OPINION: Calling out fascists? It’s a rite of passage to us lads

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OPINION: Calling out fascists? It’s a rite of passage to us lads

Actor Eddie Marsan who spoke out at last Sunday’s march against antisemitism says it all started with the TV series Ridley Road

Eddie Marsan
Eddie Marsan

Back in 2021 my friend – the Jewish actress, writer, and activist Sarah Solemani – contacted me about a TV show she was writing, as a creative response to the rise in antisemitism during Labour’s Corbyn years.

It was an adaptation of Jo Bloom’s novel ‘Ridley Road’. The part of Soly Malinovsky, leader of the anti-fascist 62 Group, was written for me. How could I say no?

So, we shot the series with a wonderful cast: Agnes O’Casey played the lead; Rory Kinnear played Colin Jordan, the British fascist; Samantha Spiro played my sister Liza; the indomitable Tracy-Ann Oberman played my wife Nancy; and my good friend Allan Corduner played Rabbi Lehrer.

When the show came out it was a big success but for some reason I received an incredible amount of antisemitic abuse. I tried to explain that I wasn’t Jewish, I was just acting (and by the way, Rory Kinnear isn’t really a Nazi), but when have facts ever stopped racists?

Following this bizarre event, I met a young man called Elie Kraft who works for the Campaign Against Antisemitism, and he recorded an interview with me for their podcast (it’s still available online, if you want to see it).

Elie has this wonderful energy and generosity of spirit, and he made me laugh throughout the whole interview.

When the idea of the march against antisemitism was first mooted, I started corresponding with Elie and my friend Justin Cohen, news editor at the Jewish News, to see if I could help in anyway.

At first it was suggested that I join the front of the procession, holding the banner, but then, on the Thursday evening before the march, Elie emailed me and asked if I would also be prepared to speak for 5 minutes. Fine minutes?? Thanks Elie! Next time, give me a couple of weeks to prepare… just saying.

When the idea of the march against antisemitism was first mooted, I started corresponding with Elie and my friend Justin Cohen, news editor at the Jewish News, to see if I could help in anyway.

Anyway, after a couple of sleepless nights preparing the speech, it was finally completed at 4am on the Sunday morning.

An hour before the march I met up with my old school friend from Stepney, director of photography and screenwriter Gareth Munden.

We had a quick drink and then headed towards the march, laughing that it’s just two East End boys standing up to fascists, a rite of passage where we come from. We were almost late because people kept stopping us – not for me, but Gareth, who’s the spitting image of David Baddiel.

When we eventually got to the march, you could sense the enormous crowd building. The feeling of comradery, fun, solidarity, and self-deprecation was wonderful.

Rachel Riley was there, so was Rob Rinder looking gorgeous as usual, (there must be a painting of that man in an attic somewhere, that looks grotesque) Tracey-Anne, Dame Maureen Lipman, Lord Ian Austin, and the brilliant activist and lawyer Mark Lewis.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaks at march in London

Then we were off, holding the banner and leading the procession, but we had to walk very slowly to accommodate the photographers. I was next to the Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, a lovely, kind man who kept smiling at me to offer encouragement.

Something confusing happened on the way, which I think is a testament to how bad things have become for the Jewish community in this country. People kept coming up and thanking me for being there, which made me a bit uncomfortable.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate their expressions of thanks, they were very moving. It’s just that I was thinking, ‘well what else do you expect me to do?’

Why is it such a surprise that a non-Jew attends a march against antisemitism? Sadly, it seems that antisemitism has somehow seeped into the very bones of this country, not only since 7 October, but before that – since left-wing antisemitism ran rife in the Labour party from around 2015, if I’m honest.

We got to Parliament Square. I looked back and saw a vast sea of people. It both inspired and terrified me, because I knew I had to make a speech. I thought of my friend Gareth, who had gone off to find his brother, and my other friends who were there, somewhere. For a split second, I wished I could join them!

But then it was my turn to make the speech. Just before I went on, it was announced that there were 105,000 people at the march, which didn’t help.

The young lady who set up the mike told me to speak loudly, because people had to hear me from as far back as Trafalgar Square. ‘Even though you have a mike, you still have to shout,’ she said. That helped in some way.

I just thought, ‘get angry.’ I’ve been angry at fascists since the National Front marched through Bethnal Green when I was a kid, when I had to pass them on the corner of Brick Lane every Sunday morning, on my way to get beigels and doughnuts. And I got angry.

I remembered their Union Jacks and swastikas. I thought about the history of the East End, Cable Street, the 43 group, the 62 group, and all the Jewish stall holders on Petticoat Lane who offered me nothing but encouragement as a young actor. “I saw you on TV, all the mazel, boy, all the mazel.”

I thought about Tommy Robinson trying to hijack the march with his Islamophobia. I thought about the amazing anti-bullying charity in Tower Hamlets that I’m proud to be patron of – ‘Streets of Growth’ – that helps mainly Muslim and Bangladeshi kids in life threatening situations. And I got angry.

Then I was on stage. The anger in my belly, the love, the energy, and the hilarious self-deprecating banners in the crowd, all pulled me through. I thought about my mate Gareth Munden giving selfies as David Baddiel. As he will tell you, East End boys calling out fascists? It’s just a rite of passage where we come from.

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