Sunday, 9 October 2016

Racism and xenophobia: we need to recapture the spirit of Cable Street

It was as shaming as it was sad to learn that Muslim female colleagues of my wife’s are afraid to visit France.

It was photos from Nice that had been the final straw. They showed four armed policemen converging on a woman in Muslim clothes on a Nice beach, to tell her to wear less. My first thought was of my youth, when the cry was for women to wear more on beaches. Ironic that society always feels it can tell women what to wear or not to wear.
French police move in on an existential threat to our civilisation:
a woman wearing too many clothes on a beach in Nice
My second thought was bleaker. Whether we like the police or not, we all ultimately rely on them. They’re supposed to make us feel safer, indeed to keep us safer. At their best, they should only be a threat over things we’ve done; but these police were a threat for what that woman was. Nothing suggested she’d done anything to harm anyone else, but because she was Muslim and felt the need to follow what she believed were the strictures of her religion concerning dress, she became a target for the police.

Where does a woman like that turn for protection if the police start off predisposed against her? No wonder my wife’s colleagues are so afraid of France. They feel unwelcome in a country that prides itself on being the homeland of human rights.

Sadly, we’ve been here before. At the end of the nineteenth century and for the first few decades of the twentieth, in many countries it wasn’t safe to be a Jew. Dress differently to mark your Judaism and, particularly in central or eastern Europe, you gave up your right to expect the police to look after you.

In some nations, the movement went to terrible extremes. In Germany, it turned into Kristallnacht where Jewish shops and business were vandalised and many Jews were beaten or killed in the streets, a harbinger of the full-scale Holocaust to come. In others, it was an insidious, subterranean hostility, which might be as mild as a refusal to allow a Jew into a club: you may remember the story of Groucho Marx, who was told he could join a club on condition he didn’t use the pool; he asked whether his daughter might be allowed to wade in up to her knees, since she was only half Jewish.

In Britain, the British Union of Fascists had been organised by a former Labour (and previously Conservative then independent) MP, Oswald Mosley. It wanted to bring anti-Semitism out into the open and even aped the militaristic uniforms of the German and Italian Fascists. In October 1936, the BUF decided to march through heavily Jewish areas in the East End of London. Anti-Fascists felt otherwise and mobilised to prevent them.

The result was the battle of Cable Street of 4 October 1936, whose eightieth anniversary fell last week. The battle didn’t pit anti-Fascists against Fascists, but anti-Fascists against the police. But the result was that Mosley got well away from there and the BUF rallied in Hyde Park, in the West End, instead of the East End.

Battle of Cable Street: the Fascists did not pass
The BBC spoke to a couple of survivors
Views differ as to whether Cable Street was as significant in halting the progress of fascism in England as many have believed. But it seems to me that whatever it may have achieved concretely, it was hugely important symbolically: 20,000 turned out against the Fascists, only 2000-3000 on the other side. The voice saying ‘no’ to an abomination was by far the louder. The battle is much more significant for what it revealed of an attitude than for what it may or may not have accomplished.

At a time when there’s once more a terrible lurch towards the far right across the great democracies, with increasingly overt xenophobia or downright racism, we need to recapture that attitude. Whether we’re confronting Trump in the US, UKIP in England, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, it’s the spirit of Cable Street that has to drive us.

And – who knows – why not start by finding it in France?

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