Hero's 'enough already' peak

The recent news that the National Trust is planning to fence off part of Kinder Scout brought Benny Rothman to mind.

You may have heard of Kinder Scout - it is the highest point of the Peak District, and a popular destination for tourists. But Benny Rothman? Some heroes are unsung. This one appears to have dropped out of the charts completely.

Rothman, who died eight years ago, led the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in April 1932 to demonstrate for the right to roam over what used to be common land but was at that time privately owned. A keen rambler, he was spurred into action after he had been turned away on a previous excursion to the Peaks by gamekeepers who, he said, "abused and threatened" him.

His protest ultimately led to the passing of the law that created the national parks and guaranteed access to some of the country's most scenic areas. Millions of people who visit the Peaks, or the Lakes, or the Dales every year have reason to be grateful.

He could have sloped away and found some other place to walk. But he didn't

At first sight, calling him a hero may be pitching it a little high. To qualify for that status usually requires, at the very least, a display of conspicuous courage in the face of great danger. Sacrifice in the cause of helping others doesn't hurt either.

Jews set the bar even higher. Across the centuries there have been outstanding Jewish examples of courage and sacrifice - Moses and Esther, Bar Kochba, the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, Israel's military saviours. But our greatest champions are remembered not for decisive battlefield moments or dare-devil rescues but for deeds on which the fate of an entire people depended.

They struggled against overwhelming odds not in the quest for glory, but for something far more valuable - survival.

Rothman's stroll in the country pales in comparison, doesn't it? The overwhelming odds in this case were on his side. In order to overcome the gamekeepers employed by the landowners to look after their grouse stocks, he took 400 people along with him. Not much danger of having to make the ultimate sacrifice there - the odd scuffle was as physical as the trespass got.

Not that Benny was obvious hero material to begin with. Born in Manchester into an Orthodox family of refugees who had fled antisemitism in Romania, his future looked bright when he won a scholarship to Manchester Central High School. But his education was terminated at the age of 14, when his father died and he had to help support the family. Like many other working-class lads of his generation, he joined the Communist Party, attracted by the promise of the inevitable overthrow of the capitalist system.

Fairly unremarkable then, but a Jewish hero he is nonetheless. Throughout our troubled history, the easy response to insult and petty discrimination has been to shrug and do nothing - the "don't-make-trouble" tradition. This rarely works.

Much rarer is the "enough-already" tradition, where the victim of injustice or unfairness finally is moved to rebel. When Rothman was kicked off that hillside and told that the grouse had more right to be there than he did, he had a choice.

He could have sloped away and found some other place to walk. But he didn't. He decided "enough already".

And there was sacrifice involved. Rothman was arrested and sentenced to four months in prison for incitement to riotous assembly. Revealingly, of the five protesters detained by police, four were Jewish.

So, at a time when mass protest is back in fashion, it seems right to recognise Benny's achievement. And the good news is that the National Trust's fences are designed to deter only grazing sheep - walkers can still follow in his footsteps.

Alan Montague is the arts and features editor of the JC

    Last updated: 10:28am, December 10 2010