Fighting Fascists

Review of We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain by Daniel Sonabend

Published by Verso 2019, 369pp

IN APRIL 1946, a government committee decided it would be an error to ban fascist groups as they now posed no threat. Manny Shinwell, a committee member and Jewish Labour MP disagreed; so did multitudes of Jewish ex-service- men and women who had seen what one part of humanity could inflict on another. Their collective reaction was, “we must kill Fascism… Now, not later”. And so was born the 43 Group.

In East London, Hackney, Stoke Newington, they were not frightened to use their fists, to disrupt fascist meetings with smoke bombs, dry ice, fireworks and to damage loudspeaker vans. In a march of Oswald Mosley’s Union movement from Dalston to Tottenham, a tram was overturned and hundreds of people blocked the road while others waited at the Regent Cinema in Stamford Hill to pounce on those who felt the war against Hitler had been a mistake.

The importance of Daniel Sona- bend’s book is not simply that it tells the story of the 43 Group’s fight against post-war Fascism, but that it reclaims a history that is as much part of our heritage as are the Rothschilds.

The 43ers were not all angels. They included spivs, gangsters and conmen. Jewish businessmen, the Crazy Gang’s Bud Flanagan and the world of box- ing’s Jack Solomons and Ted “Kid” Lewis all gave generously to support them. Tony Bensusan, a JC journalist, initiated the group’s periodical, On Guard. But, as Sonabend remarks: “they were a disparate, decentralised, multi-faceted and some- times completely chaotic organisation” often at odds with the sedate aims of established Jewish organisations.

Mass Observation Surveys indicate that antisemitism was rife even during the war. The abundance of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe provided a focus of resentment in Golders Green and Hampstead. But it was the exhaustion, devastation and deprivation after 1945 that offered a window of opportunity for resurgent fascism. Jews were characterised as black marketeers and shy- locks. The military exploits of the Irgun in Palestine — the hanging of the two sergeants, blowing up the King David Hotel, the flogging of British officers — hardened attitudes towards British Jews.

Mosley, incarcerated for much of the war, was already approving plans for a new fascist party in February 1945. His acolyte, Jeffrey Hamm, set up stall in Dalston’s Ridley Road — “Yidley Road” to the fascists — and told a gathering in April 1945 that only true Englishmen could join: “We bar Chinese, Eskimos, Hottentots and Jews”. They did not celebrate on VE Day a few weeks later. For Jews, however, it was a time of deep emotion and heightened awareness. Some 43ers went to fight in Israel’s war of independence — Nat Cashman was killed in the battle for Jerusalem.

The group was disbanded in June 1950. A year later, Mosley switched his attention to “the coloureds” from the Windrush. This important book is not simply a trip down memory lane, but a warning from history. It should be mandatory for those who do not see themselves as bystanders.

Jewish Chronicle 10 January 2020

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