Esther Raffell
Esther Raffell

Protests that protected Jews at Cable Street are in danger. We must stand firm

A demonstrator is taken away under arrest by police officers after a mounted baton charge, in East London, on Oct. 4, 1936, to stop fighting between anti-fascists and Sir Oswald Mosley's blackshirts. Via Jewish News
A demonstrator is taken away under arrest by police officers after a mounted baton charge, in East London, on Oct. 4, 1936, to stop fighting between anti-fascists and Sir Oswald Mosley's blackshirts. Via Jewish News

Faith and belief groups across the United Kingdom, including the Board of Deputies, have spoken out against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in advance of its Lords Committee Stage later this month. We call for the removal of parts 3 and 4 of the Bill, which criminalise modes of protest and peaceful demonstration that are considered ‘noisy’ or causing ‘serious unease’. This implicates faith communities across the UK, empowering police to disrupt prayer vigils and acts of public worship as well as other demonstrations.

As Jewish community members, the Bill dampens our voices not just in prayer, but in protest. In fact, the former ceases to exist without the latter. Monsieur René Cassin was a French-Jewish jurist instrumental in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of the Holocaust. The Declaration specifies freedom of religion (article 18), freedom of expression (article 19), and freedom of peaceful assembly and association (article 20). We know all too well as a community that the free exercise of these rights as Jews, whether through leyning in synagogue or celebrating Purim on the streets of Stamford Hill, is a right not easily won. Nor have we secured it quietly, without noise, unease, or disruption. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true.

This month we mark the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists sought to spark violence in the Jewish East End, holding meetings, distributing propaganda to rally their troops. Local people did not take this lying down.

When 7,000 fascist Blackshirts marched on Cable Street flanked by police officers, East End Jews were joined by trade unionists, Irish Catholic dockers and Communists to confront them. Barricades were erected with the materials provided by Jewish tailors and Irish dock workers. Children threw marbles and Irish women pelted rubbish from overlooking flats, while cafés became aid units to treat the wounded.

This movement spelled a resounding rejection of fascism boasted about by British governments today. Yet this celebrated display of inter-communal solidarity is discouraged and even criminalised by the Policing Bill. It is not just Cable Street either. A team of experts at Amnesty International have shown that this legislation would have imperilled historic protests including Pride, anti-fracking efforts, assembling in Parliament Square and even commemorative peace vigils. In this sense, the Bill reveals its disregard for these social movements and the attendant marginalised groups who rely on them to secure their rights.

Discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers is particularly pronounced in the Bill, which proposes making trespass a criminal rather than civil offence to prevent ‘unauthorised encampments’, despite a chronic shortage of roadside camps. The nomadic lifestyle of Travellers and Gypsies has long been stigmatized, and Jews have often shared in this experience, coded as ‘rootless’ or ‘deceptive’. So, like our elders at Cable Street, we must confront this hatred together. Earlier this year, Jewish students, faith leaders and campaigners like ourselves spoke out against the Bill. We reminded our community that we too have ‘been vilified as thieves and cheats, [and] continually suffered from racist hostility and persecution, including shared experience during the Shoah.’ Now, as the Bill’s passage continues, we cannot stand by idly in silence.

As a community and as a faith, we rely on the ability to raise our voice, make noise, and disrupt the will of those who seek to silence us or roll back our rights. We must not allow ourselves or our Gypsy and Traveller friends to be cowed in that tradition. We must speak out and stand firm against new police powers.

About the Author
Esther Raffell, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin, the Jewish voice for Human Rights
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