Tommy Gould and Gerry Flamberg were war heroes. Gould had gripped an enemy bomb tightly to his chest for a full 40 minutes as he helped remove it from his torpedoed submarine (later receiving the Victoria Cross for his actions). Flamberg, meanwhile, had parachuted into Arnhem, took a bullet to the shoulder, concealed the injury from his commanding officer and then proceeded to single-handedly take out a German tank with a strategically aimed grenade.
These British Jews must have thought their days of fighting fascism were over when Hitler was defeated in May 1945. They were wrong.
The two were founding members of a little-known organization of predominantly Jewish vigilantes (men and women) whose remarkable story is recounted in a new book called “We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain,” by Daniel Sonabend.
The group operated from 1946-1950 – a time when fascism was fought not with a keyboard and a Twitter account but with knuckle-dusters, blades, broken bones and blood. It was an age when “no-platforming” meant physically pushing past a group of people (including police officers) and forcing fascists from the stage during rallies, sometimes earning a beating and a night in jail as a reward for those efforts.
Sonabend’s debut brilliantly chronicles the 43 Group’s lightning-fast progress from a homespun organization with a handful of Jewish ex-servicemen almost literally getting their kicks by confronting fascists in London’s East End – at the time still home to the bulk of British Jewry – to a surprisingly sophisticated one with up to 2,000 members and intelligence and surveillance branches.
Britain’s Jews, of course, were no strangers to fascism and didn’t even need to go to the Continent to find it. The far right was right there on their doorstep. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists managed to attract thousands of supporters (known as “blackshirts” due to their adopted uniforms) to their hate-filled rallies in the East End.
Most of the fascists, including Mosley, had been interned during World War II. But when they were released at the war’s end – and with the new Labour government determined to allow free speech for all, no matter how virulent the message, it wasn’t long before the likes of the British People’s Party, the British League of Ex-Servicemen and the Union Movement were back on the streets of London. Naturally, they were all using their still-depressingly familiar codified language – “international financiers,” “American bankers,” “aliens and communists” – to point to what they saw as the root cause of the problem in austerity-stricken Britain.
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Now, though, the biggest difference to the previous decade was that in the shadow of the Holocaust, a large number of young Jews were mad as hell and not going to take this anymore. Fifteen percent of Anglo-Jewry had served in the war (compared with 10 percent of the general population), which presumably contributed to the 43 Group’s fighting spirit. As one of the 43, Morris Beckman, says in the book, his generation had a different outlook than the “keep your head down and get indoors quickly” mentality of the preceding one.
Sonabend sums up the mood of the organization perfectly in his concluding chapter, writing: “The 43 Group realized that to defeat the fascists you had to beat them at their own game and hit them twice as hard as they hit you, and doing so was a moral imperative. … [They] knew that when the British fascists raised their heads there was only one morally sound course of action.”
It is probably fair to say that the 43 Group has been something of an obsession for 31-year-old, Cambridge-educated Sonabend since he first heard about the organization in 2012. His friend Luke Brandon Field, who can currently be seen playing a Hitler Youth leader in Taika Waititi’s acclaimed new film “Jojo Rabbit,” had been watching a documentary about Vidal Sassoon, of all people (the iconic Jewish hairdresser known as the master of the bob and the five-point cut – don’t ask me, I was lost at “bob”).
Eventually Sassoon became more synonymous with the world of celebrity haircuts and fancy manicures, but he was actually a hard-as-nails Londoner who spent some of his formative years in a Jewish orphanage. He was also a member of the 43 Group (and later the Palmach during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948) and wasn’t averse to bringing some of the tools of his trade to the protests. And no, it wasn’t a comb.
Surprised that he and his Jewish friends had never heard of the group, Sonabend set about rectifying what he saw as an unfair omission in Anglo-Jewish history. He placed an ad in London’s Jewish Chronicle asking members of the group to contact him, and thus started a seven-year itch.
In a telephone interview with Haaretz, he says about 80 to 90 percent of the group had already passed away by the time he began his research, but that the surviving members were keen to talk with him about their exploits – although, even 70 years on, some still refused to reveal the full details about the organization’s actions.
Sonabend initially saw the story as a potential TV series. He worked with the producers of the period gangster drama “Peaky Blinders” and one of the writers of the epic war series “Band of Brothers,” to land a deal for a six-part series with the BBC and NBC in 2015. The mooted show, “The 43,” never made it past the development stage (possibly because it sounded like a low-budget version of “The 100”). Coincidentally, the BBC is now working on a separate project called “Ridley Road,” based on a romantic novel by Jo Bloom about London vigilantes battling fascism in the Swinging Sixties, and inspired by the 62 Group, a Jewish organization that superseded the 43 Group. (Say what you want about British anti-fascists, but they clearly don’t waste precious time thinking about iconic group names.)
Undaunted and still determined to raise awareness about the group, in 2016 Sonabend started working on “We Fight Fascists” – which, in addition to being an excellent book title, also sounds like the greatest song The Clash never released.
Derring-do and chutzpah
As well as interviewing about a dozen surviving members of the group, he raided the National Archives to try to shed some light on this deliberately shadowy organization. One particularly useful source of information was the Metropolitan Police archive, “so you could see the arrest records of the 43 Group and what they were getting up to in the streets,” says the author.
And what were they getting up to in those streets? In a word, mayhem. If a fascist rally was taking place on a street in London, members of the 43 Group would likely be there, heckling and disrupting through physical means. If a high-profile fascist like Mosley or Jeffrey Hamm (a name you couldn’t make up given the circumstances) was staging an event in a hall, the 43 Group would get in there and release tear gas or smoke bombs, forcing the rally to be abandoned.
For Sonabend, the biggest surprise from his research was “the audacity of what the 43 Group got up to – the tricks they played, the level of subterfuge they got involved with. There was a lot of derring-do, there was a lot of chutzpah, and I often found myself either in awe or laughing when I heard a new story about them.”
A great example of that in the book is the story of how the 43 Group managed to get an Aryan-looking Jewish guy code-named Ben embedded with the fascist groups. His infiltration was so successful, he soon became part of Mosley’s entourage and was sitting in on numerous key meetings. “If Mosley scratched his nose, I would know an hour later,” Ben’s handler tells Sonabend.
One of the biggest takeaways from “We Fight Fascists” is just how violent those actual fights were. The East End was a hardscrabble area where men were men and so were most of the women, with the term “gentrification” still several decades away from being coined. Sonabend points out that historically, the area’s Jews had to be strong to survive. “In the early 20th century, the best boxers in Britain were Jewish, there were Jewish wrestlers and martial artists – they had to be tough, they didn’t have a choice,” he says.
In a later email exchange, I ask Sonabend about the violent protests and if the 43 Group members he interviewed ever feared it might escalate out of control. “Oh absolutely they both feared for their lives and feared they might kill fascists,” he responds. “I think the group knew how problematic it would be if they did start killing fascists – so if anyone looked like they might go that far, their comrades usually pulled them back.” He adds as an aside that there was “deadly serious talk of assassinating Mosley” among some group members.
Sonabend adds: “As for whether they feared the fascists might kill them, absolutely – and many said that it was a miracle that never happened.”
Rebels with a cause
There are two battle zones in “We Are Fascists”: the obvious one between the fascists and anti-fascists; and the less prominent one between the 43 Group and the Jewish establishment, as represented by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter organization never approved of the group’s methods, fearing it could lead to more violence against the Jewish community, besmirch its reputation and unnecessarily raise its profile in Britain.
Sonabend says members of the 43 Group were fully aware the Jewish establishment (and the police, for that matter) didn’t approve of their actions, but they had support, sometimes covert, from within the Jewish community – including financial help from a number of wealthy Jewish businessmen. “More than anything,” he says, the members “knew they were doing the right thing, so the question of whether they had support or not, or how they were perceived, was almost irrelevant.”
In a way, I tell Sonabend, the 43 Group was almost a de facto “Jewish Corps,” a Jewish band of brothers. “I think many of them would have been serving with only one or two Jews in their brigades, if that. So, yes, this fighting together as Jews must have been a source of enormous pride,” he says.
“They were very conscious of the fact that they were part of a new generation of Jews,” he continues. “The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was an inspiration to them. And when Israel was triumphant in 1949, that also was inspirational. For a lot of the Jewish world, that made them feel they could stand up for themselves.”
Still, when I suggest to Sonabend that the “heads-down” response of the Board of Deputies in the ’40s still seems to exist in Britain today – its softly-softly approach standing in stark contrast to, say, American Jews’ place at the forefront of the U.S. civil rights movement – he begs to differ.
“One of the things that the 43 Group argued the Jewish community needed was its own communal defense organization – something which the Board of Deputies was vehemently against as it feared it would mark the Jewish community out as different,” Sonabend says. Now, he adds, Britain’s Jews do have their own such organization, the Community Security Trust, “which was founded by members of the 62 Group. So I certainly don’t think the heads-down attitude of the Board prevails in Britain today.”
Talk of the present day brings us back to Sonabend’s initial point in our conversation, which is that the world is now a very different place than when he first heard of the 43 Group back in 2012. “That was a period when far-right politics seemed safely on the fringes – this was long before the rise of the alt-right, the toxic xenophobia triggered by the Brexit referendum, and the rise of Trump and his imitators,” he says. The story “felt like quite a historical piece. But the longer I’ve been working on it, the more scarily relevant it seemed.”
For Sonabend, who is conscious of being seen as promoting violence and the inherent dangers of rabble-rousing with his book, “We Fight Fascists” nevertheless remains a story with a message for today.
“As a historian,” he says, “the thing I really wanted to point to was: Listen to the lessons of the past. The 43 Group was composed of men and women who saw firsthand the destruction that follows when fascists and Nazis hold the reins of power. And when they returned to their homes and heard people espousing those same ideologies, their response was to take to the streets. Maybe that’s something we need to pay attention to.”
“We Fight Fascists” is published by Verso in the United Kingdom (out now) and the United States (out November 26).