semitism.
      If Tanzania were considered a foul, racist state then the same leaps of logic would have been made.

    • 28 July 2020 at 8:45pm
      vulpiani says: @ stettiner
      Disingenuous. Plenty of Palestinian evidence.

    • 28 July 2020 at 9:16pm
      stettiner says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      And why is Tanzania not considered a foul state? What do you know about everyday practice of its police? Is killing of the ruling party's opponents, putting gays in jail for life or murdering albinos infected by foulness or not? How many op-eds in the G did you read about ending "the Tanzanian experiment"? Or, why not more broadly, "the African experiment"? Why isn't opposition to Tanzanian "hybrid regime" (Democracy Index) more widespread, why don't we see any anti-Tanzanism?

      Obviously, the Jews haven't learnt anything from the Holocaust, so let's take their foul, racist state away from them, for the sake of world peace. No connection whatever with anti-semitism. Just pure, logical, widespread anti-Zionism...

    • 29 July 2020 at 7:48am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ stettiner
      Perhaps Tanzania IS a foul state; I confess I did not do any research into the subject.
      My point is that simply because many people see Israel and many of its works as foul that does not equate to anti-semitism.
      The Holocaust was a vile episode; a crime against all Jews. It was of course one of the spurs in the formation of a Jewish homeland but (and i’m starting to bore myself now) opposition to that Jewish homeland does not equate to opposition to Jewishness.

    • 29 July 2020 at 9:41am
      bentoth says: @ stettiner
      From the blog here ...'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.'

      That, I think, is the real risk of your perspective. It makes it possible to link any criticism of Israeli state action to overt or latent anti-Semitism, and so severely inhibits the sort of discussion David Schraub wants about how to oppose annexation.

      And just as a matter of interest, I can't find anything Tanzanian training of US police.

    • 30 July 2020 at 7:30pm
      Squeeth says: @ stettiner

    • 30 July 2020 at 7:40pm
      Squeeth says: @ stettiner
      There's nothing Jewish about zionism; Hertzl and his cronies invented it a a replacement of Judaism, you don't get more antisemite than that.

    • 31 July 2020 at 5:22pm
      Squeeth says: @ stettiner
      It's possible that this rather serpentine conspiracy theory (and ipso facto antisemitic trope) applied to the US but not Britain which is the most irreligious place on earth, if North American visitors' remarks are anything to go by. If there's anything unconscious about the English, it is a towering indifference to superstitious mumbo jumbo.

  • 28 July 2020 at 2:31pm
    Charles Evans says:
    It's incredible. The LRB Blog publishes posts that contain lazy, thinly-veiled antisemitism, and then the comments section fills with the desperate contortions of antisemitism apologia. Does Thomas Jones ever stop to think, "Perhaps I'm part of the problem"? Seems unlikely.

    • 28 July 2020 at 2:41pm
      Charles Evans says: @ Charles Evans
      Come to think of it, the LRB Blog comments section is also full of embittered old Corbynites who still can't accept they were wrong. Could these two phenomena be related?!

    • 28 July 2020 at 5:06pm
      Sean Kobayashi says: @ Charles Evans
      My confidence in your interpretation of the contents of the post isn't bolstered by your getting the poster's name wrong Charles. Perhaps condemnation without careful consideration of the basic facts is part of the problem?

    • 28 July 2020 at 7:02pm
      Sean Kobayashi says: @ Sean Kobayashi
      Sorry Charles, I think I've mistaken your meaning there - you meant the editor rather than the poster? My apologies, I'm not a regular poster here and didn't know who the editor was. I've since read some of Thomas Jones' own posts and articles, and although I think you're maligning him, and Phil Jones' post, unfairly - under the circumstances I wouldn't blame you if you doubted my perspicacity...

  • 29 July 2020 at 10:21pm
    Isobel Urquhart says:
    Labour and Antisemitism: a Crisis Misunderstood
    Ben Gidley Brendan McGeever David Feldman

  • 29 July 2020 at 10:21pm
    Isobel Urquhart says:
    Labour and Antisemitism: a Crisis Misunderstood
    Ben Gidley Brendan McGeever David Feldman

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