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We must learn from the past to fight antisemitism today

Battle of Cable Street 1936 | (Alamy)

3 min read

For as long as there has been antisemitism, threats against Jewish people, and dangerous antisemitic conspiracies, there have been people who have bravely fought against them.

From the wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for treason in 19th century France, to the proliferation of fascist groups in post-war Britain, people across Europe have debunked dangerous disinformation, raised awareness of the threat to Jewish people, and sacrificed their lives to combat genocidal violence.

The history of the fight against antisemitism is now being brought to the home of our democracy with an exhibition in the Houses of Parliament, Fighting Antisemitism from Dreyfus to Today, to raise awareness of this important history and shine a light on these courageous groups and individuals.

We must preserve and defend the historical record against distortion, conspiracy and censorship

The exhibition has been developed by the Wiener Holocaust Library using their unique archive, a trove of fascinating objects on the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the history of antisemitism. The library’s founder Dr Alfred Wiener, who you may have recently read about in Lord Finkelstein’s amazing memoir – Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad – was awarded an Iron Cross for bravely fighting for the German army in the First World War.

On his return to Germany, he found right-wing and nationalist groups stoking conspiracy theories that blamed Jews and Communists for his country’s defeat. By the 1920s he had identified the Nazi party as a particular threat to Jews, and began collecting evidence of their antisemitism, distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets, and persuading ordinary Germans of the dangers they posed.

The exhibition includes key documents and photographs from the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 when 100,000 Jewish residents, including my family, Irish dock workers, Communists and Labour Party members prevented a march by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) from passing through the East End.

The display also reveals uncomfortable truths about the proliferation of fascist groups across Britain after the Second World War. Countering the threat they posed, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX), the Defence Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the militant 43 Group held public meetings, monitored fascist activity, and sabotaged fascist rallies. One chilling photograph from the Community Security Trust’s archive shows a fascist performing a Hitler salute at a rally in Dalston in 1948.

Today, antisemitism continues to pose a very real threat to Jews in Britain and around the world. The Community Security Trust’s (CST) latest report into antisemitism in the United Kingdom recorded 803 anti-Jewish hate incidents across Britain in the first half of 2023, including a marked increase in hatred and prejudice online. Their report found a growing number of incidents perpetrated by people under 18, in particular drawing on dangerous conspiracy theories or narratives of Holocaust denial.

To understand the continuing threat that too many Jews still face, we must look to the past, in particular to those figures and groups who have stood up against hatred and prejudice by whatever means they can. We must also preserve and defend the historical record against distortion, conspiracy and censorship. By learning from the past, we can better recognise instances of antisemitism and challenge it where it is found.

 

Baroness Anderson, Labour peer and CEO at Index On Censorship

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