Two years ago, during the Q&A of a talk I gave about Palestine at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, British filmmaker Ken Loach raised a most essential question. Paraphrasing, he asked, “Where do we go from here?”
The gist of my reply: We must first expose Israel’s front-line weapon against justice for Palestine, its cynical misuse of the smear of antisemitism. So long as we respond to this abuse on its own terms, the weapon is foolproof. It hijacks the discourse away from Israel’s crimes regardless of the efficacy of the smears. Israel’s crimes, and even the “P” word — Palestine or the Palestinians — remain off-limits. We must instead stop allowing Israel to control the terms of our response. Instead, we must turn the tables and accuse the accusers of antisemitism for exploiting Jewish identity in the service of injustice.
But Ken Loach’s own recent brush with the weapon demonstrates the barriers to speaking that simple truth.
The story begins one day in the 1990s, in the university city of Newcastle in northwest England, when a man at a gas station was confronted by a group of young people shouting racist abuse. As the tirade continued, one of the provocateurs recognized his victim — Shaka Hislop, the famed Newcastle United football player.
What’s a youth to do when the target of your bigotry turns out to be one of your heroes? In this case, he asked for Shaka’s autograph.
If that experience was an epiphany for the young taunter, it was also for Hislop. He realized that perhaps the power of football and his status as a role model could be harnessed to challenge racism in society through education. In 1996 this dream become reality with the founding of Show Racism the Red Card, the UK’s largest anti-racism educational charity. Among its efforts is an annual art competition, open to all young people in England, Wales, and Scotland, for works in a wide range of media, including artwork, creative writing, film, and music.
When the charity announced that Ken Loach and the highly-respected children’s novelist Michael Rosen would be the judges for 2020, Israel’s advocates in the UK raised the alarm: both men had a history of supporting Palestinian human rights causes. Rosen’s name “raised eyebrows,” as the Jewish Chronicle put it, and the British group the Campaign Against Antisemitism objected to Rosen as “a former backer of the Socialist Workers Party who has also reportedly defended Jeremy Corbyn against charges of antisemitism.” The cross-hairs, however, focused on life-long anti-racist, 83-year-old BDS-supporting Ken Loach.
On February 13 the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Amanda Bowman, sent a letter to Show Racism the Red Card demanding that they uninvite Loach. The letter, claiming that the Board “represents the Jewish community in Britain,” cited “Perdition,” a 1987 Jim Allen play directed by Loach as evidence of antisemitism and “malign intentions.” (The play, which dealt with alleged Zionist collaboration with the Nazis in Hungary during World War II, was canceled 24 hours before its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre, in deference to protests.)
But the Red Card stood firm. On March 5, it announced that it stood by Loach.
Indeed, Ken Loach’s life has been defined by core principles of fairness, equality, and social justice, precisely the fabric of the anti-racist campaign. His films give voice to the marginalized and powerless and are a manifestation of who he is as a person: he has refused awards when any injustice is associated with its sponsors, such as the Turin Film Festival award in 2012 and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1977. Since the 1960s, his films have substantively affected public awareness and policy — for example, his 1966 TV play about homelessness, “Cathy Come Home,” directly led to the creation of the charity “Crisis” the following year. Professionally and personally, Loach lived the Red Card’s anti-racist values.
Now unambiguously outraged, the Board of Deputies escalated its attack at the “shameful” decision to invite Loach, again exploiting its claimed ownership of “the Jewish community”:
“That a so-called anti-racist charity would ignore a minority community’s concerns about racism, is both astounding and shameful. The Jewish community will no longer have any confidence in Show Racism the Red Card’s trustees, its CEO, or their ability to show antisemitism the red card.”
More than 200 public figures wrote to the Red Card in support of Loach, arguing that it would be “damaging for the struggle against racism in all its forms if SRtRC were to succumb,” the letter said, using an acronym for the organization.
In his defense of Loach, Michael Rosen wrote:
“I am beginning to wonder how the word ‘antisemitism’ is being used. As a child my parents told me of their fight against antisemitism in the East End of London in the 1930s. I am worried and saddened that our fight against antisemitism, as I have always understood it to mean, is being undermined.”
At this point, persuasion having failed, the goalpost changed. Since the Red Card had failed to comply with the Board of Deputies’ direct attacks on Loach, they then targeted the Red Card’s sponsorship, and even its charitable status. An aggressive campaign was launched to pressure unions, government agencies, football clubs, and politicians to stop funding, or indeed even passively supporting the Red Card.
The message was clear: as described in a Statement From His Supporters, the price for keeping Loach would be “to wreck not only the competition and Ken Loach’s reputation, but the charity’s very existence.”
And so Ken Loach, in consultation with the Red Card, removed himself from the panel of judges. The organization’s statement of March 18 reported that
A significant factor in Ken Loach’s decision is the abuse online and in person that he and his family have received. It is profoundly distressing, and he is very concerned to protect those closest to him.
Yet their success in removing Loach did not entirely satisfy the Board of Deputies, which now wanted the charity to apologize to what it called “the Jewish community.” Moreover, “the backtrack,” according to a Jewish Chronicle report of March 16, “left Jewish groups who had previously called out SRtRC angry.”
The tactic used to force the anti-racism institution’s compliance has also been used against venues hosting Palestine events and talks. When one British hotel ignored demands to cancel a talk by a human rights activist, a sudden online onslaught of 1-star scathing “reviews” by faux “guests” sent the highly-regarded hotel’s rating into precipitous free-fall. As with Ken Loach and Show Racism the Red Card, the speaker and sponsors withdrew their date.
It is disgraceful that Israel’s apologists deprived the young contestants of the esteemed filmmaker. But against Ken Loach directly, they are powerless.