Standing up against hatred: a group of UK Jews who confronted post-war fascism

The Independent newspaper carried an inspirational story on October 2 2015; the 43 Group, a band of British Jews who fought against the resurgence of British neo-fascism after the end of the world war, is to be the subject of a new TV series. While half a million Jews served in the Soviet Army during the years of World War Two, about 30 000 fought in the British army. After witnessing the horrors of that war, with its concentration camps, systematic extermination of subject peoples and maltreatment of Jews and other ethnic groups as ‘sub-human’, the Jewish veterans of that conflict returned to their homes in Britain, only to find that British neo-fascism was marching in the streets, stirring up hatred against alien peoples, namely Jewish communities.

Oswald Mosley, the main British exponent of fascism in the UK, had reorganised his group, and the Blackshirts were on the rampage in London. Interred during the war, Mosley had led the British Union of Fascists, (BUF) the largest ultra-rightists and white supremacist political organisation in Britain. During the 1930s and 1940s, their shrill rhetoric against Jews, socialists and anyone who opposed fascism brought terror directly to the streets of Britain. The defeat of Nazi Germany had removed the immediate appeal of fascism to the British public, and after the war, newsreels about the genocide of the Jews brought home the full genocidal horror of the concentration camps.

Morris Beckman, a Jewish veteran of the British army, returned home after seeing the devastating consequences of that war; however, as the Guardian explained:

He, like thousands of British Jews, came home from the war thinking fascism was buried. Each week they saw fresh newsreel evidence of the Nazi genocide. But they were sickened to find Mosley released from internment and reviving the British Union of Fascists, which had flourished in Jewish areas such as the East End before the war. He says:

“The Talmud Torah (religious school) in Dalston had its windows smashed. Jewish shops were daubed ‘PJ’ (Perish Judah). You heard, ‘We have got to get rid of the Yids’ and ‘They didn’t burn enough of them in Belsen’.”

With the Labour home secretary James Chuter Ede refusing to take action and the Jewish establishment urging peaceful protest, the demobbed Jews had had enough.

The reformed Mosleyites – calling themselves the British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women, were railing against the foreign presence in England, smashing businesses owned by Jews, daubing racist graffiti across the streets, and terrorising the Jewish community.

Another group of British ex-servicemen and women decided that they had had enough. From April 1946, 43 Jewish war veterans met at the Maccabi Sports and established the 43 Group. Their purpose? To confront and disrupt the Mosleyite fascist organisation, sabotage its activities and shut it down. From then on, whenever and wherever the neo-fascist groups organised to intimidate and terrorise the Jewish community, they were confronted by Jewish ex-soldiers and paratroopers equipped with the necessary skills to fight back.

Let The Independent correspondent, Cahal Milmo, elaborate the consequences:

The result was a succession of pitched battles during fascist gatherings where the 43 Group and their opponents gave no quarter. Knuckledusters, knives, steel-toed boots and sharpened belt buckles were wielded on both sides with devastating effect. One former veteran said he was told: “We’re not here to kill. We’re here to maim.”

It is easy to dismiss post-war fascism of the Mosleyite variety as a lunatic fringe movement, unworthy of so much attention and publicity. Let us not forget that Mosley’s reinvention of British fascism as a nationalistic defender of British values and empire against the swarthy tide of foreignness was not an uncommon view in Britain in the years after the war. Mainstream British political parties have found electoral success with campaigns designed to stir up xenophobic sentiment among the voting public. While the Mosleyites transcended social class, incorporating the thuggish hooligan in the street into their ranks, it is the quiet support of the genteel entrepreneurial class that has provided expression for the anti-immigrant political stream in Britain, minus the low-level shouting and thumping hooligan aspect. Anti-semitism and racism of the street has always found a similar yet refined expression in the socially acceptable middle and upper classes in Britain.

The 43 Group spent five years breaking up fascist meetings, confronting white supremacist violence on the streets, and infiltrating fascist groups for the purpose of smashing them. Jewish cemeteries were guarded to protect them from desecration by racist vandals. Aided by sympathetic black taxi drivers, who provided crucial intelligence updates and transport, the Mosleyites were successfully repulsed. The British variant of neo-fascism was broken. The Mosleyites disbanded in 1950.

Their story, to be told in a new television series, is an interesting, inspirational and encouraging episode amidst the decline and greyness of post-war Britain. When ordinary people stand up against hatred, they can achieve extraordinary accomplishments.

Go read the article in The Independent here.

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