Jerusalem & Babylon Keeping the Bastards Out Again

Communities, and especially big cities, with their loss of individual identity, need myths, how else can they be so sure that the bastards won't drive them out?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

"The bastards won't make me leave here," shouted Aaron Biber, waving his scissors in the air, slashing at imaginary looters. "The Nazis couldn't get me out of here; they certainly won't."

Biber, 89, discovered on Sunday that in the first wave of violence this week in England, his barbershop just off the high street in Tottenham, north London, was also broken into and looted. But it didn't change a thing: On Monday morning, as has been the case every Monday for the last 41 years, he was back in the tiny shop, giving haircuts and shaving his regular clients, despite the rioters having stolen chairs and a valuable hairdryer.

Rioters facing off with riot police officers on the streets in Tottenham, north London, on Sunday Aug. 7, 2011.Credit: AP

Biber set up the business in 1970. Before that, he had another barbershop, in the East End, where he learned his trade at the age of 10 from his brother-in-law. A lot has changed around him in eight decades of cutting hair. "Everyone was Jewish then in the East End," he reminisces, "Well, there was us and the Italians, but we all got on well. There was never any trouble."

Biber would have stayed there, despite the Jewish migration to the more affluent northern suburbs, but the building in which he had worked was torn down as part of a public housing scheme, so he moved to Tottenham.

"There were lots of Jews here then," he points out of the shattered window to the shady side-street. "Just down here, there were two synagogues, and sometimes on Shabbat morning, if they were missing a tenth man, I closed the shop for an hour and joined the minyan."

Saturday afternoons of course were reserved for the real Jewish London Shabbat pastime - watching Tottenham Hotspur play at White Hart Lane.

But the same story repeated itself there too - Jewish families, aspiring to middle-class comforts migrating north and west and being replaced by newer immigrants from overseas.

Biber is no racist, even though he uses a mixture of Yiddish and cockney terms that are certainly not politically correct. "The shvartzes [blacks] are OK, they don't give me any trouble," he says of his neighbors. "The Muzzas [Muslims] and Turks are also fine. The only group here that are really troublesome are those gypsies who have come here from Romania; they're a right lot."

Biber has experience of rioting of course; he was in Cable Street in 1936 - not that anyone would call that a riot nowadays. In two months, London will commemorate a different age in which gangs and police fought it out on the city's street for a much nobler purpose than simply looting shops of wide-screen televisions. October 4 will be the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.

Aaron Biber remembers that period well, when Britain experienced its own version of Hitlerism, in the shape of Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.

"The Blackshirts used to have rallies in Victoria Park and I went to hear Mosley speak," he says. "My mother said to me, 'They hate Jews; they'll kill you,' but I had a razor in my pocket."

His recollection of the battle itself though is not totally reliable historically. "We fought them, the Jews, together with the Irish dockers; we didn't let them get through."

Of course, there were a great many Jews there, part of the 300,000 anti-fascists, socialists and trade union members who massed in Cable Street to block the provocative march of the fascists through the predominantly Jewish area, emulating the cry of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War: "They shall not pass."

But British Jewry's established leadership, the Board of Deputies, was against the showdown, calling upon Jews to stay away from Cable Street. The real leaders there were the Communist Party.

The Battle of Cable Street is now the stuff of legends. Jews and Londoners as a whole with historic awareness take pride in how the no-nonsense, fair-minded British public stood up to the fascists, who despite some early popularity, never really succeeded in entering the mainstream and remained largely a laughing-stock.

But it's easy to forget that those who turned up that day to ward off the Blackshirts were seen by the general public as dangerous radicals. Aaron Biber likes to say that they fought the fascists that day; but actually, the two sides barely clashed and almost all the fighting was between the anti-fascists and the police, who were out in force.

Some 10,000 officers, nearly as many police as were deployed in London this week to prevent the rioting, stood between the two sides, and then tried to clear a way for the fascists' march. Mosley eventually called it off and sent his men home, leaving the police to contend with an all-out riot by the Eastenders, who saw them as their class-enemies, almost as bad as the Blackshirts.

The mainstream media of those days was naturally on the side of the police, as it was in general during the London riots this week. Journalists, overnight instant historians, generally have a one-dimensional short-memory view of events. We spoke of "unprecedented scenes of looting" in London this week, but actually, the worst looting to take place in the capital was during its "finest hour."

Under the cover of the Luftwaffe's blitz, widespread pillaging including cutting rings of dead people's hands, also took place. But it's not only the media that loves myths. Aaron Biber's rose-tinted East End never existed, the immigrants' paradise was a rat and plague infested desolation of tenement houses, the poor Jews, Italians and Irish continuously harassed by police and anti-Semites, racists and bigots of every kind.

I saw another myth in the making this week. Local residents, heeding the Twitter call, came out on the streets with brooms and bin liners, only to find that council workers had already cleared away the riots' debris. The next morning, the papers, tabloids and quality alike, had christened them "London's heroes." But communities, and especially big cities, with their loss of individual identity, need these myths, how else can they be so sure that the bastards won't drive them out.



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