Category Archives: Jewish radicals

From the archive: Passages Through Dark Times

Been going through some of my old stuff, and found some stuff from the CUCR magazine Street Signs (archive online here). This is from page 18-19 of Volume 1, Issue 5, Spring 2003. The issue also has a lovely interview with Paul Gilroy about The Streets, Fran Tonkiss on “inner city values”, Michael Stone on Laurie Grove in New Cross, Les Back interviewing M Y Alam, Hiroki Ogasawara visiting Walter Benjamin’s grave, and a beautiful celebration of Flemming Røgilds.

The article below describes my first proper academic conference, in Leipzig, and reflects on the relationship between Jews and the left in the darkness of the 20th century, and how that darkness is remembered by historians and leaves its traces in urban space. Since I wrote it, some of the people in it have passed away, including Arnold Paucker in 2016 (age 95).

Memhardstrasse and Rosa Luxemburg Strasse

Passages Through Dark Times
Ben Gidley talks about Jewishness, Memory and Urban Space in East Germany

“You who will emerge from the flood in which we were drowned remember when you speak of our weaknesses the dark time from which you escaped…
Remember us with forbearance.”
–Bertolt Brecht “To Those Born After Us”

“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and
shed over the time span that was given them on earth…”
–Hannah Arendt “Men in Dark Times” 

The transit bus from the airport into Leipzig arrived at the exact time given on the time-table. The bus glided through the flat monotony of the Saxon countryside, entering a zone of urban sprawl, in which it was impossible to distinguish which low-rise concrete box contained homes and which contained factories, warehouses, offices. The grey postindustrial landscape was punctuated here and there by Vietnamese signs, testimony to the historic links between East Germany and Communist Vietnam.

From the bus station, we crossed over the no-man’s land of a wide ring road (“good for tanks”, as my Yiddish teacher, Gennady Estraikh, pointed out – a fact he knew from the bitter experience of living most of his life in the Soviet Union) into the beauty of the baroque town centre. Since reunification, Leipzig has been a jewel in the East’s crown, receiving heavy regeneration investment. “Leipzig is coming” is the bizarre slogan of the tourist office, which describes it as a cosmopolitan, multicultural town (not something apparent from the faces of the people I passed on the street).

It was Autumn 2001. I was in Leipzig to participate in a conference, held at the Simon Dubnov Institute for Jewish History and Culture, entitled “Jewish Questions, Communist Answers”, about the historical relationship between Jews and Communist parties. I was anxious about giving my first proper conference paper – especially as I was scheduled into the opening slot, at 9 a.m., sharing a platform with some of the most distinguished scholars at the conference. As it turned out, post-September 11 fear of flying had kept away many of the American delegates, including the one I was most scared about sharing a session with. The absence of Americans, however, also meant that the dominant language shifted from English to German, leaving me feeling a little marginal – something non-English speakers regularly experience in the often American-centric academic world. As with many European academics, most of the conference participants were able to slide with ease between languages. But the multi-lingualism of the conference delegates was part of something different. Continue reading

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Diasporic Memory and the Call to Identity: Yiddish Migrants in Early Twentieth Century East London

I have a new article published, with the above title, in the Journal of Intercultural Studies, Volume 34, Issue 6.

Here’s the abstract:

This article explores the associational politics and diasporic memory of Jewish migrant workers in early twentieth century East London. It examines the ways in which associational activity, and specifically landsmanshaftn (hometown associations), tied migrants to sending contexts in both material and affective ways. This meant that diasporic memories were woven into the day-to-day political practices of these migrants, and were mobilised politically in response to the call to identification represented by traumatic events ‘back home’, as is illustrated in two examples, the protests at the 1903 Kishinev pogrom and solidarity with the civilian victims of the First World War. The article also shows that these mobilisations exemplify the ways in which such processes made a difference to the forms of identity and identification available to Jewish migrant workers in this period.

View full text; Download full text.

This appeared in a special issue, Refugee and Diaspora Memories, edited by Thomas Lacroix and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. Read the introduction here.


From Ben’s archive: The First War on Terror

I just saw this at Hari Kunzru’s website:

Bande a Bonnot

Anyone interested in political history or theory should visit Christie Books, the publishing house and anarchist archive run by Stuart Christie, would-be assassin of General Franco and author of the entertaining memoir My Granny Made Me an Anarchist. The site contains a great deal of audio and video, including a documentary I made for BBC Radio 3 in 2008 called The First War on Terror. It’s about the anti-anarchist panic that gripped Europe in the late Victorian period, and the responses by writers (from pulp novelists to greats like Conrad and Chesterton) to the fears of a social order without gods or masters. Listen to the program here.

I feature (fairly briefly) in the programme, taking Hari on a walking tour of East London, including Freedom Books, which was firebombed this week, probably by fascists (and not for the first term), along with Clive Bettington of the Jewish East End Commemoration Society (far more radiogenic than me), talking about Joseph Conrad, Rudolf Rocker and more.

Here’s the BBC’s page on it:

b00dp1phNovelist Hari Kunzru explores how pulp fiction writers and great novelists got to grips with the UK’s first major ‘war on terror’ – against the Anarchists of Victorian and Edwardian times. These ‘scare novels’ responded to the Anarchists’ wish to abolish the State by depicting outlandish scenarios such as political assassinations and large-scale bombings.

He also explores the world of the real anarchists in London’s immigrant communities – most of whom were peaceful and cultured East End Jewish activists, trying to improve conditions in the garment trade – in contrast to these terrorists the novelists imagined and the popular press feared.

Bringing the programme up to date, Hari and literary scholars Laurence Davies and Deaglan O’Donghaile also briefly consider the modern response to 9/11, asking whether novels on terrorism ever get it right.


Audrey Goodfriend z”l

Audrey GoodfriendToday – a week after the yortsayt of my grandfather (the anniversary of his death, when Jews light a candle and recite kaddish, the memorial prayer) – I read that Audrey Goodchild has died.

I met Audrey Goodchild about ten years ago, at a conference on anarchists and Jews in Venice. She was just in her 80s then. She has died this month in her 93rd year. She was a wonderful character, a great raconteur, and full of human warmth and fun.

Born into an immigrant Jewish anarchist family in New York in 1920, she was a lifelong anarchist. She was a pioneer in the libertarian education movement and involved in the beatnik scene.

Like my Communist grandparents, she was ambivalent about her Jewish identity, seeing ethnicity, race and religion as so many illusions that we will throw off come the revolution, in the proletarian dawn when all difference is dissolved. She saw herself (after Voltairine de Cleyre) as an “anarchist without adjectives“. While my grandparents, in their old age, came to embrace again the Jewish culture and tradition they had rejected in their youth (without giving up their commitment to the left, or indeed their atheism), Audrey never did. Even though she joked and sometimes (she told me) dreamt in Yiddish, she saw her Jewishness as a dead skin to shake off.

Audrey and her close comrades in the Why? group found themselves at odds with many of the more Jewish-identified anarchists in the Yiddish scene, who mainly came from the immigrant generation, as World War II approached. Most Jewish anarchists saw themselves as anti-fascists. Many therefore supported the Allied war effort, seeing WWII as sharply different from WWI – not just imperialist rivalry between the big powers, but also a fight to save European Jewry from Naziism. Audrey had no time for this line of thinking. When some of her comrades, such as Irving Sterling, joined the American army, Audrey broke off relations with him. In my view, history has vindicated Irving and not Audrey, but she remained convinced that she had been on the right side when I met her.

Like my grandfather, who refused any memorial after he passed on, I am sure Audrey believed that there is nothing left of us but ashes and dust after we die. I will not pray for her, but I will think of her next year as I light my grandfather’s candle.

Here is her fuller story. Here is a short interview clip with her from 2011.


Gefilte fish and syndicalism

From the website of Donnacha DeLong’s The Circled A show on Resonance FM:

Commemorating the strikes of 1912 meeting On 23 May, the Jewish Socialists’ Group held a meeting in the library of the Bishopsgate Institute to discuss the history and continuing relevance of the 1912 tailor’s strike, inspired by Rudolf Rocker. The meeting covered the history of unionism in the East End, including the Docks, the history of the rag trade and sweatshops, the strike in 1912 and what it can teach the contemporary trade union movement. The meeting was chaired by David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists and included talks by Ben Gidley, senior researcher at Compas at Oxford University working on East End Jewish radical history, and Donnacha DeLong, President of the National Union of Journalists.

File 1: David Rosenberg opens the meeting

Part 01 rocker event intro

File 2: Ben Gidley talks about the history of the unions in East London and the history of the rag trade

Part 02 rocker event ben gidley

File 3: Donnacha DeLong talks about the broader context of the strike and its relevance for contemporary trade unionism

03 rocker event donnacha delong

File 4: Audience Q&A

Part 04 rocker event Q and A

UPDATE: Versions of mine and Donnacha’s talks have since been published in Jewish Socialist magazine.