A pivotal event in the history of British anti-fascism took place 75 years ago this month. While holding special significance for the Jewish community, today it resonates with the British Muslim community and all those who believe in multiculturalism.
This month, London fleetingly enjoyed its most glorious autumnal weather on record. But for the thousand-plus people who marched through the East End on Sunday 2nd October, there was something more enduring to celebrate that weekend than the British sunshine. An amazing coalition of Jewish, Bengali and socialist groups were remembering the Battle of Cable Street: the day, 75 years ago, when people poured onto the streets to stop the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through East London.
A multiracial gathering marked the 75th anniversary(Photo: Joseph Burke)
In 1936, the East End housed the largest Jewish population in Britain. Its 60,000 Jews had been enduring mounting anti-Semitic violence and intimidation, largely orchestrated by the BUF. Having fallen out with the British establishment, the BUF was playing dirty in the East End, trying to drum up votes by exploiting tensions between Jewish, Irish and other groups, who were all struggling for jobs and decent housing.
But when Oswald Mosley, the BUF leader, arrived in East London with 5,000 black-shirts, he was met by a human wall whose diversity was testament to an interracial solidarity that ran deeper than social tensions. Three-hundred thousand people – Jewish tailors, Irish dockers, Communists, socialists, trade unionists, anarchists, or simply workers – had come out to block his entrance to the East End.
Mosley's black-shirts were outnumbered(Photo: The Bishopsgate Institute)
At the march this year, hundreds of placards carried the slogan that became the rallying cry in the run-up to Cable Street, adopted from the Spanish resistance against Franco’s fascists. The phrase that was echoing around Madrid and Barcelona found its way to the teeming streets of the East End: ‘No Pasaran!’
It means: ‘They shall not pass.’
This year, with precious few veterans still alive, the Cable Street celebrations are more vibrant than ever. More than 40 events have been taking place in London alone, from hipster anti-fascist klezmer parties to intergenerational history walks. Meanwhile, the Jewish Museum has dedicated a whole programme to Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War.
Many of the events have had a Jewish focus, with good reason. “Cable Street is an important folk memory for British Jews,” says David Rosenberg, who has just written a book about Anglo-Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s. “Here was a moment when we stood up to fascist anti-Semitism and won.”
With fascism spreading across Europe, the BUF and its anti-Semitic campaign sparked very real Jewish fears; but they also sparked defiance. In meetings throughout East London, there was huge solidarity for the Spanish Republican cause. (Indeed, many Jewish men who were involved in Cable Street went on to fight in Spain.)
“We were concerned that what was happening in Spain, Italy and Germany shouldn’t happen here,” says 96-year-old Cable Street veteran Max Levitas. “At meetings around the East End we took up the slogan ‘No Pasaran’ in the struggle against the BUF. As far as we were concerned, we had to defeat Hitler, and part of that was defeating Mosley.”
Cable Street has become mythologised, rightly, as an iconic example of non-sectarian solidarity. According to Levitas, what made such mass mobilization possible were the bonds of solidarity between Irish and Jewish East Enders. These bonds were cemented through the trade unions, the East End branches of the Communist and Labour parties, and the energetic support for Spain.
Veteran anti-fascist Max Levitas spoke at the rally(Photo: Joseph Burke)
However, the victory at Cable Street has been hard to digest for many in the Anglo-Jewish establishment, says Professor David Feldman of Birkbeck, University of London, because it exposed the divide between working class Jews and their political leaders. “The mainstream response to anti-Semitism by the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, the Labour party, and the Communist party was that anti-Semitism was caused by Jews,” says Feldman. “They thought that Jews should keep a low profile, and out of sight. So in a sense, the significance of Cable Street for Jews who came out on the street was that it was a rejection of that view. It was Jews – and their supporters – making themselves publicly visible in an effort to stop the fascists from marching.”
As a result, for many years the story of Cable Street was “pushed to the margins of Anglo-Jewish memory”, says Nadia Valman of Queen Mary, University of London. After the Second World War, the Jewish community in the East End diminished as families were able to relocate to more appealing London suburbs. While becoming more middle class, and less marginalised, says Valman, “for a long time the community repudiated its immigrant and East End history.”
These “long decades of forgetting” have made it difficult for young progressive Jews to find any kind of model for themselves in their own cultural heritage, says Valman. Though it has been decades since Zionism was able to provide an appealing political identity for left-wing Jews, their own radical British history is only just starting to emerge as something that may replace it.
This argument is borne out by the experience of Yoav Segal, a young British-Jewish filmmaker who has made several films about Cable Street. When in 2005 he released a short film based on his grandfather’s experience as a Cable Street veteran, Jewish audiences seemed to know very little about this chapter of their history.
“British Jews weren’t talking about Cable Street back then, which was amazing to me and my grandfather. But there has been a sea-change in the last few years. Now everyone seems to be talking about it.”
Segal also partly attributes the former reticence over Cable Street to social mobility. “I think it comes from second-generation Jews wanting to be British and respectable and middle class. It’s easier not having a story like Cable Street being yelled about.”
“After the Second World War, a lot of Jews moved up and out of the East End as soon as they could,” he continues. “Their kids became lawyers, doctors and dentists. And now the kids of those people are coming through, they can do anything they like. They can embrace their radical past and do something with it. Here comes that creative generation. It’s beautiful.”
On the frontier of this creative generation are Jewdas, a London-based collective whose highbrow parties, satirical website and arch stunts have given them cult status, while getting gloriously up the noses of the British-Jewish establishment. Earlier this month, Jewdas threw a party on Cable Street, where the crowd dressed up as fascists, communists and 1930s working-class Jews.
Cable Street is part of British-Jewish identity(Photo: The Bishopsgate Institute)
Jewdas member Daniel Nemenyi believes Cable Street provides the raw material for a political identity which is both British and Jewish. “It about people saying, no, we live here and we want to live here and this is where we’re fighting fascism - right here. So that’s very inspiring for us today as British Jews. For too long we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by the Holocaust and to think of ourselves as eternal victims. Cable Street and that radical Jewish history offers something beautiful and positive and affirming.”
Nemenyi suggests that British Jewish community has become “too comfortable”, and has perhaps forgotten what it’s like to be a minority which is targeted by a serious fascist threat. “Fascism is not just about Jews; it’s about minorities in general. And now other minorities are under attack in Britain, particularly Muslims. Celebrating Cable Street is part of asserting the right and the need in a democracy to stand up to fascism.”
It’s this point that makes Cable Street relevant today, and connects its Jewish story to a broader narrative. Addressing crowds after the anniversary march this month, 96-year-old Cable Street veteran Max Levitas got the biggest cheer when he said the fascists hadn’t passed in 1936 and they wouldn’t pass today. “Cable Street has always been remembered as the place where fascism was beaten. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still fascists about. It means that we’ve got to bring the lessons of Cable Street into the struggles we have today.”
The rally was a celebration of the fact that East Londoners have been heeding that advice now for decades. The memory of Cable Street helped inspire successful campaigns against the National Front in the 1970s, and the BNP in the 1990s. In these latter struggles, it has been East London’s Bengali community who have been targets for fascist violence and intimidation. Fittingly, they were perhaps the most prominent group on the march this month.
Among the Bengali marchers was Shafiave Ahmed, a community organiser, who was walking arm-in-arm with nine other men down Cable Street. He has lived on Cable Street for forty years. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Bangladeshi, Somali, Jewish or whatever,” he said. “The story of Cable Street is important for all of us who are trying to build a multicultural society.”
The men were carrying a banner for the Altab Ali Memorial Foundation, set up in memory of the 25-year-old Bangladeshi man who was stabbed to death in a racist attack in Whitechapel, East London, in 1978.
As they marched, the men were chanting ‘No Pasaran’.