If Hollywood ever makes a movie about the movement to boycott Israel, I can think of no one better suited to the starring role than Emma Thompson.
I imagine Thompson’s character as a schoolteacher or a librarian, dowdy looking with just a hint of prettiness. She lives alone in a cozy apartment filled with potted plants and books on personal growth, third-world politics and vegetarian cookery. Her significant other is a fluffy cat that nestles in her lap every night as she sits in front of her computer reading the latest dispatches from occupied “Palestine,” her face etched with righteous disbelief. She doesn’t have time for a boyfriend, but that won’t stop her would-be suitor, an equally self-righteous, mildly kooky Jewish writer — think Peter Beinart — from trying to win her heart.
By the time we’re halfway through the film, Emma will have decided that she simply must visit the West Bank, despite the enormous dangers posed by the Israeli occupation forces. She comes to this awareness while attending a Passover seder hosted by her aspiring boyfriend, during which he pulls out a fading photograph of his great-grandmother who was murdered during the Holocaust.
Fighting back the tears, he confides that, “If she could see what Israel has become, she’d die all over again from the shame.” The two fall into each other’s arms, waking the next morning to a breakfast of matzo brei — as Emma tries to pronounce the name of the dish she’s eating, we giggle through the obligatory moment of light relief — before she’s whisked away in a taxi to the airport, and thence to the beautiful, yet tragic, land of Palestine.
In the West Bank, she cavorts with cute little kids — “just like the ones I teach back home” — drinks mint tea with effusive women who bear the daily humiliation of occupation with a smile and a shrug, and admires the steely-eyed men who stand up to the nasty Israelis with all the conviction of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King.
Emma embraces their anger but concludes that violence is not the answer. Just before she leaves the Palestinian village that now feels like home, she regales the enthusiastically nodding villagers with a speech — tearful, of course — expounding on the importance of nonviolence. “Don’t use bombs,” she exhorts. “Use boycotts.” Their applause can be heard all the way to the adjacent Israeli army base, where the commander is suddenly struck by the realization that the Palestinian aspiration for freedom can never be crushed.
Roll the credits. And don’t call it a chick flick.
With a movie like this one, art would be imitating life — to be precise, Emma Thompson’s life. Recently, the Oscar-winning actress joined with other darlings of stage and screen to protest the participation of Tel Aviv’s venerable Habimah Theater in a London festival that is performing the plays of William Shakespeare in 37 different languages.
In a letter published by The Guardian — a liberal newspaper with a long track record of publishing anti-Semitic material — Thompson and her cohorts slammed “Habima” [sic] for its “shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory.” They ended with a demand to exclude the theater from the festival. No such objections were voiced concerning the participation of a Palestinian theater troupe, nor the involvement of the National Theater of China, which is directly funded by one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
In fact, there are many good reasons to ditch political objections and keep the festival open to all — which its organizers, to their credit, have done, in spite of Thompson’s fulminations. To perform Shakespeare is in itself a celebration of artistic freedom. Habimah’s version of “The Merchant of Venice,” the play that gave us the figure of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who embodies anti-Semitic canards even as he challenges them, is sure to be enticing. And I would genuinely love to see how actors from communist China interpret the story of “Richard III.”
For those like Emma Thompson, though, boycotts are predicated on supposedly universal principles and then applied to only one target — Israel. To understand the strategy here, it’s worth recalling the campaign in the UK for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Ten years ago, an article in The Guardian noted that Israel’s universities are victims of their own success: “The nature of Israel’s academic pre-eminence,” the article explained, “makes it vulnerable to a boycott.”
The same logic applies to the flourishing arts scene in Israel. The excellence of a theater like Habimah, along with its enthusiasm to perform outside Israel’s borders, renders it a sitting duck for boycott campaigners. In their warped view of the world, Palestinian freedom can only be achieved by quarantining Israelis on the basis of their nationality. Thus do apparently free-spirited artists echo the racist policies of the Arab League, which began its boycott of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel in 1945, three years before the state of Israel was born.
What, then, is the appropriate response to Emma Thompson and those like her? Certainly not to make the movie I described earlier. Instead, they should be given a taste of their own medicine.
We are often told that Jews run Hollywood — the same Hollywood that carried on casting Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson’s fellow Brit, in leading roles after she denounced so-called “Zionist hoodlums” in an Oscar acceptance speech in 1978. Will the studio moguls continue to indulge Thompson as they indulged Redgrave? Or will they show some gumption, and tell her that, for as long as she seeks to discriminate against Israeli artists, she will be banished from our screens?
I think I know, sadly, what the answer is. But I’d love to be proved wrong.
(Ben Cohen is a senior columnist for JointMedia News Service and is president of The Ladder Group, a communications consultancy based in New York.)