When Communities Secretary John Denham recently compared the recent anti-Muslim disturbances in north London to fascist attacks on British Jews in the 1930s he fell into a familiar trap. The analogy, while superficially seductive, is ill-informed and unhelpful. The causes of friction between the far right and Muslims in this country (and in other parts of Europe) could not be further removed from the causes of anti-Semitism and fascism in the 1930s. In fact, the situations are diametrically opposed to one another.
In the 1930s, British Fascists were associated with two aggressive, repressive and widely unloved powers in Europe: Italy and Germany. Even Conservatively minded Englishmen understood that both threatened Britain. The Blackshirts were also identified with the forces of reaction and seen as fundamentally opposed to the interests of the organised working class. Hence, fascists faced a coalition that stretched from patriotic aristocrats (like Churchill) to working class internationalists, mainly led by the Communist Party.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 made the battles lines starkly obvious. Hence the slogan of the anti-fascists at Cable Street, 'They Shall Not Pass', was taken from the defence of Madrid against Franco's army. While Franco did enjoy support in Britain, the unpopularity of Italy and Germany and fear of their belligerency made it relatively easy to mobilize public opinion against the far right and to contain its advances. When Britain finally went to war against Germany and Italy, the British Fascist leadership was actually locked up.
The situation today could not be more different. Tragically, Muslims in Britain are identified with aggressive regional powers in the Middle East and a global terrorist campaign. British troops are pitted against fighters operating in the name of Islam. The furore over the election in Iran and the Iranian nuclear programme, as well as the recent ruckus over the Lockerbie bomber (though owing nothing to Islamic radicalism), reinforces the impression that Britain and the west are constantly brushing up against Muslim countries and 'militant Islam'.
It is not far-fetched to suggest that the shadow of the Crusades, subject of a spate of recent popular histories, hangs heavy. Nor that at some level we are seeing the reawakening of the fear of Islam that, as Linda Colley demonstrated in her book Captives, percolated throughout British culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Quite unlike the fascists of the 1930s, right wing and anti-Muslim extremists thus parade with a degree of plausibility under the banner of patriotism, even before stirring the pot of local social and economic resentment, or drawing on crude xenophobia and racism. The confused government policy on community coherence, that mixes carrot and stick, to some extent even legitimises their activity. The effort to show the varied nature of the Muslim communities in the UK, and to foreground the many strands of Muslim thought that utterly reject terrorism, tends to create a dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' Muslims, even when not subverted by vocal and unrepresentative elements expounding radical Islamic doctrines.
Indeed, the role of Islam is another, crucial, differentiating factor that makes comparisons with the 1930s misleading. This is not to say that Islam and international terror go together, or that the alleged conjunction between faith and armed fury is unprecedented.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many people believed that there was a violent, international conspiracy operating against Britain and that one ethnic-faith group, in particular, was its vehicle if not its actual inspiration. Since the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia it was common to identify Jews with international revolution and Communism. After all, the apostle of world revolution was the Russian Jew and second in command of the Bolsheviks - Leon Trotsky. By the mid 1930s it was quite normal to treat Jews as alien, subversive, and thanks to their hatred of Nazi Germany, war-mongering.
However, Nazi Jew hatred was so obscene and so violent that the majority of British anti-Semites felt obliged to disassociate themselves from it. Men like Harold Nicholson and Neville Chamberlain, who disliked Jews and saw them in stereotypical terms, nevertheless felt embarrassed by their own prejudice and pronounced their sympathy for Germany's persecuted Jews. This ambivalence was deepened by the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis and their allies during the Second World War.
Even then, British anti-Semitism did not simply go away because Britain fought and defeated Hitler. As I show in my book, Major Farran's Hat: murder, scandal and Britain's war against Jewish terrorism 1945-1948, immediately after the defeat of Nazism Britain had to contend with a vicious terrorist campaign organised by the Zionist movement which sought to drive the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish state there. This led to heavy casualties among the British garrison in Palestine, epitomised by the blowing up the British headquarters in the King David Hotel with the loss of 91 lives.
Less well known are the Jewish terrorist attacks on British targets in Europe and on the British mainland. On the night of 31 October 1946 the Irgun, a right-wing Zionist underground army led by Menachem Begin, exploded a bomb outside the British Embassy in Rome. The building was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished and entirely rebuilt.
On 7 March 1947, another even more ruthless underground Zionist group, LEHI (also known as the Stern Gang) managed to get a bomber into Britain. Robert Misrahi, a French Jew of Turkish origin, smuggled a bomb into a club for British servicemen housed in a building just off Trafalgar Square. Several soldiers, mostly from the British colonies, were injured in the blast.
A few weeks later LEHI penetrated British defences a second time. Elizabeth Knut, a young French woman who during the war had fought in the Jewish resistance in southern France, was able to bring in materials for a bomb, assemble them in a hotel in Victoria, and smuggle the device into a building of the Colonial Office on Horse Guards Parade. By sheer chance the detonator malfunctioned, the bomb was discovered, and defused. Leonard Burt, the commander of Special Branch at the time, commented that if it had gone off 'it would have blown the sort of hole in the Colonial Office that was blown in the King David Hotel'.
LEHI's operational commander in Europe, Yaacov Eliav, was not finished yet. In June 1947 he launched a wave of letter bombs at Britain, several of which were discovered only in the nick of time. A secretary working for Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was saved when a messenger boy grabbed the already smoking epistle and plunged it into a bucket of water. Former foreign secretary Anthony Eden carried around a letter bomb in his brief case for a whole day.
Eliav's campaign only ended when he was arrested on the Franco-Belgium border after customs officials found dozens of postal bombs in his suitcase. Knut, who was travelling with him, was found to be wearing a girdle packed with plastic explosives. It transpired that they were travelling to Belgium in order to blow up the British embassy in Brussels.
Meanwhile, the Irgun continued its attempts to get bomb makers into Britain to link up with local sympathisers. In the summer of 1947, an ex South African RAF pilot called Boris Senior picked up an Irgun fighter in France and flew him illegally to England. He was met by Ezer Weizman, another former RAF pilot (and later president of Israel), who had received covert training with the Irgun in France. Weizmann took the bomb maker to a safe house in Bayswater. Unfortunately for the plotters, MI5 and Special Branch had them under surveillance and the plan was thwarted.
The most bizarre attempt at an outrage was inspired by a Brooklyn-based Rabbi named Baruch Korff. He chartered a light aircraft in Paris with the intention of dropping leaflets and bombs on parliament. The scheme was foiled by the French police, acting on information from the British secret service.
It was therefore no surprise that during these years anti-Jewish feeling in Britain surged to unprecedented heights. In August 1947 there were anti-Jewish riots in British cities resulting in the destruction of much property. The riots were triggered by the kidnap and murder of two British army sergeants in Palestine. But they were also the culmination of anger fuelled by the Zionist terror campaign.
The resurgent British fascists, led again by Sir Oswald Mosley, built on this hostility. Fear gripped the Jewish communities. Weekend after weekend in north and east London there were pitched battles between fascists and Jewish ex servicemen, led by the '45 Group.
Yet soon after the British evacuation of Palestine and establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, the hatred and violence seemed to evaporate. What had happened? Why has this chapter of British history, which is a good deal more relevant to the current crisis than anything in the 1930s, been so easily forgotten?
Jews in Palestine, with almost universal support from Jews in Britain, fought British policy in the name of nationalism and the creation of an independent Jewish state. They had well-defined goals and once they were achieved both sides understood that the war was over. It had no eternal, cosmic dimension. The Zionists were Jewish (mostly) but they were not fighters for Judaism.
Islamist radicals are a small and unrepresentative, but frightening, faction in Britain and the wider Muslim world. They give the impression that they will not rest until the establishment of the caliphate and the subordination of unbelievers. To many people this gives the international war against terror a religious, civilizational flavour that makes it seem unwinnable and unending.
As long as the Jihadists receive even a tiny measure of support from some British Muslims it will be possible for the far right and bigots to paint our Muslim citizens with the brush of terrorism and cast them in a garish light as agents of an incomprehensible and malign dogma.
It will simply not do to denounce the reaction to Islamist radicalism as nothing better than the unreasoning hatred of Jews in the 1930s. Even when Fascists pointed the finger at Communist Jews in the 1930s, these Jews were adherents of a cause that was shared by millions of non-Jews. In fact, for a Jew to be Communist in the 1930s actually meant abandoning a traditional Jewish identity. The parallels do not stand.
In dealing with Islamophobia today, calls to remember Cable Street and the 1930s are positively counter-productive. Appeals to anti-fascism misidentify the origin of the problem and potentially alienate those who have to be won back to the principle of diversity and acceptance of those who are different.
Fighting the far right and this form of prejudice will require attention to a wider span of issues than extreme nationalism and racism, and will have to heed the religious and international dimensions that feed local conflicts. However difficult it will be, it demands the involvement of mainstream Muslims as well as appeals to the good sense of the non-Muslim majority and chastisement of the tiny Islamist minority.
David Cesarani, Major Farran's Hat: Murder, scandal and Britain's war against Jewish Terrorism, 1945-1948 (Heinemann 2009)
Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 (Pimlico 2003)
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