Over the past few weeks in the US, the mainstream news media has focused on the presentation of the Oscars for Hollywood’s “best” films at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26. Many media rebroadcast and reported on “favorite moments” from the annual movie celebration that has been taking place since 1929.
Memories include Roberto Benigni winning the Oscar for best actor in 1999 for the movie “Life is Beautiful,” about an Italian Jew who tries to bring happiness to other Jews at a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. Benigni walked to the stage standing on top of the backs of audience chairs, creating an unusual site. The movie also won best foreign film.
The media mentioned other moments, including Marlon Brando rejecting the Oscar for best actor in 1973 for his role in “The Godfather.” Native-American actress Sacheen Littlefeather explained that Brando was rejecting the award in protest at Hollywood’s negative portrayal of Native Americans in movies.
There were so many great moments like that, but the media did not mention the one that took place in 1978 when Vanessa Redgrave won the Oscar for best supporting actress in “Julia.” The movie depicted the story of a woman who raised money to fight the Nazis and their persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
Redgrave had also just completed a documentary detailing Israeli violence and atrocities against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Terrorist members of the Jewish Defense League were allowed to protest and make threats outside the Academy Awards presentation, attacking Redgrave and libeling her as police stood by watching.
Upon accepting her Oscar, Redgrave thanked the audience, then gave one of the greatest Academy Award speeches to champion the rights of oppressed people worldwide. She thanked the Oscars for standing firm against “fascism.”
Redgrave denounced the protesters outside the awards ceremony as “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”
No one has stood up to defend the rights of Palestinians in Hollywood more forcefully than Vanessa Redgrave. If you watch the Oscars this Sunday, take a moment to recall a true Hollywood hero who stood up for justice and righteousness.
She continued: “I salute that record, and I salute all of you for having stood firm and dealt a final blow against that period when (then-US President Richard) Nixon and (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy launched a worldwide witch hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believe in. I salute you and thank you, and I pledge to you that I will continue to fight against anti-Semitism and fascism.”
I remember seeing her speak, and it inspired me, reinforcing my commitment to pursue peace and justice for Palestinians in the Middle East, and peace based on justice with Israel. The audience reacted with a mix of gasps and some applause. There were no American Arabs in Hollywood movies in the 1970s, and the only ones made by Hollywood about the Middle East portrayed all Arabs as terrorists and Israelis as heroes, victims and Holocaust survivors.
Later during the Academy Awards, pro-Israel screenwriter Sidney Chayefsky denounced Redgrave, saying: “I am sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propaganda of their own personal agenda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”
Chayefsky was a notorious, racist Arab-hater who produced the vicious anti-Arab film “Network.” It was not surprising that he ignored the vicious assaults against Redgrave by protesters outside the Academy Awards, and it was rumored that he later met with the hate-driven organizers who praised his criticism of Redgrave.
Ironically, many actors who have received Oscars have used their moment in the spotlight to showcase their personal causes, including Chayefsky’s colleagues. Only Redgrave, who had the courage to stand up for the rights of Palestinians, was denounced. It took real courage to defend the Palestinians in the 1970s, especially in America in the movie industry, which profited from films that thrived on anti-Arab hate.
That anti-Arab trend in Hollywood continues to this day, although there are some token films showcasing the positive contributions and compelling narratives of Arabs and Muslims. But no one has stood up to defend the rights of Palestinians in Hollywood more forcefully than Redgrave. If you watch the Oscars this Sunday, take a moment to recall a true Hollywood hero who stood up for justice and righteousness.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected]