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

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.

The New Spanish Islamophobia

 

Published by The New Internationalist 

 

Tanned, muscular men ride stallions across a rural landscape. Plaintive piano plays in the background. Where are these men? The title of Vox’s political campaign video tells you: ‘The Reconquista will begin in the lands of Andalusia’.

This controversial slogan is part of a strategy that helped secure the rising far-right party twelve seats in Andalusia’s regional election last year. Next week, Vox are one of five main contenders in Spain’s general elections, signalling the party’s unanticipated growth. It is expected to receive 29-37 per cent of the vote.

The Reconquista, meaning the ‘reconquering’, draws on the history of the Iberian Christian conquest of Muslim Spain, which ended in 1492. Vox’s proposed political reforms make the relevance of this history clear: if elected, the party claims it will deliver an end to supposed uncurbed migration, placate the ‘threat’ to Spain’s national identity from the growth of Islam, end state-funded abortion and repeal gay marriage laws.

Spectres of the past

The history of medieval Christian-Muslim conflict forms this far-right party’s repertoire of symbolism. For eight centuries, Spain was governed by Islamic rulers, known as the Moors. In 711 CE, the governing Umayyad dynasty travelled from Syria to Spain and eventually conquered the then Visigothic lands, renaming them ‘al-Andalus’. Contemporary Spain is replete with vestiges of this past, from Moorish architecture to the many Arabic-origin words in the Spanish language.

With the end of the Reconquista in 1492, a Spanish national identity began to emerge. The newly reigning Catholic monarchs took violent measures to forge it. Those who were not Catholic would not be considered Spanish in this new social order. This process would eventually lead to the expulsion of the peninsula’s vast Jewish and Muslim populations.

Spanish ethno-nationalism continued well into the 20th century. Spain’s former dictator, General Franco, granted the Catholic Church immense power, prohibited any religion save Catholicism and enforced the standardisation of ‘core’ Spanish culture, from the Castilian language to bullfighting. Francoist Spanish nationalism was defined against the nation’s former Jewish and Muslim subjects, such as through the dictator’s heavy use of Spanish Reconquista symbolism in his propaganda. Francoist rhetoric even blended the myth of the ever-present ‘Moorish threat’ to Spain with the ‘menace’ of Eastern European communism.

With the death of Franco in 1975, Spain officially disbanded its explicitly authoritarian structure. However, its ethno-nationalist past still haunts the public sphere.

‘Spanishness’

Moroccans are Spain’s second largest minority. Many within Spain’s Moroccan community are ancestrally related to Spain’s historic Muslim population. At a market in Cordoba, pejoratively called ‘Morro’s Mercado’ by locals, Tariq, a Moroccan vendor tells me about the strong anti-Muslim prejudice he recognises in Andalusia: ‘They think in Morocco there are only camels and the desert,’ he says. Beyond the perception of Morocco as an excessively ‘backwards’ country, some Spaniards even perceive the influx of Moroccan immigrants to Spain since the 1970s as posing a ‘re-Islamization’ of the country.

Outside more blatantly Islamophobic cases, there are Spanish traditions which revisit this Christian-Muslim schism. Each year on 2 January, individuals across Spain dress as either ‘Moros’ or ‘Christianos’ and re-enact the last battle of the Reconquista, where the medieval stereotypes of the Moors as violent and religiously fanatic are inflated through carnivalesque caricatures.

Although these cultural rituals are thought to commemorate a strife from a by-gone past, Vox’s dogwhistle calls for a new Reconquista casts these cultural rituals in an even darker light, further entrenching the idea of Muslims as antithetical to ‘Spanishness’.

Acceptable in the mainstream

Appeals to the Reconquista are not a new development in Spanish politics. In an attempt to drum up support for the Iraq War, José Aznar, Spain’s former Conservative prime minister, explicitly linked the medieval Moors to al-Qaeda. He stated in 2004 that ‘the problem of Spain with al-Qaeda began with the invasion of the Moors’, who were repelled thanks to the ‘successful Reconquista’.

Vox is building on this rhetoric. The party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, petitioned for Andalusia’s regional day to celebrate the conclusion of the Reconquista in 1492. At a meeting in Seville, Abascal stated that he wanted the ‘Andalusia of the Catholic Monarchs against that of Blas Infante’. Infante was a libertarian socialist writer known as the father of Andalusian nationalism. In the early 20th century, he strived to turn Spain’s legacy of medieval Jewish, Muslim and Christian co-existence into a contemporary reality.

The language used in the party’s political speeches is rife with Islamophobia. Vox’s secretary general, Javier Ortega Smith, stated in 2016 that ‘the enemy of Europe is called the Islamist invasion’. Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, rejoined Smith by stating that Spain’s Muslim community will become a ‘problem’ in an interview last year. The party’s proposed political reforms include banning both Islamic education and halal food in Spanish state schools.

This is all part of a Europe-wide phenomenon. In the week following the New Zealand/Aotearoa mosque shootings on 15 March, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by 593 per cent. These attacked are fuelled by continent-wide stereotypes, from the perception of Muslims as jihadists to perceiving Muslim immigrants as an unassailable threat to Western values.

Vox’s anti-Muslim stance have helped win the party favour with Europe’s largest far-right political groups. In 2017, Abascal claimed an affinity with France’s ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen for their mutual protection of ‘Christian Europe’. Le Pen, along with the Netherland’s far-right Geert Wilders, have openly supported Vox through expressing hopes that the party will gain seats in May’s European parliamentary elections. The growing coordination between Europe’s far-right parties only threatens to strengthen the institutional legs of a continent-wide Islamophobia.