Edward James Olmos, the outspoken storyteller

Acclaimed character actor and activist Edward James Olmos speaks about his Jewish roots and what has compelled him to speak out against anti-Semitism at this year’s Global Forum.

Edward James Olmos (photo credit: Courtesy)
Edward James Olmos
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Edward James Olmos tells a story, people listen. His deep, gruff voice, natural charisma and approachable, yet dignified disposition allows him to spin a good yarn.
“The most incredible words you can say to someone is, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ Then the whole world opens up,” Olmos told The Jerusalem Post during a relaxing breakfast at a hotel Wednesday morning in the capital.
That must have been only one of the reasons why he was asked by the government to speak at the 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem Wednesday night. The Forum, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, has offered an impressive array of speakers, with Olmos scheduled to deliver the keynote address.
The other reason is the little known fact that Olmos has Hungarian/Jewish roots. Discovering this tidbit came as a shock to the prolific character actor, who has earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as the dedicated teacher of impoverished Hispanic kids in the 1988 classic Stand and Deliver.
“In 1980 I was having dinner with a fellow actor and on my way to the bathroom, a really distinguished looking man with beautiful white long hair and a neatly trimmed beard looked at me and said, ‘You’re Olmosh – you’re Hungarian. You’re Jewish and you’re a very big name in Hungary,’” altering the pronunciation of his name to fit that Hungarian inflection.
For years, Olmos shrugged off that night. Recently, though, Olmos came to research his past and found out that the gentleman was correct. His family, under threat of violent pogroms, fled Europe and immigrated to Mexico, before eventually settling in the United States, where Olmos was born.
Since verifying that revelation, he has tacked on combating anti-Semitism to the many other causes he fights for on a daily basis. Initially, Olmos received criticism from those around him for speaking out about his Jewish heritage, arguing that doing so would diminish his Hispanic roots. Olmos argued the opposite – having a rich tapestry of cultural ties only enhances one’s identity and doesn’t detract from it.
While he is reluctant to call himself an activist, he clearly is one. His humanitarian resume speaks for itself: A Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, a board member for children’s hospitals in Los Angeles and Miami, a spokesman for the Southwest Voter Registration Project (a non-profit that helps Latinos with voter registration) are just some examples of the causes he has dedicated his time to.
Yet, despite his accolades and the decades of humanitarian work, he remains humble. When asked about his remarks ahead of his Wednesday night address at the Forum, he said simply that his intention is show gratitude for those who have fought to combat anti-Semitism.
“My intent and my purpose, is to say thank you.
To thank everyone who came for whatever reason, whether you are a reporter or a government official who was asked to come here or a person who has dedicated his life as a service to others,” he said. “We are uniting in this room as human beings, to try to bring some sense of balance to the negative understanding of what anti-Semitism is. It’s hatred. Hatred for the Jews. Period.”
Although Olmos had months to prepare, he plans to be sincere and speak from the heart without overthinking his remarks.
“I have nothing written, I’m going to shoot from the heart, and tell stories. And thank them.”
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who met Olmos at the Forum’s Gala Tuesday night – has been attacked by critics for blowing the current state of anti-Semitism out of proportion, Olmos dismisses those criticisms.
“There is not an ounce of exaggeration. I am seeing it happen, before they even started this. For years, I’ve seen it,” he said.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is another channel by which Israel has come under fire. At first, Olmos demurs from commenting on the phenomenon, stating, “That’s a political structure that I’ve heard of, but it’s totally in the political realm.”
However, as the BDS movement gains momentum on college campuses and conflates the struggle of other marginalized groups (like African Americans and the LGBT community) it is a hard issue to ignore and one that has not gone unnoticed by the actor. When students held placards with “From Ferugson to Palestine,” emblazoned on them during police brutality protests across college campuses in America, Olmos understands the temptation to conflate two issues in order to lend support and legitimacy to both causes.
“I think whenever the awareness is brought into play, there has to be something to it. It doesn’t always mean it’s correct. People will try to bring awareness to a situation,” he said carefully.
“I think the Palestinians deserve a state. I think most people do. The ones that don’t have a problem. Israel deserves their own state, so do the Palestinians. I’m quick to say that.”
He is wary that such rhetoric can quickly escalate into anti-Jewish sentiment.
“That is the new kind of anti-Semitism. They’re not saying, ‘I hate Jews. They’re saying I love Palestine and hate Israel,’” he continued.
Olmos condemned those that preach violence for the sake of peace: “The destruction of one people over the advancement of another has not worked, does not work and never will. That’s as fascist as you can get!”
In addition to his charity work, Olmos has been busy trying to develop a Holocaust film that details what American authorities knew before the horrors in the camps became common knowledge. Accomplices, he hopes, “Will cause humanity to stop saying, ‘We didn’t know.’ It will put the naysayers to rest.’” With all of his accolades under his belt – he has won both a Golden Globe and Emmy – and the widespread acknowledgment for his humanitarian work, it would be easy for Olmos to rest on his laurels and not take on such an ambitious project.
However, Olmos’ life philosophy on good deeds, while simple, is not easily dismissed.
“I don’t think actors should do anything,” he chuckled, when asked if actors should be role models. “I think they should act. I try to make a difference, and I think people should help. That I think they should do and consistency in behavior brings about a certain amount of legitimacy.”
In that respect, Olmos has certainly led by example and stayed true to himself.