Free Speech on Israel is saddened to learn of the death of Sam Semoff. Sam was a dedicated supporter of FSOI, opponent of Zionist oppression of Palestinians and a leading figure in campaigns against privatisation of the health service
Sam’s comrades in Liverpool have published this tribute
It was with great sadness that we heard of the passing of the much loved American Jewish socialist and fighter, Sam Semoff.
Sam was a stalwart of Liverpool Friends of Palestine for many years, but also became the figurehead of the campaign against the PFI funded new Royal Liverpool Hospital. Attacked personally by Liverpool’s mayor in the Liverpool Echo, Sam continued to campaign for the NHS during the last days of his life, and his death a week before the collapse of Carillion cheated him of the satisfaction of public vindication.
His involvement in politics went back to the sixties, something I only learned about recently. He acted as my Silent Friend when I was interviewed by the Labour Party’s Compliance Unit last year, and it was during this interview that I caught a glimpse of this history. Sam wasn’t a very good silent friend, in that he wasn’t at all silent. We recorded the interview, so I can quote him here, word for word. When the Labour Party interviewer recklessly invited Sam to ask a question at the end of the interview, Sam asked him for his definition of antisemitism. I quote:
I moved to Britain in the seventies. Ahm. I was brought up in an orthodox Jewish household, in New Jersey.… the majority of the community was Jewish but there was a small segment of Polish Catholics who used to beat me up as a kid coming home from school because I killed Christ. I lost an aunt in the holocaust. So I’m a bit sensitive, ahm, when I keep hearing the word, which you used frequently, anti-Semitism. I would just like to ask, plain and simple, what’s your definition of anti-Semitism?
When he received the answer that the Compliance Unit was using the Zionist definition used by the Community Security Trust (a pro-Israel lobby group, which incorporates anti-Zionism within the definition of antisemitism) Sam gave the young man a lecture on the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Again, Sam’s words:
By using the CST definition of anti-Semitism, which includes opposition to a Jewish state in its anti-Semitism definition, well, it will completely skew any report that you will do. I’m Jewish, as I say, my definition of anti-Semitism is when someone says to me, ‘I hate you because you’re Jewish’. If someone expresses dislike or animosity toward a group of individuals because they’re Jewish, that’s anti-Semitism. It has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with a, a Jewish state. I’m a Jewish person and I question its existence and if you’re gonna use the CST definition of anti-Semitism, then that will skew your investigation completely.
The exchange (if you can call it that – the young interviewer was completely out of his depth and didn’t have much to say in reply) was very funny, despite the seriousness of the issues. It ended with Sam adding a parting comment, in which he explained his journey from youthful left Zionist to campaigner on behalf of Palestinian rights, and in which he also encapsulated what he felt was the heart of Jewishness. It chimes with me, and is why I am such an admirer of many Jewish people and their traditions.
No, there’s something else. It’s just… I remember a political gathering at a friend’s house, just after the six day war. 1967. Sorry, but it’s relevant. We were mostly Jewish. I was still clinging by my fingernails to some notion of left Zionism, but there was an old fella there who didn’t say too much, and he changed me. He’d come down from New York, and he was in a wheelchair. He was in a wheelchair cos of the Freedom Summer. 1964. He’d gone down on a voter registration drive in Mississippi and he’d taken a bullet in the spine. Right? This old guy personified to me what being Jewish was about. Being Jewish, it’s about equality, it’s about the struggle for justice, right? And the whole idea of the only ethnic state on the planet, right, it’s an obscenity. And I’m saying that as a Jewish person.
You were a mensche, comrade. Farewell.
Jon Davies has written this obituary
Sam Semoff was born to an orthodox Jewish mother and a Jewish communist father, who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Pennsylvania to become homesteaders. An early attachment to left Zionism was dispelled by a meeting in the late sixties with a wheelchair using Jewish activist who’d taken a racist’s bullet whilst on a voter registration drive in the deep south. The germ of his pro-Palestine campaigning was sown by this meeting: “This old guy personified to me what being Jewish was about. Being Jewish, it’s about equality, it’s about the struggle for justice, right? And the whole idea of the only ethnic state on the planet, right, it’s an obscenity. And I’m saying that as a Jewish person.”
Working in the early days of electron microscopy, Sam arrived in Liverpool in the early eighties, having been offered a PhD place, and then a research post at the School of Tropical Medicine. Two lists of student landlords were discovered, one of landlords who accepted non-white tenants and another which didn’t. Sam’s complaint to Senate over this condoning of racial profiling was denied and when he went public, the promised research position went to someone else.
He was active in the Labour Party during the eighties, resigned over the Iraq war, and then rejoined with the election of Corbyn as leader. He was briefly Chair of Liverpool Riverside CLP just before his long-time political adversary Louise Ellman, a committed Zionist, was accepted as candidate. His activism involved him with the Somali community, with which he had close links, pro-Palestine solidarity, and, latterly, with campaigns to save the NHS, against the closure of Liverpool Women’s Hospital and to prevent the building of the new PFI funded (Carillion!) Liverpool Royal Hospital. He was a regular on pickets and demos, latterly lugging his bottle of oxygen.
Zionism grievously damaged the inspiring tradition of Jewish leadership in struggles against injustice and autocracy. Sam Semoff’s life is a shining example of how it has nevertheless survived. His warmth, engaging twinkle and unquenchable battling spirit will be hugely missed.