A few years back, a friend was rehearsing a play with an internationally respected British theatre company. He was asked if he was Jewish. My friend responded affirmatively. A few days after that, he noticed that some of the actors were whispering to each other over lunch. One finally sidled over and asked, “Umm…is it true you have family from Israel?” Yes, he responded, it was true.
Then the actor asked: “But you don’t have family living there… like… NOW?” My friend said that yes, he had family living there, like, NOW – an aunt and uncle and all his cousins. The aghast actor said: “You have ACTUAL family living IN ISRAEL, NOW?” There was a pause while the shock sunk in. “I’m so SORRY!”
The actor went back to the others, who looked visibly shaken at the news. My friend didn’t feel comfortable for the rest of the five-month run of that play.
I’d like to say this is a one-off story. But it isn’t. I’ve been told countless episodes by performers who have felt deeply uncomfortable in rehearsal rooms when their Jewish ethnicity has been identified. Once their Jewishness is established, they are often immediately questioned as to their feelings about Israel. Have they been there? Do they condemn it? Are they a – God forbid – Zionist? What’s their opinion on the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians”?
Many have been told that Gaza is worse than Auschwitz. That Israelis are Nazis. On and on it goes. On 9/11, I was filming a cult comedy sketch show. At supper break, as the shock of the awful news was sinking in, the cameraman – who I adored – said to me (I assume momentarily forgetting that I was indeed Jewish with ACTUAL family living in Israel): “That’s all Israel’s fault that is! It’s all down to Israel.” I don’t think even Osama bin Laden claimed it was ALL down to Israel.
Since the recent tragic escalation of violence between Hamas and the IDF, the threat to Jews in this country has become physical. It’s now not a Nazi-esque mural we’re up against, or the crank left or right bleating on about Rothschild Cabals; it’s now pure hate. The call by a Palestinian-flagged convoy on the Finchley Road to rape Jewish women and their daughters; Rabbis being beaten up and hospitalised on the streets of Ilford; hate preachers whipping up a group of “Palestinian activists” to march the streets of Kensington, looking for “Zionists” to kill.
The words “Hitler was right” was posted on Twitter more than 17,000 times in the month of May. Pakistani actress Veena Malik, with more than one million followers, had multiple retweets of solidarity on her post, “I would have killed all the Jews in the world…but I kept some to show the world why I killed them.” Poor Veena, she played herself as an idiot by wrongly attributing the quote to Adolf Hitler. He didn’t say it. He murdered six million and would quite happily have murdered the rest.
May was the month I decided to step away from online activism and concentrate on my career. The hard-left have tried to “cancel” me so many times since I spoke out on the antisemitism. Happily, it hasn’t worked. My career is flourishing, never been busier. May was going to be me reclaiming my social media output and promoting the hell out of my creative working life. I’m no Veena Malik (lolz), but I’ve got two TV series coming out, my The Merchant of Venice Cable Street theatre tour is coming back to post-Covid life and I’m researching my new play for BBC Radio 4.
But I began to lose count of the number of performers who have contacted me saying they were frightened and worried. Performers were taking their Magen Davids off before entering rehearsal rooms, thinking of changing their surnames, lying about any connection to Israel. Fellow actors were terrified to say anything judged out of place for fear of being turned on.
And their fears were justified when the actor and performers union Equity decided to use its membership base to condemn Israel. Its President and General Secretary called on members to demand sanctions and join the march in Hyde Park. A similar march a week earlier had seen multiple antisemitic placards, including one with Jesus nailed to a cross with the words: “Do not let them do the same thing today again”.
Equity has a duty to look after its members at a time when most haven’t earned a penny in 18 months. It also doesn’t routinely make pronouncements on anything. Do you know how many times Equity, its President and General Secretary have issued statements, let alone called for sanctions, against China, Turkey or Syria? Or offered support to the Kurds, the Yazidis or the Russian LGBTQ community? Zero. Do you know how many times they’ve made a statement on Israel and Palestine? Twenty-eight times.
So much for promoting my work. I found myself pulling different factions together to push awareness of what was happening. I was invited onto Newsnight to talk about the many performers who had sent me their resignation letters from Equity, including the incomparable Dame Maureen Lipman, who said she was putting her subs toward helping victims on both sides of the conflict. Where the Dame walks, people follow.
Murray Hecht, a long-time Equity union leader and activist, joined me in the outrage and led a delegation of angry Jewish and non-Jewish members who ripped up their union cards.
Many Jewish performers feel they must pass a political loyalty test — a purity exam to weed out any Zionistic tendencies. I hope my fellow Chinese, Iranian, Turkish, Russian and Pakistani performers aren’t put under equal pressure about countries they do not live in and are not citizens of.
I have promoted Palestinian rights; I think Israel must be brave and lead talks to forward a two-state solution and coexistence.
I am overwhelmed by how much love and support I have received from so many fellow actors, directors, musicians, producers, casting directors, writers and others. It is heartening to think this message really impacted. But I won’t allow myself and my fellow performers to be lectured by people whose only understanding of the situation is what they’ve read on Instagram.
I won’t be told to tone it down by fellow actors who are unable to call out antisemitism for fear of looking “pro-Zionist”. And I won’t stay quiet when my industry’s union exacerbates this mindset.