Monthly Archives: October 2021

Apple sauce with your Arendt: the Eichmann Show


The Eichmann Show is on BBC iplayer just now, with Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia playing two Jewish TV producers who travel from the US to Jerusalem to film the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962.

It’s definitely worth watching. LaPaglia is believable as a US victim of the blacklist, trying to make sense of Eichmann and the country in which he finds himself. There are other moments too: a scene with a cameraman forced to confront his own memories, which I thought was nicely done. As I’ll try to show, the filmmakers were engaging with big ideas. When people do that, you always want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Overall, it doesn’t quite succeed though as a conventional drama – Freeman feels like he’s trying too hard not to be Bilbo Baggins, quite a lot of the plot (especially the first 15 minutes) comes over as utter contrivance, and at any moment when people doubt what they’re doing there is a survivor just super-conveniently on hand to convince the cast of their own righteousness.

All of that said, the writers had clearly read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and as this is one of the great books of the postwar world, it’s worth seeing the film through it, and thinking through how they use the medium of film to convey and simplify Arendt’s text.

Arendt had three main things to say about the trial. The first was that, as an anti-Zionist Jew, she was horrified by the nationalism of the prosecutor, Hausner, who tried to use the trial to prove that the world had been hostile to the Jews, had been continuously and consistently so, ever since the days of the Old Testament. So that what was on trial in 1962 was not Eichmann but (in Hasner’s words) “antisemitism. throughout history”. If it really was true, Arendt countered, that anti-Zewish racism had been at a continuous pitch for three thousand years, then what moral authority was there for picking our and prosecuting and executing Eichmann who was logically, just another antisemite, among millions, in a continuous history of equal and unbroken horror?

The film turns this critique into art by the device of just making Hasner’s opening speech very slow and boring, so that the film-makers suffer the prospect of their world-historic spectacle turning into a dud with its own audience. Now, this idea has compelling for an instant. Imagine: a Hollywood film about no-one watching Hollywood films… But the writers only hold this idea for a few seconds or so before rushing to the answer: that what rescued the trial, as a TV spectacle, was the compelling nature of the survivors’ testimony.

Reading Arendt today it is striking how radically unimpressed she was by the survivors’ testimony. She certainly gave examples of people who she thought spoke well and plainly and to the point. Of survivors who described the help they had received from non-jews. Of instances of rebellion. But what she describes is (as so often with memory) of people crowding around trauma to make themselves central. Of people abstracting from their circumstances. She is especially critical of one famous writer who, given a chance to address the world on what he experienced, instead speechified at inordinate length, then, when the judge begged him to answer the prosecutor’s questions, fainted and collapsed. The makers of the Eichmann show take this same incident, elevate it, make the witness appear heroic, then berate one of their own central characters for missing his fall, and wrongly – broodingly – focussing on the mute witness Eichmann.

Arendt’s book was subtitled The Banality of Evil, by which she was trying to convey, I suppose, several specific things: first that (on her reading of his evidence, which she accepted) Eichmann was not an ideological Nazi but someone who had joined the NSDAP late and been swept up by it, that he was a “normal person” (in her words) “neither feeble-minded nor indocrinated”, that knowing he would be responsible for Jewish affairs, he had picked up some Hebrew, learned to read Yiddish, read Zionist literature, and that the key quotes used by the prosecution to justify his execution were instances of him “bragging” and exaggerating the part he had played, which had not been to make the policy of killing, but to administer the movement of people for it.

The film takes this superficially simple idea “banality” and does to it exactly, I suppose, what Arendt complained the survivor’s testimony did wrong – ie. abstract it, ie. separate it from its strict historical context and treat it as some general concept, and misunderstand it.

In the film, Eichmann’s banality is mute: he neither speaks, not gestures, nor even really moves. He sits still and silent while LaPaglia yells at him to do something. His banality is turned into film as an inability to speak whereas, as I hope I’ve just shown, he was in the real-life trial, loqacious, determined to justify himself, speaking readily, even as he in fact taught his listeners nothing.

Finally, why was Arendt so insistent on Eichmann’s banality? As I’ve indicated, the only heroism she could imagine was the rejection of those putting themselves in the way of history, whether that meant the victims refused to be herded to their death, or the non-Jewish people in Poland helping them to escape. She had a very similar sense of refusal in relation to the state of Israel and the national myths on which that country was founding itself: antisemitism had not been a continuous feature of world history, Eichmann could not play the part the regime reserved to him, of the planner and instituter of the Holocaust. The introduction to the Penguin edition of her book is titled, ‘The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt’, to reflect the very considerable hostility with which it was received in the mainstream Jewish press. Her book was, in its awkwardness, an act of bravery.

Compared to this original, the Eichmann show means well – but falls someway short of the original.

Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: reviews


Reviews of my book have started appearing. They include Liz Davies in Socialist Lawyer. Hers concludes: “…Renton also calls for a kinder, more appropriate complaints and disciplinary process. The factionalism which pervades Labour’s complaints system has been well documented, most noticeably in the infamous “leaked report”. Renton makes the point that a calmer atmosphere surrounding the complaints process would distinguish between antisemitic statements that cannot be tolerated, and a more nuanced approach to other more ambiguous statements, asking whether the maker had understood its offensiveness, would be prepared to withdraw it etc. Such a distinction is impossible, Renton says, when there are thousands of people staring at the disciplinary process, loudly declaring their own moral righteousness and their contempt for anyone who disagreed with them. Renton’s book speaks truth to the left. That is not an easy thing to do, or to read, but, for any principled socialist, it is absolutely necessary”.

The socialist magician Ian Saville also has kind words for the book at Labour Hub: “Renton singles out some individuals on the left who have made statements which clearly contain elements of antisemitism, and he demolishes the arguments they present with clarity and precision. But the bigger and most important charge is about many of us on the left who failed to challenge such arguments. It seems we were blinded by the transparent attempt by the right to use the issue to attack and destabilise the left. By ‘rallying round’ our friends in these circumstances, doubling down on supporting an ahistorical account of the Holocaust from Ken Livingstone, or of Jewish involvement in the slave trade from Jackie Walker, we gave ammunition to the right, further alienating many who could have been our allies.”

Keith Kahn-Harris, who had of course published his own superb book on the subject (Strange Hate) has reviewed mine for the Times Literary Supplement and Jewthink. In the latter, he calls my book “elegiac” and says, “I hope that David Renton’s book encourages open self-criticism on the Labour left regarding antisemitism.”

One of the most unexpected notes of welcome came from Philip Mendes at the Australia-Israel Labor-Dialog site. He sets out the many places at which he and I dsagree, while saying that mine is far better than those which have preceded it from other anti-Zionist sources,” and ends his piece with two question for me, and the anti-Zionist left more generally.

Jeremy Green’s review for his own website was reprinted by Socialist Against Antisemitism. Again, he’s very positive, concluding, “I’ve never met David Renton, though I’ve enjoyed reading his blog posts. We’ve exchanged a few messages via Facebook, mainly me telling him that I’ve appreciated something he’s written. But I wish I’d known him during the period that his book covers; it might have made it easier to live through the misery.”

At Philosophy Football, Mark Perryman has been perhaps the kindest of all reviewers, calling my book, “the definitive work for me on this most vexatious of subjects … Definitive in scope, politics and writing style this is a hugely impressive piece of writing and puts the Keir Starmer era Labour Party’s own pitiful efforts at antisemitism training to shame. Sadly the same Labour regime in all likelihood will ban David from speaking at Labour meetings on the subject because he doesn’t appear on some approved list to do so.  In the face of all that David’s book demands the widest possible platforms and readership, what a disappointment then it has come out from an academic publisher with their usual unimaginative cover and high price. No criticism of Routledge intended, well done for publishing it, but this book’s audience stretches way beyond academia, hopefully a more attractively packaged and reasonably priced second edition will be on its way soonest, in the meantime readers should grab a copy soon as they can.”

I will surprise no-one by mentioning that the good folks at Jewish Voice for Labour has also reviewed the book. At the centre of their review is a plea to the left that we must not give up on the idea that Labour’s difficulties were solely caused by the “Israel lobby”. Yes, the people who could see no evil in anything Chris Williamson, Ken Livingstone or Jackie Walker said have at last found something that offends them. I imagine that other reviews of a similar character will follow theirs.

EDITED to add (1.11.21). More reviews coming in; including Jonah ben Avraham for New Politics. He’s probably the first reviewer to have spotted that my book isn’t only about antisemitism, but is shaped by wider experiences of having to deal with selfish and destructive behaviour by people on the left. Ben Avraham concludes: “Renton’s book doesn’t have all the answers. His at times rosy optimism that what Labourites like Livingstone and Walker needed was a comrade in their ear, and not a boot out the door, is more a philosophy of changing hearts and minds than a strategy. Still, it is a philosophy that is despairingly rare on a left that has responded to repeated calls for accountability, from #MeToo to efforts addressing racial harm in left-wing spaces, first and foremost with the same kind of legalism and defensiveness at play in the antisemitism crisis. Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis points activists in a new, transformative direction for the next struggle.”

Fascism and anti-fascism in Britain – ten novels


With Ridley Road now on the BBC iplayer, I thought I’d post a list here of what I reckon are the ten best novels written about fascism and anti-fascism in Britain:

(10) Farrukh Dhondy, East End At Your Feet

More a short story collection than a novel; in the fifth story “KBW” [Keep Britain White] a neighbouring family is attacked by a gang of 20 racists.

(9) Patrick McGrath, The Wardrobe Mistress

On the death of veteran actor Charles Grice in 1947, his wife Joan learns that he was a fascist and a street-corner antisemite. Will she take revenge on the movement that corrupted him?

(8) Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Girls fall madly in love with glamorous and manipulative teacher. But it’s 1933 and the teacher has a crush on Mussolini and Hitler.

(7) Cressida Connolly, After the Party

Glamorous socialite Phyllis Forrester returns to England. She follows her sister Nina into a world of fascist summer camps, and wartime internment

(6) Tariq Mehmood, While There is Light

England and back. An account of the events leading up to the rest of the Bradford 12 in 1981: rude, funny, full of righteous fire.

(5) Anthony Cartwright, Heartland

Cartwright, the novelist-historian of work, Thatcherism and the East Midlands, returns to home territory for a story of the World Cup, local elections and a Sunday-league football game pitting two Tipton teams together, one of them a stooge for the BNP.

(4) Max Schaefer, Children of the Sun

In 2003, gay left-wing screenwriter James becomes obsessed 1980s-ers neo-Nazi Nicky Crane, following his career and friends through the archives and in real life. Perhaps the only ever book to have been praised by both China Mieville and Nick Griffin.

(3) Jonathan Coe, The Rotters Club

It’s Birmingham in 1976, with glam rock, the IRA and teenage Nazi Harding is doing his best A. K. Chesterton impersonation in the school elections. Ben Trotter and his friends meanwhile are exploring sex, London, and Rock Against Racism.

(2) Frank Griffin, October Day

The events of 4 October 1936 – Cable Street – shown Dos-Passos-style through such characters as the winnable but anti-political worker Joe, the policeman Harold Thurgood and a wealthy fascist with who he carries on an affair, Lady Stroud.

(1) Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Because we’ve all got a little part of Stevens in us, whether we like it or not – that loyalty to the present, to things as they are, which stops us from changing them.

With honourable mentions for the following: Alan Gibbons, Street of Tall People, PH Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters, Richmal Compton, William the Dictator, the screenplay of Young Soul Rebels (which is published as a book), Anders Lustgarten’s play A Day at the Racists (ditto), and (yes) Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road.

Ridley Road and the real Vivien Epstein


I’ve been fascinated by the BBC series, Ridley Road, and the way in which it uses the history of anti-fascism. I haven’t read the novel behind the series, by Jo Bloom, but if there is any consistency at all between the two versions of the story then plainly she was trying to do something interesting with the history, something a historian could never do. Here I’ll try to explain what.

The starting point is that there is, essentially, no good history of the 62 Group. There were a series of interviews written up by Steve Silver (here). There is an account of the same period seen through the eyes of the NSM in Paul Jackson’s biography of Colin Jordan (here). And you can pick up bits from Nigel Copsey and Dave Hann’s histories of anti-fascism in Britain.

Bloom plainly raided Silver’s work as her main source, and so you get a line of dialogue in one of the episodes describing Solly (Eddie Marsan) as owning London’s largest black cab firm. Check that against the Silver manuscript, and you’ll see that (so far) Solly is based on the real life figure of Wally Levy – an ally of the 62 Group, but by no means its key player.

I suspect the idea was to mix Levy with a more important figure in the group Harry Bidney, who had been prosecuted at various times in the 1950s for being in a gaming house, dealing in black market cigarettes, receiving stolen alcohol, and for allowing a room to be used for betting, and for prostitution. There’s probably some of Cyril Paskin and Baron Moss there too.

The series doesn’t really explain why Ridley Road was such a key site for fascist (and therefore antifascist) organising; essentially it was the border line between gentile Hackney in the borough’s south and the Jewish district in the north. In 1947-8, it saw the most intense fascist organising of any district in London between 1945 and the 1970s.

There are problems with the drama – the first episode strains for contemporary resonances, and makes Jordan seems a bigger and better-connected threat than he was. The biggest weakness, for me, reflects the shift from a novel to the small screen. In the former, it makes sense for political organising to be the work of really 2-3 key people who really gras[ everything. The real life 43 and 62 groups were larger, more democtatic – and more chaotic – than that.

By far the most interesting thing Bloom does with the story is that she raids the better-known history of the 43 Group – and takes a key episode from that and makes it the centre of her drama. To recap, what everyone knows about the 43 Group is that they were a set of Jewish ex-servicemen willing to fight a physical battle with the fascists. Through intelligence, and a willing to out-violence their opponents, they knocked over fascist platforms and drove them from the streets.

Now, this narrative is mythic in certain respects – it exaggerates the group’s success rate (which was high in 46 and spring and summer 47 then tailed off, as the fascists grew). It also ignores one or two dark episodes.

The darkest of these concerned a female infiltrator Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Like “Vivien” in Ridley Road she slept with leading fascists (not Jordan but a Mosley’s lieutenant, Jeffrey Hamm).

Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised and remained there for 30 years. There, she described her life as being “penned inside a mile of corridors, surrounded by sick, twisted, deformed, insane people; doing nothing, going nowhere, only longing with every cell of my body and mind and spirit for death.”

It is incredibly hard trying to find out what happened to Turner. I remember in the 1990s when I interviewed half a dozen members of the 43 Group – few if any were willing to speak about her. But friends of theirs would tell you stories, for example that Turner was hospitalised because she had gone into the fascists, been caught there, and beaten, and the injuries had caused the decades of ill-health that followed.

Daniel Sonnabend gives a different (and even more troubling) version of who attacked her.

What Ridley Road does, it seems to me, is take that story about Turner, turn it into myth, and cure her suffering through the medium of fiction. It presents Turner as having (well – I can’t go on without spoiling the ending) but you get the point. It takes her defeat in real life and makes her heroic.

Knowing that there were real life counterparts to the Vivien character who were there, and didn’t get out – and never got out – that’s the real story.