October 27, 2005
Looking for a Shining Star
As every political and charitable organization knows, there is nothing like access to Hollywood stars and influential players to collect crowds and hefty donations.
So when American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supporters arrive in Los Angeles Sunday for a national meeting to listen to policymakers and pundits, their agenda also includes a visit to the Warner Bros. Studios and a chat with television producers and writers.
But AIPAC officials want more than a good time out of Hollywood. They want broader support, lots of money, and, if needed on occasion, celebrity cachet.
In other words, AIPAC is like every other Jewish organization worth its man of the year plaque. The strange thing is that AIPAC has to work so hard to make Hollywood inroads, given that AIPAC's clout in official Washington is legendary.
AIPAC officials insist they are making progress.
"We are seeing significant number of people in the Hollywood community involved in AIPAC," said its national spokesman Josh Block. As evidence, he cites increasing attendance by entertainment industry people at Los Angeles and national AIPAC events.
Block's appraisal was endorsed by some enthusiastic AIPAC members in Hollywood, but the organization doesn't provide membership lists or totals so the anecdotes cannot be verified.
The most optimistic estimate put Hollywood membership in "the hundreds," but even that figure was questioned by some outside observers.
One of the best-connected political analysts of Jewish Hollywood, who, like most respondents, did not wish to be identified by name, pointed to a basic problem.
"It is always a real challenge getting Hollywood people involved in organized Jewish life or Israeli causes, except through synagogue membership," the observer said. This fact-of-L.A.-life applies to AIPAC as well as to other Jewish groups.
One difficulty is the "idiosyncratic" nature of the entertainment industry, which is not easily understood or penetrated by outsiders seeking the help of show-business Jews, the observer said. This analyst added that many creative people come to Hollywood to get away from the "stale traditions" of New York and other East Coast cities.
As a final point, the observer noted, Hollywood Jews tend to fall on the liberal side. Thus, the few who are Jewishly involved are more likely to support Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum or American Jewish Committee, while AIPAC is perceived as "conservative."
The latter perception is strenuously contested by AIPAC officials and supporters.
"We cut across all lines and partisanships in terms of U.S. politics. That's why we are successful," said Joel Mandel, a Hollywood business manager and AIPAC member.
Practically speaking, AIPAC traditionally either supports the current Israeli government or sits on the sidelines steadfastly supporting Israel even as that nation's factions battle over control, policies and ideas.
Mandel acknowledged that AIPAC could do a better job at communicating with the entertainment industry, but also cited recent improvements.
"We are talking to politically sophisticated people," he said. "If we provide with them facts, they'll get it."
A similar positive assessment was given by Joan Hyler, former senior vice president at the William Morris Agency and enthusiastic AIPAC advocate.
"We're small, but we're growing," she said, "and the field is wide open."
What AIPAC lacks in Hollywood is a high-profile celebrity to draw attention and colleagues with open wallets. In the past, Peace Now has benefited from the active presence of actor Richard Dreyfuss, while the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee are generally able to "honor" some bright star at their annual events.
However, AIPAC can now point to influential multimedia mogul Haim Saban, who is backing the organization's Saban National Political Leadership Training Seminar. The semiannual seminars in Washington each draw some 300 college student activists for three days of intensive pro-Israel advocacy training. Saban is no Streisand, nor even Madonna, but he's got the resources to back up his politics.
As for the future, a Hollywood executive who requested anonymity, sounded a hopeful note.
"I think AIPAC is making progress, especially among the younger people in the industry," he said. "We'll see a lot of growth over the next couple of generations."