A rebel with many causes

Tribute to Irene Bruegel

January 2, 2009
8 min read

Hundreds packed into the largest room in Golders Green crematorium in October to say goodbye to Irene Bruegel. These people and hundreds more from all over the world sent messages to her partner Richard Kuper and children Dan, Jo, Martin and David expressing their sadness and paying tribute to her achievements. The sheer volume shows how much her decades of service to so many peoples, organisations and causes are appreciated. As Richard said, ‘It’s so desperately sad she isn’t alive to enjoy them herself. Perhaps we all need to learn to recognise and express our love, gratitude and appreciation to others as we go along.’

The span of her activities, commitments and intellectual engagements was dizzying. ‘A rebel with many, many causes,’ as her daughter Jo Kuper put it. She always drew attention to the cause or the idea, not to herself, and to find some way to strengthen it. So here, instead of an obituary, Sue Himmelweit, Lynne Segal and Tim Baster focus on three causes and movements that Irene held dear – and celebrate her contribution to them.

A Jew for justice in Palestine

For the past seven years, I have been involved in a variety of groups and campaigns to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, with the goal of creating peace and justice for both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. One person alone was pivotal in drawing me into this work: that hugely missed, dynamic political optimist, Irene Bruegel.

After visiting the occupied West Bank in 2001, just after the start of the second intifada, Irene contacted many of her former comrades – especially her old socialist feminist friends who happened to be Jewish – with her ‘modest proposal’ that we protest against the denial of human rights and other brutalities ensuing from Israel’s continued and expanding colonisation and enclosure of Palestinian territories. Our voices would be all the more effective, she indicated, if we spoke out as Jews.

That very evening the wheels were set in motion to create Jews for Justice for Palestinians, a group whose numbers and activities increased rapidly over the following years, becoming one of the most influential Jewish organisations campaigning against Israeli occupation and for peace in the Middle East.

We have always been up against the world, especially given the four and a half billion dollars the USA pays annually into the terrifying Israeli military machine. Here in Britain, it was without doubt Irene’s unique levels of energy, creativity, insight and intelligence, supported by that of her partner Richard Kuper, that kept the wheels turning. One thing she knew for certain is that Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, must work together in as many initiatives as we can manage to sustain the determination to end this tragic and barbarous conflict.

The early death of Irene Bruegel leaves the world a poorer place, bereft of one of the most vital and passionate people ever to have taken up the cause of justice for Palestinians, and many others as well. Our search to further the goals for which she fought so strongly will continue. But it feels hard to live up to her uniquely inspirational presence, spurring others into action, thinking up new projects, and ensuring that they came to fruition. I have always been inspired and moved by Irene’s intrepid courage and perseverance.

Lynne Segal

A researcher for liberty

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) had been set up in 1998 against a backdrop of xenophobia and rising detention. Volunteers and pro bono barristers fought to obtain bail for detained asylum seekers and migrants.

The government’s policy was to use detention to crush asylum seekers into returning to their countries. The lack of legal aid for bail applications meant that many detainees had no access to the courts. When they did get to court, they were required to prove the impossible – that they would not abscond. The Immigration Service constantly repeated that detained asylum seekers would abscond if released – with no evidence to back this up. We knew from our work that this was simply untrue – detainees who were released largely kept in contact with the Immigration Service. In 2002, Irene, furious at this injustice, volunteered to research the issue. No such research had been carried out before.

She assembled a team in record time and started work. This involved working in a tiny office surrounded by files, ringing solicitors, immigration officers and refugee networks.

We felt that we should be congratulated for our human rights work. None of it! Irene was utterly scathing about our files. She never took any prisoners. At the end, she sent the draft to the Home Office for their views before showing me a copy! I nearly had a heart attack as I had no idea what it contained. But her intellectual and academic rigour allowed no other course of action.

The research, published in June 2002, eviscerated the Immigration Service. It found that more than 90 per cent of the sample remained in contact. It added that the Immigration Service ‘lacks the ability to forecast absconding with any degree of accuracy’. The barristers who fought for detainees’ freedom in the immigration courts needed no second invitation – they went on the attack against the Immigration Service and the tide began to turn.

Irene’s report was key to establishing new guidelines that require immigration adjudicators to grant bail unless the Immigration Service has strong evidence against it. The burden of proof in bail applications was reversed. Many hundreds of detainees have been and continue to be released, often without sureties, because of Irene’s work. This is just one of her many legacies to the human rights movement.

Tim Baster

A socialist feminist

Irene was a wide-ranging thinker and activist, a socialist feminist, who was one of the founders of the women’s movement in the early 1970s. She took an active part in many of the socialist feminist conferences of the following decade that defined a distinct socialist agenda for feminism, aiming to challenge the ways in which women’s oppression was linked to class exploitation.

At the same time, she was an active member of the Conference of Socialist Economists, a lively non-sectarian movement aiming to provide socialist understandings of the workings of modern capitalism. Although at the time involved in the International Socialist group (now the SWP), her activism was never limited by it, and she left at the end of the 1970s over its political dogmatism and hostility to autonomous women’s organisation.

Irene was active in campaigns for abortion rights, nurseries and for women’s employment rights: equal pay and an end to the forces that led to women ending up in low paid, dead end jobs. She didn’t see this as a result just of simple discrimination, but of a whole interlocking system in which gender divisions interacted with capitalist employment relations to produce different and unequal roles for men and women. As a feminist economist, she made important contributions to the understanding of this system, as well as taking part in many campaigns to change it. Debating whether class or gender was the primary cause of it all was unnecessary and meaningless – what mattered was to understand how the whole system worked.

Irene was always an internationalist, putting much energy into, for example, the European Socialist Feminist Forum to foster socialist feminist campaigns across Europe. It was typical of her approach that when feminists from eastern Europe became involved, for whom the term ‘socialism’ was redolent of an oppressive state, she argued against fierce opposition to include them by changing the name of the organisation to the ‘European Left Feminist Forum’. She was also a long-term supporter of Women in Black, standing up for peace against militarism and war.

Irene was open to new ideas and new people at all times. She was a terrific organiser, if always over-committed, and recognised that one had to give time to both the big and the small, and to people as well as movements, fighting injustices wherever they occurred. Non-sectarian, inclusive, passionate and sometimes infuriating, she will be greatly missed.

Sue Himmelweit

A fighter for a better world

Earlier this year, having been subject to some of the police harassment at this year’s climate camp, and knowing she was ill, I expressed concern about my mother Irene coming to the mass day of protest. She came anyway, of course – that was my mum.

Many tributes allude to the searing hole left in the social justice movement by her untimely and deeply cruel death. I know my own work will suffer greatly. I have always sent her articles and reports I am working on. No matter that she was no expert on, say, tuna overfishing or climate change, she would always provide a fresh perspective and challenge assumptions I could no longer see.

Irene would always tell us that ‘life’s not fair’ and yet she refused to let herself be overwhelmed by it – there was no time for that. Her motivation was always her resolute belief in the possibility of a better world.

I hope those reading this feature will be inspired to keep fighting – the only way to keep her spirit alive, and do justice to what she achieved.

Jo Kuper


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