OPINION: From Anatevka to Lineker, the new tradition of guilt by association

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OPINION: From Anatevka to Lineker, the new tradition of guilt by association

Jenni Frazer reflects on her interview with Topol 20 years ago and how in many ways since then our culture has evolved from one of action to perception.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Chaim Topol in a scene from Fiddler on the Roof (Landmark Media)
Chaim Topol in a scene from Fiddler on the Roof (Landmark Media)

Nearly 20 years ago I was privileged to interview Israeli actor Chaim Topol, known universally by his last name, whose death last week was marked by admiring obituaries.

Re-reading my interview, which took place in the Maida Vale flat which was his London base for years, I was struck again by what a lovely man he was: laughing and joking, and – astonishingly – apparently not minding when people began humming tunes from Fiddler on the Roof whenever he walked into a shop or restaurant.

To be associated, overwhelmingly, with one role for the majority of one’s acting life could be an albatross round a performer’s neck. But Topol told me: “Sure, it dominates my career but I can’t complain. The role is a joy to do, but it’s really hard work. I demand of myself the same energy and effort that I made when I did it first time around.”

Jenni Frazer

At that point, Topol had been ‘Tevye the Milkman’, to all intents and purposes, from age 27 to, when we spoke, 68.

He would have been entitled to be sick of the sound of the “biddie-biddie-bum” chorus which accompanied the song ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, but Topol took it in his stride.

Besides, Topol was other things in addition to being Tevye.

An accomplished painter, he was also a highly successful director and film actor, founding the Haifa Municipal Theatre and even running the hugely popular comedy troupe, Hagashash Hahiver.

He was also deeply involved in the Jordan River Village project, a holiday village for Jewish and Arab children with incurable medical conditions.

In this regard, he partnered actor Paul Newman who had begun the Hole in the Wall villages in the States years previously.

Topol’s Jordan River Village became the first Israeli partner in the scheme.

When we spoke, Cherie Blair, wife of then-prime minister Tony Blair, was about to host a fund-raising reception at Downing Street for Topol’s children’s village.

I couldn’t help thinking how impossible such a situation would be today.

Not just the fact that there is no natural present-day successor to Topol in Israel, but the potential outcry if Akshata Murthy, Rishi Sunak’s wife, were to host a fundraising reception for an Israeli charity in Downing Street.

In many ways the narrative arc over the last 20 years has evolved from one of action to perception. Today, it’s more a question of guilt by association, a “who’s been standing next to whom” in a photo, a pointing of fingers and comparisons.

Today, as we have all learned to our cost in the last week particularly, attitudes have hardened and Jews, as ever, find ourselves caught in the crossfire.

Those frothing at the mouth over allegations hurled at Gary Lineker over his refugees Tweets have not found it hard to descend to “what-aboutery” and make ludicrous conspiracy theories of Zionist plots.

One tweet even said: “People have completely missed the point why Gary Lineker got suspended. He has been outspoken on many issues over the years and the BBC never said anything. But this time he got too close to questioning the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

“If you do that you are basically questioning Israel’s right to exist and its sense of impunity. And in the West you simply cannot do that.”

I’m just waiting for someone to put together the undeniable fact that Apprentice front-man Lord Sugar, well-known for expressing bullish political opinions, and BBC chair Richard Sharp, in the firing line for his role in securing an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, are both (whisper it) Jewish.

And then, naturally, it will be all our fault. What you might call “Tradition, tradition…”

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