Sam in 2003 when I went up to Liverpool before heading off to Scotland with my daughter
Sam in 2003 when I went up to Liverpool before heading off to Scotland with my daughter
It is still difficult to believe
that Sam, who was 75, will no longer be with us. That
unique blend of Liverpudlian humour and an American accent. Sam was raised on a poultry farm in New Jersey, having been born in Philadelphia, but only because his mother went into labour there. Sam’s doctorate was in Molecular Cell Biology, and that was why he came to Britain in 1979. I met him shortly after he came here.
Sam only had one child. Shelah he had only one grandchild –
Karlaya Mae. Whilst he had two brothers, only one is still alive. Sam has I’m told left numerous nieces and nephews scattered across the
States, from New York to California.
Sam was a community activist in
Liverpool whose speciality was health campaigns. In particular he was the scourge of the PFI
takeover of Liverpool’s new hospital, the cutbacks and all the other
attacks. Sam was also a class fighter. He rejected Zionism for the same reasons that
he rejected all forms of racism.
Sam speaking at one of many demonstrations he participated in
He was a medical researcher and
worked for years at Liverpool University.
He lost a battle in the Employment Tribunal and then the Employment
Appeal Tribunal under the right-wing judge Simon Brown, who was hostile to all
equalities legislation. He was fighting against
the endemic racism of one of the old style colonial outposts, the Liverpool
School of Tropical Medicine. The School
had been founded, like its London counterpart, as part of the attempt to
colonise Africa which was then known as the Dark Continent on account of the
impenetrability for White people of its interior. Because of malaria and other diseases, White
men were unable to conquer the savage interior of Africa and that was the reason
the tropical medicine schools were founded.
They were the medical spear of British colonialism.
Sam threw himself into a variety
of grassroots community campaigns in Liverpool and was highly respected amongst
the Black and Somali communities.
It was Sam’s hatred of racism
that meant that he could be no other than an anti-Zionist. I first met Sam in around 1980 and we
worked together at first in the British Anti-Zionist Organisation. We also resigned from BAZO together when we
had accumulated enough proof that it was controlled by Iraqi Baathists. Sam went on to be a committed activist in
Liverpool Friends of Palestine.
I left Liverpool in 1974 but I used to come back quite often to see my parents. Whenever I returned I
would make a point of going for a drink with Sam and a meal, often with his
former wife Lil. When my children came
up to Liverpool they stayed with his daughter Shelah and Karlaya Mae. Sam took very easily to being a grandfather
and baby sitting.
Sam was a dedicated Jewish anti-Zionist
and proud of that fact. He could always
be counted on to sign a Jewish anti-Zionist petition or letter. Sam really was the unsung hero of our
movement. Whereas people like me have
risen to prominence (and infamy!) Sam was
someone who preferred to stay in the background.
The last time I saw Sam was in
June 2016 when I came to speak at a Liverpool Friends of Palestine meeting in
the wake of my suspension from the Labour Party over the fake anti-Semitism campaign. It was a packed meeting that the Zionists
had, as usual, tried to have cancelled.
Afterwards the speakers and Liverpool activists went for a Chinese meal
in the centre of Liverpool where we discussed the latest attacks inside the Labour
Party. Sam had, like so many of us, left
the Labour Party in the Blair years and had come back with the election of Jeremy
I stayed with Sam in his flat in
Ullet Road and I was shocked then at the deterioration in Sam’s health. He had to walk around with oxygen canisters. I wondered how long Sam could continue to
survive. However he hadn’t lost his
sense of humour and he thoroughly enjoyed the meeting. Sam had previously enjoyed smoking cannabis but
he was now no longer able to smoke anything. Many was the time when we smoked
I can remember over 30 years ago
Sam was busy helping to produce an issue of the short-lived Liverpool Labour
Briefing, which included an article by me.
When I got married in 1989 Sam came down and stayed with us in Brighton as
he did three years ago when I was extremely ill and thought I was going to
Sam was one of those who was to
the forefront in trying to remove the racist Zionist MP for Liverpool Riverside
and the supporter of Israel’s abuse of Palestinian children, Louise Ellman.
The short video clip I am
including here for the first time was when I was visiting Liverpool on the way
to Scotland with my daughter Ellie. It
was in 2003 and I still had my Renault 5!
In the clip I had taken my late mother and Ellie to meet Sam, I think in
Lodge Lane, Liverpool 8, which was near where he lived.
Sam was the best of comrades and
never had an ill-word to say about anyone.
It is really hard to imagine that Sam is no longer with us. My heart goes out to Sam’s daughter and his
grandchild, Karlaya Mae. He will be sorely missed.
Semoff died peacefully on 11 Jan in the Royal Liverpool Hospital after a
long illness. Hundreds of us in Liverpool and elsewhere knew him as a
friend and comrade. He was warm, intense, committed, and ready to engage
with anyone he met. He lived in Liverpool 8 (Toxteth) as an American in
exile, an anti-racist, lifelong opponent of Zionism and supporter of
the Palestinian people. We knew each other best through his work in
defence of the NHS. As a founder member of Keep Our NHS Public
Merseyside, Sam continued chairing meetings even while carrying an
oxygen bottle and undergoing dialysis. No-one
– porter, domestic, nurse, medic or Consultant – got within a few feet
of Sam in hospital without being asked their attitude to the Private
Finance Initiative (PFI), or the latest government plans to undermine
the NHS. During the Junior Doctors strike, he persuaded staff to let him
appear at the Atrium window above the demonstration in the ambulance
forecourt. Sam phoned through to a mobile pressed to the megafone and
addressed the strikers.
morning everybody. I am a patient on the Cardiology ward here in the
Royal. I’ve been in here two weeks and I can tell you the care has been
absolutely great. Jeremy
Hunt is a liar – he says we need a 24/7 service, well we have 24/7
service. I have been in here two weekends and a doctor was always
available, so were support services. Hunt
is also a hypocrite – he talks about patient safety, yet he wants to
remove requirements that limit junior doctors working unsafe hours,
putting patients lives at risk. The
doctors went into medicine to help people, their main concern is their
patients’ needs above all else… Hunt knows this and takes advantage of
it, he thinks he can push them to the limit and they will not do
they have said enough is enough, they know the risks to their patients
in going along with Hunt’s proposals are greater than doing nothing. I
wish a lot more health workers would reach that point. The
Government is determined to decimate the NHS and turn it into a market
based health care system like in America. They have eroded the
principles of universality, of a comprehensive integrated service that
is publicly accountable and they are now working to undermine publicly
provided, as the NHS is broken up into bits and turned over to the
private sector where the overriding aim is profit. When they get around to removing the principle of a service free at the point of delivery based on need, it will be too late. I hope to see you out here next week and the week after.
deep knowledge of the communities in Liverpool 8 came to the fore when
NHS England handed over the management of a dozen Liverpool surgeries to
the private firm SSP. Sam was a patient at Princes Park Health Centre,
which had pioneered community treatment for the whole person in the
1980s. So SSP wasn’t just an affront to his politics. It was personal.
Sam hit back with 10,000 leaflets in Arabic, English and Somali,
delivered door to door and to every shop on Lodge Lane. He had been Sec.
of Granby Ward Labour Party, and ran this like an election campaign.
culminated in a public meeting of around 130, almost all of whom were
current or former patients at Princes Park, furious at how the service
had collapsed. It was held in three languages with interpreters and a PA
system, allowing Somali women who sat with their friends in a side room
to address the entire gathering. The meeting led directly to a survey, a
report, and the intervention of the CQC which eventually kicked SSP out
of Liverpool, though some NHS staff were victimised in the process. Sam
led the fight against PFI funding for the new Royal Hospital. He was
vilified in the Echo, which ran the scurrilous headline “Bogoff Semoff”,
claiming that an American was trying to deny healthcare to the people
of Liverpool. No-one ever apologised for that, even when the newspaper
finally woke up to the PFI catastrophes at Whiston Hospital and around
the country. Sam
brought a Judicial Review which forced the Royal to re-run their
consultation as they had not even mentioned that the new hospital would
be funded by PFI. Every Liverpool Labour MP backed the scheme, as did
Cllr Nick Small and Joe Anderson, at that time leader of the Labour
group within the Council. The Royal PFI was signed off by Andy Burnham
as Health Secretary on the eve of the 2010 General Election. Sam lodged a
second Judicial Review, challenging the claim that the PFI would
deliver Value for Money. On
17 Nov 2010 BBC Radio Merseyside put Sam up against Joe Anderson, who
declared “I know it doesn’t provide Value for Money now or in the
future, but it’s the only game in town”. That admission ricocheted all
the way up to a Treasury Select Committee Inquiry into PFI. But the JR
was derailed when Cllr Small approached the Legal Assistance Board and
got them to pull the funding for Sam’s challenge. Sam
had already left the Labour Party over Iraq, but rejoined more recently
in support of Jeremy Corbyn. He joined Unite, and was active in the
Community Branch of the union. He knew construction workers blacklisted
by Carillion, but didn’t quite live to see the company collapse with the
new Royal half-built. A few days earlier, Sam commented “Workers
united, is the only defence they have.” When the news of his death came through, a demo at the Health and Wellbeing Board turned into a tribute to Sam. We all miss him. Let’s honour him by continuing the fight. Greg Dropkin
was with great sadness that we heard yesterday morning 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 some well justified amour propre.
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 anti-Semitism. 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 anti-Semitism) Sam gave the young man a lecture on the
difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. 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
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
“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.”
were a mensche, comrade. Farewell.
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
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 longtime 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.