Vanessa Redgrave at the Oscars

When I was a kid, there was probably no actor more reviled among Jews than Vanessa Redgrave. This was the late 1970s, and Redgrave was an outspoken defender of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel.

It all came to a head in 1978 at the Academy Awards (this is why I’m thinking about her tonight). Redgrave was up for an award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia, a film my family refused to see (boycotts run deep with me, I guess). The Jewish Defense League was out in force that night. Apparently there had been a major campaign to deny Redgrave the Oscar on the grounds that she supported a Palestinian state. She got it anyway. Instead of offering an olive branch to her critics, or keeping quiet about the controversy, she took the opportunity of her acceptance speech to denounce the “Zionist hoodlums” who had campaigned against her nomination and possible receipt of the award.

Her speech didn’t go down so well with the audience, some of whom booed her. Later that night, the playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky used the opportunity of his presenting the award for Best Screenplay—to Woody Allen for Annie Hall (Allen, of course, has himself become the source of some controversy this year)to denounce Redgrave for using the opportunity of her acceptance speech to make a political statement:

I would like to saypersonal opinion of coursethat I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning the Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple “thank you” would have sufficed.

Whatever you think of the protagonists, it was great theater.

Thinking back on that night tonight, I was curious to see where Redgrave wound up landing on the issue of Israel/Palestine as it presents itself today.

I did a little research and noticed that in 1986, she came out in favor of a cultural boycott of Israel. No surprise there. This position earned her no end of condemnation from defenders of Israel, including Jane Fonda, her co-star in Julia. Fonda joined Tom Hayden, her husband at the time, to say:

We are appalled at Vanessa Redgrave’s attempt to organize a cultural boycott of Israel. We urge all cultural workers to strongly oppose this vicious act and we are confident that it will be rejected by people of conscience everywhere.

In 1986, Hayden was in the California State Assembly, his eye on higher office. I have no idea if that played a role in the two making their statement.

But in 20o9, Redgrave would join Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman to issue a denunciation of filmmakers who were protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision to spotlight and showcase films coming out of Tel Aviv. As Redgrave and her co-authors put it in a letter published in the New York Review of Books:

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

Now she was a critic of the idea of a boycott (though in truth the filmmakers weren’t calling for a boycott; they were merely protesting this one decision). Ironically, one of the most prominent voices protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision was…Jane Fonda.

Since the debate over Israel and Palestine increasingly pits parents against children in the Jewish community—the most recent Pew poll, which got so much attention last fall, documents a decreasing attachment to Israel among younger Jews—I can’t end this post without posting this clip of Redgrave and her father, Michael, doing Act IV, Scene 7, from King Lear. It’s the scene of Lear’s and Cordelia’s reconciliation. Lear had unfairly banished Cordelia from the kingdom over some perceived slight, and now, slipping in and out of madness, he recognizes the terrible wrong he has done to her. He says:

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

And in one of the most heart-breaking lines, Cordelia responds:

No cause, no cause.

That murmured protest of Cordelia—no cause, no cause—seems especially poignant in light of the ways that Israel/Palestine has divided Jewish families and the generations.


  1. Brian March 3, 2014 at 1:17 am | #

    “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our esteemed guest—Mel Gibson”

  2. J. Otto Pohl March 3, 2014 at 8:41 am | #

    Interestingly enough there is considerable evidence that the Israelis modeled their policies towards the Palestinians in part on Soviet policy towards the Crimean Tatars.

  3. Steven P. March 3, 2014 at 2:43 pm | #

    Perhaps one of the most unfortunate effects of Redgrave’s blunder in 1978 was that she became branded as an anti-Semite, which many of her Jewish colleagues and friends over the years have testified could not have been further from the truth. In turn, she was boycotted herself by many Hollywood studios which effectively ended any chance that she would ascend to the ranks of bankable star again, despite critical acclaim for her as an actress. She has since achieved many honors and awards, but they are perhaps only a shadow of what she would have received had she been less radical on this particular occasion 36 years ago.

  4. Josh K-sky March 3, 2014 at 7:14 pm | #

    I have my own history with the Jewish Defense League and the Oscars. In 1999, Elia Kazan was given a lifetime achievement award, and there were protests and counterprotests at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (the awards wouldn’t move to the Kodak-now-Dolby theater in Hollywood until 2002). I went down with a video camera and interviewed the protesters. I had no idea who they were until much later, but I ran into Irv Rubin and another JDLer (I had thought it was Earl Krugel, but I’m not sure). and I asked them what they were up to. It went something like this:

    JK: So, who are you?
    Irv: We’re the Jewish Defense League. When evil rears its head, we stand up and fight, whether it’s anti-Semites, Nazis, Communists, Arabs…
    JK: And why are you here?
    Irv: Elia Kazan was an honorable man. He stood up to the communist party, and he deserves his award.
    JK: You know, Alfred Hitchcock never got an Oscar, and never got any kind of lifetime achievement.
    Other JDL’er: Really? That’s surprising. Hitchcock was a great artist. I can see where people’d be upset.
    Irv: Yeah, that makes sense.

    The video’s in a box somewhere, on an old format. Someday I’ll digitize it.

    • Corey Robin March 3, 2014 at 7:32 pm | #

      Great story, Josh. Hope you do that.

  5. Balaji March 4, 2014 at 10:15 pm | #

    I could never ever forget the role played by Vaneesa Redgrave in Julia. Then I don’t know that she stood for the Palestine people rights. Even the oscar acceptance speech I was not aware. Thank you Corey Robin for enlightening me on this.

  6. BillR March 9, 2014 at 3:46 pm | #


    “But that is not what this country is all about,” Mr. Kornstein added. “As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, freedom of speech is for those things you hate, if it means anything at all.”…”Everyone was aware of freedom of speech in this case and struggled with it. But there is no such thing as an absolute freedom. You must balance and weigh the rights of others.”


    “Tyranny of the majority is the heart of democracy,” he declared. “Call it what you want but democracy is the rule of the majority. And it’s not a tyranny if the majority decides against the minorities.”

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