Hollywood Celebrities Slow To Mobilize in Support of Israel

By David Finnigan

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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LOS ANGELES — Judging from his work on several gruesome Quentin Tarantino films, Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender seems like an obvious candidate to brave the intifada and visit Israel. But Bender’s trip there last month marked the first time that the “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” producer had ever been to the Jewish state.

“I’m sort of embarrassed that I’ve never been to Israel, because as a Jewish person, I feel, how could you not go to Israel at least once in your life,” Bender said. The seven-day trip, which featured meetings with Israeli and Arab leaders, was organized by the Israel Policy Forum, an American advocacy group that backs the Bush administration’s “road map” peace plan and strongly supported the Oslo process.

“I used to get beat up for being Jewish,” said Bender, who also produced Tarantino’s upcoming “Kill Bill.” “I’ve never had this one feeling of being in a place, in a majority. I can tell you this has changed my life.”

Though Bender was clearly moved by the trip, his visit represents a rare victory for Jewish activists seeking to boost Hollywood support for Israel and attempting to organize star-studded trips to the region. Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles, for example, has little to show for its year-long effort to recruit Hollywood stars, other than recent visits by actor Christopher Reeves and pop diva Whitney Houston.

“I can’t report to you that I’ve had a great success,” said Yuval Rotem, the Israeli consul general in Southern California. “It’s not so easy to mobilize those people.”

Rotem said that he launched his campaign last year after Oliver Stone spent three days meeting with Yasser Arafat. “Then I asked myself, ‘How come, in this most difficult moment of Jews in Israel since 1948, I don’t see anyone from our people from this industry ready to do the same for my prime minister?’”

The diplomat has received help from actor Joshua Malina of “The West Wing” and talent agent David Lonner, who visited Israel last week with the hope of organizing a future Hollywood delegation.

“To a large extent, people feel like it is dangerous waters, which to my belief is no excuse. Somehow, Israel is a no-no to touch,” Malina said. “It’s politically incorrect to support Israel.”

While the reluctance of many people to travel to Israel is understandable, more celebrities should be willing to voice support for Israel, Malina said.

“I want more prominent Jews — people with a profile higher than mine — to at least come out and say publicly that Israel has a right to exist,” Malina said. “I feel like the silence tacitly endorses the opinion that somehow Israel is the bully and the Palestinians are the underdog.”

According to entertainment industry insiders, however, the issue is more complicated. They are struggling — on a larger scale — with a question that vexes many other American Jews: how to publicly back a country, without signaling an endorsement of its current policies — which, stars say, is what their high-profile visits would be taken to be.

The question, several observers said, is even more taxing in the world of Hollywood, where Jewish liberalism is both a norm and far removed from Israeli politics.

“People can still love Israel, be with Israel, support Israel and give money to Israel and still not agree politically with every decision that’s made,” said screenwriter Andrea King. “That seems obvious, but in this climate it’s not.”

The problem, said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant who advises actor Richard Dreyfuss, is that many Israeli and Jewish communal leaders want stars to speak up for Israel, but not to voice any dissenting views regarding its policies.

Bojarsky made the point last month during a panel discussion in Beverly Hills at the annual convention of the American Jewish Press Association. The session, billed as a discussion on Jews in Hollywood, included questions and speculations about why entertainment stars and executives are not more openly supportive of Israel.

“They’re too busy getting behind France,” joked panelist Darren Star, creator of HBO’s “Sex and the City.”

Several serious theories also emerged during the panel discussion, which also featured King and Lonner, and was moderated by Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. For starters, several panelists said, the movie and television business is a self-involved industry, where many insiders are not interested in wading into a controversial matter that could hurt their popularity.

King argued that even for those industry types who care about Israel and would be willing to take a stand, figuring out what position to adopt is not so easy given the fluid and complicated situation in Israel and the territories. “The issue is not black or white — it’s gray,” said King, who has lived in Israel. “Celebrities in Hollywood want to have a very strong black-or-white issue. It’s not clear. It’s a miasma. If I’m confused, if I go back and forth, imagine what someone who doesn’t have that foundation — imagine how they must feel.”

In some cases, Bojarsky said, it is hard for stars, who often identify with liberal, Democratic Party causes and social-justice issues, to identify with Israel’s current government. “I think a lot of people are very uncomfortable with some of the Likud policies over the years,” Bojarsky said. She noted that in 1995, two months before then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, the Labor Party leader lunched at Morton’s, a famed celebrity hangout, with Warren Beatty, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and dozens of others.

Bojarsky offered up another explanation for Hollywood’s failure to mobilize on Israel’s behalf: Celebrities and studio executives generally don’t have strong ties to the broader Jewish community in Los Angeles. As a result, the people most likely to be organizing missions to and campaigns for Israel are not well positioned to line up industry support.

In Bender’s case, it was the Israel Policy Forum — not one of the major, local Jewish communal organizations — which ended up arranging the trip. The forum, whose founding director is married to Bojarsky, has been attempting to recruit high-profile Americans to visit Israel.

The recent delegation, which included Bender, met with Israeli civilian and military officials, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Referring to the Palestinian leader, Bender said, “You really got a sense that this guy wanted peace.”

Bender stressed the need for people to visit Israel.

“Nobody realizes how badly the Israelis are suffering,” Bender said. “Obviously the Palestinians are suffering — but people need to understand that Israel needs help.”

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