The battle in Britain

How Anglo Jewry responded to local Fascism in the 1930s.

OLD MONTAGUE STREET 521 (photo credit: Daniel Blatt)
(photo credit: Daniel Blatt)
My grandfather, Joe Cornbleet, born in London in 1901, always regretted he was too young to fight in the First World War and too old for active service in World War II. His wartime memories were of serving in the Home Guard during the Blitz, but his battlefield tales were from what became known as The Battle of Cable Street.
This fight – the showdown between the British Union of Fascists and the residents of London’s East End – was the culmination of the growing tension between Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and the Jewish community. The clash came on October 4, 1936, when more than 100,000 people, mainly impoverished Jews and the Irish who also lived in the area, prevented Mosley’s BUF forces from parading through their neighborhood.
Mosley had planned to send 3,000 uniformed men marching in four columns through the streets of the East End to four meeting points where the Fascist leader and other ideologues of his ilk hoped to deliver to the poor and disenfranchised a message of a Greater Britain and to point a finger at who was responsible for all evils: the Jews.
However, the local residents, along with trade unionists and Communists, blocked every entrance to the East End, especially at Gardiner’s Corner in Aldgate, and built barricades in Cable Street. Despite the determination of the Blackshirts – and the efforts of 7,000 British police, including London’s entire mounted unit – they found their path was blocked.
David Rosenberg’s meticulously researched yet highly readable Battle for the East End: Jewish Responses to Fascism in the 1930s records the events that led up to the face-off. As I read it, I increasingly regretted that my grandfather was no longer around to share his recollections, or that I ever doubted that the short, stout man who used to sing Paul Robeson’s “Old Man River” whenever he or anyone else needed cheering up, once really did run from street to street pasting up anti-Fascist posters and mobilizing his fellow Cockneys against the growing Nazi threat.
Rosenberg contends that it is possible that Mosley chose October 4 because the Communist Party had already planned to back an Aid Spain rally in Trafalgar Square in central London the same day. One of the many fascinating insights in the book is how demonstrations and counter-demonstrations were planned via wall posters and leaflets in the pre- Facebook era. Just 72 hours ahead of the Mosley march, his opponents decided that it was most important to join forces to stop him and his ominous Blackshirts from entering the East End. Thousands of leaflets that had been printed to mobilize anti-Fascists to join the event in Trafalgar Square were printed over with additional text: “ALTERATION: RALLY TO ALDGATE 2 PM.”
As in all good history books, there are some startling moments of déjà vu: Battle for the East End records, for example, the ever-widening rift between the official leaders of the Jewish community, the Board of Deputies – who preferred to take a quiet approach to tackling the problems – and those who believed that only active resistance would work. It was the battle within the community between the decidedly British, understated, stiff-upper-lip style – favored mainly by the West End-based Jews whose families had been in the country for generations and who had a certain financial and social standing – and the Jewish East Enders. The latter were mainly refugees from eastern Europe, who were responsive to grassroots actions and took their lead from the bodies that united within the framework of the Jewish People’s Council.
The Jewish Chronicle – which still billed itself as the official “Organ of British Jewry” when I was growing up in London in the 1960s and ’70s – served as an advocate for the “softly, softly” approach. Shortly before the demonstration, for instance, while the Independent Labour Party sent vans equipped with loudspeakers touring through the streets calling on people to turn out in their thousands to block the entry points into the East End, the JC published an “urgent warning” for Jews to keep away: “Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders, will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting.”
The Jewish People’s Council, on the other hand, warned in posters that the march was aimed at destroying “the harmony and goodwill which have existed for generations among East London’s population, regardless of race and creed” and spelled out in big, bold, underlined letters:
“This March Must Not Take Place!” This conflict of approach is still evident to a lesser extent in the dilemmas facing Anglo-Jewry in an age when anti-Semitism continues to exist, manifesting itself also in the new guise of delegitimization of Israel.
Early on in the book, I penciled notes next to paragraph after paragraph, page after page, but then wrote nearly nothing in the margins until the concluding chapter. This does not mean I skipped the middle before writing this review. Rather, it reflects the realization that I would never be able to include all the information I would like to share. Instead, the best I can do is share a heartfelt recommendation that all those interested in the history of British Jewry or the growth of Fascism before the Second World War should pick up their own copy.
Rosenberg leads guided walks around the East End, and he is able to bring the book to life despite the heavy material and the extensive footnoting. He has literally done a lot of legwork on the topic. In addition to his tours, he has written for Channel 4 and is a freelance contributor to The Times Educational Supplement, the New Statesman, and Time Out. According to the jacket information, he is an active member of the National Union of Teachers and has been a member of the editorial board of Jewish Socialist magazine since it began in the 1980s.
Battle for the East End is one of five books that Five Leaves has published to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Reading this book about it decades later, in my Jerusalem home, the lessons seem no less relevant. My grandfather, like so many ordinary people, mobilized to fight Fascism, anti-Semitism, delegitimization and the root causes and results of social and economic injustices. He’s no longer around to be proud of himself, but for the record: I’m proud of him.