Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

Sir Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker, Jim Allen and Perdition

The controversy over accusations of anti-semitism in political parties coincides with the death of Arnold Wesker. There is a connection.
He and I moved in the same circles during the 60s and 70s. I liked him and, although having fallen out of love with the theatre, admired his plays. They explored working class families, the world of work and socialist consciousness. I supported his fight to save the Round House.
So my row with him was painful.

My friend and colleague, Jim Allen’s stage play Perdition explored allegations of Zionist collaboration with the Nazi authorities during the occupation. It caused a storm of controversy and theatres refused to produce it. The Royal Court reneged on a commitment, such was the pressure.
Arnold joined the debate, and in a letter to The Guardian, he favoured a ban.
I knew that there was not a hint of anti-semitism or racism in Jim Allen. He was a principled International Socialist, as far removed, in beliefs or actions, from National Socialism anyone could be. In fact he had fought fascists all his life. I thought: criticise the play if you think it’s poor drama; argue about its interpretation of historical events if you wish; but applying pressure and even writing rants to seek its censorship is unacceptable.
So I was shocked to read Arnold’s defence of this censorship. I replied, asking how a fellow writer could be in favour of censoring a colleague.

Arnold responded in an unexpected way. Having thought it through, he’d decided he had been wrong to call for the play to be banned. He stood up firmly for writers’ freedoms.
This is all I remember of the incident and it still moves me.
My liking for Arnold and my respect for him grew. It is not easy take a firm position and then renounce it, admitting that you were wrong. To do this so publicly takes courage. As I think of his life and of his death, another contemporary leaving the stage, I remember this example of Arnold’s character.

I know that some of those criticising Israeli Governments slip, either consciously or unconsciously, into anti-semitism. That must be unequivocally condemned.
I also know that some Zionists wishing to defend Israeli Governments sometimes, either consciously or unconsciously, slip into unjust accusations of anti-semitism.
This is a highly charged arena. Anti-semitism, like wider racism, is the snake we scotch but never kill.
We should all be careful what we say, but also how we say it.

TG

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