This is a guest post by Jonathan Hoffman
The ’43 Group’ held its final reunion on 15 February 2009. I went – to find out more about them and to see if there are lessons for those fighting antisemitism today.
The 43 Group was a group of Jewish ex-servicemen who were demobbed at the end of World War Two and returned to London, only to find that representatives of the fascists whom they had fought were rife there and that the government – particularly Home Secretary Chuter Ede – was doing nothing. You can see more about the Group on Youtube, here, here and here.
When the Group was disbanded, they destroyed all their papers because they contained sensitive information. It makes it hard for historians to record some of the things they did. In terms of some of the personalities involved – though obviously not the methods and purpose – today’s CST apparently had its origins in the 43s (Veterans of the 43s were asked to help provide security in the UK for three Israeli Prime Ministers, and the CST began from that).
There is some uncertainty about where the name “43” comes from. Some say there were 43 founder members, others that the name comes from the room number at a hotel in Brighton (at one fascist meeting there they wanted to be close to Room 45 – I wasn’t quite sure if it was because a fascist was sleeping there or a Government Minister).
In 1945 at the end of the War there were 11 Fascist Societies and 4 Fascist Book Clubs in the UK. At its height in October 1946 the 43 Group had 1000 members. They included 20 taxi drivers who were the ‘eyes and ears’ of the group. They had excellent intelligence and infiltrated all the fascist parties. They disbanded in 1950 but some of them reformed in 1962 as the ‘62 Group’ to fight the new racism against black immigrants.
The centre of their activities was Ridley Road in Hackney. Ridley Road was the East London market which, at that time, was a focus of the local Jewish community. The fascists provocatively had their meetings in Ridley Road, being addressed for example by John Preen and Jeffrey Hamm (Oswald Mosley’s personal secretary).
Not surprisingly the’43 Group’ was criticised by the then Board of Deputies because of their use of physical force to break up the fascist meetings. But Rabbi Leslie Hardman – who had been in Belsen when it was liberated – was a great ally. At ‘43 Group’ meetings he ‘filibustered’, keeping talking so that the site of the meeting could not be taken over by the fascists (the law at that time was that the site of a meeting could not be taken over, provided the meeting was continuing).
June 1947 was the ‘Battle of Ridley Road’ when Oswald Mosley came to speak.
Gerry Gable of ‘Searchlight’ spoke at the event.
He reminded us that in May it will be the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan stabbed in Notting Hill by a gang of racist white youths.
The 43s disbanded in 1950 after a narrow vote, passed only after acrimonious discussion. Many 43 Group members were exhausted after six years in the military and a further four years fighting fascism in London – . they just wanted to get on with their lives.
But a number regretted disbanding when in 1958 race riots broke out in Notting Hill. In 1962 the government allowed Colin Jordan to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square, with banners saying ‘Free Britain From Jewish Control’. 1700 people turned up to hear Mosley.
The 43s were taught never to strike a policeman. This was despite antisemitism in the police. Dalston Police Station was a centre of police racism – a number of officers there had served in the Palestine Police.
The 43s had some great non-Jewish allies for example John Platts-Mills QC who defended their members in Court if they were arrested. If arrested, he taught them to ask for a receipt at the Police Station to confirm that they had no bruises, so that if the police then beat them up it would be ‘on the record’. But often the police supported them and they were just let off with a caution. David Maxwell Fyfe was also a great ally (he was a Prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials). We heard the story of a Christian lady in Hackney who sheltered some Group members who were fleeing from the Police. Her husband had been killed in the War. The 43 members asked for her name because they wanted to write and thank her but she refused all further contact saying “I have to live alongside them .. ”
In August 1949 was the “Battle of the Levels” in Brighton. Moseley had left London to try to hold a rally undisrupted by the 43s but they followed him
I have never subscribed to the argument that opposing antisemites is tactically wrong because it gives them the ‘oxygen of publicity’. I think the success of the 43 Group bears this out. But it is hard to draw many other lessons for the fight against antisemitism today – because the circumstances are so different.