Maureen Lipman may be the most famous actress you’ve never heard of. Despite
appearing in dozens of hit international films, plays and television shows in
the past four decades, Lipman’s fame has largely been relegated to her home
country, England. That alone may have been enough to earn Lipman the Tel Aviv
University honorary doctoral degree she was awarded a few weeks ago – but the
fact that she is one of England’s most outspoken public Israel supporters
The degree, which was also awarded to nine others from
diverse fields, was bestowed upon Lipman on June 7. In Israel from June for just
over a week, she kept busy: Lipman gave two lectures at Tel Aviv University, one
public and one master class for faculty and graduate students, as well as
traveling around the country as part of TAU’s Living Legacy Mission, in which
British people who leave a bequest to the university in their will are honored
with a nine-day tour. Both Tel Aviv University and the British Council
coordinated the engagements.
With this latest honor, “I am actually Dr.
Dr. Dr. Maureen Lipman, BA and MA, without ever having studied for a degree,”
she laughed. “It’s come full circle. I think it might be time I went back to
To Lipman, the TAU degree was simply a great excuse to make
another trip to the country she’s spent so much time and energy defending in
Britain’s public eye. In England, her name is just as often in headlines for
Israel advocacy as for her work. In May, Lipman made British news when she
combated anti-Israel actor Roger Lloyd Pack in a radio interview about a boycott
of Israel’s Habima Theater Company, which was performing at Shakespeare’s
“The underdogs have always interested me,” says Lipman, who is
also a political advocate for Burma, a nation long ruled by militias.
show business, Lipman has also been the underdog.
Since her major debut
in the 1968 British film Up the Junction,
she has long played roles in projects
that rarely left England, creating what she calls a “parochial
“I was never ambitious for an international stage. So when Tel
Aviv University rang to tell me of the degree, I thought it was a joke,” she
says. “I said, ‘How have you ever heard of me? I’m like Israeli wine – I don’t
travel well.’” Lipman grew up in Hull, a city in Northern England, where she was
“a precocious child. I did impersonations; I was always on stage. I was a pain
in the ass, I’m sure.”
She attended the London Academy of Music and
Dramatic Art, where, aside from invaluable acting coaching, she received advice
that would shape much of her life: “The day I left drama school, my principal
told me, ‘You won’t come into your own until you’re 40.’ I thought the man was
crazy. Who ever heard of 40?” But he was right. Over the past 44 years, Lipman’s
career in English film and television grew slowly. She never exploded in a flash
of celebrity or notoriety. And yet, through the decades, she worked steadily and
built a solid, continuous career with key, exciting milestones.
Agony Again were the first British television series to picture a normal gay
relationship, says Lipman, the show’s star.
Her biggest breakthrough came
in 2002, when she played Adrien Brody’s mother in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.
The film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and won Best Director
and Best Actor (Brody). Lipman herself won a Polish Film Award for Best
Supporting Actress for the role. For an actress with such longstanding ties to
Israel, the success of the film carried significant weight.
stretch all the way to Lipman’s childhood. Growing up, “Israel meant the
little blue and white [tzedakah] boxes in the corner of the room,” she
“We sang about the land of milk and honey. There was always a ‘next
year in Jerusalem.’” She first visited Israel at 16 on a teen trip with B’nai
“Since then, it’s always been a question of how to
get back – either having a holiday here, or writing about Israel or just giving
my kids an idea of what it means to me,” she says.
There was no set date
when her second, unofficial career took off. But Google her name, and it’s
apparent that her current role as Israel defender is in full swing. Her job, as
she sees it, is simply to level the playing field.
“There are too many
bigots and extremists using anti-Zionism as a cloak for anti-Semitism,” she
says. “And they are whipping up a frenzy.”
Lipman recalls a recent
meeting to raise funds for Burma. When the floor was open to discussion, a
journalist spoke up blaming Israel for the militarized, oppressive situation in
“It’s at points like that where I know the scapegoat has
once again been found,” she says. “For someone to actually blame Israel for 40
years of military dictatorship in Burma – it’s obvious.”
While Lipman is
open to criticism of Israel, most of her arguments have risen when Israel is
singled out on an international level when other countries’ transgressions are
“Why is there no one protesting outside the Syrian
embassies all over the world?” asks Lipman. “They are killing their own people,
not defending their right to exist. I don’t understand how people can criticize
the Jewish state on a different plane than they criticize similar situations in
the rest of the world.”
In England, she says, she nearly stands alone.
She cites actor Steven Berkoff and writer Howard Jacobson as compatriots in
defending Israel; but much more common, she says, are those singling out Israel
while virtually ignoring the human rights issues of other nations.
people are very happy to sit next to a Chinese filmmaker, in spite of the fact
that they execute hundreds of people a year. They are very happy to sit next to
[President of Zimbabwe] Robert Mugabe despite the fact that he works to deny
AIDS medicine,” says Lipman. “People in England are only obsessed with the
question of the Palestinians.”
Just like her acting career, Lipman
believes her job as an Israel advocate will last years.
“I will forever
be yakking to someone about Israel,” she says. “I can’t shut up.”