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Rosemary Bechler, 1951-2021

Rosemary, a founding editor of openDemocracy, has died. We invite those who knew and worked with her to post their tributes

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
21 November 2021, 11.00am
Rosemary in Berlin for the founding of DiEM25, February 2016
Anthony Barnett

Yesterday, after a five-year struggle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Rosemary Bechler died. A passionate singer in the Welsh traditions of her mother, she was terribly afflicted by this slow but incurable lung disease. For four years, with the bravery and determination which made her a legend to those fortunate enough to know and work with her, she convinced everyone – except her husband, Nick Whitaker – that it was a mere annoyance. But this year its grip grew and has now taken Rosemary from us. To the end she defied it, writing, emailing and texting, her mind undiminished. Until, swiftly, her unique capacity for combining deep empathy and tolerance with implacable assurance, was silenced. The loss is immeasurable.

openDemocracy would not exist without Rosemary. Across a rocky transitional period she was its guide and steady hand. More than anyone she insisted on openness, pluralism and the voice of others. She was an outstanding mentor to young, would-be editors, who learnt the need for humility and the exercise of principled judgment from her. She oversaw Can Europe Make It?, the only section to have a question mark in its title. What was the question? That was just what she wanted you to ask! I can hear her laugh. Disagree if you want, she expected nothing less.

Her contribution to openDemocracy was always as a supporting editor – she was in effect its fifth co-founder. In 2011, Tony Curzon Price, then the editor-in-chief, proposed she should take over from him. She declined, knowing that she was not a chief executive. But this shows how central her role was.

Her theory of pluralism and insistence upon the centrality of difference and the need for persuasion and never censorship, received a final articulation in her last article, published this September, ‘When saying "No" isn’t enough’. Never liberal or wishy-washy, she was an anti-capitalist to her core. From her starting point as a hard-line Communist she undertook the most profound and deepest reassessment of her political beliefs, with an integrity few have matched, while remaining true to her radicalism.

Perhaps she had the critical and emotional capacity to achieve this because of her formal training as a literary critic of the 18th century. She completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge on Samuel Richardson’s 'Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life'.

From the 1980s, when she worked for European Nuclear Disarmament, she was committed to peace in Europe. In 2016 she became a dedicated member of DiEM25 as a trans-European movement, while being convinced – with her smile – that just like openDemocracy, it didn’t know how much it had still to learn.

Here we would like all who were lucky enough to know her to post and add your recollections and salutes.

Please see the comments below and also underneath the article

I’ll never forget how much I owe Rosemary. We go back nearly a decade now, when she took me on as a part-time editorial assistant at openDemocracy – my first job in journalism. From that moment, the conversations we’ve had have been a defining influence on how I write, and where that meets political purpose, from the relationship between protest and violence to the politics of the commons. I’m so lucky that Rosemary was my first mentor in editing – I’m still thinking about her respect for, and sensitivity to the author’s voice, how to provoke fruitful dialogue and counter-argument, how to translate out, when I sit down to edit a piece today. And I’m delighted to have been Rosemary’s friend of course – her warmth, intelligence and deep empathy are second to none. Her legacy at oD, and beyond, is immense. There’s so much I admire in Rosemary’s writing, which I encourage everyone to dive into right now – has anyone at oD been able to parse the intersections of politics and culture like her? From nationalism and the World Cup, Britishness and the BBC, through to utopianism and filmmaking....just some of the gems I’ve found myself returning to over the years. Thank you, Rosemary.

En Liang Khong, former colleague

openDemocracy will never be the same for me without Rosemary. She always responded almost instantly to articles I sent her by me or by colleagues in different parts of Europe. She was a brilliant editor, always picking out the essential argument for the standfirst, identifying the best sentences to highlight, and making deft and to the point editorial suggestions or comments. I only remember disagreeing with her once: it was a piece I wrote just after the Brexit referendum and was probably more anguished than usual. She was enthusiastic and supportive not just to me but to anyone who proposed interesting pieces.

I had known her for a long time. She was involved in European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and was part of the END Journal collective when I was the editor during the 1980s. We always had exciting discussions and I think this was reflected in the journal, which combined stories about weapons developments, the military-industrial-complex, or peace actions across Europe, as well as human rights struggles in Eastern Europe and Turkey, and commentary from amazing European intellectuals like George Konrad, E.P. Thompson, Luciana Castellina, Milan Simecka to name a few. Rosemary was a Communist but clearly the sensible kind of Euro-Communist as we used to call them. She was consistently thoughtful, helpful, positive and organised, one of the key people who enabled us to turn the stream of ideas into a concrete product.

I shall miss her.

Mary Kaldor, director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science

Dear Rosemary: As a thinking woman working in a domain where I am paid to think there are (still) few women I can really look up to, consider an intellectual role model. Rosemary, you have been one such woman for me and whilst our working relationship was an informal formal one, you were indeed the inspirational and guiding force behind the Human Rights and the Internet series. The dozens of pieces that we worked up and worked on to get into the public online space through oD point the way on how thinking people who also want to do stuff, make a change in hearts and minds, can engage with the techie-detail of what are real-life power plays in the politics of internet design, access, terms of use as these shape how all those terabytes of our digital imaginations can be (mis)treated. Thanks Rosemary for the clairvoyance, no-nonsense firm hand of journalistic rigour, and curiosity.

Marianne Franklin, professor of global media and politics, Goldsmiths University of London

A Reason to Rejoice

for Rosemary Bechler

The sound she woke to, the sound she had heard for several days and which she had credibly described, so she was told, was a continuous lashing. It was a lighter sound as noises go, like that made by grain in a sieve or riddle. In fact it was the lashing of people, and animals too, and mostly it was hard to tell which was which, for when it was dogs they were whipping you would hear the word 'cur', and the same word was used when they lashed the people. As she related it there was a rhythm, a rise and fall in intensity, and that was not all: there were cries too, generally muffled, but sometimes sharp enough to cut your finger. Indeed she awoke on one occasion with hands bleeding, to which her husband applied ointment and lint which she was still wearing a day or two later during one of our visits. On that occasion she sat us down in a semi-circle at her feet and told us stories from the village where she was born, one of which has stuck in my mind. In the yard outside her house had been a pear tree which had suddenly begun to shed its leaves in mid-summer. It was a woeful sight, she told us, and when she had looked out again later it was a dead tree she saw. The next morning when she went to the window there was a mountain ash with orange berries where the pear had stood. On the following morning there was a little fig, then she woke to a tall pine, later a copper beech, a cypress, and now and then, in its turn, came a pear, for which she rejoiced.

Iain Galbraith, writer and poet

It's really difficult for me to process her death as Rosemary has meant so much to me. I met her through her passionate pro/alter European activism and thanks to her role in openDemocracy. She welcomed me at her house before even knowing me for an event of DiEM25, the movement she devoted so much passion to. And then I met her virtually again, a couple of months later, when she was happy to receive and edit my first piece on openDemocracy, which in many ways transformed my life. She welcomed me and encouraged me to write and think and do more for the causes we were both passionate about. The activism we shared brought us together and for some time she was a constant presence in my life, in endless communications through zoom and phone calls. It was always lovely to hear her good and eloquent arguments, knowing she would listen attentively and respond with kindness and care to mine. She was admirable in the support she showed for a cause we both held dear as well as in her attempts to find compromise when faced with others' disagreements. Her constant struggle and intellectual quest of these last few years was thinking about how to countenance, from a progressive perspective "the winner-take-all competitive sport of neoliberal identity politics". It was a struggle and a quest I happily joined in an intense brief period. Her infinite patience, warm intelligence and creative sensibility will always be in my heart as an example and a warm memory. For all this and so much more, thanks so much dear Rosemary. May you rest in peace.

Andrea Pisauro, researcher in the department of experimental psychology, University of Oxford

Tireless, enthusiastic, optimistic in the Gramscian sense as she was, I first met Rosemary in the 1980s at meetings of a small Left-leaning, progressive, Greenish group called Agenor. Convened occasionally in Brussels, it brought together those who supported Europe and the EEC/EU not as it was but as we hoped it might become: a vibrant pan-European, democratic, Green, egalitarian and open institution.

But I really got to know her later when, in Jews for Justice for Palestinians, we had come across what went under the title of the EUMC’s Working Definition on Antisemitism. We opposed it as a jaundiced, partisan redefinition of antisemitism, likely to (perhaps intended to) restrict free speech on Israel and Palestine. For Rosemary it was that but also much more: yet another weapon in a much broader conflict affecting the nature of power and the security state itself.

When the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism reported in 2006 she set to work with a passion, deconstructing its arguments and concluding: “The attempt to turn opinion-formers, from media professionals to Vice Chancellors of universities, into outriders for a system which polices and outlaws speech acts and attitudes in a much-needed public debate about the Middle East conflict will only exacerbate mutual distrust and feed into the construction of enemy images.”

And, in another paper around the same time, she wrote that “this is not to single out Israel. On the contrary. Israel’s ethnonationalism is only a stark example of something that is once again stalking Europe and the wider world: the rise of monocultural nationalism with its inevitable attendant effects of the abuse of minority and civic rights, the abuse of the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers and the potential for unleashing the state’s capacity for violence, at home and abroad. This may be one reason why the international community finds it hard to point an accusatory finger at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.”

She never ceased elaborating her thoughts on these developments, latterly as a central concern for DiEM25, inveighing against “a decisive worldwide swing towards monocultural constructions of the ‘National Us’”.

We had many breakfasts discussing this and other things, deploring the narrowness of the Labour Left – and often the Left more generally. With deliberative democracy as the central plank in any forward-looking strategy. The chats would always end with remidners to each other of even more relevant reading, links to follow up, and people to be pursued – those who might engage creatively with these most profound of issues.

What an imaginative, vibrant, committed public intellectual Rosemary was. What a lovely person to breakfast with. And what a loss, but also what an ongoing inspiration.

Richard Kuper, founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and its chair for many years
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