Zionism and the British Union of Fascists
There was no Western state that did not see the rise of pro-Nazi movements after 1933, but the extent of their influence varied from country to country. Although Western capital preferred Nazi Germany to a Communist take-over, there was never as much support in business circles for Hitler as for Mussolini. Hitler was too revanchist in his attitude toward Versailles, and Germany too potentially powerful, for there not to be strong ambivalence toward this latest anti-Communist saviour. Furthermore, Hitler's anti-Semitism was never popular with the capitalists. As long as the Jews were only a small element within their societies it was assumed that they would eventually be assimilated. The mass migration from Eastern Europe had revived anti-Semitism in the West, but if there was more prejudice against Jews in British and American ruling circles in 1933 than, say, 1883, none would go as far as Hitler. Nevertheless, during the Depression both Britain and America saw the rise of substantial anti-Semitic movements which physically threatened the Jewish communities.
In Britain the menace came from Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The Board of Deputies of British Jews tried to deal with the danger by ignoring it. From the beginning it told the Jews not to heckle at Mosley's meetings. The leaders insisted that Jews as such had no reason to quarrel with Fascism, and Neville Laski, President of the Board and chairman of the administrative committee of the Jewish Agency, emphasised that 'there is Fascism in Italy under which 50,000 Jews live in amity and safety... the Jewish community, not being a political body as such, should not be dragged into the fight against Fascism as such'.[(1)] The British Zionist Federation supported his position in the Young Zionist with an article on the question in its September 1934 issue. The Communists and the Independent Labour Party had been actively engaging the Mosleyites in the streets with at least 12,000 hostile demonstrators outside the BUF's Olympia rally on 7 June, and no less than 6,937 police had to protect 3,000 Fascists from 20,000 opponents in Hyde Park on 9 September. The East End Jewish community saw the Communist Party as its protector against the BUF supporters, and there was a growing mood amongst the Zionist youth to join the anti-Mosley campaign. However, the Zionist leadership was determined that this should not come about. What would happen if the Jews fought Mosley and the BUF won?
Suppose that under a Fascist regime reprisals are used against anti-Fascists, all Jews must suffer... So the question looms up once more --should we?... Meanwhile there are three ideals which cry out aloud for the support of all Jews... 1. The unity of the Jewish People. 2. The need for a stronger Jewish pride. 3. The building of Eretz Yisrael. And we are wasting our time wondering whether we should join anti-Fascist societies![(2)]
The next issue restated their case more 'thoroughly and unmistakenly':
Once we have realised that we cannot root out the evil, that our efforts so far have been in vain, we must do everything to defend ourselves against the outbursts of that infamous disease. The problem of anti-Semitism becomes a problem of our own education. Our defence is in the strengthening of our Jewish personality.[(3)]
In fact the Jewish masses largely ignored the Zionists' passive advice and backed the Communists. Eventually the Zionist position was reversed and some Zionists joined a community defence group called the Jewish People's Council (JPC), but anti-Fascism never became the priority for the Zionist movement.
The famous battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, when over 5,000 police failed to push a BUF march through 100,000 Jews and leftists, was the turning-point in the fight against Mosley. William Zukerman, one of the most distinguished Jewish journalists of the age and then still a Zionist, was present and wrote an account of it for New York's Jewish Frontier:
no English-speaking city has ever seen anything like the scenes which marked this attempted demonstration... Those who like myself had the privilege of taking part in the event will never forget it. For this was one of those great communal acts of a mass of people aroused by a profound emotion or by a sense of outraged justice, which makes history... It was indeed the great epic of the Jewish East End.[(4)]
He reported that the demonstration had been called by the JPC which included 'synagogues, friendly societies, and Landsmanschaften' (immigrant societies). He wrote about the presence of Jewish ex-servicemen. He continued: 'The Communists and the Independent Labour Party must be given the credit for being the most active fighters of Mosley's Fascist anti-Semitism.'[(5)] Others among the local Zionists thought as he did and must have been there, but it is significant that a Zionist journalist, writing for a Zionist magazine, does not even mention the Zionists as being there. Gisela Lebzelter's book, Political Anti-Semitism in England, 1918-1939, mentions only that 'Zionist organisations' were present at the founding conference of the JPC on 26 July 1936.[(6)] She is silent about any further role they might have played in the campaign which lasted for several years. She confirms Zukerman's evaluation and fully acknowledges the leading role of the Communists.
The British Zionist movement of that day was not small. It sent 643 settlers to Palestine between 1933 and 1936. It had the strength to play a prominent role in the street-fighting, but in fact it did very little to defend the Jewish community, even after the abandonment of its 1934 stance. It was Cable Street --that is, the illegal resistance of the Jews, led primarily by the Communists and the ILP-- that forced the government to stop protecting the 'rights' of the BUF and finally ban uniformed private militias.
Zionism and the German-American Bund
Fascist currents in the United States had been growing throughout the 1930s. The traditional Ku-Klux-Klan was still strong in the South, and many of the Irish in North America had become infected with Father Coughlan's clerical Fascism as Franco's armies smashed into Barcelona. Italian neighbourhoods saw organised Fascist parades, and many German immigrant organisations were under the influence of the Nazis' German-American 'Bund'. Anti-Semitism was growing powerful, and the Bund determined on a show of their new strength with the announcement of a rally in New York's Madison Square Garden for 20 February 1939. Other rallies were to follow in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Would the Jews respond?
The Jews in New York numbered at least 1,765,000 (29.56 per cent of the population) and there were additional hundreds of thousands in the near suburbs; yet not one Jewish organisation thought to organise a counter-demonstration. One, the right-wing American Jewish Committee, even sent a letter to the Garden's management supporting the Nazis' right to hold their meeting.[(7)] Only one group, the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), issued a call for a counter-demonstration. The SWP was a tiny group, with no more than a few hundred members, but as Max Shachtman the organiser of the action explained, it knew enough to 'mesh the small gear which it represents into the huge gear which the militant workers of New York represent, thus setting the latter into motion'.[(8)] The public found out about the SWP's demonstration when the city announced that the police would defend the Nazis against attack, and the press played up the possibility of violence.
There were two Yiddish daily newspapers then which were identified with Zionism: Der Tog, one of whose editors, Abraham Coralnik, had been a prime organiser of the anti-Nazi boycott; and Der Zhournal, whose manager, Jacob Fishman, had been one of the founders of the Zionist Organisation of America. Both papers opposed a protest against the presence of the Nazis. Der Tog begged its readers: 'Jews of New York, do not let your sorrows guide you! Avoid Madison Square Garden this evening. Don't come near the hall! Don't give the Nazis the chance to get the publicity they desire so much.'[(9)] The Socialist Appeal, the SWP's weekly paper, described the Zhournal's plea as combining the same language with 'an additional nauseating touch of rabbinical piety'.[(10)] Nor was the response of the Zionist organisations any more militant. During the preparations for the encounter a group of young Trotskyists went to the Lower East Side headquarters of the Hashomer Hatzair, but they were told: 'Sorry we can't join you, our Zionist policy is to take no part in politics outside Palestine.'[(11)]
Then as now, the Hashomer claimed to be the left wing of Zionism, but only ten months before, Hashomer's magazine had defended their rigid policy of abstentionism:
We can't divide our position as Jews from our position as socialists; in fact we place the stabilisation and normalisation of the first condition as a necessary preference to our work for the second condition... thus we don't take part in the socialist activities in which we could only participate as bourgeois, as an unstable, non-basic element, not imbedded in the true proletariat and speaking 'from above'... This does not call for the phrase-slinging, demonstration staging, castle building program of the usual 'radical' organisation... We are, and must be, essentially non-political.[(12)]
Over 50,000 people turned up at Madison Square Garden. Most were Jews, but by no means all of them. A contingent from the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the nationalist followers of Marcus Garvey, came from Harlem. Although the CPUSA refused to support the demonstration through hatred for Trotskyism and their support for the Democratic mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, whose police were protecting the Bund, many of its multinational rank and file did attend. The area was the scene of a furious five-hour battle as the mounted police, part of a contingent of 1,780 armed police, repeatedly rode into the anti-Nazis. Although the anti-Nazis were unable to break the police lines, the victory was theirs. The 20,000 Nazis and Coughlanites in the Garden would have been mauled, had not the police been present.
The SWP immediately followed up its New York success by calling for another demonstration in Los Angeles on 23 February outside a Bund meeting at the Deutsche Haus. Over 5,000 people trapped the Fascists in their hall until the police came to their rescue. The Bund's offensive soon came to a halt and, thoroughly humiliated, they had to cancel their scheduled San Francisco and Philadelphia rallies.
The fact that, as late as February 1939, the SWP was alone in calling for a demonstration against a storm-trooper meeting in New York City testifies to a reality during the Nazi epoch: individual Zionists certainly took part in the battle of the Garden, but the entire range of Jewish organisations --political or religious-- were never prepared to fight their enemies.
[(1)]. Gisela Lebzelter, Political Anti-Semitism in England, 1918-1939, p. 142.
[(2)]. Raphael Powell, 'Should Jews join Anti-Fascist Societies?', Young Zionist (London, August 1934), p. 6.
[(3)]. C.C.A., 'Should Jews join Anti-Fascist Societies?', Young Zionist (London, September 1934), pp. 12, 19.
[(4)]. William Zukerman, 'Blackshilts in London', Jewish Frontier (November 1936), p. 41.
[(5)]. Ibid., pp. 42-3.
[(6)]. Lebzelter, Political Anti-Semitism in England, p. 140.
[(7)]. 'Review of the Year 5699-United States', American Jewish Year Book, 1939-40, p. 215.
[(8)]. Max Shachtman, 'In This Corner', Socialist Appeal (28 February 1939), p.4.
[(9)]. 'The Craven Jewish Press', Socialist Appeal (24 February 1939), p. 4.
[(11)]. 'An End to Zionist Illusions!', SocialistAppeal (7 March 1939), p. 4.
[(12)]. Naomi Bernstein, 'We and the American Student Union', Hashomer Hatzair (April 1938), p. 16.
This text is a chapter of <Zionism in the Age of the Dictators a Reappraisal>, by Lenni Brenner.
The copyright (©) belongs to the author. It was published by Croom Helm, Kent (GreatBritain) and Laurence Hill, Westport, Conn. in the USA, 277 p. ISBN (GB) 0709906285; USA (paperback) 0882081640 in 1983. This book has been out of print for years.
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