As Britain’s Jews face the Labour Party in a showdown over anti-Semitism it is a moment to take a long view and look back at the sweltering hot summer of 1947. It is time to remember that the last time the Labour Party let down and failed to protect the Jewish community it ended up with riots on the streets.
On a stifling August British Bank Holiday in 1947, hundreds of ordinary British people took to the streets filled with a violent hatred for their Jewish neighbors. Bricks were hurled through the windows of Jewish shops and synagogues were set alight. The Jewish Chronicle reported that the synagogue in Catherine Street in Plymouth had been daubed with graffiti that read "Hang the Jews" and "Destroy Judah" and its reporter’s home in Cardiff had been defaced with the words "Jews – good old Hitler."
1947 is a forgotten pogrom. Now is the time to remember that lost weekend. No-one was killed but the Bank Holiday riots witnessed the worst anti-Semitic violence ever seen in modern Britain. But how could that have happened just three years after British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen?
At the root of the problem was the Labour government’s policy in Mandate Palestine then ruled from Westminster. The Labour government, despite its election campaign promise to lift the restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine imposed in 1939, had reneged on its commitment. Putting the British Empire first Labour sought to appease the Arabs who opposed thousands of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust finding a home in Palestine.
By summer 1947, there were 100,000 British soldiers on the ground in Palestine. A Jewish insurgency against the British was growing, as was violence between the Jewish and Arab communities. The Labour government choose to play one of against the other in a dangerous gamble.
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Jewish terrorists had blown up the King David Hotel the year before and copying the IRA had planted small explosive devices in London. A Sunday Timeseditorial published on 5 January 1947 addressed "to British Jews" questioned their loyalty and accused them of failing to perform their "civic duty and moral obligations" by denouncing the anti-British violence in Palestine.
Then in late July, the Jewish underground kidnapped two British sergeants and threatened to hang them if three of the death sentences passed on three of their members were carried out. When the Irgun members were hung on 29 July, the two sergeants also met their death in a eucalyptus grove near Netanya. Pictures of their bodies was splashed across the front pages. The Daily Express declaring it a "picture that will shock the world."
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that within hours graffiti half a block long and three feet high appeared on a wall in Birmingham, declaring: “Gentiles Arise. Resist Jewish enterprise. Remember Paice and Martin”. Paice and Martin were the murdered sergeants. In the hysteria the fact that Clifford Martin was of Jewish ancestry was overlooked. Facts were as ever the first victim in the growing hysteria.
The violence began when workers in an abattoir in Birkenhead near Liverpool refused to process meat destined for local Jewish shops and crowds took to the sun baked streets hurling anti-Semitic abuse. By Sunday the violence had spread to Manchester’s Cheetham Hill district, where an angry mob attacked the Great Synagogue.
Walter Lever, a local Jewish resident and former Communist, wrote in his memoirs "Jerusalem, Your Name is Liberty," that on Manchester’s Cheetham Hill Rd: "All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass." It looked like the Blitz all over again. By the end of the Bank Holiday there had been serious riots across the country:
"Anti-Jewish riots had taken place in Glasgow and Liverpool, with minor disturbances in Bristol, Hull, London and Warrington, as well as scores of attacks on Jewish property across the country. A solicitor in Liverpool and a Glasgow shopkeeper were beaten upIn Eccles, a former sergeant major named John Regan was fined 15 pounds for telling a crowd of 700: "Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew - every man, woman and child.""
So what can history teach us? Why dig up a forgotten story from the past?
The unnerving lesson here is that Labour policy created a toxic atmosphere in which the riots erupted spontaneously.
Ex-serviceman and anti-fascist campaigner Morris Beckmann recalled that Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts were back on their soap boxes telling crowds that Britain should "Get rid of the Jews!" and "Burn the synagogues!" - but Home Secretary James Chuter Ede had reneged on another election promise to outlaw fascist parties or crackdown on their activities.
Hatred finds a susceptible audience in times of austerity and Britain was in the grip of a recession. There were food and fuel shortages and widespread unemployment. Jews were regarded as blackmarketeers who kept rationing going. According to the historian Tony Kushner, Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, had even quipped about Jews hoarding fuel.
In Britain today there is similarly toxic atmosphere. Jewish school children report abuse in the playground in which they have been threatened to be gassed by fellow pupils.
It is tempting to say the playground was ever thus - but the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism, noted in its 2017 annual report, that last year saw the largest number ever of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, triggered by "a combination of factors, including an increase in all forms of recorded hate crime and publicity regarding alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party."
There's good reason to remember this particular history lesson. Today's Labour party is bound to set its house in order before its leader’s hostile milieu lights a touch paper for something worse.
Rosie Whitehouse is a freelance journalist and is currently writing a book about Holocaust survivors’ experiences in the years immediately after WWII. Twitter: @rosiewhitehouse