Ken Loach is one of Britain’s most revered and successful filmmakers. His 1969 film Kes, a moving tribute to northern English working class life, was named the seventh greatest film of the twentieth century by the British Film Institute.
Loach has twice won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and I, Daniel Blake (2016)—only eight other filmmakers have achieved this feat. Uniquely, he has entwined his film aesthetics with the spirit of social justice, speaking truth to power, and revisiting histories that are uncomfortable for the UK’s 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. Loach 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 was even one of the first directors to grapple with the issue of mental health services in In Two Minds (1967).
In 1990, Loach risked and subsequently received a battering from the press for representing British state terrorism against Irish Catholics during the Troubles in his film Hidden Agenda.
Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) recalls the fight against fascism in Spain. Carla’s Song (1996) raised the issue of the US-sponsored Contra insurgency in Nicaragua against the country’s legitimate government. Loach’s solitary US-based film, Bread and Roses (2000), depicts the struggle of poorly paid janitorial workers in Los Angeles, and is based on the ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Of his two Palme d’Or winners, The Wind That Shakes the Barley revisited the compromises of the Irish struggle against the British, and I, Daniel Blake confronted the structural violence of the UK’s welfare system.
These films only scratch the surface of Loach’s filmmaking career, reflecting his firm commitment to issues of social justice and human solidarity. Despite this, Loach has been the target of a smear campaign for his political activism and commitment to the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. This campaign has resurrected the controversy over Loach’s involvement in the 1987 play Perdition which is based on a libel trial in Israel in 1954–55 concerning allegations of collaboration during the Second World War between the leadership of the Zionist movement in Hungary and the Nazis. The play was cancelled on the day before its first preview performance over accusations it was “deeply anti-Semitic.”
Last month, the Master of Oxford’s St. Peter’s College, Judith Buchanan, apologized to Jewish students for offering a speaking invitation to Loach, who is one of the college’s alumni. Buchanan’s apology was made on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations claiming that Loach is anti-Semitic for his criticism of Israeli government policy.
This wasn’t the first attempt to smear Loach in the years following Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli military operation that left more than 2,000 Gazans dead. Following the assault, Loach called for a boycott of all cultural and sporting events supported by Israel, saying the country must become a pariah state.
In 2017, then Guardian opinion editor Jonathan Freedland accused Loach of “lending spurious legitimacy to Holocaust denial” by defending then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn from allegations of antisemitism. Subsequently, 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.
The attacks on Loach and many others are part of a broader campaign to invert the status of victims and aggressors in Israel-Palestine: according to the United Nations, between July 7 and August 26, 2014 the Israeli military launched 6,000 air strikes, fired 14,500 tank and 45,000 artillery shells, killing 2,252 Palestinians, of whom 551 were children. The hysteria unleashed by this status-inverting campaign has resulted in threats and abuse at the launch of the book Bad News for Labour by academics Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller, and a bomb threat at a screening of Witch Hunt, a film about activist Jackie Walker, a “Labour Party and anti-racist activist who was investigated by the party twice in 2016 following allegations of antisemitism.” The pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Labour has also complained about assaults and bomb threats.
Loach’s history as a human rights activist is difficult to invalidate over his very legitimate criticisms of Israel and his defence of Corbyn’s leadership. In the words of Yanis Varoufakis, writing in the New Left Review blog:
Ken Loach is now the target of a character assassination campaign waged by those who will stop at nothing to shield the apartheid policies of Israel. Their message to people of good conscience is simple: Unless you too want to be tainted as an antisemite, keep quiet about the crimes against humanity and the assault on human rights in the land of Palestine. They are putting the rest of us on notice: If we can do this to Ken Loach, a man who has spent his life championing the victims of oppression, racism and discrimination, imagine what we shall do to you. If you dare support the Palestinians’ human rights, we will claim that you hate the Jews.
Loach’s solidarity with the oppressed is not a pose or a means of marketing his work and personality. In 2012 he turned down an award from the Torino Film Festival after cleaning and security services were outsourced at its National Museum of Cinema. In 1995, ‘casualization’ 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.
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 a reflection of how Loach lives his beliefs.
The character assassination campaign against Ken Loach is being pursued by propagandists who have shown a consistent willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses while using the charge of antisemitism as a cudgel to silence critics of Israeli apartheid. Those who share Loach’s values must stand in solidarity against efforts to muzzle and ostracize dissidents and uphold the principles of freedom of conscience and expression.
Gavin Lewis is a freelance black-British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race and representation. He has taught critical theory, film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.