Remembering the anti-fascist Jewish radicals of the ’40s

commissioned by Huck magazine

I’ve always wondered how my grandparents ended up getting married. My grandmother loved going to classical music concerts, while my grandad loved jazz nights. My grandmother would drag him to the opera where he would invariably fall asleep; while my grandad would try and get her to go car racing, which she would always refuse (it messed up her hair). It’s even more strange to think that, not long before they met in the ’50s, my grandad John Wimborne was punching fascists and being arrested for attempted murder.

I was completely unaware of my grandad’s anti-fascist activism as a child. I only learnt about his history with The 43 Group a decade later, after he’d passed away, when my grandmother handed me a heavy folder of newspaper clippings. It was his homemade archive, filled with newspaper articles documenting the groups’ controversial political activism.

The 43 Group were a grassroots initiative, predominantly made up of Jewish ex-soldiers, who fought the rising wave of fascism in ’40s Britain. Their main tactic, for which they were notorious across the UK, was using their World War II military training to shut down fascist rallies.

70 years later, as far-right voices become louder and more influential in modern politics, the group’s legacy of direct political action could not be more relevant.

Along with the rest of Europe, the UK experienced a rapid growth in fascism in the ’30s. Britain’s pin-up fascist was Oswald Mosely, who founded the British Union of Fascists. Mosely’s political speeches were filled with antisemitic vitriol. The ultra-nationalistic, upper-class demagogue pinned the nation’s perceived decline on the thousands of Jewish immigrants in the UK, many of whom had fled the pogroms of the Russian empire.

Amongst them were my grandad’s parents. Depending on which uncle you ask, they either came to the UK from Poland or Ukraine in 1918 or 1890, with the family name of the Bumchicks or the Weinbergs. After arriving, they opted instead for the British-sounding surname ‘Wimborne’  – a word that was apparently glimpsed on a road sign to Wimborne Minster.

The ‘Wimbornes’ arrived to an east London divided between the British working class and Jewish Eastern European immigrants. Poverty reports from the early 20th century note the dark-bearded men in Russian-Polish dress, the wigs of orthodox Jewish woman, and their unplaceable Yiddish tongue. From the perspective of the ‘native’ East Londoners, the spike in Jewish refugees pushed up rent prices and increased unemployment.

Mosely became a beacon of hope to many struggling working-class families, angry at a lack of state support. He offered a vision of Britain for the British, partly gained through deporting a large number of Jewish immigrants. Mosely’s fascist rallies would incite the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues, the chanting of Nazi anthems and ‘Jew-beating’ on East London’s streets.

Even after the decisive defeat of Europe’s fascist forces by the end of World War II, around 1,000 loyal fans gathered to greet Mosely in his first re-appearance after the war in 1946. “They screamed and raised their arms to give the old fascist salute,” described BBC journalist Trevor Grundy, who witnessed the event. Before long, the old tune of “The Yids, the Yids, we’ve got to get rid of the Yids” soon returned to London’s streets.

The 43 Group formed in 1946 as a defiant response to the mounting fascist threat. With the government refusing to ban the fascist rallies, despite the desperate petitions of the Jewish community, a group of Jewish men and women saw violence and espionage as the only means through which to confront Mosely and his footmen. “It started again, this ‘keep quiet’ business, but we were not going to keep quiet,” ex-43 Group member Stanley Mocks recalled.

Mainly formed by Jewish ex-servicemen and women, The 43 Group translated the skills they had learnt on the battlefields of World War II to the streets of London.  The violence involved was justified – it was seen as an extension of their objective during the war: defeat the fascists.

Speaking in a London History Group documentary, 43 Group co-founder Morris Beckman recalled “flying wedges of hard-cased men” knocking down the podiums of fascist rallies. Knuckle dusters, potatoes stuffed with razor blades, and tightly wound newspapers were tools to attack the fascists in bloody street-brawls. There were no logged fatalities from the fights, but hospitalisation was not unheard of. Many 43-Groupers, women and men, would train weekly in a West End gym. Non-Jews were recruited to infiltrate fascist groups, enabling secret lists of forthcoming rally locations to be shared. The 43 Group slowly expanded, with four offices in London and nearly 1,000 members.

Despite the group’s palpable curbing of fascism, they were denounced by representatives of the Anglo-Jewish community such as The Board of Deputies of British Jews. The 43 Group’s violent tactics raised fears that they would tarnish the public reputation of Anglo-Jewry.

My grandad was only 18 when he helped found the group. Having gained two years of military training in the Royal Navy, he split his time between working at his father’s West End hat shop and fighting violent antisemites. Just one year later, in 1947, both the group and my grandfather were catapulted into the public sphere.

On the night of December 22, 1947, Charles Preen, a prominent fascist, claimed that he had been shot at. In a clipping preserved in my grandfather’s archive, Preen told the Evening Standard that “there was a bang and something whizzed past my face”. A few days after the shooting, he would single out my grandfather in a police line-up. “Preen came forward, looked straight at me and pointed me out,” reads Wimborne’s alibi, also stored in his archive.

In a show of solidarity, fellow 43 Group co-founder Gerry Flamberg – who had not been singled out in the same identity parade – stepped forward and commanded to be charged alongside my grandfather. Like that, the pair were both put on trial with attempted murder.

The enduring battle between fascists and anti-fascists was suddenly brought into a high-profile court case, and the nation was watching. The 43 Group anxiously sought a defence lawyer: Sir Maxwell Fyfe, one of the principal prosecutors for Britain at the Nuremberg Trials. His steep legal fees were paid for by the donations which flooded into The 43 Group from across the UK.

With Preen’s history of antisemitic acts and his tenuous court evidence, the magistrate described him as a witness he could not believe. After a brief trial, Wimborne and Flamberg were acquitted as not guilty. It was a clear setup. The trial would become a symbol of anti-fascist triumph for years to come. (In a 43 Group reunion 50 years after the event, Flamberg denied the charge with his characteristic bravado: “I’m supposed to be a crack shot, I wouldn’t have missed it!”)

During the three years following the trial, fascism in the UK slowly declined. With little need for the 43 Group to be on the prowl, the group officially disbanded in 1950. In a ritualistic end, confidential documents were burnt to impede potential investigations into their illegal shenanigans, such as allegedly being helped by the infamous Jewish East End gangster Jack “Spot”.

My grandad’s confrontation of fascists has influenced my involvement with Jewish groups who are committed to meeting the enemy face-to-face – minus the tactics of hardcore violence. Militant anti-fascist Jewish fronts in the UK no longer exist. However, Jewish groups such as Jewdas are often first in the counter-demonstrations of far-right marches, raising funds for anti-fascist organisations through debauched Jewish themed parties.

Many of Jewdas’ members – I am now one myself – can be seen wearing anti-fascist badges, and disrupting neo-fascist rallies with jeers and signs. And with the rise of the far-right across Europe today, the importance of these kinds of groups is paramount. Marches such as Tommy Robinson’s ‘Brexit Betrayal March last year, which gathered between 3000 to 5000 supporters in central London, prove the emboldening of those with deeply xenophobic and racist views. The surge in far-right support no doubt correlates to the rise in antisemitic attacks measured in the UK, with 16 per cent more anti-Jewish hate incidents in 2018, not to mention the steep climb in Islamophobic attacks.

As with The 43 Group in the 1940s, Jewdas’ radical, anti-establishment ethos leads to frequent denunciations from both The Board of Deputies and the mainstream press. However, this just shows that we should never forget the history that came before us. The 43 Group may have used questionable tactics, but we can take lessons from their boldness, spirit, and willingness to take action – our futures may depend on it.

A couple of thoughts about anti-Semitism and Labour

 

1) I’m going to vote Labour and from my perspective as a non-Zionist Jew, I do not synonymies anti-semitism with criticism of Israel (I acknowledge the latter can tip easily into the former). I think though, as Leftist Jews try to make sense of the Right-wing media’s stronghold over accusations of anti-semitism via Zionist Jews and figures like the ‘Chief Rabbi’, we can’t just say ‘criticism of Israel is not anti-semitism’ or the chief Rabbi is making things up when he states many British Jews are anxious at the thought of a Corbyn government.

To deny these statements assumes there’s one definition of anti-semitism, there isn’t. Anti-semitism, like most terms and categories, is constructed through one’s sociocultural perspective. As Jews come from different sociocultural perspectives/ positions, they will have distinct notions of anti-semitism. They will also have different fears and hopes for Jewish life. I assume that for many Zionist jews, they see critique of Israel as anti-semitism, as Israel it very important, if not central, to their Jewish identity and they see Israel as central to the posterity/ safety of the Jewish people. A leftwing government which criticises Israel/ supports Palestine will accordingly threaten their identity and feeling of security. Their fear is real to them, as if enough governments which are pro-Palestine get into power then Israel could be threatened via things like trade sanctions. Secondly, Corbyn is anti-semitic via their definitions and threatens the existence of Israel.

As much as I disagree with this Zionist perspective, the intense polarisation and miscommunication between Left and Right jews will only grow without genuine acknowledgments of our different sociocultural positions and the different ways we construct and define concepts – such as anti-semitism – through our own cultural logics. When you shout at each other ‘this is’ or ‘is not’ anti-semitism, we may use the same term but we’re talking about two entirely different things. To simply say this or that is not anti-semitism, this or that is not real fear, will not get us any where.

The above way of looking at things threatens liberalism and cultural relativism to the extent of political inaction, I don’t agree with this, but I think inter-group discussion and intervention should come from a place of cultural understanding (but not in the historical European colonial ‘lets understand to conquer’ way, but lets understand to talk and change things way (also a problematic stance but less so))

2) As a left, non-Zionist Jews I feel like my voice, and my loosely bound community’s voice, have been erased and misrepresented by the right wing media. I find it sad that the majority of journalists either don’t care enough about (mis)representation of minorities to do enough research about Judaism to know that the ‘Chief Rabbi’ does not represent all Jews. Of course, it benefits the right wing press to show Jews as a homogenous block as it adds weight to Corbyn anti-semitism claims.

People write about cultures (entirely different from their own) far too easily and with barely any research (I know this is also because of poor working conditions for journalists etc). For most minority groups, they watch themselves be (mis)represented by majority groups, instead of being given mainstream platforms to represent themselves.

(I’m not disavowing anti semitism in the Labour Party / I know both Zionist and non-Zionist jews dont vote for labour solely on their Israel stance but other instances of anti semitism. I do think the anti semitism in Labour has been inflated and taken out of context of the anti semitism manifest in wider society)