An actor’s life, but not for everyone

An actor’s life, but not for everyone

For the JC May 2021

The leading actress Dame Maureen Lipman has resigned as a member of Equity, the actors’ union, after a litany of complaints from Jewish members that the union had called for participation in Saturday’s pro-Palestinian demonstration in central London — without taking account of the naked antisemitism and violence on display. At least three other resignations have taken place, with more expected.

Dame Maureen, who has been an Equity member for 54 years, said that the only thing she and the union president, Maureen Beattie, had in common, “is our names. On everything else she doesn’t speak for me or any actor in the union with a brain. She speaks for a mob mentality”. She said that the call by Ms Beattie and the union’s general secretary, Paul Fleming, for Equity members to join the demonstration had “nothing to do with the poor Palestinians, who are only pawns, and everything to do with Jewish people”. She added, derisively: “Thank you, Equity, for increasing antisemitism and your deep understanding of Israeli actions”.

Both Dame Maureen and actress Tracy-Ann Oberman questioned why Ms Beattie — who has endorsed a petition calling for sanctions against Israel — was not calling for sanctions over the Uyghurs, the Rohinga, or those oppressed by the Syrian regime. Ms Oberman said Jewish actors were beginning to hide their stars of David at auditions and were “terrified of being thought of as Zionists. One actor was turned on when it was found that they had family in Israel. Jewish actors are frightened of owning their identity, and they are scared that they will be blacklisted”.

One actor, who wanted to remain anonymous, wrote to Equity’s general secretary, Paul Fleming, calling the union’s statement which asked for participation in the demonstration “inflammatory.” The writer said: “It isn’t the job of Equity to express your feelings on whether ‘disproportionate’ force was used by the Israeli government. It is deliberately a statement of political opinion which will automatically alienate all Equity’s Jewish members”.

The writer added: “If you want to be a union for all, then condemning antisemitism should have been in that statement as the rise in hate crimes have gone up across the world as a direct result of inflammatory language used in politics. There was no solidarity for Jewish actors in that statement”.

But Equity, which last week affiliated to Trade Unions For Palestine, pointblank refused three times to respond to JC questions about resignations, fears of Jewish members, and the antisemitism on display at the Saturday demonstration. Instead it directed the paper to Frequently Asked Questions and responses on its website — none of which addressed the issue.

A young actor told the JC: “It was the first day of a Zoom read- through for a possible new theatre show. We all introduced ourselves online, which is standard practice — who we are, where we are from, what we have been up to professionally. When it was my turn, having had very little acting work due to the pandemic, I explained that I had been working on a treatment, hopefully for TV, based on my own family’s experience and history of fleeing pogroms in Russia.

“In front of the whole cast and director, an actor sneered on the screen and told me “look what YOU’RE doing in Palestine. That’s a pogrom”. I felt sick. Like the two are somehow connected and I had to feel the weight of responsibility to defend myself against something, that has nothing to do with me or my own family’s lived experience, that our own personal horrors were somehow being dismissed and diminished. The Chinese actor in the same cast was not made to feel the same fear, in having to speak about the Uyghurs. So it’s hard not to feel unsafe as a Jewish actor — and it’s made me feel that I won’t be talking about my heritage or Jewish identity going forward”.

Murray Hecht, who chairs the general branch of Brighton and Sussex Equity, told the union: “Please listen to your Jewish members. How can we feel safe in this union? I have gone from being the proud chair of the Brighton and Sussex Equity General Branch to a very ashamed chair”.

Among those who have condemned Equity are actors and performers Dom Joly, Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Eddie Marsan. Mr Marsan, addressing Maureen Beattie, said: “You have a right to your personal opinion but in your role as president of our union you haven’t shown the same urgency in expressing solidarity with Jewish members in the face of recent appalling antisemitism”. Sanjeev Bhaskar, commenting on an antisemitic banner held at the Palestinian march, wrote: “Appalling banner solely designed to stoke up religious hate. It’s ironic that Ms Beattie’s Twitter banner suggests ‘creating safe spaces’”. Dom Joly observed: “This is truly disgusting. Equity, what the f**k is going on?”

Actor and writer Steven Berkoff said that the march “leaves a distinctly bad smell. Somewhat disgusting. However, I would like to think that if Israel was under a major attack from some Middle Eastern nation they would respond in like manner. However, I wouldn’t bank on it”. Nevertheless, he said: “Sympathy for Israel was somewhat jaded when they tried to expel Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem. A shabby move, I’m afraid. I do hope that better minds in Israel will rescind it”.

An Israeli actress said on social media: “[Equity] claim to support peace — currently they are choosing sides, while I as a minority performer in their union, witnessed a march this week being led by people screaming in Arabic ‘massacre the Jews’, and I do not feel safe to go into a casting room saying I am Israeli”.

Agent Emma Engers said: “I’ve worked in the entertainment industry for 25 years and for the first time in my experience, Jewish actors are telling me that they’re frightened of identifying as being Jewish upon joining a new cast or in the rehearsal room. Young Jewish drama students are terrified to identify as Jewish for fear of repercussions”.

She added: “Actors Equity is a union for all actors and therefore they shouldn’t be fanning the flames, on what are very real and frightening issues for Jewish actors, by encouraging their members to attend a political rally. We need then to understand how this fuels the narrative that Israel is evil and that therefore all Jewish people are responsible for something happening in a country, 3,000 miles away, in which we have no voting rights.

“What are they going to do about their increasing numbers of frightened Jewish members? Why have they refused us a non-aggressive nor confrontational chat, to discuss how their Jewish members currently feel?”

Another agent, John Rogerson, said: “I represent many Jewish performers who think they’ll be blacklisted if they speak out.
Equity should be supporting these people to feel free to speak out, not fanning the flames of rising antisemitism in the UK”.

  • 7 June, 2021