Life & Culture

The street-fighters who taught British fascists: don’t f*** with the Jews

Documentary film-maker David Herman’s latest work charts the history of Jewish self-defence in the UK. John Nathan meets him


Pay back in kind: avenger Mo Levy tackles infamous post-war neo-Nazi leader Colin Jordan

When the Community Security Trust (CST) decided they needed a documentary charting the history of the Jewish fight against antisemitism and fascism in the UK, they turned to a film-maker with a slew of Netflix shows to his name who spent his youth hanging around Edgware Station with his friends to pick up girls or fighting pitch battles on the streets of north and north-west London with skinheads and neo-Nazis.

“I’m proud of that,” says producer and director David Herman, whose latest film Jews Defending Jews will be screened at JW3 on Tuesday.

The title is not one that can be found on Herman’s IMDB page along with Bad Surgeon: Love Under the Knife, Vendetta: Truth, Lies and the Mafia, and Ross Kemp: Extreme World. But perhaps it should. Among the film’s historical footage showing the British Union of Fascists stalking the East End in 1936 and the National Socialist Movement in the 1960s under the leadership of Colin Jordan, are interviews with Jews who took down Britain’s fascists by confronting them head on.

Some of them would not look out of place in a Guy Ritchie film.

“They were tough Jewish boys who were second generation born here,” says CST founding chairman Sir Gerald Ronson in the film.

“We’re not talking about sophisticated lawyers, accountants, doctors and all the rest of it. We’re talking about taxi drivers, market traders – tough guys who had come out of the East End and who can look after themselves.”

The film looks at muscular Jewish anti-fascist activism from 1936, the year Oswald Mosley failed to march through the East End. “The actual battle of Cable Street was grandmothers and bubbas and women throwing bottles not at fascists, but at the police [who were defending the fascists]. And I just love that. I love the idea that regular Jewish people, mothers, women just weren’t having this,” says Herman.

Next on the film’s timeline is the 43 Group, named not after the year it started (which was 1946) but the organisation’s number of founders, many of whom were Jewish ex-servicemen who had returned from the war fighting Nazis only to find that their country had a surprisingly robust fascist movement led by far-right agitators and Jew haters who had been interned during the war. In London in 1945 there were 40 fascist meetings, according to the film.

Then came the 1962 Group consisting of Sir Gerald and others who disrupted and attacked the next generation of fascists. “We built up a file on these leaders,” remembers Ronson. “And by ‘file’ I mean we knew where they lived because they needed to have a visit.”

Messages were left in the form of a broken arm or leg though they were not delivered by Sir Gerald, he says. Today the methods of the CST are both sophisticated and entirely legal, of course.

“We should be very pleased and proud that we’ve got them, that we can defend our schools, synagogues and events,” says Herman. “We are in a much better place than people think on that score.” The film-maker has a reassuring take on the current rise of antisemitism in this country.

“True, 300,000 people turn up to the [pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel] marches. But we live in a country of 67 million. I would imagine that the vast majority have no skin in the game whatsoever. But the number of people who support the Jews will be much greater than the number who support the other side. That’s my belief.”

But is it not time for a new group of Jewish avengers to assemble – one who, if needed, can take the fight to those planning physical harm to the Jewish community?

“I think that at any time there should be young Jewish men and women who are prepared and able to defend the community robustly,” says Herman. “I’m not suggesting we go out and attack people. But I think that there should be people who are able to robustly fight back if attacked. But I think the CST do that in fairness. I’ve watched the CST do martial arts training and I think there are people who could do that.”

But the community no longer has a reservoir of trained ex-military service men and women to draw on like the 43 Group. Herman agrees, but that is not a bad thing, he says.

“You know that book Tough Jews about American gangsters? Right at the beginning he [author Rich Cohen] says that the Italian Mafia handed down their business like it was a family heirloom. The children and grandchildren all became gangsters. With the Jewish Mafia it was one generation and then they were doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers. And that’s the truth with us (UK Jews] as well. And that’s a great thing! We have come a long way and we should be very pleased. It means we no longer go into the army, we’re no longer thugs. I think that’s an all right price to pay. And frankly, even when I was fighting, I never liked it and I wasn’t particularly good it.”

In truth Herman is a tall powerfully built Jew and he probably didn’t need to be very good at fighting to be effective at it. He is descended on the maternal side of his family from a grandfather who designed the fuselage of the Spitfire and a great-grandfather who was decorated for bravery at Ypres.

Today the nature of threat has changed, he says. “What we’re facing now is a completely different thing. On the one hand it’s left-wing intellectual antisemitism which people like Tracy-Ann Oberman, Rachel Riley and Luciana Berger have brilliantly confronted.”

Herman first received his own reality check about left-wing antisemitism when he was at university. He became involved in left-wing politics there because “they were the only people I could see who were fighting fascism.”

“I will never forget a meeting I went to in a pub in Manchester with a group called Red Action. They were really hard, working-class [activists]. And the guy said ‘It’s great to have Jews here. It’s great. As long as you’re not a f***ing Zionist. And I just went for him. And he went for me. And that’s when I realised there is always going to be a problem with the left.

“The other problem is terrorism. Fortunately, we haven’t got here what has happened in Belgium or France. But I think that’s because the CST have linked up with the police with there [gathered] intelligence and they’ve done brilliantly helping to ensure those attacks haven’t happened to us. So I’m not actually sure if there is a need for a street-fighting force, largely because of the nature of the threat.”

There is another film of Herman’s in the offing that tackles more, how shall we say, traditional forms of antisemitism. Called The Lie That Wouldn’t Die, Herman has written the script for a feature documentary that would take him around the world looking at the legacy of the blood libel perpetuated by the notorious Protocols of The Elders of Zion. All he needs now is to find someone to fund it. The object of that film is slightly different from Jews Defending Jews, the purpose of which is partly to give some perspective to the fear of rising antisemitism that has gripped many people in the Jewish community.

“What I’m trying to do through the film is to show that you can’t wilt in the anxiety and that historically Jews coped with this by being robust. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1936, or 1946, the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties or now. People should know. ‘Don’t f*ck with the Jews.”

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