Jewish Journal


August 28, 2003

Israel to Seek Celebrity Support


Singer Whitney Houston waves to fans after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his official residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday 27 May 2003. Photo by Brian Hendler

Singer Whitney Houston waves to fans after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his official residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday 27 May 2003. Photo by Brian Hendler

Flush with the worldwide publicity generated by this summer's visit to Israel by actor Christopher Reeve, Ambassador Yuval Rotem of the Israel Consulate of Los Angeles said that in September he will "re-embark on this mission, to appeal to some people from the entertainment industry and ask them to pay a visit."

The paralyzed actor's high-profile July 28-Aug. 1 visit -- a story that drew worldwide media attention during a lull in Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli countermeasures -- may have prompted the Los Angeles diplomat to ask more of Hollywood. However, despite visits to Israel this year by Reeve, Whitney Houston and film producer Lawrence Bender, vocal support for Israel in Hollywood -- including that of Hollywood's Jews -- appears rare.

"For some reason in Hollywood," said independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom, "people feel they have to take a stance -- 'OK, I'm either pro-Israel or anti-Israel' -- not that there are different ways to be pro-Israel."

"Jews are sort of scared to make their own case," Jaglom told The Journal. "The word 'Zionism' becomes like a dirty word. The only head of a studio who would produce 'Gentleman's Agreement' [the Academy Award-winning 1947 film dealing with anti-Semitism] was a non-Jew -- Darryl Zanuck."

Rotem began calling for more celebrities to visit Israel in speeches and other forums about 15 months ago, "when I saw Oliver Stone spending three days with Yasser Arafat in the compound in Ramallah and [he] expressed his support or basically his sympathy with Yasser Arafat."

Aside from the Reeve visit, in which Rotem's office was directly involved, the diplomat said, "I can't report to you that I've had a great success. It's not so easy to mobilize those people. Hollywood people tend to be very much on the sidelines whenever there is a major issue."

However, Josh Molina of NBC's "The West Wing" 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. I feel like the silence tacitly endorses the opinion that somehow Israel is the bully and the Palestinians are the underdog. It's politically incorrect to support Israel."

Hollywood's underwhelming public solidarity with Israel was discussed earlier this summer during a panel discussion in Beverly Hills at the annual convention of the American Jewish Press Association. As to why celebrities do not back Israel, "They're too busy getting behind France," joked panelist Darren Star, creator of HBO's "Sex and the City."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also is perceived as relentlessly complicated, which runs against celebrities' general desire for easy-to-follow, good guy-bad guy causes. And Jews in Hollywood circles are distinct from the larger Jewish community in Los Angeles and uniquely uninterested in The Jewish Federation or other Israel-allied groups.

"They're not actively involved in most affiliated Jewish causes," said Donna Bojarsky, who sat on the panel with Star and is a political consultant who advises actor and prominent Israel supporter Richard Dreyfuss.

Additionally, Jews in Hollywood often identify with liberal and Democratic Party causes and social justice issues, and thus often see Israel through Labor Party pro-peace positions.

"I think of lot of people are very uncomfortable with some of the [tougher, right-wing] Likud policies over the years," Bojarsky said. Bojarsky's husband, Jonathan Jacoby, runs the nonprofit Israel Policy Forum, which in June hosted a seven-day tour of Israel, Egypt and the West Bank. The tour group included Bender, who as a child in the Bronx was beaten up for being Jewish.

"I've never had this one feeling of being in a place, in a majority," said Bender, who met with Israeli officials, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. "I think they enjoy meeting people from Hollywood."

The producer said he saw how Israel needs help. "The hotels are not full. People are not going there," said Bender, whose Quentin Tarantino film, "Kill Bill," opens Oct. 10. "Tel Aviv is actually a party town, a fun place to be."

"Jerusalem is obviously a heavier place," he continued. "Nobody realizes how badly the Israelis are suffering. Obviously the Palestinians are suffering -- but people need to understand that Israel needs help."

In Los Angeles, the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) plans to start a series of foreign policy discussions involving scholars as well as celebrities. IFP is also eyeballing Hollywood for a possible one-day, breakaway set of the organization's own events timed around the United Jewish Communities' Nov. 16-19 General Assembly meeting in Jerusalem.

The estimated $75,000 for the Reeve trip came from the consulate, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Hollywood-based Israeli producers Haim Saban, Arnon Milchen and Avi Lerner.

"This is basically where the money comes from -- Israelis who understand the complexity," Rotem said, adding that he will obtain funding for more trips. "I will have money. I will make the fundraising. There is nothing better than being there to understand."

When asked if he will approach actor Arnold Schwarzenegger about a fall trip, the Israeli diplomat laughed and said, "We don't try to intervene in California politics."

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