Simmering Conflict in Hollywood Over Israel

The summer’s bloodletting in the Gaza Strip has stopped, but the discourse on war that Israel’s assault sparked in the U.S. rages on. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hollywood, where celebrity criticism of Israel led to recriminations from pro-Israel stars and threats to blacklist those who spoke out against the military operation. The entertainment industry is splitting over Israel in the wake of that state’s punishing attack on Palestinians in Gaza.

The latest salvo comes courtesy of Creative Communities for Peace. Created in 2011 by music industry executives, CCFP, funded in part by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, has worked hard in recent years to blunt the impact of celebrity calls to boycott Israel.

In late August, CCFP, which has close ties to a right-wing pro-West Bank settlement group, published a missive signed by over 300 Hollywood movers and shakers. The pro-Israel statement, originally printed in the Hollywood Reporter, appeared September 13 as an advertisement in the New York Times. It comes after other celebrities, like Mark Ruffalo and Rob Schneider, harshly criticized Israel on Twitter.

"We are pained by the suffering on both sides of the conflict and hope for a solution that brings peace to the region. While we stand firm in our commitment to peace and justice, we must also stand firm against ideologies of hatred and genocide which are reflected in Hamas' charter,” the advertisement reads. “Hamas cannot be allowed to rain rockets on Israeli cities, nor can it be allowed to hold its own people hostage. Hospitals are for healing, not for hiding weapons. Schools are for learning, not for launching missiles. Children are our hope, not our human shields.”

The statement says very little about Israel, a state that, as an occupying power, has a responsibility to protect civilian life in Gaza. Instead, the advertisement casts Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, as the aggressor in the recent war. In the process CCFP and the stars backing the group absolve Israel of any agency during an assault in which thousands of Israeli bombs and shells killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including at least 500 children. It also repeats Israeli government tropes about Hamas’ use of human shields. While no proof has emerged that Hamas did use civilians as human shields, one Palestinian teenager has accused Israel of using him as a human shield in Gaza.

CCFP’s missive was signed by the likes of film producer Harvey Weinstein, comedians Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman and writer Aaron Sorkin. (None of the stars’ representatives agreed to set up an interview, though Weinstein’s publicist, Katelyn Bogacki, said that it’s best to let “Harvey’s participation in the letter speak for itself and not comment any further.”)  Many of the signatories are big backers of liberal causes. Sorkin, Weinstein and Rogen have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party. 

“I think that a lot of the people who signed that ad would be quite upset if they woke up one day and they found [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu was president of the United States...There’s a contradiction there,” actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) told me over the phone. Shawn, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights who sits on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, added in an e-mail that he’s “sure many of the people who signed the Creative Communities for Peace statement are not terribly well informed about what's been going on in Gaza and would not want to associate themselves with vicious and heartless actions if they knew more about them.”

The stars’ backing of CCFP is part of a long tradition of elite liberal Democrats refusing to criticize Israel; even nowadays, when support for the state is slipping among young people, including Jews. Pro-Israel lobby groups that raise cold, hard cash for elected officials can still count on Congress for ironclad support. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, two of the most progressive politicians in the country, have echoed pro-Israel talking points in recent weeks.

The bastion of liberalism that is Hollywood has also been a comfortable home for supporters of Israel. In 1960, the movie Exodus, an adaptation of a Leon Uris novel called “the greatest thing ever written about Israel” by the first Israeli prime minister, was released. The film tells the story of a Jewish fighter played by Paul Newman who smuggled Jews to Palestine. Based on the history of the ship Exodus, which tried to carry Holocaust survivors to Palestine but was blocked by British naval ships, it has been aptly called a “Zionist epic.” It helped cement the image of Israel in the U.S. as a land built by heroic, muscular Jews who liberated their own people.

Future Hollywood movies on Israel and the Holocaust were more complex than Exodus, but the film industry remained pro-Israel. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List ends with rescued Holocaust survivors walking to Israel while the song “Jerusalem of Gold,” which celebrates Israel’s 1967 capture of the holy city, plays. Left out of the triumphalist story of Holocaust survivors walking to freedom is that European Jews founded a state built on massacres and the expulsion of the Palestinians.

The pro-Israel bent of Hollywood has carried over into celebrity pronouncements on events in the region. In 2006, Israel waged a punishing war on Lebanon that killed at least 1,109 Lebanese, most of them civilians. A pro-Israel advertisement printed in the Los Angeles Times blamed all civilian casualties on “terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.” The ad was signed by A-listers like Nicole Kidman, Danny DeVito and Bruce Willis. 

Eight years later, dissent against Israel’s periodic military assaults has grown more visible, largely thanks to social media. One of the more prominent slams against Israel during the summer came from film stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who signed an open letter calling the Israeli attack on Gaza “genocide.” After a furor erupted, Cruz and Bardem issued what they hoped were clarifying statements, with Cruz saying, “My only wish and intention in signing that group letter is the hope that there will be peace in both Israel and Gaza.”

Despite Cruz’s statement, Hollywood moguls were angry. The Hollywood Reporter said top executives told the outlet privately that they “questioned whether they would want to work with the couple again.” Brian Kavanaugh, a Hollywood CEO who has financed hits like The Social Network, went public with his criticism. “Anyone calling it Israeli 'genocide' vs. protecting themselves are either the most ignorant people about the situation and shouldn't be commenting, or are truly anti-Semitic,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.

After the letter signed by Cruz and Bardem came out, Haim Saban, an Israeli-American entertainment business leader, said he would be “working the phones to enlist the vocal support of people who I know have an interest in supporting our staunchest ally in the region—which also happens to be the only democracy in the region.” Saban was one of the signatories to the CCFP statement.

But signing the CCFP letter is a strange way of showing support for “democracy,” given CCFP’s ties to StandWithUs, a group that works closely with an Israeli government that denies Palestinians the right to control their destiny. CCFP presents itself as an organization devoted to building bridges to peace through culture. StandWithUs, though, has pushed the Israeli government’s pro-occupation agenda.

Founded during the Second Intifada, StandWithUs’ multi-million-dollar budget has been devoted to boosting Israel on college campuses and burnishing the state’s image in the U.S. It has worked closely with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has allied with the group Christians United for Israel, which is run by the anti-gay pastor John Hagee. In 2011, StandWithUs produced a video in partnership with Danny Ayalon, then Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, in which Ayalon implied there are no Palestinian peoples and denied the occupation.

CCFP’s links to StandWithUs are clear, though the group has denied it has close ties. "CCFP was founded by prominent entertainment industry executives and is beholden to no one," David Renzer, a music executive and co-founder of the group, said via-email. (CCFP would not agree to a phone interview.) "While it is true that we support the open liberal democracy in Israel, it does not necessarily follow that we agree with every policy of the Israeli government, just as we may not agree with every policy of the U.S. government."

But the Forward reported that as of October 2013, CCFP shared office space with StandWithUs. StandWithUs is legally registered as a non-profit under the name Israel Emergency Alliance; as of 2010, CCFP was registered as a “fictitious business name” of the IEA by StandWithUs co-founder Jerry Rothstein. (Fictitious business names are alternate titles for registered businesses.)

CCFP and StandWithUs, in other words, are alternative names for the Israel Emergency Alliance. "While for practical reasons, CCFP has utilized the 501c3 of the Israel Emergency Alliance, this in no way negates its unequivocal separate mission that is unique and clear," said Renzer. "Its fund raising, staff, and budget is independently operated." Yet as Phan Nguyen reported for Mondoweiss last year, online donors to CCFP received a message directing them to contact "Creative Community For Peace at j*****" if they suspected the money was given fraudulently. (They have since changed that message, which now directs people to e-mail a CCFP staffer.)

StandWithUs registered the domain name for CCFP’s website, and one CCFP board member, Ran Geffen-Lifshitz, was a board member of StandWithUs’ Israel branch. In addition, Renzer is married to StandWithUs co-founder and board president Esther Renzer, who took part in a strategy session in 2012 organized by CCFP which featured Israel’s Los Angeles Consul General.

“The idea that there’s no day-to-day relationship [with StandWithUs] is a joke,” said Patrick Connors, an activist with Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel who has researched CCFP. “There are standards of transparency that they’re no way meeting,” he added, referring to CCFP’s lack of disclosure that it is tied to StandWithUs.

And CCFP has taken political positions that align with StandWithUs’ agenda. One page of CCFP’s website, since taken down, lays out CCFP’s positions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The group implies, for instance, that Israel is not occupying Palestinian lands and that illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank that eat up Palestinian land are of little consequence. In addition, CCFP’s page showcasing “Celebrities In Israel” features photos of stars in East Jerusalem—considered occupied territory under international law—and in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

Whether the actors and producers who signed onto the ad know of CCFP’s links to a right-wing group is unclear. But given their support for Israel, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars are content to blame the victims of Israeli bombs.

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