Published last Wednesday, Equity’s statement – the second it has published about Gaza in the past four weeks – accused Israel of “bombing, occupation and apartheid” and demanded the U.K. government “stand up against genocide.”
The union also stated its members were “frightened of censorship for expressing opinions on the conflict which are rooted in peace, justice and dignity.”
“Equity encourages any members who are worried about blacklisting or censorship to speak to their union for support and advice,” the statement said.
Variety has spoken to more than a dozen people in the U.K. entertainment industry, many of them current or former members of Equity, who have expressed horror over Equity’s declaration, which they fear has made them unsafe and contributes to a growing climate of antisemitism (official figures show incidents of antisemitism have grown by more than 500% in Britain since Oct. 7).
One Israeli Equity member, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the union’s “clear, one-sided statement and total dismissal of ‘my side’s’ pain and rights” made them fear for their safety. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people took liberty to act on [their] prejudices, thinking they have the organization’s blessing to discriminate.”
Maureen Lipman, who has appeared in films including “The Pianist” and “Educating Rita,” said she resigned from Equity a number of years ago because of their attitude towards its Jewish members. “I am no longer a union member because of their slanted bias during the Corbyn era on the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement] and on their obsessive focus on the Middle East to the exclusion of every other conflict in the world,” she told Variety, adding of the statement: “An actors union with no empathy. The irony.”
Another Jewish actor, who also asked to remain anonymous, expressed her disappointment especially because becoming an Equity member is “such a rite of passage” for young performers. “But they’ve become utterly redundant and useless and something to battle against as a Jewish actor,” she told Variety.
She resigned a number of years ago, saying the organization had let her down during a pay dispute. But she added that as the foremost performers union in the U.K., all actors to some extent feel represented by Equity regardless of whether they are actually members. “The union has this huge responsibility and power and it’s so misused and so upsetting as a minority within this industry,” she said.
Many of the actors Variety spoke to couldn’t understand why Equity had felt the need to release a second statement on the Israel-Hamas war given the conflict is ostensibly beyond the union’s remit and when the organization so rarely, if ever, comments on other geopolitical conflicts. “It’s supposed to be about fair pay, fair rights for actors; it’s a very narrow field they cover,” said another former Equity member, who also asked not to be named. “I’d understand if we had lots of British actors working on plays in the Gaza Strip, but that’s not the case.”
As the relative of Holocaust survivors, she added, “I personally found [the statement] offensive because words like ‘genocide’ are so misappropriated. It’s really triggering.”
A well-known Hollywood actor and former Equity member who requested anonymity also expressed shock and horror at the union’s comments to Variety, adding: “Maybe they should try and live up to their name and do their job before straying into areas they’re even less qualified to cause damage.”
Some Equity members have been more supportive of the union’s incursion into Middle East politics. On X (formerly Twitter), actor and filmmaker Daniel York Loh said of the statement: “It’s important Equity take a stance. Our Equity Race Equality Committee asked a councillor to submit an emergency motion about the intimidation, censorship and smear around this and especially the whole ‘hate marches’ narrative. As arts workers & human beings we have to be able to speak on this.”
Beyond the union, it’s not only actors who have been shocked by the statement, however. Screenwriter Gregory Dinner, who has written for “Silent Witness” among other projects, shared with Variety the letter he sent the union this week. “Political views must be allowed to be heard,” he wrote. “But whether you realize it or not, some of your words inflame, rather than offering salve to all communities.”
“As someone who has worked in film and television for as long as I have, I despair,” he added.
One executive producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Variety she experienced similar “dread” when reading the statement: “Equity and any industry-wide body has no place using ‘genocide’ in one direction only,” she said. “Mentioning the [Israeli] hostages does not excuse this.”
Leo Pearlman, co-founder of transatlantic production company Fulwell 73, also condemned the statement, saying it included “antisemitic dogwhistles.” “This body who purports to passionately espouse tenets of inclusivity and diversity, claiming to heal the world through artistic endeavor, made the very conscious decision to include unequivocal antisemitic dogwhistles in their statement,” he said, pointing to Equity’s claims of apartheid, genocide and blacklisting.
“Our moral obligation as human beings, let alone as representatives of others, is to strive to use language that reduces the fear and pain in society. Equity made the choice to do quite the opposite, they increased the fear and pain that the Jewish community and in particular Jews working within their community feel and they should be ashamed of that choice.”
A spokesperson for Equity told Variety they stand by their recent statement. “We believe the statement sets out clearly the union’s positions, which are taken from our sister organizations on the ground in Palestine and Israel, the United Nations, and the live industrial concerns of Equity’s members.”
With regard to claims of “blacklisting or censorship,” Equity denied its statement implied a conspiracy was afoot to blacklist actors for “expressing their opinion” on the conflict. “There is no implication of a ‘conspiracy.’ Instead, as we state, there is a U.K. government that openly calls marches for a ceasefire ‘hate marches’ and frames expressions of solidarity with Palestinian civilians as dangerous. Subsequently, we have had reports from Equity members who are worried about blacklisting or censorship for expressing their own calls for a ceasefire and for peace.”
Equity did not reply when asked who they believed was threatening to blacklist its members. They also declined to confirm how many members had voiced concerns about blacklisting or censorship.
It is not the first time Equity has found itself embroiled in controversy over claims of antisemitism. In 2021, performers including Tracy-Ann Oberman denounced the union for backing a rally in which a number of participants turned up brandishing antisemitic placards, including one which showed a picture of Jesus carrying a cross with the slogan “Do not let them do the same thing today again.”
If you went on a DEMO that held these banners then you have to ask what you’re standing for. @MaureenBeattie2 @EquityUK your president proudly stood encouraged endorsed this march. How are UK Jewish performers & friends meant to feel safe? @guardianculture @TeleTheatre @TheStage https://t.co/DtIZEziVS0
— Tracy-Ann Oberman (@TracyAnnO) May 23, 2021
Other acting guilds in Europe, including France and Italy, have not made public statements about the war between Israel and Hamas. SAG-AFTRA issued a short statement on Oct. 13 saying they condemned the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, calling them a “fundamental violation of human rights and dignity.”