Zionism? To hell with all that, says film director

Mike Leigh's distaste for Israel is so bad he won’t even visit his 90-year-old aunt.


Mike Leigh, the film-maker and playwright who has cancelled a planned trip to Israel next month, has backed a cultural boycott of the country, calling its policies "suicidal".

In an exclusive and personal outspoken interview in which he justified his decision not to teach a masterclass at a Jerusalem film school, the 67-year-old, Salford-born author said he was now "implicitly part" of the boycott.

Mr Leigh, director of award-winning films such as Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, had been invited by the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem to take a workshop for students. During the week that he was due to spend in Israel he had been scheduled to visit Palestinian film-makers in Jenin, on the West Bank, and also to give a wide-ranging press conference.

Mr Leigh admitted to having been "extremely uncomfortable" about agreeing to go to Israel in the first place, but the loyalty oath planned by the Israeli government for new immigrants had proved "the last straw".

I don’t want to know about rockets. I am concerned with humanity

In his interview, given to publicise his new film, Another Year, Mr Leigh gave his angriest assessment yet of his life as a Jew and his feelings towards Israel.

He complained that he and his fellow former members of the left-wing Zionist movement, Habonim, had been duped by Israeli propaganda, and denounced religion in the strongest terms.

"Religion's never been an issue. I've been sceptical about religion since I was born, basically. And certainly by the time I came to my barmitzvah I had long been sceptical. I think organised religion is bulls***. And I have thought that literally since before I could walk. So that's not a problem for me. Although I grew up in the north Manchester Jewish scene, in a district that's now completely where all the frummers live."

He revealed that he had planned to take his sons with him to Israel, where he has a "lot of very close relatives. My mother's surviving sister, who went on aliyah in 1949, is still alive. She'll be 90 very shortly, and she was looking forward to seeing me…

"But in the end, to hell with all that. A decision had to be made that this simply wasn't good enough."

Although the argument might be put that "committed, serious, liberal, left artists are not responsible for the Israeli government," he said, "that simply won't wash. Because actually, the truth is that what Israel is doing… is suicidal."

While cultural talks went on "in the nice cinematheques of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, it is hell on earth in Gaza and I wouldn't want to be there basically".

A former member of Habonim, he has only twice visited Israel, once in 1960 and again in 1990.

"Not only was I in Habonim, in the '50s, but I actually happen to come from a very long, unusually Zionist background in Manchester, at a time when many Jews were not particularly Zionist," he said. "In fact a lot of Jews were very sceptical about the whole notion of Zionism. My great-grandfather actually edited a Zionist newspaper in Manchester at the turn of the last century. So, I have struggled with this issue, the whole thing, for a very long time."

All his close friends from Habonim had long since "walked away from Jewish life" but they talked about Israel, he added: "We wring our hands on a daily basis, saying 'For f***'s sake, what are they doing? They are shooting themselves in the foot'."

His 2005 play about Jewish identity, Two Thousand Years, would have been "tougher" if he had written it now, he said. He felt that not only had he done "the right thing" in deciding to call off his trip to Israel but "in so far as anything achieves anything, more publicity has come out of what I have done than would have been the case had I simply not gone, or had I gone and merely made a few statements that no one was listening to inside Israel."

He said he had been "of course exhorted not to go to Israel by a number of factions. That included Israeli factions within Israel. Whilst I have been berated by some Israeli positions, there are also Israelis that are extremely pleased I made that decision."

Mr Leigh, who insisted that all his work was "unquestionably Jewish", was dismissive about rocket attacks on Israel. "I don't want to know about rockets," he said. "What I am concerned with is humanity, is life being lived properly. And you cannot deal with this issue from an Israeli perspective and not from a Palestinian or a Gaza perspective. You simply can't. And if you do it's totally unacceptable. And that's the bottom line."

    Last updated: 4:12pm, October 21 2010