The Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter, whose death at 78 was announced on December 24, was recalled this week as an early friend and supporter of Israel, despite latterly being known as one of the country’s strongest Jewish critics.
The Hackney-born playwright was a founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and backed the boycotting of Israeli produce. He was also a sharp critic of George Bush and Tony Blair, branding the Iraq war as a “bandit act” and a war crime.
However, Pinter was not always among Israel’s opponents. After the 1967 Six Day War, he joined an emergency appeal in which he and other celebrities donated money to a Jewish youth emergency fund and was part of a solidarity campaign for Israel.
Frederic Raphael recalled in his book, Personal Terms: “My only experience of his losing his famous cool was when I asked him about the Arab-Israeli war. He grew excited and said that the Arabs had asked for a bloody good thrashing and had got one.”
In 1981, Pinter supported a book fair in aid of Ben Gurion University. He was also a keen supporter of the 35s, the women’s campaign for Soviet Jewry.
The former chair of the 35s, Rita Eker, said: “He came with us when we demonstrated outside the Soviet Embassy and delivered letters to the Soviet consulate. He felt very strongly about Soviet Jewry and he was a great humanitarian. His death is very sad.” Fellow Jewish playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, who was also brought up in Hackney, recalled that when he was refreshing his play Chicken Soup With Barley at the Royal Court, Pinter had said: “Yours is the kind of play I would like to act in.”
Sir Arnold added: “I wrote to him a few weeks ago when Barack Obama was elected. I wished him [Pinter] well. He was so anti-American I thought it was good to point out that America was about to have a black president. He was very naïve politically — but he certainly made an impact.”
Pinter responded positively to an early campaign Wesker ran in support of the Jewish Quarterly.
In 2003, Pinter, Wesker and the writers Bernard Kops and Emanuel Litvinoff appeared on a panel for Jewish Book Week to discuss the roots of Jewish writing. Chairman Melvyn Bragg had a tough time trying to persuade Pinter and Wesker, who held diametrically opposite views on the Iraq war, not to mention the conflict.