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Artillery Row

The actors quitting Equity

Racism is perfectly acceptable so long as it’s the fashionable type

The last few weeks have seen a truly disturbing surge in open, mob-approved, proud and unashamed antisemitic campaigning on the streets of Britain. Pro-Palestinian marches have become violently anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, not to mention just plain violent, with Israeli flags burned and racist placards waved, lead by men shouting “massacre the Jews” in Arabic. On May 16th a convoy of activists drove through the streets of North London, the Palestinian flag draped over their cars, screaming through a megaphone “Fuck the Jews!” and “Rape their daughters, we have to send a message”. The same day, in Chigwell, Rabbi Rafi Goodwin was brutally attacked outside his synagogue. The two men beat him over the head with a brick. 

It was a few days after these hate-crimes that leading figures in the acting industry, which has become such a self-appointed moral arbiter in recent years, decided it had become fashionable enough to join in. Maureen Beattie, President of the ubiquitous actor’s union Equity, along with Paul Fleming, its self-proclaimed “radical” General Secretary, took to social media to use their considerable influence to urge union members to support “Palestinian comrades” and join the ongoing marches at the weekend. This was the weekend march, by the way, that had a prominent banner depicting Jesus carrying his cross, with the text “DO NOT LET THEM DO THE SAME THING TODAY AGAIN”; the march where Salma Yaqoob roared for an “intifada” to be held “here in London, in Birmingham, in Brighton”; the march where an activist pinned Israeli flags to the soles of his shoes and cackled “this is the Nike anti-Jewish edition”; where masked men were filmed swaggering through the streets, barking out “we’ll find some Jews … We want the Zionists! We want their blood!

Apparently, it’s the Jewish members’ fault if they want things done differently

In response to Equity’s unrepentant (and entirely unasked for) commitment to the “Palestinian comrades” of that racist march, Maureen Lipman, staunch Equity member for over 50 years, quit the union, urging other Jewish actors to do the same. Many did and continue to do so, including Murray Hecht, the erstwhile chair of the general branch of Brighton and Sussex Equity, and long time union campaigner. On Twitter, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Dom Joly called Equity out for incitement, hypocrisy and wildly inappropriate divisiveness, and the glorious Tracy-Ann Oberman lead the charge across the social media, later appearing on Newsnight to voice the collective complaints of the many Equity members, Jewish and otherwise, who were and are appalled by the behaviour but remain terrified of speaking openly for fear of being blacklisted.

Equity’s response, when it finally came, was pathetic. Alongside the usual bland, empty, mealy-mouthed, corporate-speak weasel-words, it informed us all that actually the Jewish members claiming to feel unsafe and unrepresented are wrong, because in fact “Equity has a long and proud history of standing up for peace and justice, and this solidarity unquestionably extends to the Jewish community.” So there. It goes on to parrot out the usual, ugly equivocation that only a very “small minority of hateful banners and rhetoric” on the marches were worthy of condemnation, and that excluding the hate-crimes and the violence and the racism and the calls for genocide the “otherwise peaceful” marches have actually been absolutely fine, actually.

It finishes by implying that, apparently, it’s the Jewish members’ fault if they want things done differently – they should report antisemitism to Equity more often and get more involved with the union if they want better representation in Equity’s “robust body of anti-racist work”. They offer no apology for their actions, no condemnation of the marches (just of the “small minority” of “hateful banners and rhetoric”), and no indication that Maureen Beattie or Paul Fleming have done anything wrong or regrettable whatsoever, or that there is any problem with antisemitism within the industry or its institutions. 

I am, though you wouldn’t have known it for the last year or so (or more, if you don’t frequent obscure Shakespearean fringe theatre revivals), an actor. These days one takes the politics and self importance of the profession for granted, that actor = activist; this presumption of moral superiority is all-encompassing and childishly puritanical, but usually harmless enough. No longer.

A friend of mine tours schools performing short, publicly-funded plays designed to combat radicalisation. As all those involved in the company are white, and in spite of the fact that the bulk of the schools they visit are entirely Asian and Arabic, they tend to focus on scripts about spotting white supremacists, limiting any material designed to discourage Jihadists to a quick, vague sixty second summary. The teachers uniformly encourage them in this, as it means they won’t get parents complaining. During the height of it all last week my friend was faced with a horde of children screaming the anti-Israel “river to sea” genocidal chant. The teachers were either impassive or joining in. When she told one of them she was Jewish, the teacher looked her up and down, and said “don’t worry, you don’t look it.” The rest of the company laughed.

These days one takes the politics and self importance of the profession for granted, that actor = activist

Another actor spoke out recently about the first day of Zoom rehearsals, when they mentioned to the company that they’d been working on a TV script about the experiences of their ancestors in fleeing the Russian pogroms: “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”.” The talent agent Emma Engers has “worked in the entertainment industry for 25 years and for the first time in my experience, Jewish actors are telling me that they’re … terrified to identify as Jewish for fear of repercussions.” 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.”  This problem is bigger than a couple of naive tweets.

The hard truth is that the ignorant, simplistic, activist morality which has become so endemic in the acting industry got this one wrong. A union cannot behave this way. In a period of fear and pain and hate, Equity thoughtlessly affirmed the racist, kneejerk attitudes that have become rife amongst many of its cardholders, and exacerbated the alienation and distress felt by many of its Jewish members. There has been no apology, no regret. There is no realistic way, now, that Maureen Beattie or Paul Fleming can represent or support Equity’s Jewish contingent. Both should resign. Instead, Equity shrugs as Jewish members leave in droves. There is talk of establishing a new, non-politicised actors union, designed to focus on prosaic issues like safety in the workplace, job security and living wages instead of international politics and religious warfare. Good.

The acting industry needs to do better. Regardless of what Israel has done to Palestine, or what Palestine has done to Israel, there is no justification and can be no place for open mob-racism in England. In this age of safe spaces and diversity drives and prioritised accessibility this should be an uncontroversial stance. Apparently not. Racism is perfectly acceptable so long as it’s the fashionable type.

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