Belgian award for director Ken Loach sparks anti-Semitism row

Director Ken Loach is to receive an honorary degree from Vrije Universteit Brussel. (AFP pic)

BRUSSELS: British film director Ken Loach faced an anti-Semitism row in Belgium on Thursday after Prime Minister Charles Michel led opposition to him being granted a university doctorate.

Michel joined Jewish groups in expressing regret that Vrije Universiteit Brussel, one of the country’s leading institutions and the one at which he studied law, had decided to bestow the honorary degree on Loach.

Loach, a long-term leftist and supporter of the Palestinian cause, has come under fire after making controversial comments about Holocaust denial in a broadcast interview in 2017, but strongly denies being anti-Semitic.

“Our firmness must be total. No accommodation with anti-semitism can be tolerated, whatever the form. That also goes for my alma mater,” Michel said during a visit to Belgium’s Grand Synagogue.

Accepting the honour later Thursday, Loach said he had been shocked to have to defend himself against the allegations after a career spent defending human rights and social justice.

Earlier, the university stood by its plans and issued a strongly worded statement from Loach, who won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 for “I, Daniel Blake” and in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”.

“I wish to reaffirm in the strongest possible terms that the Holocaust is as real a historical event as the Second World War itself and not to be doubted,” Loach said in the statement.

“Those who try to smear me in this way know that I have always fought all racism, including anti-Semitism. I doubt everyone can say the same.”

Loach was forced to clarify comments he made in a BBC in September last year, when he was asked if Holocaust denial was acceptable, and replied: “History is for all of us to discuss.

“All history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse. The founding of the State of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for us to discuss.”

The comments fed into a simmering row in the UK about anti-Semitism in the opposition Labour party as the director is a major supporter of its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been accused of failing to tackle the problem.

Loach’s statement said that the allegations against him were “malicious and unprincipled.”

“To avoid any further ambiguity, I wish to state, once and for all, that I condemn any form of Holocaust Denial or ‘negationisme’ as you say in French,” he said.

Loach has been a vocal critic of Israel over the treatment of the Palestinians and has been a leading backer of moves to boycott the Jewish state.