Thursday 7 October 2021

Cable Street - whose Cable Street?

 There are some tweets going up talking about the Cable Street commemoration which take the tack that the left has 'appropriated' the Battle of Cable Street and that this 'left' has excluded or 'erased' Jews from the commemoration.

Both these ideas are false history and a false representation of the commemoration.

The demonstration in 1936 came about as a result of many different groups and organisations, as David Rosenberg makes clear in his book, 'Battle for the East End', and as my parents told me. It was an occasion where the organisation of these different groups got to a point that it brought in thousands of people who were not actually in the organised groups. It's what happens when there is good grassroots organising and sufficient levels of outrage 'in the air' at the time. Which organisations were crucial on the day (or before can be argued about but Dave points to the Jewish People's Council as a key one because it was acting in an open, grassroots, non-sectarian way, using the principle of unity in action, no matter what the disagreements were between them. The Communist Party, the local Labour Party, the ILP and trade unions such as the RMT were crucial too. In other words it was a mix of political parties, religious groups, communal organisations, and trade unions. However, it's worth remembering (as we were reminded at the commemoration) that some people were both Jewish and Communist, or both Jewish and in the Labour Party or the ILP or in trade unions! Talking about people as either Jewish OR leftwing is a gross misrepresentation of how people like my parents thought or acted.

As for the left today 'appropriating' Cable Street and 'erasing' Jews is a nonsense. Without the left there would have been no Battle to keep Mosley out. The purely religious leadership did what they could to warn local Jews (like my parents) to stay at home. (see David's article below). Local synagogues didn't all take any notice of this though. So the left is entitled to lead the commemorations. That said, if anyone wants to organise another commemoration, there is nothing that can stop them. It's absurd to complain that people are excluded from an open commemoration or from an event that they could organise if they wanted to!

As for 'erasing Jews', then I must have been there erasing myself along with Rabbi Gluck, Dave Rosenberg, Julia Bard, Ruth Levitas, June Legg, Tony Booth and Mary Davis who made a clear impassioned speech pointing out that Stepney Communist Party was largely Jewish and that Stepney elected a Jewish Communist MP (Phil Piratin) in 1945. Of course, what people who are saying such things as Jews being 'erased' or being 'appropriated' are trying to convey is that left wing and Communist Jews don't count. In other words, they want to take away a piece of left wing Jewish history.

But of course Jews didn't win the 'Battle' on their own. A mix of community, trade union and politicised resistance spread across many people(s) other than Jews, with plenty of people name checking the local 'Irish dockers' amongst them.

Meanwhile there is a common misunderstanding of who fought who on the day. For the record, the demonstration did not by and large fight Mosley's British Union of Fascists. The demonstration was a piece of civil disobedience to prevent the BUF from marching through the East End. The police took it upon themselves to claim that the BUF had the right to do so, and so fought with the demonstrators to forge a route through. The police failed. However, though I've been saying this for years, I was very interested to see a bit of footage on a Channel 5 documentary that I did a bit of commentating for. On film you see quite clearly one of the uniformed BUF men hitting a demonstrator while standing next to a policeman. Then the policeman does the same. They are clearly acting in concert, taking turns. However, the story remains the same: the BUF were held at Mansell Street waiting to be given the all clear from the cops and never got it. They did not pass.

I didn't ever think that people who hate the left and hate left wing Jews would turn this heroic day into a way of bashing the left and bashing left wing Jews. Of course I feel it personally and politically. I heard the story of that day told by my parents over and over again. It's part of my political folklore, my home political education. Writing this, I'm reminded of sitting in a classroom in the 1970s and a school student reciting MLK's 'I had a dream' speech. Political traditions, family traditions, social traditions intermingle and are held dear to us.

Please feel free to post other articles and links on the comments thread below.

Here's Dave Rosenberg's article.