Monday, 15 January 2018

Sam Semoff – a Fighter, a Socialist and a Jewish Anti-Zionist - an Adopted Son of Liverpool Departs This World

Sam was a true Jewish Comrade and a Scourge of Racism and Zionism

Updated with appreciations by John Davies and Greg Dropkin

See also the tribute by Free Speech on Israel
Sam in 2003 when I went up to Liverpool before heading off to Scotland with my daughter
Sam in 2003 when I went up to Liverpool before heading off to Scotland with my daughter

It is still difficult to believe that Sam, who was 75, will no longer be with us.  That unique blend of Liverpudlian humour and an American accent. Sam was raised on a poultry farm in New Jersey, having been born in Philadelphia, but only because his mother went into labour there.  Sam's doctorate was in Molecular Cell Biology, and that was why he came to Britain in 1979.  I met him shortly after he came here.

Sam only had one child. Shelah he had only one grandchild - Karlaya Mae. Whilst he had two brothers, only one is still alive.  Sam has I'm told left numerous nieces and nephews scattered across the States, from New York to California.

Sam was a community activist in Liverpool whose speciality was health campaigns.  In particular he was the scourge of the PFI takeover of Liverpool’s new hospital, the cutbacks and all the other attacks.  Sam was also a class fighter.  He rejected Zionism for the same reasons that he rejected all forms of racism. 
Sam speaking at one of many demonstrations he participated in
He was a medical researcher and worked for years at Liverpool University.  He lost a battle in the Employment Tribunal and then the Employment Appeal Tribunal under the right-wing judge Simon Brown, who was hostile to all equalities legislation.  He was fighting against the endemic racism of one of the old style colonial outposts, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.  The School had been founded, like its London counterpart, as part of the attempt to colonise Africa which was then known as the Dark Continent on account of the impenetrability for White people of its interior.  Because of malaria and other diseases, White men were unable to conquer the savage interior of Africa and that was the reason the tropical medicine schools were founded.  They were the medical spear of British colonialism.
Sam threw himself into a variety of grassroots community campaigns in Liverpool and was highly respected amongst the Black and Somali communities.
It was Sam’s hatred of racism that meant that he could be no other than an anti-Zionist.  I first met Sam in around 1980 and we worked together at first in the British Anti-Zionist Organisation.  We also resigned from BAZO together when we had accumulated enough proof that it was controlled by Iraqi Baathists.  Sam went on to be a committed activist in Liverpool Friends of Palestine.

I left Liverpool in 1974 but I used to come back quite often to see my parents.  Whenever I returned I would make a point of going for a drink with Sam and a meal, often with his former wife Lil.  When my children came up to Liverpool they stayed with his daughter Shelah and Karlaya Mae.  Sam took very easily to being a grandfather and baby sitting.

Sam was a dedicated Jewish anti-Zionist and proud of that fact.  He could always be counted on to sign a Jewish anti-Zionist petition or letter.  Sam really was the unsung hero of our movement.  Whereas people like me have risen to prominence (and infamy!) Sam was someone who preferred to stay in the background.

The last time I saw Sam was in June 2016 when I came to speak at a Liverpool Friends of Palestine meeting in the wake of my suspension from the Labour Party over the fake anti-Semitism campaign.  It was a packed meeting that the Zionists had, as usual, tried to have cancelled.  Afterwards the speakers and Liverpool activists went for a Chinese meal in the centre of Liverpool where we discussed the latest attacks inside the Labour Party.  Sam had, like so many of us, left the Labour Party in the Blair years and had come back with the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

I stayed with Sam in his flat in Ullet Road and I was shocked then at the deterioration in Sam’s health.  He had to walk around with oxygen canisters.  I wondered how long Sam could continue to survive.  However he hadn’t lost his sense of humour and he thoroughly enjoyed the meeting.  Sam had previously enjoyed smoking cannabis but he was now no longer able to smoke anything. Many was the time when we smoked dope  together!
I can remember over 30 years ago Sam was busy helping to produce an issue of the short-lived Liverpool Labour Briefing, which included an article by me.  When I got married in 1989 Sam came down and stayed with us in Brighton as he did three years ago when I was extremely ill and thought I was going to die. 

Sam was one of those who was to the forefront in trying to remove the racist Zionist MP for Liverpool Riverside and the supporter of Israel’s abuse of Palestinian children, Louise Ellman.
The short video clip I am including here for the first time was when I was visiting Liverpool on the way to Scotland with my daughter Ellie.  It was in 2003 and I still had my Renault 5!  In the clip I had taken my late mother and Ellie to meet Sam, I think in Lodge Lane, Liverpool 8, which was near where he lived.

Sam was the best of comrades and never had an ill-word to say about anyone.  It is really hard to imagine that Sam is no longer with us.  My heart goes out to Sam’s daughter and his grandchild, Karlaya Mae.  He will be sorely missed.

There are a lot of tributes at the Save Liverpool Womens Hospitals Facebook Page, please have a look at them and post your own tribute if you knew Sam or at his Facebook page.  Here are also some of the tributes that have been paid on his own Facebook page.

Tony Greenstein

Sam Semoff

Sam Semoff died peacefully on 11 Jan in the Royal Liverpool Hospital after a long illness. Hundreds of us in Liverpool and elsewhere knew him as a friend and comrade. He was warm, intense, committed, and ready to engage with anyone he met. He lived in Liverpool 8 (Toxteth) as an American in exile, an anti-racist, lifelong opponent of Zionism and supporter of the Palestinian people. We knew each other best through his work in defence of the NHS. As a founder member of Keep Our NHS Public Merseyside, Sam continued chairing meetings even while carrying an oxygen bottle and undergoing dialysis.
No-one – porter, domestic, nurse, medic or Consultant - got within a few feet of Sam in hospital without being asked their attitude to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), or the latest government plans to undermine the NHS. During the Junior Doctors strike, he persuaded staff to let him appear at the Atrium window above the demonstration in the ambulance forecourt. Sam phoned through to a mobile pressed to the megafone and addressed the strikers.
Good morning everybody. I am a patient on the Cardiology ward here in the Royal. I’ve been in here two weeks and I can tell you the care has been absolutely great.
Jeremy Hunt is a liar – he says we need a 24/7 service, well we have 24/7 service. I have been in here two weekends and a doctor was always available, so were support services.
Hunt is also a hypocrite – he talks about patient safety, yet he wants to remove requirements that limit junior doctors working unsafe hours, putting patients lives at risk.
The doctors went into medicine to help people, their main concern is their patients’ needs above all else... Hunt knows this and takes advantage of it, he thinks he can push them to the limit and they will not do anything.
But they have said enough is enough, they know the risks to their patients in going along with Hunt’s proposals are greater than doing nothing. I wish a lot more health workers would reach that point.
The Government is determined to decimate the NHS and turn it into a market based health care system like in America. They have eroded the principles of universality, of a comprehensive integrated service that is publicly accountable and they are now working to undermine publicly provided, as the NHS is broken up into bits and turned over to the private sector where the overriding aim is profit.
When they get around to removing the principle of a service free at the point of delivery based on need, it will be too late.
I hope to see you out here next week and the week after.
Sam's deep knowledge of the communities in Liverpool 8 came to the fore when NHS England handed over the management of a dozen Liverpool surgeries to the private firm SSP. Sam was a patient at Princes Park Health Centre, which had pioneered community treatment for the whole person in the 1980s. So SSP wasn't just an affront to his politics. It was personal. Sam hit back with 10,000 leaflets in Arabic, English and Somali, delivered door to door and to every shop on Lodge Lane. He had been Sec. of Granby Ward Labour Party, and ran this like an election campaign.

It culminated in a public meeting of around 130, almost all of whom were current or former patients at Princes Park, furious at how the service had collapsed. It was held in three languages with interpreters and a PA system, allowing Somali women who sat with their friends in a side room to address the entire gathering. The meeting led directly to a survey, a report, and the intervention of the CQC which eventually kicked SSP out of Liverpool, though some NHS staff were victimised in the process.
Sam led the fight against PFI funding for the new Royal Hospital. He was vilified in the Echo, which ran the scurrilous headline “Bogoff Semoff”, claiming that an American was trying to deny healthcare to the people of Liverpool. No-one ever apologised for that, even when the newspaper finally woke up to the PFI catastrophes at Whiston Hospital and around the country.
Sam brought a Judicial Review which forced the Royal to re-run their consultation as they had not even mentioned that the new hospital would be funded by PFI. Every Liverpool Labour MP backed the scheme, as did Cllr Nick Small and Joe Anderson, at that time leader of the Labour group within the Council. The Royal PFI was signed off by Andy Burnham as Health Secretary on the eve of the 2010 General Election. Sam lodged a second Judicial Review, challenging the claim that the PFI would deliver Value for Money.
On 17 Nov 2010 BBC Radio Merseyside put Sam up against Joe Anderson, who declared "I know it doesn't provide Value for Money now or in the future, but it's the only game in town". That admission ricocheted all the way up to a Treasury Select Committee Inquiry into PFI. But the JR was derailed when Cllr Small approached the Legal Assistance Board and got them to pull the funding for Sam's challenge.
Sam had already left the Labour Party over Iraq, but rejoined more recently in support of Jeremy Corbyn. He joined Unite, and was active in the Community Branch of the union. He knew construction workers blacklisted by Carillion, but didn't quite live to see the company collapse with the new Royal half-built. A few days earlier, Sam commented “Workers united, is the only defence they have.”
When the news of his death came through, a demo at the Health and Wellbeing Board turned into a tribute to Sam.
We all miss him. Let's honour him by continuing the fight.
Greg Dropkin
It was with great sadness that we heard yesterday morning of the passing of the much loved American Jewish socialist and fighter, Sam Semoff.
Sam was a stalwart of Liverpool Friends of Palestine for many years, but also became the figurehead of the campaign against the PFI funded new Royal Liverpool Hospital. Attacked personally by Liverpool's mayor in the Liverpool Echo, Sam continued to campaign for the NHS during the last days of his life, and his death a week before the collapse of Carillion cheated him of some well justified amour propre.
His involvement in politics went back to the sixties, something I only learned about recently. He acted as my Silent Friend when I was interviewed by the Labour Party's Compliance Unit last year, and it was during this interview that I caught a glimpse of this history. Sam wasn't a very good silent friend, in that he wasn't at all silent. We recorded the interview, so I can quote him here, word for word. When the Labour Party interviewer recklessly invited Sam to ask a question at the end of the interview, Sam asked him for his definition of anti-Semitism. I quote:
"I moved to Britain in the seventies. Ahm. I was brought up in an orthodox Jewish household, in New Jersey.… the majority of the community was Jewish but there was a small segment of Polish Catholics who used to beat me up as a kid coming home from school because I killed Christ. I lost an aunt in the holocaust. So I’m a bit sensitive, ahm, when I keep hearing the word, which you used frequently, anti-Semitism. I would just like to ask, plain and simple, what’s your definition of anti-Semitism?"
When he received the answer that the Compliance Unit was using the Zionist definition used by the Community Security Trust (a pro-Israel lobby group, which incorporates anti-Zionism within the definition of anti-Semitism) Sam gave the young man a lecture on the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Again, Sam's words:
"By using the CST definition of anti-Semitism, which includes opposition to a Jewish state in its anti-Semitism definition, well, it will completely skew any report that you will do. I’m Jewish, as I say, my definition of anti-Semitism is when someone says to me, ‘I hate you because you’re Jewish’. If someone expresses dislike or animosity toward a group of individuals because they’re Jewish, that’s anti-Semitism. It has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with a, a Jewish state. I’m a Jewish person and I question its existence and if you’re gonna use the CST definition of anti-Semitism, then that will skew your investigation completely."
The exchange (if you can call it that - the young interviewer was completely out of his depth and didn't have much to say in reply) was very funny, despite the seriousness of the issues. It ended with Sam adding a parting comment, in which he explained his journey from youthful left Zionist to campaigner on behalf of Palestinian rights, and in which he also encapsulated what he felt was the heart of Jewishness. It chimes with me, and is why I am such an admirer of many Jewish people and their traditions.
"No, there’s something else. It’s just… I remember a political gathering at a friend’s house, just after the six day war. 1967. Sorry, but it’s relevant. We were mostly Jewish. I was still clinging by my fingernails to some notion of left Zionism, but there was an old fella there who didn’t say too much, and he changed me. He’d come down from New York, and he was in a wheelchair. He was in a wheelchair cos of the Freedom Summer. 1964. He’d gone down on a voter registration drive in Mississippi and he’d taken a bullet in the spine. Right? This old guy personified to me what being Jewish was about. Being Jewish, it’s about equality, it’s about the struggle for justice, right? And the whole idea of the only ethnic state on the planet, right, it’s an obscenity. And I’m saying that as a Jewish person."
You were a mensche, comrade. Farewell.
 Sam Semoff was born to an orthodox Jewish mother and a Jewish communist father, who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Pennsylvania to become homesteaders.  An early attachment to left Zionism was dispelled by a meeting in the late sixties with a wheelchair using Jewish activist who’d taken a racist’s bullet whilst on a voter registration drive in the deep south. The germ of his pro-Palestine campaigning was sown by this meeting:  This old guy personified to me what being Jewish was about. Being Jewish, it’s about equality, it’s about the struggle for justice, right? And the whole idea of the only ethnic state on the planet, right, it’s an obscenity. And I’m saying that as a Jewish person."

Working in the early days of electron microscopy, Sam arrived in Liverpool in the early eighties, having been offered a PhD place, and then a research post at the School of Tropical Medicine. Two lists of student landlords were discovered, one of landlords who accepted non-white tenants and another which didn’t. Sam’s complaint to Senate over this condoning of racial profiling was denied and when he went public, the promised research position went to someone else. 

He was active in the Labour Party during the eighties, resigned over the Iraq war, and then rejoined with the election of Corbyn as leader. He was briefly Chair of Liverpool Riverside CLP just before his longtime political adversary Louise Ellman, a committed Zionist, was accepted as candidate. His activism involved him with the Somali community, with which he had close links, pro-Palestine solidarity, and, latterly, with campaigns to save the NHS, against the closure of Liverpool Women’s Hospital and to prevent the building of the new PFI funded (Carillion!) Liverpool Royal Hospital. He was a regular on pickets and demos, latterly lugging his bottle of oxygen.

Zionism grievously damaged the inspiring tradition of Jewish leadership in struggles against injustice and autocracy. Sam Semoff’s life is a shining example of how it has nevertheless survived. His warmth, engaging twinkle and unquenchable battling spirit will be hugely missed.
John Davies

No comments: