Mar­golyes’s new drama

Voice-over queen Miriam Mar­golyes once nar­rated a cin­e­matic paean to Is­rael. That was then. By Jenni Frazer

The Jewish Chronicle - - INTERVIEW -

"Jews,” says Miriam Mar­golyes, force­fully, “never lis­ten. That’s the prob­lem.” Then she gath­ers her­self with a laugh and says that many of her friends in the world of Jewish ge­neal­ogy, of which she is a pas­sion­ate devo­tee, “are just em­bar­rassed by me. They love the warm Jewish side of me, but they don’t like the po­lit­i­cal side. They wish I would just shut up.”

But Mar­golyes, by her own ac­knowl­edg­ment, is in­ca­pable of shut­ting up.

The ac­tress, the queen of the world of voice-overs and the cur­rent star of the hit mu­si­cal show, Wicked!, is about to court still more con­tro­versy by spear­head­ing a cam­paign spon­sored by a host of anti-Is­rael groups. The “Enough” coali­tion is ty­ing a se­ries of events to this year’s 40th an­niver­sary of the Six Day War, cul­mi­nat­ing in a na­tional demon­stra­tion and con­cert on Satur­day, June 9. Next week, the Enough cam­paign launches with a West­min­ster press con­fer­ence, fronted by Mar­golyes. As if one prom­i­nent Jew were not enough to make main­stream Bri­tish Jewry wrig­gle, the coali­tion has se­cured the sup­port of writer and di­rec­tor Mike Leigh, and writer and ac­tor Stephen Fry.

She was not, she says, “in at the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign. They asked me to be in­volved be­cause I have some vis­i­bil­ity, be­cause I’m an ac­tress. I’m not a par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal: I’m a loud­mouth, and I say what I think — about ev­ery­thing, re­ally.” She agreed to be­come a spokesper­son for Enough be­cause of a “pas­sion­ate” be­lief that “a ter­ri­ble mis­take is be­ing made, which in the long run is go­ing to harm the whole Mid­dle East and ev­ery­body in it. That dis­tresses me: and al­though I’m un­pre­pared, and not knowl­edge­able, I feel that if I feel about some­thing as pas­sion­ately as I do this, I should do some­thing about it.”

Her own views on Is­rael are, she thinks, “well-known”, but she is not too sure about what Mike Leigh and Stephen Fry have to say. In­ter­est­ingly, Mar­golyes re­jects any sug­ges­tion that the three of them, prom­i­nent Jews in the creative arts, are be­ing used by a cyn­i­cal coali­tion of anti-Zion­ist cam­paign­ers, which in­cludes the Pales­tine Sol­i­dar­ity Cam­paign, War on Want, the Mus­lim Coun­cil of Bri­tain, the Mus­lim Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee and the Friends of Bir Zeit. Ad­di­tion­ally, the cam­paign is backed by Jews for Jus­tice for Pales­tini­ans and the Jewish So­cial­ists’ Group. Rather, Mar­golyes thinks she, Leigh and Fry have been re­cruited be­cause they are well-known faces, and any cam­paign needs press at­ten­tion.

Once upon a time, it was rather dif­fer­ent. Mar­golyes, an ac­tress in world­wide de­mand for her voice-over work, was in­volved in the nar­ra­tion of sev­eral films made by the Si­mon Wiesen­thal Cen­tre’s Mu­seum of Tol­er­ance, in­clud­ing one film, The Long Way Home, which told the story of the birth of the mod­ern state of Is­rael as the Euro­pean sur­vivors of the Holo­caust emerged from post-war refugee camps.

She is, she says rather oddly, “com­pletely Jewish, and have al­ways been a mem­ber of a syn­a­gogue — in fact, I’m a mem­ber of two syn­a­gogues, one in Amer­ica (Beth Ohr, in Hol­ly­wood’s Stu­dio City) and one in Eng­land (Streatham United). I’m sort of an ob­ser­vant Jew in the way that English Jews are — I don’t eat pork, and I never have, but I don’t go to shul on Shabbes. But if any­one said to me, ‘Are you Jewish?’ — yes, 100 per cent. I’m some­one who is pas­sion­ately con­cerned with be­ing Jewish, with what it means to be Jewish, I want ev­ery­one to know that I’m Jewish… Any Arabs or Pales­tini­ans that I meet, I al­ways tell them, I’m Jewish. I wear that la­bel with pride. I think it’s

AWARDED: ab­so­lutely vi­tal that Jews are able to crit­i­cise Is­rael with­out be­ing branded as traitors and God knows what else.”

So where, one won­ders, did it all change for Mar­golyes? She has vis­ited Is­rael four or five times, the last oc­ca­sion in 1994, when she took her one-wo­man show, Dick­ens’ Women, to the Jerusalem Fes­ti­val. It is dif­fi­cult to un­pick what hap­pened next.

She de­cided to visit the Gaza Strip dur­ing this stay and was, she says, “in­ter­ro­gated” by of­fi­cials at Ben-Gu­rion Air­port when she left the coun­try, ask­ing “very ag­gres­sive and scary” ques­tions about the visit. “I didn’t ex­pect to be in­ter­ro­gated. Per­haps that was naive of me,” she says. “It left me with a very sour taste.” She has not been back to Is­rael since, be­liev­ing that any such visit would im­ply that she sup­ported the poli­cies of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment, of which she pro­foundly dis­ap­proves.

None­the­less, Mar­golyes is well aware that the gov­ern­ment of 1994 was that of Yitzchak Rabin, the Labour leader, and that its poli­cies were very dif­fer­ent from those of sub­se­quent Likud and Kadimah ad­min­is­tra­tions. So it is un­clear why she felt un­able to re­turn to Is­rael while the Oslo process was still a vi­able re­al­ity, and her an­swers do not pro­vide much more clar­ity.

“Yes, the gov­ern­ment was dif­fer­ent, and I felt that it was per­fectly… well, I wanted to see [Gaza] for my­self, and I went. I didn’t re­ally want to re­peat the ex­pe­ri­ence [of be­ing ques­tioned].” Yet later, she speaks wist­fully — “we were that close to peace. It is the great­est tragedy of mod­ern times that some fool­ish Jew shot Rabin.”

Part of the at­trac­tion of join­ing this cam­paign, Mar­golyes makes clear, is her be­lief that “at this mo­ment, things [for the Pales­tini­ans] have never been worse, and I think that the word ‘enough’ is the proper word to use. I’m weary of this war, and I think that an aw­ful lot of peo­ple are, but un­for­tu­nately it seems that not enough are weary.”

Mar­golyes is suf­fi­ciently self-aware to ac­knowl­edge that her po­si­tion on Is­rael — “deeply anti-Is­rael” — is “a painful one. Peo­ple could per­fectly eas­ily say, just leave it alone, shut up and get on with your life. But I’m not gifted with the sort of per­son­al­ity that can let some­thing go, and I re­ally be­lieve that Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment is mak­ing an ap­palling mis­take, and what’s more, about 40 per cent of Is­rael agrees with me. I think that the fact that there is op­po­si­tion to Is­raeli gov­ern­ment poli­cies from within Is­rael is some­thing that the English Jewish com­mu­nity doesn’t ac­cept. The English Jewish com­mu­nity are scaredy- guts — not a brave com­mu­nity, and not a lib­eral com­mu­nity. It seems to me that they don’t ever want to rock the boat.”

Her wish, she de­clares, is to change peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes to­wards Arabs. “Maybe if I speak out and try and change peo­ple’s minds, try and make peo­ple see that if they treat Arabs in the way that they’re treat­ing them it is not go­ing to have any re­sult ex­cept more sui­cide bomb­ings. I want to get North Lon­don Jews to see Arabs as hu­man be­ings, and I think they’ve forgotten how to do that. They only see them as mur­der­ous bas­tards.” Of course, Mar­golyes ac­knowl­edges, “there are mur­der­ous bas­tards among the Pales­tini­ans, but there will be more un­less we change the way we treat Arabs.

“Bomb­ing hos­pi­tals, putting up a wall, stop­ping the money com­ing in [to the Pales­tinian ar­eas], try­ing to bring down Ha­mas, which is a demo­crat­i­cally elected po­lit­i­cal party... it’s just a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion, and we, the Jews, have be­come the vil­lains.”

Her po­si­tion on Is­rael has caused “a grave dis­agree­ment” with her good friend, ac­tress Mau­reen Lip­man, which Mar­golyes ap­pears to re­gret, be­cause Lip­man is some­one whom she “loves and re­spects”. But she does not re­cant her opin­ions: “I still say what I say: un­less Arabs see us as peo­ple, they will go on killing us — and I can’t blame them for that. I do not know what else they can do, what other way they can achieve any sort of po­lit­i­cal vi­a­bil­ity as a na­tion. ”

Mar­golyes’s em­pha­sis is, plainly, on the hu­man side of the con­flict. But she patently has a fol­low-through prob­lem when she is asked whether she is in favour of boy­cotts of Is­rael: “When I was cam­paign­ing against apartheid, I re­ally be­lieved in the boy­cott, but it seems to me that some­times boy­cotts har­den minds. My hope is to ask mod­er­ate Is­raelis and Jews here to stop and think. If a boy­cott doesn’t make that hap­pen, then a boy­cott’s no good.”

She says: “We are los­ing the pro­pa­ganda war, and I say it’s be­cause we’re in the wrong. Peo­ple are al­ways will­ing to be an­tisemitic, and now they have a real rea­son to be so. I’m not an­tisemitic, I’m deeply anti-Is­rael, this gov­ern­ment, and Sharon.”

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