Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Mazeltov to the Jewish Socialists’ Group

25 Years Fighting the Board of Deputies of British Jews

I went to a meeting last night hosted by the Jewish Socialists’ Group. An excellent meeting it was on ‘Policing, Surveillance and Community Security’.

Liz Davies and Kat Craig of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, who represented students in cases arising from recent demonstrations and occupations, including advising the student occupation at UCL, I believe unwisely, to defend possession proceedings.

Kat’s contribution on her involvement as the instructing solicitor in Austin v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis was especially interesting. I have a personal interest as I myself initiated an action against Sussex Police for an assault at the July 2006 demonstration in Hove against the attack on Lebanon and Austin was cited by the Defence to my legal action as to why Police were within their rights to contain demonstrators and harass them.

Austin was a House of Lords case which gave the Police legal sanction to kettle demonstrators. Kettling is in essence the punishment of those who have the temerity to demonstrate and has led to protestors spending 8-9 hours in a tightly confined space, without food, drink or toilets, often cold. It represents a judicial and police attack on the right to demonstrate and directly led to the murder by the Metropolitan Police of Ian Tomlinson, a news vendor, at the G20 Protests last year. It was been one more instance of the ratchetting up of legal attacks on the right to demonstrate and it was good to learn that it is being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which I predict will outlaw this particular police tactic.

Other speakers were Matty Mitford from No2ID who discussed policing and surveillance issues and Julia Bard of the JSG who looked at the Community Security Trust, the Board of Deputies security force. A number of people from the floor gave personal experience of being harassed and physically assaulted by these Zionist goons, whose primary purpose is to prevent British Jews coming into contact with the anti-Zionist or non-Zionist left. Experiences included that of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods who tried to ask a question at a JNF ‘environmental’ meeting at which David Bellamy was supposed to speak, but didn’t, at the Institute of Education last year. Naomi was physically removed, literally, from the meeting as was another person who had the temerity to ask the question (yes they were both howled down by the audience - so much for their toleration of debate unlike our meetings).

Julia noted the government’s decision to give the Community Security Trust, which I’ve written about many times on this blog, up to £2 million to protect Jewish schools. As she pointed out, what will the effect be of having security guards outside schools and barbed wire to protect the buildings? The effect is to institutionalise the isolation of Jewish children from the non-Jewish population – a very Zionist idea. There is no reason to believe Jewish schools are under more threat than anywhere else. As was pointed out, the CST issued its recent report on anti-Semitic incidents, 900 in 2010, amid a PR fanfare of the second highest number of incidents on record. What could have been said was that there was a 31% fall from last year’s figures!

In fact as my own experience demonstrates, the CST's statistics are flawed, lack any transparency or independent monitoring, and are highly subjective. It is one thing to classify a physical attack on someone because they are Jewish or the defacing of a gravestone with swastikas. It is quite another to label as 'anti-Semitic' the shouting of pro-Palestinian slogans at people who identify both as Jews and supporters of Israel.

One of those incidents was one I reported! Another is believed to be one which never happened, reported by Jonathan Hoffman arising out of a Bricup meeting at SOAS last year, when Hoffman pretended he had been subject to anti-Semitic jeering. The video recording of this showed no such thing and the BBC withdrew its report of the matter after 24 hours and the Press Complaints Commission criticised the Jewish Chronicle for omitting all mention of the contested nature of Hoffman’s allegation.

The incident I report was in fact 2 incidents. Two anonymous messages were posted to this blog – one from a holocaust denier and the other from a Zionist. The former denied, of course, the holocaust. The latter didn’t deny the holocaust – his only desire was that me and my family could have been the victims! The CST decided that the former was anti-Semitic but not the latter because the latter incident was clearly from someone who is themselves Jewish!

Although the magazine Jewish Socialist was founded 25 years ago, (the JSG itself, as David Rosenberg points out, is about 36 years old) it was more a left-Zionist group, initiated by people like ex-communist Aubrey Lewis, as a way of deflecting left hostility to Zionism and Israel. Along the way it began to discover that there was more to Jewish history than nationalism and it took a turn to Bundism – the mass Jewish socialist group in Eastern European and the Pale of Settlement in Russia. When the JSG was first formed it caused panic in the Jewish establishment as the monopoly of the Zionist Right over a placid community was seen as being under threat. A couple of years ago, there was a feature piece on JSG stalwarts – David Rosenberg and Julia Bard! Unfortunately the Jewish Chronicle has regressed since that article as per its recent appointment of ex-Express Editor Stephen Pollard.

But I can recall many a polemic with the JSG over its admittedly soft attitude to Zionism and Israel. In particular I had heated polemics with the late Steve Cohen over his belief that it was anti-Semitic to expect Jews to take any stance on Israel, as well as over the whole question of Zionism and racism and something called 'left anti-Semitism'. My own position was, and is, that there is no such phenomenon and although individuals on the left can have anti-Jewish prejudices, as a current it does not exist. In so far as you are racist then you are not on the left.

Steve, who slowly came to adopt some of the positions of his erstwhile antagonists, in particular concerning the racism of the Israeli state also began to accept that there is no monolithic Jewish culture. He expressed a number of doubts to me when I met him for the last time at a Liverpool conference on trade unions and immigration controls. I had first met him in 2000 at a similar conference, Barbed Wire Europe, in Oxford. By then Steve was already crippled and using a walking stick. He had been an immigration lawyer and a fine anti-racist activist, despite a blindness to what Zionism had done, and it was especially pleasing that, despite previous polemics, Steve joined in with myself and Lenni Brenner, to castigate the refusal of Indymedia to remove anti-Semitic articles by Gilad Atzmon. It was with great sadness that I learnt of the death of this giant of humanity and a comrade I wished I’d got to know better during his lifetime but I was determined to attend, which I did, his memorial service in Manchester two years ago.

The JSG has therefore been an eclectic mixture. Many of its members have been what one might call the liberal wing of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and I would argue they hankered over a Yiddish past that is no more and can be no more. But they have provided a welcome space for Jews in Britain who are suffocated by the establishment kow-towing to Zionism, Israel and respectable bourgeois politics.

And although the JSG has been as much a cultural as political group, it has always taken the fight against racism and fascism seriously. No one more so than David Landau, who puts us all to shame. Having read most if not all of its magazines, Jewish Socialist, I must say that the present cover, with a picture of the thugs of the English Defence League is possibly its best ever. Underneath is the caption ‘The New Lovers of Zion’!

Tony Greenstein


  1. Thanks Tony,for a very positive post about the meeting and the group. Just a couple of corrections/clarifcations. It's the magazine that is 25 years old not the group. I joined the group itself in 1976 - and it had been in existence for a couple of years already! And although the politics of the founders, on Israel/Palestine, was close to left-Zionist positions, the other major issue on which it was founded was to encourage greater Jewish participation in the fight against racism and fascism.

    Our first major confrontations with the Board of Deputies were over the latter. Firstly in the late 1970s when the Board was trying to dissuade Jews, especially young Jews from joining the ANL (on the basis that it was led by anti-Zionists) and secondly in the early 80s when we challenged the Board to reveal the truth about antisemitic incidents that were taking place. At that time the Board swept information under the carpet unless it could make a direct connection with an an attack and Israel but most of the incidents it was hiding for the community were plain old-fashioned British antisemitism perpeptrated by the NF and friends - the same people responsible for attacks on other ethnic minorities at the time. We wanted to make these links and unite Jews with other anti-racists. The board wanted to keep Jews close to the police and the newly elected Thatcher government.

    On the ANL, the group's founder, Aubrey Lewis, (who left the group he founded in 1981) righty claimed that the principal reason the Board wanted to keep Jews away from the ANL was nothing to do with zionism/anti-Zionism and everything to do with keeping young Jews away from contact with the Left. He recalled the Board acting similarly in the 1930s when Board leaders were officially anti-Zionist. A close ally for us on this argument about the ANL was dissident Board member Geoffrey Alderman who proudly spoke then on ANL platforms, though these days he seems to try to out-do Melanie phillips on right wing comment on Israel/Muslims.

  2. Dave, sorry for the errors which I've corrected. I did wonder whether or not JSG predated the magazine but could not remember.

    Yes I certainly remember Geoffrey Alderman in his left-wing days, he was called by the Jewish Chronicle, the 'gadfly of the community' from memory. He was an orthodox Jew then and resigned from the Board to jeering from his fellow deputies. How times change as he has now metamorphised into a bigot.

    Re the question of the Board's motivation in opposing the ANL, something of course UJS also did. I don't think there's a counterposition between wanting to keep Jews away from the left and wanting to keep them away from anti-Zionists. To me anti-Zionism is very much a left-wing phenomenon, even more so now.

    In the 1930's of course anti-Zionism was a different phenomenon, not least because Zionism itself was a minority. But it is arguable just how anti-Zionist the Board was then. They had already pulled up Nathan Laski and Claude Montefiore over their letter decrying the Balfour Declaration some 16 years or so previously.

    Their anti-Zionism was of a very soft, bourgeois variety. In essence once the British government had adopted a pro-Zionist position they did. Indeed this was a period when they moved towards a Zionist position, primarily because Zionism began to seem attractive as a way of diverting Jewish immigrants from Britain to Palestine.

    There was this phenomenon of non-Zionist Zionism whereby bourgeois non-Zionists would be memners of the Jewish Agency in Palestine.

    But today I would suggest that socialism and anti-Zionism are seen as very similar phenomenon by the Board as Labour Zionism dies a death, so even a token 'leftism' is suspect.

    Anyway congratulations and a very good front page!


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