A Very Special Oscar Night
by Ray Hanania
[and a postscript about JDL leader Rubin]
It was the Spring of 1978 and I was, like most Americans, sitting in front of my
TV set wondering which movie was going to win the Oscar for Best Movie. The
competition included: "Annie Hall;" "Goodbye Girl;" "Julia;" "Star Wars;" and,
"Turning Point," all premiered the previous year. My favorites were "Star Wars"
and "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind," which was up for other nominations
that year. Well, "Annie Hall" won as "Best Movie." The Best Actor award went to
Richard Dreyfuss and Best Actress was Diane Keaton. Then there were the lesser
awards for Best Supporting Actor, which went to Jason Robards for his portrayal
in "Julia," a movie about Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II, and then
Best Supporting Actress that went to Vanessa Redgrave, for her portrayal in the
same movie, "Julia," too.
I hadn't heard much about Redgrave prior to that time. But she came to the
podium and began her acceptance speech by noting that outside the auditorium
where the Oscars were being held, belligerent members of the extremist
organization, the Jewish Defense League, were protesting against her. And she
was wearing what looked like a traditional Palestinian embroidered dress.
My eyes and ears perked. The JDL was the anti-Arab terrorist organization of the
70s who enjoyed a double standard in America and the West. While Arab terrorism
was constantly being denounced, the terrorism of the fanatic JDL was being
ignored. In all the years I had been watching the Academy Award presentation, I
don't recall ever seeing an Arab win. Certainly, it was not the place for
politics, but the JDL had certainly decided to turn that year's event into a
political imbroglio. The JDL was getting a lot of sympathetic media coverage,
and the protest prompted Redgrave to respond, since it was at the Oscars that
the protest was taking place. Redgrave held her head high, aware of the bigotry
that existed among the auditorium filled with people whose careers were built
upon producing and directing dozens of anti-Arab movies over the years. She
declared defiantly that she would not be intimidated by "a small bunch of
Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature to Jews all over the
I remember jumping to my feet and waving my hands in the air cheering like it
was the New Year. Because in effect, Vanessa Redgrave had, at least for me,
ushered in a new era. She was among the first people I had ever heard of who
dared to stand up to the hateful filmmakers who churned out dozens and dozens of
movies founded on anti-Arab themes, stereotypes and falsehoods.
My mother couldn't figure out what the commotion was, and when I explained, a
smile crossed her face, too.
As Arab Americans, we knew all too well how difficult it was to live in this
country even back in the 70s, the so-called years of American civil liberty
enlightenment. For everyone else, maybe, but not for Arab Americans.
She sat with me. Soon, my brother and sister were watching the Oscars. I am
sure my dad, who passed away a few years earlier, was watching, too.
And that's just about when a short little jerk named Paddy Chayefsky stepped up
to the microphone as one of the award presenters. He is the racist who produced
the movie Network, which included several gratuitous anti-Arab references.
Chayefsky denounced Redgrave as every member of the Hanania family stood and
hollered and hooted at the TV screen.
Afterwards, I listened as news announcers and Hollywood commentators started to
denounce Redgrave, all because she had stood up for herself and refused to be
intimidated by the JDL thugs. The JDL was angry because Redgrave had the
previous November completed a second movie, besides "Julia," called "The
Ironically, it was her role in "Julia" that led Redgrave to become aware of the
plight of the Palestinians. While making "Julia" 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 later wrote. 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.
"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. Because of her sympathy for the Palestinians, she was accused of being
In 1980, she agreed to perform in a new movie, "Playing for Time," and to
portray Fania Fenelon Goldstein, the Holocaust survivor who wrote the book on
which the script was based. The film was a salute to the strength of Jewish
survivors of the Holocaust, yet anti-Arab leaders throughout the world denounced
Redgrave's being selected to play the concentration camp inmate. "It's a
horrible insult. Six million Jews will roll over in their graves," said Jewish
Defense League leader Irv Rubin*. Howard Squadron, president of the American
Jewish Congress, called Redgrave's selection for the role "grotesque."
Even Goldstein, provoked by the anti-Arab hysteria and lies that were being
published, protested the casting, asserting ignorantly that Redgrave "is known
to be anti-Semitic." Redgrave was well known for her support of peoples around
the world who were victims of persecution. She has supported such causes as
nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Vietnam war, independence for northern
Ireland, freedom for Soviet Jews, and, aid for Bosnian Muslims and other
victims of Serb aggression. In 1993, Redgrave was awarded the Sakharov medal by
Elena Bonner for her efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews. 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.
In 1980, her effigy burned outside studios in Hollywood and Philadelphia. In
Philadelphia, snipers fired shots into one of the buildings. The Los Angeles
station KNXT-TV reported "numerous bomb threats."
The blacklisting, which reminded many of the blacklisting of Jews from Hollywood
productions by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, continued. 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. Several American productions have been cancelled since because of
hatred directed toward Redgrave's appearances.
To me, and to most Arab Americans and Arabs around the world, Redgrave stands
for what is just in this world, a reminder that justice is not the privilege of
those who have power or numbers in public opinion, but by everyone, including a
small minority of people whose lands were stolen from them in 1947.
*Postscript from the Metareligion site
On December 12, 2001, Irv Rubin, the JDL Chairman, and Earl Krugel, a member of the organization, were officially charged with conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. The two were allegedly caught in the act of planning bomb attacks on Arab-American Congressman Darrell Issa's office and on the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, California. The two were arrested as part of a sting operation when they received a shipment of explosives at Krugel's home in L.A.
While awaiting trial for the mosque bomb plot, Irv Rubin cut himself with a small razor and jumped off the jail balcony and died.