October 17, 2002
Making Show Business Our Business
It has almost risen to the level of obsession, this concern about Hollywood Jews and Israel. Why aren't they speaking out on Israel's behalf? Why aren't they flying to Israel to show their support? Why aren't they sending gobs of money to help out?
In Los Angeles, the questions arise soon after any conversation about the Mideast conflict starts. We might not be able to calm the racket in Gaza or Jerusalem, but can't we ratchet up the noise in Beverly Hills and Burbank?
Throughout this recent intifada, The Journal has tracked how Jews in the entertainment industry have reacted to the conflict. What we found and reported is what Rachel Abramovitz, writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, also discovered: Various and sometimes innovative efforts on Israel's behalf by a younger generation of Hollywood Jews are not mirrored in the actions of the entertainment industry's most powerful Jews. The foot soldiers have mobilized while their generals remain, for the most part, immobile.
Those critical of Hollywood's reaction maintain that an A-list celebrity stepping onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport would do more for Israel's image these days than yet another English-challenged spokesman from the Foreign Ministry on CNN.
These critics may be right, but they have chosen a glass-half-empty approach. The strong, silent studio heads and big-name celebrities make an easy target. They are a source of constant frustration to those activists who have recently tried, in a concerted and behind-the-scenes way, to push them into a more public role.
But focusing on the top billing shouldn't blind us to the names below the title, including young-ish agents, writers, producers and directors for whom this crisis has been a watershed in their Jewish involvement. It's true they don't have studio-boss clout. But they are grappling to find their voice in difficult times -- launching some innovative projects, raising money, organizing speakers and outreach for their peers (three such programs that I know of in the past two weeks). And they are no less frustrated than their non-entertainment industry friends at the silence of other Jews in the business. To tar these people with the brush of apathy is uninformed and shortsighted.
But what about the big names at the top of the marquee? I have three theories on why we're not hearing more from them.
Some are already giving plenty in their own way. Take Steven Spielberg. The founder of The Righteous Persons Foundation and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and the creator of a movie called "Schindler's List" is working on a movie about the birth of the Israel air force, which will probably do for Israel what "Saving Private Ryan" did for World War II veterans.
Some love Israel, but don't support its current government. On the one hand, it is unfair to chastise American Jewish celebrities for not falling in lockstep behind Israel when many Israeli celebrities feel just as uneasy with Ariel Sharon. On the other hand, how hard is it to craft a message in support of democracy and against terror that any Jewish celebrity would be proud to stand behind?
Those celebrities who do speak out in support of Israel but against some of its government policies, such as Richard Dreyfuss, are pilloried by political opponents who want only their pro-Israel message delivered. For these Hollywood Jews, it's damned if you don't, more damned if you do.
Finally, this: some, maybe most Hollywood Jews just aren't all that Jewish. Muslim, Christian and Jewish zealots all share the belief that Hollywood is home to a latent Zionist strike force ready to be mobilized the moment some top-secret, high-frequency shofar is blown. Sure, there are a lot of Jews who work in Hollywood (although even that is changing faster than the stereotype). But most of them are no more passionate about their Judaism than their Christian counterparts are about their Christianity.
Headlines don't create a passionate and outspoken Jewish identity; upbringing and education do. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood Jews who are most outspoken on these issues have a history of Jewish involvement predating the current crisis. Some are the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, others were raised in culturally or religiously Jewish homes and still others entered Jewish life as part of spiritual search. As Neil Gabler documented in his seminal "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor, 1989), the men who created the film industry rushed to assimilate into an America that they idealized and that their movies mythologized. But the Goldwyns and Warners had a Jewish identity ingrained by an immigrant past and anti-Semitism. New generations of Jews in Hollywood have lost that particular birthright. In the long run, creating Jewish activists, whether in Hollywood or Agoura, means building Jewish community.
The other lesson, which Americans of all creeds are quickly forgetting, is that celebrities are not heroes. As the late Joseph Campbell pointed out, the difference is clear as day: celebrities live primarily for themselves, heroes act to redeem society. Very few of us can ever be celebrities, and we ought not to wait for them to show any of us how to be heroes.