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Margolyes is also an outspoken critic of Israel, and, indeed, when she performed her play in London, a protest erupted outside the theater. She admits the topic is “fraught,” but says she refuses to remain silent, especially in light of what she described as the horrific conditions in which many Palestinians live on the West Bank, and “the aggressive and illegal” presence of the Israeli army and American settlers there.
“It doesn’t seem right that any Jew can come back and live in Palestine — Israel — but no Palestinian can do the same, even when they came from the region,” she said. “The tragedy of the Holocaust has twisted things, and the wrong people are being punished for it. I care about what Israel does because as a Jew, I am connected to it. And therefore when they do something that I think is wicked and it’s in my name, I have to protest.”
Asked if she believes that Israel should exist at all, she admitted that she isn’t sure, then quickly added: “But I don’t want it to disappear. This is a subject which involves contradiction. It’s mud- dled and difficult.”
She acknowledged that part of that conundrum is the rise of anti-Semitism, but she was not willing to lay blame for that at Israel’s doorstep. “My belief is that people are natu- rally anti-Semitic and the shocking things that Israel does allows that anti-Semitism to be voiced, giving it validity so that it can mask itself as anti-Israeli feeling when in fact it’s anti-Semitism. I will fight anti- Semitism where I find it, but it’s important to be able to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti- Israeli feelings. Vanessa Redgrave is profoundly anti-Israeli, but she’s not anti-Semitic at all.”
From the very beginning of her career, Margolyes was clearly her own person. She toyed with the idea of being a doctor at a time when few women thought in those terms, and she was the only woman to perform in Cambridge University’s Footlights revue of 1962, which was helmed by Trevor Nunn and co- starred Monty Python co-founders John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
“I always enjoyed being distinctive, and I suppose people could have said I was a feminist, but I didn’t know what it was at the time,” she said. “I stuck out in a crowd. I smoked a pipe, wore a purple hat and behaved outrageously.”
Margolyes came out in stages, first to her parents when she was 27 years old. “They were horrified and disgusted, and I don’t know if they ever got over it,” she said. “I disappointed them. I didn’t get married or give them grandchildren; I’m sad for that. But you have to be who you are…. I did it because my parents encouraged me to believe we shouldn’t have secrets. But it’s self- indulgent to tell people you’re gay if they can’t deal with it.”
Nevertheless, being gay has had no impact on her career, she said, but she advocates a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for actors if they perceive that being identified as gay can hurt their careers. “And I certainly don’t believe in outing anyone else,” she continued. “It’s monstrous. The only time I believe in outing someone is if it’s a politician who is gay and has made anti-gay statements.”
Living a life in public — at least voicing one’s positions out loud — is not without risk, and Margolyes closed the interview on a wistful note. “I just hope to grow old being tolerant,” she said. “I was always fiery. I hope my fires are a little dampened and that I’m a little more sensible.”
Simi Horwitz is a cultural reporter whose previous credits include 17 years with Back Stage and eight with Theater Week.
Here’s Miriam Margolyes talking about Dickens in 2011.