Ridley Road is a four part BBC drama broadcast in October 2021, about the 62 Group – a British anti-fascist group in the 1960s.
The mini-series examines the role of Jews in the anti-fascist movement in the 1960s. It was widely praised, not least by the Israel lobby.
But if we delve behind the scenes, we find a weakness at the heart of the anti-racist movement which was missed by the drama and indeed by all historical accounts of the period.
The weakness is the penetration by Zionism of the 62 Group (and its predecessor the 43 Group). This penetration was highly influential in fostering the development of a fake anti-racism which is still with us today, an anti-racism that is unwilling to face the racism inherent in Zionism, Israel’s state ideology.
It, therefore, tends to legitimize both anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia, and to overemphasize the role of anti-Semitism in society.
Such overemphasis can be found in the attack on the UK’s main opposition Labour Party when it was under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
The most obvious function of Ridley Road is to encourage the idea that anti-Semitism is still a threat in the UK today. According to a review in The Guardian, the involvement of the “estimable” Tracy-Ann Oberman, who has allegedly “braved relentless and public anti-Semitic abuse in recent years,” brought, “another … layer of relevance to the story.”
The relevance of Oberman is perhaps more obviously that she has been a high profile participant in the “anti-Semitism” smears that have engulfed the left. She plays Mandy Malinovsky in the show, the wife of 62 Group leader Soly.
In a nod to one of the actual 62 Group leaders who ran London’s largest black cab firm, Soly is a cabbie. He is played by Eddie Marsan, who also participated in the anti-Semitism smears of Corbyn, as well as proudly taking part in a whitewashing publicity stunt by the Jewish National Fund in November 2021.
The JNF is a quasi-state organization, established long before the Israeli state, with the explicit purpose of acquiring land in Palestine exclusively for Jews. The JNF often plants trees on land it acquires, eradicating all visual signs of previous human habitation, not least the Palestinian villages that once stood there.
The historical setting of Ridley Road suggests that anti-Semitism is a long lasting threat, stretching beyond World War II and indeed up to the present. The TV version altered the story from the original novel, adding a Holocaust survivor and, at the end of the show, emigration to Israel for the central couple.
Both additions subtly normalize Zionism as a response to anti-Semitism.
It is no surprise to learn that the executive producer Nicola Shindler and writer Sarah Solemani have Zionist connections.
Shindler was a member of a Zionist group B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation or BBYO. She also disclosed that she resigned (temporarily) from the Labour Party because of the alleged problem of anti-Semitism.
Solemani was married at a large wedding in Petah Tikva, widely regarded as the first Jewish settlement in Palestine. It was established in 1878 and developed with help from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a key funder of Zionist colonization.
But there is a less obvious distortion that Ridley Road perpetrates and that is to cover up the role that racists played in anti-fascism. To appreciate the full magnitude of the problem we need to go back before the 62 Group to its predecessor organization the 43 Group, from which several of the 62 Group founders were drawn.
Like the 62 Group, there was a strong communist presence in the 43 Group which took its name from the 43 people attending its initial meeting. There are a handful of books that discuss the 43 Group and they all emphasize the role of communists and part of the broader left in the organization.
They are much less forthcoming about the Zionist elements in the group.
But in fact the two are by no means entirely separate.
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) had been anti-Zionist in the 1930s and early 1940s. But its position shifted, and in 1948 it “wholeheartedly supported” the creation of the state of Israel.
While it is known that “left” or “Labor” Zionists were part of the 43 Group, it has gone unremarked in almost all historical accounts that Revisionist Zionism and the extremist terror group Irgun, in particular, appear to have successfully penetrated the group.
Indeed, according to a passing reference in left-wing attorney David Renton’s PhD thesis, the entire executive of the 43 Group decided to affiliate itself to the Irgun in 1948.
The Irgun is best known for its bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946, but by then it had already spent much of the 1930s and 40s murdering Palestinian civilians.
An early member of the 43 Group was a former member of the British military’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s staff, Major Samuel Weiser. He is described by Renton as an “arch Zionist” which perhaps disguises more than it reveals.
Weiser left the 43 Group over his view that recruitment for ethnic cleansing in Palestine was more important than anti-fascism in Britain. He “believed nothing could take priority over the recruitment of young Jews to go and fight and live in Palestine,” reports Daniel Sonabend, a British writer and historian who wrote a book about the 43 Group, We Fight Fascists.
Weiser set up the Hebrew Legion to recruit for ethnic cleansing in Palestine. This “Hebrew Legion” was a new organization that adopted the name of the “Jewish Legion,” an unofficial title that had been used for five battalions of Jewish volunteers in the British Army raised to fight the Ottoman Empire.
Weiser’s network was active in Britain, the US, France and South Africa.
“Identity of purpose”
In May 1948, Weiser registered as a foreign agent in the US. He worked in concert with the Zionist activist Hillel Kook (who used the nom de guerre Peter Bergson) and the American League for the Liberation of Palestine as a member of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation.
According to a spokesperson for the committee, in August 1947, there was a “complete identity of purpose” between the Irgun and the committee.
By implication it appears that the Hebrew League in the UK was also a front for Irgun, and Weiser was its main UK representative. Weiser is certainly claimed as one of its own by the Jabotinsky Institute – named after the right-wing Zionist Zeev Jabotinsky.
Though by 1947-8 Weiser had left the 43 Group, he was still allowed to access the group to recruit Jews to force Palestinians from their homes. Weiser was well enough connected in Britain to be able to plaster London with recruitment posters for the Irgun (under the name of the Hebrew Legion).
Morris Beckman, a leading member of the 43 Group who wrote the first book about the group, reported in 1993’s The 43 Group that it was “estimated” that “only” 30 members of the 43 Group made it to Palestine to participate in the 1948 ethnic cleansing or Nakba.
We know, from Sonabend’s book, that some 43 Group volunteers in the Haganah were “sent to be interviewed and have their health checked by the Jewish Agency, which had secretly set up at a Marks and Spencer [a British retail chain] in town.”
The famous hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, one of the youngest 43 Group recruits, joined the Palmach, the elite unit of the main Zionist militia, the Haganah.
The Palmach was involved in many atrocities against Palestinian civilians in 1948, including the Sasa massacre, killing 60 and demolishing the village, upon which a Jewish-only kibbutz was later built.
Of his involvement in ethnic cleansing in Palestine, Sassoon later said it was “the best year of my life … it was a wonderful feeling … I wouldn’t have had any self-respect if I didn’t get involved.”
Another Irgun-affiliated 43 Group member, Nat Cashman, was killed in Jerusalem in 1948.
David Renton says that the BBC drama omitted “one or two dark episodes” in the history of the 62 Group.
By this he means the story of Wendy Turner, who infiltrated the fascists and is the model for the main character in the drama. In reality, Turner was active in the 43 Group and not the later 62 Group.
“Ultimately,” writes Renton, “Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalized and remained there for 30 years.”
According to an interview in Sonabend’s book, as Turner was “walking down Villiers Street [in London] to meet Harry [Bidney – leader of the 43 Group] she came across four [43 Group] women … These girls were like men; I’d seen them throw a man through a plate glass window at a furnishing shop in Brixton. They caught her in Villiers Street and they beat her to a pulp.”
This version is less than flattering to the 43 Group, but what is most extraordinary is the belief that this is the worst that the 43 Group did. The group’s involvement in fomenting and carrying out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was evidently less “dark.”
Suffice to say that the idea of the 43 Group as a doughty group of Jewish anti-racists cannot survive an encounter with the evidence of its enthusiastic involvement in the racist endeavor of the creation of the state of Israel.
There was an extremist Zionist faction at the heart of the UK anti-racist movement in the 1940s and 1960s. The role of the Zionist movement in penetrating British anti-racist groups throws new light on the post-war period and surely calls for more research on how far the influence of Zionism has gone since then.
David Miller is a broadcaster, journalist and academic. He produces and regularly appears on the weekly show Palestine Declassified.