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Book review: An East End Legacy

This book pays tribute to historian Bill Fishman.

    A 2016 march through the East End to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 'Battle of Cable Street'
    A 2016 march through the East End to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 'Battle of Cable Street' (Photo: Getty Images)

     

    This volume of essays by accredited scholars in honour of the late Bill Fishman is a fitting memorial to a much-loved historian of London’s East End. His telling of Eleanor Marx’s work among the Jewish poor in the 1880s or Rudolf Rocker’s leadership of Jewish anarchists and their demonstrations on Yom Kippur mesmerised any listener. He acquired disciples without trying.

    Bill was alternative; he reclaimed a history of the people which was not the sanitised, respectable account that Jewish leaders liked to present to government ministers. This approach permeates all of these interesting essays. Colin Holmes looks at the case of Morris and Marks Reubens, two brothers sentenced to death for murder in 1909, and the connection in general between Jews and crime. Jerry White relates the situation of East End Jews — “friendly aliens” during the First World War and the growing xenophobia rising from the depths. “Are they all cowards?”, asked the East London Observer.

    David Mazower recovers the story of “Whitechapel’s Yiddish Opera House” — the Feinman Yiddish People’s Theatre — and portrays the richness of a Jewish culture before the erosion by anglicisation. The East End has of course, changed dramatically. Hitler’s bombers and “doodlebugs” effectively destroyed the old East End and propelled the Jewish exodus to Hendon and Ilford. As Anne Kershen relates, they were gradually replaced by small numbers of Cypriot, Maltese, Somali, Caribbean and Pakistani immigrants.

    However, the greatest number of new East Enders came from Bangladesh — and there are similar patterns to the past, only the name changes.

    Known as “Petty France” as the home of the French Huguenots, then as “Little Jerusalem” when inhabited by East European Jews, it has now emerged as “Banglatown”. Where there was once Arnold Wester, Bernard Kops and Emanuel Litvinoff, there is now Monica Ali. Kosher restaurants have been replaced by halal ones. Where Phil Piratin once represented the Communist party, George Galloway was elected fleetingly on the Respect ticket.

    Wayne Parsons has written an absorbing essay that examines “the moral foundations of Bill Fishman’s libertarian socialism”. Free market capitalism was, in Bill’s eyes, morally deficient, lacking in compassion and blind to its responsibility to care for the poor and disadvantaged. As Parsons relates, he was highly critical of those Jews who expressed support for laissez-faire economics and, not one for mincing his words, spoke about Margaret Thatcher as “that mad woman in authority”. Fishman was also critical of socialists who lacked a soul, exhibited double standards in espousing some causes while remaining silent on others and who, on the way up, were willing to tread on those with a different opinion.

    Bill Fishman embraced a Jewishness, based on moral principle and a lack of hypocrisy, which this book depicts so well. It is a fine testament to his life and beliefs.

     

    An East End Legacy: Essays in Memory of William J Fishman edited by Anne Kershen and Colin Holmes (Routledge £68) 

     

    Colin Shindler is emeritus professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, University of London. His most recent book, ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’ was published by Rowman and Littlefield

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