Just after breakfast, the phone rang first. The initial phone call was immediately followed by several texts over the following hours.

All were from Jewish theatre colleagues and all were on the same topic: Maureen Lipman’s decision to go off the deep end about Helen Mirren, aggrieved that the non-Jewish actress had been chosen to play the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

According to Lipman, ‘the Jewishness of the character is so integral’ that it is unthinkable for a gentile to so much as attempt it, even an actress of Dame Helen Mirren’s versatility and experience.

‘But she’s played Jews before!’ a director friend told me. ‘One Mossad agent, one victim of Nazi looting. No one complained.’

An actor, who had recently played both Nazis and Holocaust survivors for me, texted: ‘She’s not “Jewing-up”, she’s “Goldaing-up”. Get real!’

Dame Helen Mirren portrays Israel's first female prime minister Golda Meir in the film, Golda, telling the story behind Meir's dramatic time in office during the Yom Kippur War in 1973

In the movie, Golda (starring Dame Helen Mirren), Golda Meir, Israel’s first woman prime minister, tells the tale of Meir’s turbulent time as a member of the Yom Kippur War.

Golda, a film about the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel was as near to total destruction as ever is what’s causing all of the drama.

Dame Maureen told the Jewish Chronicle that she was ‘not comfortable’ about the title role being given to a non-Jewish person.

She added: ‘I’m sure she will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.’

Actress Dame Maureen Lipman, pictured playing a vicar in 2015, told the Jewish Chronicle she was ‘not comfortable’ at the title role being given to a non-Jewish person

Actress Dame Maureen Lipman, pictured playing a vicar in 2015, told the Jewish Chronicle she was ‘not comfortable’ at the title role being given to a non-Jewish person

Clearly, no one is suggesting that there should be a return to ‘blackface’ roles, but barring Dame Helen from playing such a part is nonsensical. To paraphrase Laurence Olivier’s famous quip to Dustin Hoffman: ‘Maureen darling, it’s called acting!’

Yes. According to the preview photos, Helen did require facial prosthetics for the role. But this isn’t to make her look Jewish, it’s to make her look like Golda Meir.

I rather despair of Lipman’s criticisms because I dread a world in which actors and characters are separated into silos.

Where does this leave us if all Jewish characters have to be played by Jewish actors?

Gay roles should not be the sole preserve of homosexual actors. Do Jews have to be barred from portraying Christians, and vice versa.

If that were true, it would likely have prohibited Dame Maureen to don a dog-collar in The Vicar Of Dibley as a Church of England vicar, attempting to be an archbishop. She did this in 2015 in a Red Nose Special.

Are we truly ready to live in such compartmentalized worlds that we never leave? As my breakfast texters reminded me, this isn’t Dame Maureen’s first foray into this dispute.

All too recently, she complained of ‘cancel culture’ making life impossible for comedians, for fear of giving offence. They were quick to point out that this plea for outspokenness hardly tallies with her reaction to Mirren’s casting.

Nor is it the first time that Maureen has railed against what she might consider to be ‘gentile mission-creep’.

In 2019, she criticised Falsettos West End musical for not enough Jewish participation on and off stage.

But even then I thought that she was missing what I consider the best thing about being Jewish in Britain — our invisibility.

Dame Helen Mirren described Golda Meir as 'a formidable, intransigent and powerful leader'

Golda Meir was described by Dame Helen Mirren as “a formidable, determined and powerful leader”.

I am Jewish on my father’s side, and thanks to his genes I walk around with a classic Jewish nose and Ashkenazi eye-bags which seem to become more grey and more ponderous every year.

Then there’s my surname of Myerson — which is not only the name of the first Jewish Miss America but also Golda Meir’s original married name (sadly, no relation to me either).

As a result, there are plenty of European countries in which many people’s Jew-dar would instantly flash red at the mere sight of me.

The UK rarely sees more than a flicker. The fact is that it does not cross most British people’s minds even to ask the question.

Some UK rabbis might bemoan the extent of this integration but surely that is the better way — the only way — forward?

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the high-profile director of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire, soon came out against Dame Maureen’s intervention. ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew, or orphaned to be an orphan,’ he tweeted yesterday.

While Stephen Pollard, editor at large of the Jewish Chronicle, the very paper that broke the story, said: ‘I adore Maureen Lipman but she couldn’t be more wrong on this. The logic of her position is that the only character any actor can play is themselves.’

This isn’t the first time the issue of so-called ‘Jewface’ has raised its head, of course. Kathryn Hahn, a non-Jewish actress, has been offered the role of Joan Rivers, an American comedian.

Rivers was open about her Jewishness, but it would not be difficult to claim that she appeared particularly Semitic.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (1898 - 1978) at the Socialist International Congress in Eastbourne, Sussex, in 1969

Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister (1898-1978) was at the Socialist International Congress, Eastbourne (Sussex), in 1969

But that didn’t stop Sarah Silverman, the U.S. comedian, criticising the casting. ‘One could argue that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface’.

Of course, the very word ‘Jewface’ is designed to make us think of ‘Blackface’ — a genre which involved white minstrel performers painting their faces to do comedy routines about black people — and all the horrible implications of that. There is simply no comparison.

Blackface has a horrifying history, not just of white colonialism but also of casual appropriation and abuse of black culture.

When I see Dame Helen’s remarkable prosthetic transformation, I do not think: ‘Oh, there’s another goy dressing up as a Jew.’

Nor do I have any cause to remember how much Jewish cultural life has been subsumed by White European culture — largely because it hasn’t. If anything, it’s the other way round. The dominant U.S. form of humour is now Jewish humor, which has made it a worldwide phenomenon.

And thanks to the first Hollywood and Broadway moguls, Jewish storytelling — everything from schmaltzy sentimentality to plangent music — became central to 20th-century film and theatre.

Do actors of Jewish descent want to be treated as Jews? You can’t criticise any actor — most of whom are not Dames or Sirs and spend their time scrabbling for the next job — for avoiding that.

Helen Mirren and Eddie Redmayne are not in the exact same situation. Eddie Redmayne expressed regret for playing trans characters in The Danish Girl (2015), but now believes that the field should be open to trans actors.

This mea culpa was a follow-up to the one from Daniel Day-Lewis, director of My Left Foot. In which Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar in recognition of his portrayal as a cerebral palsy character, Day-Lewis received a similar mea culpa.

Jim Sheridan, a six-time Academy Award nominee, said that he does ‘not think it’s right any more’ for ‘able-bodied’ actors to play disabled characters. However, the casts of the disabled and trans people are severely underrepresented on screen and stage. Maureen, sorry, Jewish actors are unable to say the same.

Of course, if you’ve made it your thing to play Jewish — and as such Dame Maureen is a National Treasure — then to see a fellow Dame mopping up the juicy role of Golda Meir must be frustrating

But please, Dame Maureen, let’s not accidentally go down the same road as Karl Lueger, the infamously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna between 1897 and 1910, who declared, ‘I decide who is a Jew’.

  • Jonathan Myerson is an Oscar nominated director and screenwriter. You can find all episodes of the podcast Nuremberg on BBC Sounds.