Vanessa Redgrave: A Passion for Justice
by Rachelle Marshall
Among 20th-century heroines, Vanessa Redgrave deserves an
honored place. Few individuals have tried so hard to help ease the suffering of
others and few have been so maligned for their efforts. Again and again she has
given her total commitment to unfashionable causes, with no regard for the
physical hardship involved or the condemnation that often followed. At the same
time, like four generations of her family, she has been equally committed to a
career in the theater.
Unlike some radicals—and radical she surely is—she does not
turn to political action as an outlet for personal grievances; on the contrary,
Redgrave has had a full share of happiness. She adored her parents, the actors
Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, and remains close to her brother Corin and
sister Lynn. She is devoted to her three children and their two fathers. What
spurs her to action is outrage at what she perceives as injustice, and the
conviction that a single individual can make a difference.
Today everyone agrees that Vanessa Redgrave is an outstanding
actress. As a person, however, she is still regarded as flaky by some, and by
others as an anti-Semite and supporter of terrorists. Her Autobiography, which
first appeared in England in 1991 and has just been published in America by
Random House, proves both labels to be false.
What emerges from her book is a woman of great intelligence as
well as talent. She discusses the plays of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov with
the same clarity and depth of understanding as she does the causes of the civil
war in Lebanon during the 1970s or the British coal strike in 1984. To Redgrave
there is no sharp dividing line between bringing to life on stage the message of
Ibsen's Ghosts and holding a rally to help lift the siege of Sarajevo. Over the
years she has supported such diverse causes as nuclear disarmament, opposition
to the war in Vietnam, independence for northern Ireland, freedom for Soviet
Jews (in 1993 she was awarded the Sakharov medal by Elena Bonner for her
efforts), and, most recently, aid for Bosnian Muslims and other victims of Serb
aggression. She is a socialist, but her fierce opposition to Soviet oppression
led her to join the tiny anti-Stalinist Revolutionary Worker's Party, on whose
ticket she ran for Parliament twice. During the early 1970s she put the money
she earned from films into a charitable trust for disadvantaged children, and in
1973 she built and equipped a nursery school for children in a poverty-stricken
section of London.
Considering these activities, it comes as a shock to recall
that in 1980 Vanessa Redgrave was burned in effigy outside CBS studios in
Hollywood and Philadelphia, that snipers fired shots into one of the buildings,
and that station KNXT-TV in Los Angeles reported "numerous bomb threats," all
because Redgrave had been chosen for the role of a concentration camp inmate in
the CBS television film "Playing for Time."
"It's a horrible insult. Six million Jews will roll over in
their graves," said Jewish Defense League leader Irv Rubin when the casting was
announced. Howard Squadron, president of the American Jewish Congress, called
her selection for the role "grotesque."
Fania Fenelon Goldstein, the Holocaust survivor who wrote the
book on which the script was based, protested the casting from the beginning,
saying the actress "is known to be anti-Semitic." Reporting Goldstein's
statements, a news story in the San Francisco Chronicle of Aug. 9, 1979 said the
reason for the protests was that Redgrave had "financed and narrated a
documentary film sympathetic to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has
vowed to destroy the Jewish homeland of Israel." The film in question was "The
Palestinian," a documentary about Palestinians living in exile and under Israeli
occupation. In fact, neither Redgrave nor the PLO had "vowed to destroy the
Jewish homeland." When Austrian-born actor Theodore Bikel, then president of
Actors' Equity, was quoted as saying that in the film PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat
had called for the liquidation of Israel and Redgrave had agreed, Redgrave
immediately responded that nowhere in the film was such a statement made.
Nevertheless, the lie stuck.
In April 1982 the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a
sold-out performance of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex," with narration by Vanessa
Redgrave, because some financial supporters of the orchestra claimed her
appearance would offend the Jewish community. On at least two other occasions
since then, American productions have been cancelled because objections were
raised to Redgrave's appearance.
But in fact, the actress is anything but anti-Semitic, Both
before and after her blacklisting she demonstrated concern and horror for the
Jewish victims of the Holocaust. No one who saw her harrowing performance in
"Playing for Time," a part for which she cut off all her hair rather than wear a
wig, could doubt her empathy for the character she portrayed. In 1977 she won an
Academy Award for her role as the Jewish heroine of the anti-Nazi underground in
"Julia," a film based on a book by Lillian Hellman. In receiving the award she
gave credit to the fact that her co-star, Jane Fonda, and her director, Fred
Zinnemann, "believed in what we were expressing," the fight against "racist Nazi
Germany." Then, as members of the Jewish Defense League protested noisily
outside, she demonstrated her contempt for their strongarm tactics of physical
intimidation by referring to them as "a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose
behavior is an insult to the stature to Jews all over the world."
Ironically, it was her role in "Julia" that led Redgrave to
become aware of the plight of the Palestinians. While making the film in Paris
in 1976, she came to know a young Palestinian couple and their friends. They
told her about the siege of Tal al-Zaatar, a Palestinian refugee camp in
Lebanon, which right-wing Falange militias trained by Israel had bombarded for
months, cutting the inhabitants down with sniper fire when they dared to leave
the camp for water. By the end of the siege, 3,500 men, women and children had
been killed. "What had happened at Tal al-Zaatar was so hideous that I
immediately wanted to do something to assist the situation," Redgrave writes.
What she did was recruit a film crew in France and Italy, hire a director, sell
her two houses in London to raise the necessary funds, and in the spring of 1977
set out for Lebanon to make a film about the Palestinians.
Her first interview after landing in Beirut was with Falange
founder Pierre Gemayel, who said he was fighting "international communism" and
told her how much he had admired the discipline and "sense of nation" he had
seen in Nazi Germany. From there she went to the site of Tal al-Zaatar, where
she and her crew filmed the devastation and spoke with Palestinians who had
survived the siege, including the two doctors who had run the single clinic that
served the camp's inhabitants. She visited Sabra and Shatila, the refugee camps
in Beirut where five years later Lebanese militias massacred at least 900 men,
women and children under the eyes of Israeli soldiers, who prevented the
inhabitants from escaping. During her stay in these camps she filmed hospitals
run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and marvelled at their ingenuity in
treating seriously ill patients with primitive equipment.
Proceeding to southern Lebanon, she and her crew went from
town to town, talking with the inhabitants and sleeping on floors or cots, often
in makeshift shelters, under nightly barrages of Israeli shells. She eventually
met and interviewed Abu Jihad, a high-ranking PLO leader who remained a close
friend until 1988, when he was assassinated in his Tunis apartment in front of
his family by Israeli commandos. (Redgrave writes that on hearing the news, "I
immediately flew to Tunis to pay my respects to Um Jihad and her children.")
Finally, she interviewed Arafat himself. Like many of the Palestinians she had
talked with, Arafat hold her, "We are not against the Jews: we are against
Zionism...Why not speak about living together, all of us in this homeland? I
think that in the future, all the Jews will understand that we are fighting for
Apartheid With a Difference
After her experience in Lebanon, Redgrave concluded that
"Everything Winnie Mandela wrote about her people under apartheid is true of the
Palestinians...with one essential difference: Palestinians do not have the right
to live in their own country, not even to be buried there."
"The Palestinian" premiered in November 1977 at the London
Film Festival, but in the U.S. neither the Public Broadcasting Service nor any
other network would show it. Nevertheless, an actor who had seen a private
screening of the film gave a distorted account to a gossip columnist and the
news of Redgrave's support for the PLO spread rapidly. Because of her sympathy
for the Palestinians, she was accused of being a terrorist. At a meeting in Los
Angeles one speaker waved a fistful of dollars and shouted, "Who is willing to
rid the world of a Jew-baiter?"
In March 1978 Israel launched one of its periodic invasions of
Lebanon, and less than a month later Redgrave again flew to Beirut and drove
south. In her book she describes the ruins of Sidon and Tyre, where Israeli
bombs had reduced entire apartment blocks to rubble. Rescuers were still pulling
bodies from the wreckage and the pools of water from shattered water mains were
red with blood in this preview of Israel's even bloodier 1982 invasion. Redgrave
noted that although more than 100,000 Lebanese people were injured or made
homeless, and their farms and workplaces destroyed, no medicine or other aid was
sent from the U.S. or Europe. At the U.N., the U.S. and Britain vetoed
resolutions condemning the invasion.
Redgrave continued her support for the Palestinian struggle.
In March 1988, three months after the start of the intifada, she gathered a
group of Arab and Jewish musicians for a benefit concert in London that raised
$100,000 for Palestinian children. Immediately afterwards, she organized an
international conference in Moscow calling for an end to the Israeli occupation
and opposition to anti-Semitism. Why Moscow? Because Russia's history was marked
by virulent anti-Semitism and to Redgrave, "The struggle against anti-Semitism
and for self-determination of the Palestinians are one and the same, and they
form a single whole." In 1989 she helped the newly formed Moscow Jewish Theatre
to survive by bringing it to London.
It comes as no surprise that Redgrave is now active on behalf
of Bosnian Muslims. Within weeks of the Serb attack on Bosnia in April 1992, she
organized a public protest meeting in London. The following July she produced a
concert to raise funds for the victims of what she called "the second European
genocide." On the stage were rabbis, Muslims, Israelis, and survivors of
Auschwitz. A cantor sang and two Palestinian musicians played the oud and the
violin. Afterwards, Redgrave visited the British Foreign Office to urge that
Britain and the U.S. do for Sarajevo what they had done to save the people of
Berlin from starving during the Soviet blockade of 1948.
The concert raised 5,000 pounds for UNICEF. She later made
several trips to Sarajevo under UNICEF's auspices in order to visit hospitals.
Most recently, in March 1994, she went back to the city to perform on stage in a
dramatization of Paul Auster's "In the Country of Last Things," a play about
life and death in a city under siege.
It is interesting to speculate why it took more than three
years for Vanessa Redgrave's riveting autobiography to be published in the U.S.
The most likely explanation is that with Israeli leaders now talking to Yasser
Arafat, Redgrave finally can be forgiven for doing the same thing. If so, the
handshake between Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin was not entirely in vain.
Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford,
CA. A member of the International Jewish Peace Union, she writes frequently on
the Middle East.