Throughout the long summer of 2014, as Hamas fired rockets deep into Israel from Gaza and the Israeli military retaliated with air strikes, a bizarre celebrity cultural phenomenon 8,000 miles away caught the media's attention: A narrative tug-of-war between Israelis and Palestinians took center stage in Hollywood as famous actors, musicians and industry insiders weighed in on the conflict.
Mark Ruffalo, better known as the Incredible Hulk and a persistent critic of Israel, regularly retweeted stories from Gaza and slammed Israel's military campaign. On Instagram, singer Madonna compared a photo of flowers to "the innocent children of GAZA." Pop star Selena Gomez joined the fray, as did actor John Cusack and comedian Rob Schneider. Some celebrities jumped in only to retreat quickly: The singer Rihanna and basketball player Dwight Howard both tweeted--then deleted--#FreePalestine, while Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem signed an open letter that referred to "genocide" against Palestinians, then backpedaled when faced with a severe reaction from colleagues.
Other celebrities, such as comedians Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen, actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, rushed to Israel's defense in a published rebuttal, and actress Natalie Portman, a dual Israeli-American citizen, held a meeting at her home to educate invitees about the situation. Meanwhile, TV star Mayim Bialik, an outspoken supporter of Israel, was prolific on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. "I wish all of the Israel haters would learn more about Israel," she wrote on the Jewish parenting website Kveller. And, she added, "I wish no one cared what celebrities think about the situation in Israel."
But they do care. And because Los Angeles is the ever-beating heart of the world's entertainment industry, Hollywood has increasingly become a location where the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play out in public view. Sometimes that takes the form of social media sniping, and sometimes it manifests in campaigns to persuade entertainers to distance themselves from Israel, a strategy of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The subsequent publicity from these actions helps activists share their message widely, which makes Hollywood a "high priority and rising" for BDS, according to BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti.
For many people, these flare-ups define the modern Hollywood-Israel relationship--that and Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who made the blockbuster Wonder Woman her own last summer with a distinctly Sabra flair. But the storyline is far more complicated, and much of it takes place off-screen in studio offices and living rooms of canyon homes, away from cameras and social media. In addition to outspoken celebrities and BDS activists, the cast includes pro-Israel agents, managers, producers and Jewish communal leaders who have long worked to build bridges between Hollywood and Israel. Today, they're seeing the payoff. "In terms of people, in terms of content, in terms of business," says Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a former television executive, "I don't think there's a country that has a stronger relationship with Hollywood than Israel."
A BUDDING HOLLYWOOD-ISRAEL ROMANCE
The State of Israel was born in 1948 but didn't become a Hollywood star until Otto Preminger's seminal 1960 film adaptation of Leon Uris's blockbuster novel Exodus. With Paul Newman as the stoic protagonist Ari Ben Canaan, the high-profile film proved a watershed moment in the relationship between Israel and Hollywood. Widespread infatuation with, and support of, the scrappy new state coincided with the heyday of the studio epic to produce a cultural artifact that helped define American-Jewish identity for more than a generation.
The film also marked a major about-face for an industry largely built by Jews who were initially wary of the idea of a Jewish homeland. Hollywood's Jewish founders--many of them immigrants working in fashion and retail who headed West for new opportunities--built the studios we know today: Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). But the appeal of Hollywood was its promise of assimilation, the ability to create worlds in which they were welcome. What united the Jewish studio founders, wrote Neal Gabler in his 1988 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, was "their utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country." Prior to statehood, Hollywood's Jews had "never shown much interest in a Jewish homeland," Gabler wrote, because "this would be yet more evidence of divided loyalties." MGM's Louis B. Mayer was "ardently anti-Zionist, believing that it would lead to nothing but trouble." Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, when pressured to attend a fundraiser for Israel where Golda Meir spoke, was furious when he was chastised for not contributing enough. His brother, Jack, visited Israel but was "appalled by the beards and payess." But with the founding of the state, "there was a course correction," says the Jewish Federation's Sanderson. Jewish Hollywood leaders suddenly "got very involved in the Jewish community and in the establishment of the State of Israel."
That was the start of what Ido Aharoni, a former longtime Israeli diplomat and marketing guru with a background in film and television, calls the "romantic phase," when "Hollywood icons were recruited to tell the story of Israel." In addition to Exodus, this included the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow with Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra. "It was 'in,' even for non-Jews, to be part of the Israeli narrative," Aharoni says. Participating in that historical moment, even cinematically, inspired Sinatra to fund a plaza at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that still bears his name.
Meanwhile, Lew Wasserman, the late legendary head of media giant MCA, a major force in mid-20th-century Hollywood, was wielding his influence around the industry. "He would call people up and say, 'You're giving money to Israel' and that was that," says Danny Sussman, a talent manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners who today is one of Hollywood's most outspoken Israel advocates. By the 1980s, however, "Wasserman was gone, people got onto their own causes, Israel wasn't as popular," he says.
In particular, 1982 was a turning point. "The romantic phase ended with the first Lebanon war," says Aharoni. "Because the war became so controversial in Israel, it also became controversial among American Jews." From that point on, he says, Israel became largely defined by its complex geopolitics, which scared Hollywood. When filmmakers broached Jewish topics, they largely did so from the morally unambiguous place of Holocaust films (a trend that shows no signs of abating). Very little, if any, original Israeli content made its way to L.A., and Israeli actors were generally cast as terrorists or Mossad agents. During this period, Israeli producers in Hollywood such as Arnon Milchan (Pretty Woman), Avi Lerner (Rambo) and the cousins Yoram Globus and Menachem Golan (Masters of the Universe) became hugely successful. But they largely steered clear of Israel-related and even overtly Jewish stories. In other words, Aharoni says: "For about two decades, Hollywood retreated from Israel."
ISRAELIS GET A LESSON IN HOLLYWOOD
Things began to change in 1997 when the LA. Federation's Entertainment Division partnered...