2019 02 – tribute to Max Levitas, British Communist

MAX LEVITAS (1915-2018)

A Tribute by Manus O’Riordan

The veteran Communist Party of Britain activist Max Levitas, born in Dublin on June 1, 1915, passed away in London on November 2, 2018.

Over thirty years ago, a close family friendship was formed between myself and both Max and his International Brigade brother Maurice Levitas (1917-2001), whose Dublin childhood home had been only a few streets away from what would be my own childhood home a generation later.

See http://irelandscw.com/obit-MLevitas.htm for my obituary of Maurice Levitas in the ‘Irish Times’ on February 24, 2001, having given the oration at Maurice’s funeral in Golders Green crematorium on the previous day. I also attended Max’s funeral at Rainham Jewish cemetery this past November 6, and was honoured by the request from the Levitas family to submit an obituary to the “Irish Times”, which I did on November 20.

Four years ago, in 2015, I had spoken at Max’s 100th birthday party in Whitechapel, bringing with me greetings from the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, “expressing the gratitude of the Irish people for the great contribution which you, and the wider Levitas family have made to the cause of labour and to the cause of liberty in Ireland, in Britain, in Spain, and internationally. You are truly a citizen of the world, Max, but we are also proud to call you a son of Ireland.”

See https://comeheretome.com/2015/10/02/max-levitas-100-year-old-jewish-dubliner-and-working-class-hero/ for a centenary celebration. The last time I met Max was when I shared a platform with him, and the British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, on October 9, 2016,  at the 80th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Cable Street, when, inter alia, I commented:

“Thirty years ago, Maurice Levitas told me of the political choices that had faced him as a teenager here in Whitechapel: “I could choose to be either a Communist or a Zionist. I chose to become a Communist.” Now, comrades and friends, I myself am not a Communist. I have not been one for 35 years. But, as an ex-Communist, I am also immensely proud of having been one! And in the wake of month after month of the most bigoted and hysterical Red-baiting in the British media, there is one historical fact that all of us should publicly acknowledge today. We would not be here celebrating the 80th anniversary of the defeat of Mosley’s Fascists, were it not for the leadership given on that day by Britain’s Communist Party, and the likes of Max Levitas, Secretary of the Young Communist League’s Stepney Branch, and Maurice Levitas, Secretary of its Bethnal Green Branch.”

Max Levitas had himself further related: “We also had to fight against the Jewish Board of Deputies, where the Jewish Board of Deputies said that if Mosley tried to march through the East End of London we should shut our doors. Our thoughts were: Why shut our doors? They shut the doors in Germany.”

The passing of Max, accordingly, created somewhat of a problem for that same Jewish establishment and its campaign of character assassination against Corbyn. An anti-Corby sneer, if not smear, lingered in the report by Rosa Doherty in the “Jewish Chronicle” this past  November 5: ” Max Levitas, who stood up to fascists at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, has died at the age of 103. The Jewish East Ender and former Communist councillor in Tower Hamlets died on Friday. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn led tributes paid to his “friend” on Twitter over the weekend. “The sun is shining in,” the Labour Party leader wrote as he paid tribute to “my friend” and shared a Channel 4 News clip of him describing Cable Street.”

But see http://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/the-world-is-a-better-place-because-of-my-friend-max-levitas-cable-street-1.472167 for how Corbyn called their bluff three days later, by leaving them no way out of publishing the appreciation he submitted to that paper.

See https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/remembering-max-levitas-–-jewish-communist-and-last-survivor-battle-cable-street for the November 16 obituary by Max’s CP comrade Mary Davis, who wrote: “Max served briefly in the British army during the war. His niece, Ruth Levitas, relates the unwritten tale that he was dismissed from the army during training as unfit for military service (but not dishonourably discharged), after punching an officer for an anti-semitic insult… The amazing mass mobilisation led by Stepney communists on the housing question and the anti-fascism campaigns led to stunning electoral victories. In 1945 Phil Piratin was elected as Communist MP for Mile End and in 1946, 10 Communists were elected to Stepney Borough Council. Seven of these were Jews, Max among them. He served as a councillor intermittently for a total of 15 years. He and Solly Kaye remained as councillors until 1971.”

See http://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/opinion/max-levitas-london-jewish-socialist.html for a decent obituary in the “New York Times”, also on November 16. But the November 16 obituary in the “London Times” was more problematic. While providing a reasonably accurate and detailed account of Max’s life, it could not avoid the temptation to indulge in anti-communist sneers: “Deep dyed British communist who was a comrade of Jeremy Corbyn… In 1945, when the British people were still feeling misty-eyed about “Uncle Joe” Stalin, Levitas was among ten communists who made headlines when they were elected as councillors in Stepney. He held the office for 17 years.” And ignorant readers’ comments followed, including: “So he did not fight against fascism in World War 11 even though he was 24 when it started?”

See http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/max-levitas-obituary-dublin-born-jewish-communist-who-fought-british-facism-1.3737515 for the online version of my obituary of Max, which was finally published by the “Irish Times”, a month after submission, on December 22, 2018.  I placed on the record the immigrant Levitas family’s support for Ireland’s War of Independence:

“The eldest of six siblings, Max Samuel Levitas – Motl Shmuel ben Hillel – was born in June 1915 at 15 Longwood Avenue, in the South Circular Road, Portobello, area of Dublin, then known colloquially as “Little Jerusalem”. A year later, the family moved as sub-tenants to an artisan dwelling at 8 Warren Street, where his brother Maurice, later an International Brigade volunteer in the Spanish anti-Fascist War, would be born in February 1917. Situated directly across the Grand Canal from Portobello Barracks, the area was the scene of numerous gun battles, during both the War of Independence and the Civil War, of which Max had vivid childhood memories. But there was no doubt about where the family stood. “We’re voting for Sinn Féin!” as Harry Levitas would inform Leah.”

It was even more important to explain why, unlike his brothers Maurice and Sol, who had served overseas in the British Army during the Second World War, Max had not. The heading given to the online version of my obituary – “Dublin born Jewish communist who fought British fascism” – was more to the point than the shortened “who fought fascism” wording in the print version. For Max had not gone on to fight German fascism. He had been prevented from doing so. My obituary explained both how and why:

“In 1941, determined to see the defeat of Nazi Germany, Max volunteered for combat in the British Army. But his military career was short-lived. “I was ‘invalided’ out,” was how Max described the euphemistic language used by his superiors in dismissing him for punching a British Army officer. A court martial was deemed undesirable, as it would have revealed that Max had punched the officer for addressing him as “a dirty Jew”. It was a case of literally having to strike a blow against anti-Semitism on the Home Front.”

This January 6, a memorial meeting celebrating the life of Max Levitas was held in the London East End Bishopsgate Institute, where I once again shared the platform with Jeremy Corbyn, as well as with TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, in tribute to my comrade and friend of thirty years, and once again I took the opportunity to point out: Max Levitas had been prevented from fighting against Nazi Germany by the anti-Semitism of the British Establishment itself.