There are many issues worth having an argument over; then again, some are better left alone. For example, a debate about whether or not the actress who is hired to play Golda Meir in a movie is Jewish is not worth a moment of anyone’s time. By contrast, the discussion about whether the current nearly unlimited powers of Israel’s Supreme Court should be checked and balanced by giving more power to the Knesset elected by the country’s voters is of utmost import.
As it so happens, the British actress Helen Mirren is the focus of an unimportant controversy, yet has injected herself into a controversial debate despite having nothing to say that is of even minimal value about it.
Mirren is a great performer with a long list of theater and film credits. However, the current fashion in which “lived experience”— what other kind of experience is there other than that which is lived through?—is considered necessary in order to be able to pretend to be someone other than oneself, has rendered controversial the casting of Mirren in a film about the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. According to some, the instance of a non-Jewish actor playing a Jew has been dubbed “Jewface.”
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The entire idea of “Jewface”—a play upon “blackface,” the reprehensible practice in which white people would mimic blacks in the manner of 19th-century minstrel shows—is a pathetic attempt by some Jews to get in on the victim game in which minorities have demanded better representation in the arts. While adopting a different race goes back to a tragic racist past, imposing that same concern on Jewish roles is ridiculous. Acting is, after all, make-believe.
The producers of the upcoming “Golda” biographical movie were lucky to get Mirren to play the title role, and whatever the film’s ultimate merits or failings turn out to be, it isn’t likely that Mirren not being a member of the tribe will be the reason why it flops. But while criticism of the casting is utterly without merit the same thing can be said about an article in which the actress was asked to weigh in on the merits of the current Israeli government’s proposals for judicial reform.
In an interview conducted with Agence France Presse during her appearance at the Berlin Film Festival, Mirren not only attempted to justify her casting in the role as Israel’s leader during the Yom Kippur War but claimed to have understood Meir, and to know what she would have thought about the current debate about judicial reform.
Mirren was chosen by Israeli film director Guy Nattiv, who said in the same article that he felt the actress’s long relationship with his country “lent authenticity” to her portrayal. It turns out that Mirren hitchhiked around Israel back in the 1960s and stayed at a kibbutz not long after the Six-Day War in June 1967 because her then-boyfriend was Jewish, and he wanted to be there.
Meir was a complex figure born in what was then the Russian empire before immigrating to the United States as a child, settling in Milwaukee. As a young woman, she made aliyah in 1921, settling with her Chicago-born husband, Morris Meyerson, on the kibbutz of Merhavia, living there for a few years before moving to Tel Aviv, where she began her career as a Labor Zionist activist. She would serve that movement for decades as a politician and then as Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union and Israel’s foreign minister before becoming prime minister in 1969.
She was much beloved in the United States and responsible for raising millions for the yishuv before 1948 and the establishment of modern-day Israel. But her premiership is chiefly remembered in Israel for a decision in which, despite last-minute warnings about an imminent attack from Egypt and Syria, she allowed Israel’s enemies to strike first on Yom Kippur in 1973, rather than to pre-empt the blow as her predecessor had done in 1967. Though the war ended in military triumph for the Israel Defense Forces, the grim death toll from its first days caused many in the country to view it as a defeat. Many blamed Meir; in fact, her reputation never really recovered from it.
Mirren’s claims about what Meir would think of this issue demonstrate her complete ignorance.
That Mirren seems to think that a few weeks spent in a kibbutz more than half a century ago qualifies her as an expert on “Golda’s world” is ridiculous. Even worse is her claim that it gives her the standing to give a considered opinion on Israel’s judicial system.
According to the actress, the proposals to establish some checks on the untrammeled power of an Israeli Supreme Court “would be a complete reversal and denial of her values and her understanding of the world that she wanted to create.” Mirren went on to claim, “I think she would have been utterly horrified. It’s the rise of dictatorship and dictatorship was what has always been the enemy of people all over the world and she would recognize it as that.”
This is nonsense on stilts.
That she would repeat the slanders of Israel’s left-wing opposition parties is unsurprising since they reflect Nattiv’s political views. Like most liberal elites in Israel, the director seems to despise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s coalition won a clear majority in the Knesset elections last November. As such, it acquired a mandate to restore some balance to Israel’s political system in which the representatives of the voters will regain some of the power grabbed by an unaccountable court that thinks arbitrary ideas about what is “reasonable” is more important than the law. The government’s proposal is an attempt to re-establish democracy, not destroy it—let alone the start of a dictatorship.
Mirren’s claims about what Meir would think about this issue demonstrate complete ignorance of the subject matter at hand.
During her entire time serving in and then leading Israel’s governments during its first quarter-century, the country’s Supreme Court did not exercise or claim to have the powers that contemporary left-wingers now assert are essential to democracy. On the contrary, the governments led by Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol did not recognize the right of the court to act in the manner it has done for the last 30 years. Neither did Meir.
The idea that founding father Ben-Gurion or Meir—or anyone in their Labor Zionist-led coalitions—would have tolerated for a single minute the court weighing in on every decision that the cabinet, ministers or the military made is laughable. They didn’t believe that any Israeli court had the right to override their decisions on appointments, policies or military operations without even establishing their standing to do so. The judicial revolution initiated by former Chief Justice Aharon Barak didn’t begin until many years later.
Meir was a hard-core partisan, and despised the Israeli right and its leader Menachem Begin. But the assumption that Netanyahu’s reforms would end democracy in Israel would mean that the country wasn’t one before Barak’s power grab. That happened more than a decade after Meir was driven from office in 1974.
That Mirren doesn’t know any of this is not surprising. But that anyone would listen to her on this question or give credence to her uninformed opinions in order to promote the “resistance” to Netanyahu says more about the Israeli left than it does about the object of their ire.
Whatever we may ultimately think about the current movie about Meir, Mirren’s comments about judicial reform should remind all of both the pitfalls of celebrity culture and the perils of historical ignorance.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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