First they came for the ‘anti-Semites’…
Bernard Miller recalls his mother Millie’s ‘pro-Semite’ political and religious activism, her belief ‘…in Jews and Arabs living side by side as equals,’ and he draws conclusions for the debate today
19 March, 2018 — By Bernard Miller
First they came for the “anti-Semites” and I did not speak out… My Mum, Millie Miller, was born in 1922 in the poorest part of Hoxton off City Road.
Her family, non-practising, assimilated Jews from Holland and Belgium, descended from exiles from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions 500 years earlier, knew little of their roots. Poor, she left school at 14 to work. She met my father, Monty, at a Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade summer camp. These were social organisations. Membership neither implied nor required religious belief or observance. In 1936 Monty was at Cable Street fighting fascism.
As teenagers they joined the Labour Party. They married in 1940. In 1945 Millie became a Stoke Newington councillor.
As often happens in Jewish history, they were shocked out of complacency by disaster; the Holocaust. Millie lost grandparents, older sister, brother-in-law, nephew, niece and literally thousands more distant relatives in several Nazi extermination camps.
Living in Holland and Belgium, non-religious since the early 1800s, they believed themselves too integrated to be at risk. How wrong they were. Millie never discussed those personal losses until weeks before her death. In retrospect she recounted: “I decided if I was Jewish enough for Hitler I was Jewish enough to do something about it.”
They joined a nearby Progressive Liberal synagogue at Stamford Hill. Never doing things by halves, they promptly became active members. Not Zionists, they nonetheless understood the emotional arguments of people who claimed Israel would provide a safe homeland for Jews, preventing them ever again suffering the horrors of Nazism.
One of Monty’s brothers, a committed Zionist, went on to head the Zionist Federation.
Alongside Labour and peace activities, they became involved in innumerable Jewish organisations, including Labour Friends of Israel, campaigned for Jews’ right to leave the Soviet Union, for non-Jewish refugees worldwide, supported Israel’s Labour Party. They raised money for the Hadassah Hospital, the Technion (Israel’s institute of technology), ORT the education and training charity, and other refugee organisations, large and small, Jewish and not.
In 1964 Millie went to Israel as UK delegate to a housing and development conference of the International Council of Social Democratic Women (now Socialist International Women).
Ever devoted to housing (all Camden Council housing programmes launched in the 1970s were initiated while she was leader) she returned enthusiastic, invigorated, impressed by Israel’s housebuilding, refugee and social services, integration for and remarkable achievements in rehabilitation for people with disabilities. But she was also disturbed. Some outstanding Labour women members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) showed her that not everything in Israel’s garden was as rosy as official visits portrayed.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War, she spoke on platforms with Israel’s then foreign minister, Abba Eban, who argued on historical and moral grounds for his own government not to hold on to territory it had gained.
She became chair of the synagogue’s council, actively involved in multiple non-denominational initiatives to promote youth science, social and cultural exchanges, internationalism and development. In 1974 she was elected MP for Ilford North, then Britain’s largest Jewish constituency.
Despite supporting its Labour government she became increasingly uncomfortable about some of Israel’s policies. Monty, then a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, expressed similar unease. Feted as a speaker at dozens of Jewish organisations across the country, now synagogue vice-president, Millie shared her alarm at the rise of a right-wing Israeli coalition, the Likud Party, advocating racist policies which would penalise Palestinians further, becoming distraught when in 1977, with a small majority, Likud swept away the Labour-led coalitions that had governed Israel since its formation.
She spent much of that summer in hospital, still working. Her last public speaking engagement was to an Israeli women’s organisation near Tavistock Square. Too ill to drive home, she rang asking me to pick her up from under the CND Hiroshima commemorative cherry tree she had planted a decade earlier.
Uncharacteristically she said she felt this was one of her best ever speeches. “The theme was immigrants and refugees. I made it about the rights of the Palestinians, the dangers of the new Israeli government’s policies towards them and occupation.”
Her position was clear. If history had taught the Jews anything, successive horrors over millennia, including inquisitions and the Holocaust, should have educated them how not to mistreat others, to set a positive example.
She worried the Israeli state was pursuing discriminatory policies towards what were now its minorities that would lead to similar disasters.
Why recount this now?
Long before the internet and social media, pro-Semite Millie believed in Jews and Arabs living side by side as equals. Issues she warned against remain as crucial as 40 years ago, human rights of Palestinians more systematically abused than ever.
Yet in today’s crazy political climate, Jews in the Labour Party, mainly vocal Corbyn supporters criticising Israel’s government and advancing the same arguments for Palestinian rights, are being expelled for anti-Semitism with no pretence of justice. Had the people now running the Labour Party machinery been in charge then, would she have been turfed out as an anti-Semite?
After writing this, will I?
• Bernard Miller is a writer and co-secretary of Camden Unite Community