Ken Loach is one of Britain’s most revered and successful filmmakers.
His work Kes (1969), depicting the poetics and deprivation of northern English working-class life, was voted the seventh greatest British film of the 20th century in a poll by the British Film Institute. He has won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice, for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and I, Daniel Blake (2016), making him one of nine filmmakers to have won this many times.
Uniquely, he has entwined his film aesthetics with standing up for the oppressed, speaking truth to power, and revisiting histories that are uncomfortable for the political establishment.
His television plays Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), and his film Poor Cow (1967), caused national debate about housing provision, social deprivation, and lone motherhood. He has also directed numerous television plays in support of trade unionism, of which The Big Flame (1969), The Rank and File (1971) and The Price of Coal (1977) are indicative. He also raised the issue of mental health provision and methods in his television play In Two Minds (1967).
In 1990, he risked and subsequently received a battering from the establishment media for representing British state terrorism and the assassination of Irish Catholics in the north of Ireland in his film Hidden Agenda. Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) recalls the fight against fascism in Spain. His film Carla’s Song (1996) raised the issue of the United States-sponsored Contra insurgency in Nicaragua against the country’s legitimate government.
Loach’s solitary US-based film Bread and Roses (2000) represents the Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees International Union. Of his two Palme d’Or winners, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) revisits the compromises of the Irish struggle against the British, and I, Daniel Blake (2016) confronts the horrors of the British welfare system.
This list of films is not even Loach’s entire portfolio. One would think his reputation would be beyond question.
Yet, in February 2021, the Master of St. Peter’s College Oxford, Judith Buchanan, apologised to Jewish students for offering a speaking invitation to Loach, who is an alumnus of the school as well as a veteran filmmaker, globally respected human rights activist, and champion of socialist human solidarity. The apology came out of alleged anti-Semitism smears against Loach, raised via the post-Gaza bombing, pro-Israel media moral panic.
As an advocate for Palestinians, this was not the first attack on Loach in the years following the bombing. Previously, in 2017, the Guardian’s Zionist editor of opinion, Jonathan Freedland, made similar unsubstantiated allegations of Loach’s supposed anti-Semitism in his column for the paper. Indicative of the one-sided media manipulation at work, Loach’s demand for equivalent space for a traditional right of reply was denied, forcing him to make his rebuttal on the anti-racist, Jewish Voice for Labour website. As the St Peter’s College incident demonstrates, forces of the Israel lobby are now attempting to chase him from event to event.
The attacks on Loach and many others were part of a broader campaign to invert the status of victims and aggressors. According to the United Nations, the 2014 bombardment of Gaza consisted of 6000 airstrikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells unleashed between July 7 and August 26, killing 2252 Palestinians, of which 551 were children.
The hysteria unleashed by this campaign has resulted in threats and abuse made at the book launch for Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller’s Bad News for Labour (2019) and a bomb threat at a venue screening WitchHunt (2019) about activist Jackie Walker. The pro-Palestinian Jewish Voice for Labour group has also complained about assaults and bomb threats.
Loach’s history as a human rights activist is difficult to stain, and the Israel lobby certainly does not want to mention Palestinians. Instead, it has been citing Perdition (1987) an old censored play, controversially unproduced, with which Loach, along with his long-term collaborator Jim Allen, were involved. The theme of the play was the collusion between Zionists and Nazis, and was inspired by an actual trial.
A similar assertion about this type of collusion brought down the career of socialist, pro-LGBTIQ, pro-multicultural politician Ken Livingstone, who was subjected to censoring smears after having cited Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (1983) on the topic.
The only critical observations made by the Jewish historian Norman Finkelstein were that, “Livingstone maybe wasn’t precise enough, and lacked nuance ... Livingstone is more or less accurate about this — or, as accurate as might be expected from a politician speaking off the cuff.”
In simple terms, the Nazis wanted Jews out of Germany, and for many decades prior to this era, Zionists had sought to exploit an external ethnic colonialism that would be exclusive to themselves. It was therefore inevitable in the early days of the Nazi regime that there would be attempts to establish to what extent these agendas were politically compatible.
Examples of this collusion beyond those mentioned by Livingstone or in Perdition are not hard to find, such as Zionist Avraham Stern of the Lehi/Stern Gang, who, while fighting the British in Palestine, sought a strategic allegiance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
In essence, the anti-Palestinian, censoring attacks on Ken Loach have two functions. By smearing him, a prominent pro-Palestinian human rights activist is taken out of public debate. As in the Livingstone case, this line of attack also seals off media reference to part of Zionist roots, in what Finkelstein describes as a “dark chapter in history".
Loach’s solidarity with the oppressed is not a pose or means of marketing his work and personality. In 2012, he turned down an award from the Turin Film Festival after cleaning and security services were outsourced at its National Museum of Cinema.
In 1995, casualisation was introduced on the Liverpool docks and workers were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line. Loach donated his services to them, making the film The Flickering Flame (1996) about their plight and representing their strike.
In 2010, Loach both refused to enter and publicly condemned a Manchester art house cinema for refusing to pay a living wage.He enlisted filmmaker Mike Leigh in the same publicity campaign. Occasions like this are too numerous to list in their entirety here, but they are how Loach lives his life.
Ken Loach is currently being smeared by propagandists for colonial oppression, who clearly either individually or as an institutional lobby, fail to measure up to the merits of his character. If those who share Loach’s values fail to mobilise solidarity, then all of us should be fearful of potential similar persecution.
[Abridged from Monthly Review]