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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 them too."

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.

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