It was an extraordinary clash between the Jewish leadership and the Jewish masses.
When antisemitic marches took place in London and elsewhere, the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jews, told its members not to fight back, but to stay at home.
“We don’t want to be seen as rowdy or confrontational,” the Board said, “nor do we want to do anything that would disturb the peace, and certainly nothing that would bring us into conflict with the police. Keep your heads down and ignore the antisemites.”
But ordinary Jews felt differently. They reckoned that they had had enough of antisemitic slogans and banners, and it was time to oppose the hate-mongers.
“Let’s show them that this is our country, our city and our streets”, they said. “Why should we kowtow to those who hate us? The answer is not to hide, but to stand up for ourselves”.
So they ignored the Board, organised their own protest, and got a massive response from fellow Jews, while non-Jewish Londoners also joined them.
If you are thinking that this is about what happened at the mass rally of Jews in London against on Sunday —— no, this is what happened in October 1936. It was when Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists — also known as the Blackshirts — decided to march through the East End of London.
Their slogan was “The yids, the yids, we’ve got to get rid of the yids”. You might well think that this is not a million miles away from “From the river to the sea”.
Even though the latter is directed at Jews in Israel today, the vitriol is the same, while anti-Israel sentiments have morphed into anti-Jewish ones.
Just as the East End Jews felt threatened 87 years ago, so did Sunday’s Jews. Just as the earlier Jews — our great-grandparents — felt that keeping quiet was no longer the answer, so did today’s Jews.
In both cases, the official Jewish leadership either under-estimated the strength of Jewish feeling, or decided that other factors meant it was better to lie low.
In both cases, as can happen in wider political life, they failed to “read the room” and were forced to catch up with the people.
In 1936, the Jews of London, supported by fellow East Enders, barricaded the streets of the East End with upturned carts and other obstacles. With the counter slogan of “They shall not pass”, they then forced human barrier when the police tried to clear the road for the fascist march.
In what subsequently became known as the Battle of Cable Street (where the clash reached its height), the police felt that the Blackshirts could not proceed along their intended route and the Commissioner of Police, Sir Phillip Game, told Mosley to turn back.
The event not only became the stuff of Jewish legend, but also led to the 1936 Public Order Act, which prohibited the wearing of political uniforms and gave the police powers to ban processions.
Sunday’s march was much more peaceful, but was still very powerful. It was ordinary Jews, many of whom were not religiously observant or politically active, but who felt their right to be Jewish and at ease was being threatened. It was time to make a stand, even without official sanction.
They felt they had taken enough barbs in the media, and enough hostile remarks by friends or work colleagues. They wanted to assert that, to misquote David Baddiel, “Jews count too”.
Why did the Board not organise a march in the first place, and why did they not initially support it when the CAA — the Campaign Against Antisemitism — filled the vacuum?
No doubt we will hear the rationale in due course. In the meantime, there is no doubt that although the march did not change anything here or affect events in Gaza, it did give tens of thousands of Jews a sense of pride and self-belief.
They marched, they sang, they showed they were not afraid to be themselves. Above all, they reclaimed the street.
As we traversed down Whitehall, I sensed a modern echo of those pre-war East Enders, with us saying loud and clear in 2023: “We will not allow this antisemitism to pass”.
What is more, the police did not have to intervene, no arrests were made and we thanked the police for their help as the rally ended. What a contrast between that and some of the pro-Palestinian marches. What a great advertisement for British Jewry.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue