Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005
 
A coda to a coda. On March 27 1945 the last V2 rocket of World War II landed on Hughes Mansions, a tenement block in Stepney, East London. At that time many Jews lived in the East End and most of the 134 people killed were Jewish. If Hitler ever got to hear of that perhaps it cheered him up in the bunker. But that coda to his symphony of hate now has a little coda of its own.

Last Sunday the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland went to Hughes Mansions to mourn his grandmother and his mother's aunt, both among those killed by the bomb.

People were choked with emotion from the start; they had come back to the spot where they had seen brothers, sisters, parents and friends die. They were expecting to feel sorrow. What they did not bargain for was fear.

Within minutes, the mourners were pelted, first with vegetables, then with eggs. Some said they saw stones; others said they had been spat at. Gathered in old age to remember their dead, they felt under siege.

Looking around, it was difficult to spot individual culprits. All that were visible were groups of young Asian men, standing on the balconies of the rebuilt block.
Freedland's impression was that the attacks weren't so much anti-Oona King (the local pro-Iraq War Labour MP) as anti-Jewish.
I was there and I must confess it did not look like an attack on Oona King to me. She was not especially visible, and no slogans were chanted or words uttered - as surely they would have been if this was merely a stance against King's support of the Iraq war.

Most of those there thought it much more straightforward. They believed this was an attack by Muslims on Jews. After all, the men wore skullcaps, the prayers were in Hebrew. There was no doubt who they were.

Still, it was hard to be certain. Not a word was spoken to explain the missiles raining down. So this week I went back to Hughes Mansions to ask around: what was all that about?

One young man said it was nothing to do with politics or religion:
Instead, Syed explained, the area was overcrowded and rundown. "There's a lot of aggression." The result is that when the police show up they get pelted. If even a resident drives in with a newly clean car, he'll get "egged". Here was a group of outsiders, so they got the treatment too. His friend Bokkar Ali added: "They're just kids having a laugh. They do it to everyone."

Except the culprits did not look like kids; most seemed to be in their late teens or 20s. And there's the testimony of Aminur Rahman, 18, who told me: "There's a lot of hatred towards the Jewish. We've got hatred towards them." He knew Sunday's group were Jewish because of the skullcaps and he knew the story of the 1945 bomb. So was it wrong to attack people who were grieving? "It was wrong in a way, but I think they deserved it because they came into a Muslim community."

Replace "Muslim" with "white" and you have a line straight from the British National Party songbook. Even if, as Jonathan Freedland speculates, the average is somewhere between the two views expressed, that's a pretty poor average after thirty years of official anti-racism.

What's to be done? Sadly, a potential for communal hatred seems to be an ineradicable part of human nature. But like other evils it can be inflamed or damped down depending on conditions of society. We could do worse than try the strategy for racial harmony that has worked comparatively well for Britain before, and has worked in other countries too. Strict equality before the law. (I call that a "strategy for racial harmony" for convenience but in fact the principle uppermost in its practitioners' minds is individual justice, not racial anything.) No government recognition for ethnic groups, still less government support targeted at any particular group as a group*, however poor that group is. Why not? Because competing for state bounty is a zero-sum game that sets groups against each other. In my opinion - though I doubt Jonathan Freedland, or, perhaps, the author of the first link, would agree - government bounty also tends to make and keep its recipients dependent, ghettoized and poor.

One reason for my saying that the old "strategy" for racial tolerance worked better (despite all that Oswald Mosley could do) than the present one is that the survivors and descendants of the near-final spasm of Nazism represented by that last V2 no longer live in tenement blocks. They moved up and out. In general they are now prosperous, educated and integrated. In contrast the present system keeps the present occupants of Hughes Mansions (the block was rebuilt but is now sadly decayed) stuck there, mentally and economically.

*I'm no supporter of individual government bounty, either. But group bounty is worse than individual because it engenders hostility as well apathy.