The BBC started broadcasting its four part drama series entitled Ridley Road this week. The series, based on the book by the same name by author Jo Bloom, depicts life in and around the famous London market, then in the heart of heavily populated Jewish areas of Hackney and Dalston in North East London, and the fight against fascism. Just fifteen years after the end of World War II, there was a growth of antisemitism spurred on by the British fascist movement under the leadership of Colin Jordan. A group of Jewish residents of the area created what became known as the 62 group, to combat the fascists. Rather than limit their opposition to making formal complaints to the police and the law authorities, they went out on the streets to physically combat the fascist demonstrators, culminating in the face to face confrontation with a large pro fascist rally which took place at Ridley Road market in 1962.
Many have commented, and will be commenting in the coming weeks, on the drama series. As to be expected, opinions are divided. Some think it is an excellent series depicting the resurgence of anti semitism in the post World War II period, while others have criticized it for not displaying Jewish life of the period realistically, given that most of the main actors are not Jewish themselves. But all have agreed that the broadcasting of this drama right now, at a period when there is growing antisemitisim throughout the UK, albeit of a very different variety to that of the 50’s and early 60’s, is an important reminder for the British public of the threats posed by racism, xenophobia and an inability to accept the presence of the “other” in what is, at the end of the day, one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse cities in the world.
I grew up as a young child in that area in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Every Wednesday morning, in my pre school and even pre kindergarten days, my mother would walk from our home in Newington Green, about a fifteen to twenty minute walk away, to do the weekly shopping – especially the Jewish and kosher shopping – in Ridley Road market. To this day I recall the kosher butcher and poulterer, Glass, who would always have a bag of bones for the chulent and the Shabat soup, and a bag of chicken eggs, ready for the Rabbis wife – my father was the last Rabbi of the nearby Dalston – Poets Road Synagogue which closed down in 1967 as Jews moved on to greener pastures in the suburbs of North West London. Newington Green is actually located on the other side of the municipal boundary, in the Borough of Islington, and were I to live in the same location today, my local member of Parliament would be none other than former Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose activities have been associated with the so called “new antisemitism” of the left, as contrasted with the classic right wing and fascist antisemitism of the period depicted in Ridley Road.
I do not recall much antisemitism during that period. No doubt that as a very young child I was shielded from such events. But neither do my elder brother and sister, both of whom attended non Jewish High Schools (then known as Grammar Schools) very close to Ridley Road. Neither Hackney Downs nor Laura Place were Jewish schools, but over fifty percent of the pupils were from the Jewish, largely orthodox, communities of Hackney, Dalston and Islington, and I do not recall any major anti semitic incidents of the period. The High School I attended, Dame Alice Owens in the Angel Islington, had far fewer Jewish students, but anti semitism was never a problem . The other pupils were just jealous that I, along with a few co-religionists , could go home for a decent kosher lunch each day, could leave early on winter Fridays when Shabat commenced earlier, and that we were excused from all religious services and Christmas concerts. Some of them would have loved to have been Jewish!!!
Our own family lived in the apartment on top of the grand old Dalston Synagogue, in a street which was populated by a few Jews, English working class Christians and increasingly by the incoming immigrant population, a few West Indians but mostly refugees from Cyprus who were fleeing their home country following Independence and the growth of Greek-Turkish violence in that part of the world – which eventually led to the Turkish invasion, and division of Cyprus in 1974. We played together on the streets and in the Synagogue backyard, to which I had the keys, and were only interested in one thing – football – not in each others ethnic background or strange garb or religious customs. The local football team, Arsenal, a ten minute walk away through Highbury, another heavily populated Jewish area, or the fact that some of us, this writer included, supported the glamour team of that time, Tottenham Hostpur, a few miles further down the road, was the main source of contention between us.
We were not interested and probably largely unaware of the tensions that may have existed within and between many of our adult peers, and which culminated in the Ridley Road demonstrations, the consolidation of the Fascist movement and the organization of the 62 movement. Their physical and violent opposition to the fascists was not met with approval by the formal institutions of the Anglo Jewish community, not least the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who preferred to work through the formal channels, but they in turn were perceived as being too appeasing in their approach. A major difference between then and now, as depicted in the drama series, is the fact that in the 50’s and 60s’, the police were not always sympathetic to the complaints of the Jewish community, while today both the Government and the Police Authorities work in close liaison with representatives of the Jewish community, not least in the Hackney neighbourhood which is now the largest Haredi community in Europe numbering almost 40,000 inhabitants, and growing exponentially.
The Ridley Road demonstration reminded people of the time of the famous Cable Street demonstrations, not that far away from Ridley Road in the East End, led by Oswald Mosley some twenty five years previously, prior to World War II, when the East End was still the most densely populated Jewish area in London and in Western Europe. At that time, the local Jewish community, and not just the Jews, organized a counter demonstration and refused to let the Mosely fascists march through the area. There were violent confrontations, but the fascists “did not pass” and, this has gone down in the folk lore of the Anglo Jewish community. Many of us had parents or grandparents who were proud to have been on the streets of Cable Street (indeed judging by the number of people who told you they were present that day, there were many more demonstrators than actually took part), even as the mounted police showed a clear support for the fascist demonstrators in the name of “freedom of expression”.
Growing up in the sixties my parents were never over intrusive of what their children got up to on the streets or what they wore – with one exception which sticks out in my memory to this day. As a teenager I returned home one day with what I thought was the height of fashion, a black shirt. My mother took one look at it and told me that in her house, we don’t wear black shirts because this was the uniform of the Mosley fascists some 35 years previously. It was perhaps the only time that she ever mentioned , or hinted at, the fascism and anti semitism which she may have encountered as a youngster – preferring always to remind us how fortunate we were to grow up post World War II, on the streets of a safe city and in a society where ethnic and religious groups were largely tolerated.
Indeed the streets and public transportation systems of London of the 1960’s appear to have been a much safer place than the streets of London today, where children rarely go on long journeys by themselves and where we read daily headlines of stabbings and muggings to an extent which did not take place fifty years ago.
The 62 group depicted in the drama series, were a copy of the 43 group, set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after the Second World War when, upon returning to London, they encountered British fascist organisations. The activities of these fascist groups included antisemitic speeches in public places and violent attacks on Jewish property. Members of the 43 group broke up far right meetings, infiltrated fascist groups, and attacked the fascists in street fighting. Many of these encounters also took place in and around the Ridley Road market, which was even more Jewish in the late 40’s than it was by the early 60’s. It is highly likely that some of the younger members of the 43 group would have been members of the 62 Group some twenty years later.
Overall, the UK, and London where the majority of the British Jewish community reside, has been a welcoming place for the Jewish community throuhout the past two hundred years. The community has worked hard and prospered beyond all imagination from the time they were penniless and persecuted immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The physical numbers of the community have declined, due to a combination of assimilation and migration elsewhere – in percentage terms the British Jewish community can boast the highest rate of Aliya to Israel out of any of the free Western Communities. But it is dynamic, culturally active and displays a strong affinity with Israel. And despite the obvious internal Jewish and community disputes, it has a strong and cohesive leadership – both lay and religious – none more respected than the late lamented Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was a respected figure throughout the UK, not just by the Jewish community.
Although I retain many friends and family members back in London, most of my own peer community moved to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, but only because we wanted to be part of a Jewish State, never because of anti-semitism.We were all well qualified, could easily have become members of the community establishment and leadership (as those who stayed behind did) but we were seeking an alternative Jewish and Zionist experience. Zionism to us was far less a political ideology than it was about being Jewish, an integral part of what it meant to be Jewish, enabling a greater sense of religious and cultural fulfillment. Religious Zionism at that time was all about living in the Land of Israel, not about training to be future leaders of the Anglo Jewish community, as appears to be the case today. The talk we hear today even amongst well established members of the British Jewish community who are considering Aliya (immigration to Israel) because of the growth in anti Semitic incidents, not least recent marches down the main roads of Golders Green and St. John’s Wood, was an irrelevance for my own generation of Jews who grew up in London of the 1960’s and 1970’s. We were positive about wanting to make new lives in Israel, not about fleeing a threat (real or imagined) as a last resort. The recent marches, including a new element which didn’t exist in the 1940’s or 1960’s – some radical islamic influences, and focused strongly on an anti-Israel position (but by no means using this to taint an entire community which is far larger than the Jewish community) will be encountered in a different way – there will not be a 2021 street equivalent to the 43 and the 62 groups.
There used to be many synagogues in the vicinity of Ridley Road but they have all been shut down as the community moves on. The Dalston Synagogue in Newington Green was closed down in 1967, sold by the United Synagogue for no more than a mere 12,000 pounds (cheap even for then), knocked down and replaced by a mundane block of council flats, although a single wall and pillar of the old Synagogue remain; the Shacklewell Lane Synagogue (the New Dalston) closed ten years later and became a Mosque with the addition of a dome, no signs left to its Jewish heritage; while the Montagu Road beth hamedrash, just at the back of Ridley Road, closed its doors in the 1970’s and is now a boutique block of apartments in an area which is becoming gentrified, but still has Hebrew signage on the front of the building. A fourth major synagogue in the same area, the Hackney Synagogue underwent a major downsize, and the building was transformed into an Evangelical Church. The Stoke Newington – Stamford Hill haredi neighbourhood is but a few minutes ride along the Kingsland Road, but Jews no longer frequent the market.
The anti semitism faced by the British Jewish community today is very different to the fascist anti semitism of the late 1940s or the early 1960s, displayed in this important drama, which is as much about education as it is about acting. Liaison, cooperation with the State and the support of the Police authorities is much closer and warmer today than it was sixty years ago. But the CST (Community Security Trust) which safeguards all Jewish buildings, synagogues and major events, is an organisation which did not exist back in the 60’s – there was simply no need at that time. The British Jewish community may not face any major threat to its existence, but it has to remain constantly on its guard to ensure that the fascist anti-Semites of Mosley and Ridley Road, or the intellectual anti semites of the far left, and the social media, do not gain new footholds.
Later today, I will be taking a group of friends, colleagues and other Israelis visiting London, as I often do when I am in London, on a walking tour of some of my childhood neighbourhoods. It is a tour about growing up as a Jewish kid on the streets of inner city London. We will walk through Dalston, Highbury and Hackney and will end our tour (the longer version) at Ridley Road market – still a vibrant ethnic market but no longer Jewish. No doubt we will stop to discuss the BBC drama series and its implications for contemporary British society.