British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses

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Anti-Semitism was at the heart of the politics of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from its very foundation in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley. Daniel Tilles demonstrates this in this fascinating book that charts in detail Jewish responses to anti-Semitism and the BUF.

In 1932 in his first speech as BUF leader Mosley attacked the noisy anti-fascists in the audience, calling them “class warriors from Jerusalem”. He later claimed that he was not against “all Jews” but just those who “financed Communists or were pursuing anti-British policy”. From 1934 the BUF became more overtly anti-Semitic, with proposals to deport all the Jews from Britain – little different from the German Nazis.

Unlike Hitler, Mosley was not a lifelong anti-Semite. Rather he led British fascists who were in need of a scapegoat for Britain’s “economic and moral decline”. They targeted the largest group of immigrants in Britain at that time — the Jews. Jewish responses to anti-Semitism were varied. The established mainstream organisation representing Jews in Britain was the Jewish Board of Deputies. Tilles’s aim in his book is to demonstrate that, contrary to what most historians believe, the board played an active role in opposing anti-Semitism and the BUF.

He contends that those Jews who took to the streets to hold back the fascists at the Battle of Cable Street in 1934 were wrong; indeed their actions “brought further suffering on the Jews and increased anti-Semitism”. Class politics is the key to understanding the variety of Jewish responses. As Tilles shows, “Many Jews felt closer to their fellow British workers than to the distant Jewish elite.” When Jewish trade unions and Jewish ex-servicemen’s organisations asked to affiliate to the Board of Deputies they were rejected, as these groups were considered “too close to the Communist Party”.

The Board of Deputies’ “defence strategy” took four main forms: anti-defamation (refuting racist lies told about the Jews and advocating how the Jews were good people), intelligence gathering (of BUF activity for the Home Office), lobbying the authorities to restrict anti-Semitic activity, and encouraging Jews not to engage in confrontational anti-fascism.

Their opposition to direct confrontation with the BUF was supported by most Jewish Labour and Tory MPs. Nevertheless, thousands of Jewish people turned out to oppose the fascists when they attempted to march through the east end of London. Tilles attempts to revise the importance of Jews uniting with non-Jews to confront and stop the fascists. Despite this, he reveals much of interest about anti-fascism, detailing the wide scope of Jewish involvement in direct anti-fascist activity. This book would be a valuable addition to any library.