2016 11 – The Battle Of Cable Street





Manus O’Riordan’s speech published below highlights the key role played by individual Jews in the fight against antisemitism and fascism in east London in 1936. It is an eloquent tribute to their courage and a spur to all of us to continue their work.

In recent months Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has been heavily criticised both within and without the Labour party for his “failure” to tackle the alleged antisemitism in Labour. (Labour Affairs has referred to this in previous issues).

The latest criticism of Corbyn and Labour can be found in the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee Report on ‘Antisemitism in the UK’, presented on 13 October. The Report was agreed unanimously by the following Committee members present on the day: James Berry, Conservative, David Burrowes, Conservative, Nasrat Ghani, Conservative, Ranil Jayawardena, Conservative, Tim Loughton, Conservative, Chuka Umunna, Labour, David Winnick, Labour.

Other members of the Committee not present when the Report was agreed are: Stuart C. McDonald, SNP, Naz Shah, Labour. The Report also includes the following as ‘members of the Committee during the Parliament’: Keir Starmer, Labour, Anna Turley, Labour, Keith Vaz, Labour.


Comrades and friends, 

I am deeply honoured, as the son of Irish International Brigader Michael O’Riordan, to be speaking here today. (I was also privileged to be sharing the platform with my comrade and friend, and fellow-Dubliner, 101-year-old Max Levitas, and the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn MP.) It is important that we draw on the lessons of the struggles of the past, in order to fight all the more effectively against all forms of racism, anti-immigrant bigotry, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism; and remember also the era of “No Irish need apply”, and that more recent appalling vista – no, not the one of Lord Denning’s nightmares, but the exact opposite – when “racial profiling”, in other words, blatant racism, led to such miscarriages of justice as the criminal imprisonment of the Maguire Seven, the Guildford Four, and the Birmingham Six.

There were, of course, many International Brigaders and their families who ensured the defeat of the British Union of Fascists. I will name but two from Ireland. The first is that Dublin brigadista, my late comrade and friend, Maurice Levitas, who, 80 years ago, manned the barricades on these very streets, along with his older brother Max, and his younger brother Sol. The targets of anti-immigrant bigotry can sometimes be set up for a double whammy. As Maurice once told me: “I recall an incident in school in Glasgow when one teacher remarked to the class on the improbability of such a phenomenon as an Irish Jew. He even went so far as to invite any Irish Jew in the class to stand up and make himself known. I stood up. What happened, or what he said, I cannot now remember. And I have no inkling at all as to what his motivations were.” But we can very well guess. And here today, it is also only right to acknowledge another aspect of his brother Max’s century of struggle, his steadfast commitment to the retention of his Dublin Yiddish accent!

In February 1937, the County Tyrone International Brigader Charlie Donnelly would be killed in action at the battle of Jarama. A talented poet, he had been active in the Republican Congress in Dublin, and was a close personal and political friend of fellow poet Leslie Daiken, a member of Dublin’s Jewish community. In 1935 Daiken emigrated to London and began editing The Irish Front, the voice of the Republican Congress among the Irish Diaspora. Donnelly joined him shortly afterwards as its co-editor. In October 1936, they wrote an Irish Front editorial entitled “They Did Not Pass”, where they rejoiced:  “On Sunday, October 4th, the London working class dealt a blow to the aspirations of Fascism. Thousands of Jewish, Irish and English workers in the East End of London came together and, by their united efforts, prevented Sir Oswald Mosley and his Fascist army from staging a provocative march through the Jewish quarters.” Indeed, in his autobiography, Our Flag Stays Red, Phil Piratin – elected Communist MP for Stepney in 1945  – described a scene where bearded Orthodox Jews linked arms with Irish Catholic dockers, in order to prevent Fascism from marching through these London East End streets.

Charlie Donnelly would be remembered in verse by Leslie Daiken:

  • I too have heard companion voices die –
  • O Splendid fledglings they, in fiery fettle,
  • Caudwell and Cornford and Cathal Donnelly
  • Stormcocks atune with Lorca, shot down in battle!
  • Young Charlie’s cenotaph – Jarama’s olive trees. 

A fellow-poet from Dublin, Ewart Milne, served as an ambulance driver for the Spanish Republic, and he linked the death of Donnelly with that of another close friend and fellow-ambulance driver – a German Jewish refugee by the name of Isaac Kupchik:

  • Sirs and Señoras, let me end my story –
  • I show you earth, earth formally,
  • And Two on guard with the junipers.
  • Two, Gael and Jew, side by side in a trench…
  • Two who came from prisonment, Gael because of Wolfe Tone,
  • Jew because of human love, the same for Jew as German…
  • I set them together, Izzy Kupchik and Charlie Donnelly;
  • And of that date with death among the junipers
  • I say only, they kept it.

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. Nor should we forget that the Communist Party’s first Member of Parliament, elected for Battersea in 1922, was an immigrant from Mumbai – Shapurji Saklatvala – whose name was honoured by the International Brigade’s British Battalion, upon its formation in Spain in January 1937.

In conclusion, might I also question the universal application of that mantra adopted by Marx, that history repeats itself, the second time as farce. Sometimes history can repeat itself as even sweeter victory. So, for the second time, congratulations to you, Jeremy Corbyn! And may you also carry forward the spirit of Cable Street, when you become the next British Labour Prime Minister!

No pasarán! They did not pass!