February 1, 2012
Zionism and the three-picture deal
Hollywood rediscovers the Jewish state
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Meredith Weiss, director of The Federation’s Entertainment Division since 2006, said, “When I started, I couldn’t get anybody to go to Israel. I had a lot of conversations where I had to explain to people that it was more dangerous to drive down Laurel Canyon in a rainstorm than go to Israel.”
Lonner began his advocacy trips in 2006, and he enlightened some of the industry’s most influential people on the everyday vitality and cosmopolitanism of life in Israel, even during a period of crisis.
“When I started doing my trips, it was because Israel was at war with Hezbollah and the Hollywood community was silent, whether out of apathy, ignorance or a misunderstanding of what was going on,” Lonner said. For three years, Lonner spent a small fortune shuttling A-list Hollywood back and forth; though he declined to reveal his personal investment, Sanderson said The Federation split expenses with Lonner and estimates its own expenditures at between $30,000 and $50,000 per trip. Because Lonner made his own guest list, Federation had limited ability to follow up and involve the participants on an ongoing basis. But Lonner was confident there would be some measurable impact.
“The big question is,” Sanderson pointedly asked, “How does this change their life individually? Does it affect their creative decisions? Are they going to shoot a film in Jerusalem? Do a Jewish-oriented project?”
“The list of takeaways is huge,” director Turteltaub believes. “You become much more aware of every news item involving Israel, and things make more sense, because you have some first-hand knowledge. You understand the geography of the Middle East, the demographics of each city. It becomes very personal, and you come back amazed and surprised at how little you understood before, and with new awareness. Not all of it is positive, but all of it is very real.
“This interview,” he added, “is an example of my being more receptive to being part of the Los Angeles Jewish community. When I got back, I felt I had more to say, and I was less afraid to say it.”
It is, of course, common for Jews and non-Jews alike to experience a sense of awe, spiritual excitement and even a renewed sense of history when visiting Israel, but how does the experience change behavior afterwards? Jewish identity has always been grounded in collective responsibility; spiritual transformation that doesn’t lead to contribution can become an exercise in narcissism. So how might a newfound connection to Israel spark action that turns a free vacation into a vehicle for advocacy?
After his first visit with One Voice, “Seinfeld’s” Alexander said, “I was embarrassed at myself for living such a small life. It lit a kind of idealism in me.” Alexander, who had been to Israel previously as a child, is nevertheless a rare example of a Hollywood celebrity who not only has now engaged in ongoing activism, but also is comfortable speaking publicly about the politics of the conflict. He said he understands, however, that the transition from trips to activism isn’t as smooth for most of his colleagues. “The problem with Middle East activism is that you go there, and you are so overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, and you come back, and now it’s on the other side of the planet, and you go, ‘Well, what really can I do?’ What happens is that most people just kind of surrender and go, ‘It’s above my pay grade.’ ”
What’s new now, however, is that the stream of business has begun to fundamentally change the degree to which Hollywood and Israel are — quite literally — invested in each other. Now, the trips are not just for fun or to inspire — they’re business.
Last November, Tassler and Nancy Josephson, a partner at William Morris Endeavor, led the first-ever Women in Entertainment mission to Israel with a group of 20 well-known women. Josephson, a Harvard Law School graduate, claims “a very deep history” with the Jewish state, because her father, Marvin Josephson, a founder of International Creative Management, was an ardent Zionist with powerful political ties — among his many prestige clients were former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Margaret Thatcher. “Bibi Netanyahu was at my first wedding,” Josephson said.
Tassler described how during a meal at the popular restaurant Machneyuda, located near the Jerusalem market of the same name, Josephson and entertainment attorney Jeanne Newman disappeared into the kitchen, ostensibly to sign the chef. Josephson, who represents the Spanish superchef Jose Andres, confessed, “I’m a total foodie. I was a bit of a nut about every meal needing to be planned and thought through. With 20 women with different tastes, I thought, ‘If we’re all fed, we’ll be happy.’ I made sure every restaurant was, like, a great restaurant with a great chef — and if you ask anyone on that trip, the food was off the charts.”
Not one to separate business and pleasure, Josephson quickly discovered that Machneyuda’s three chefs — Yossi Elad, Asaf Granit and Uri Navon — had already appeared on the Israeli version of “Iron Chef,” so instead of signing them, she tried to persuade them to bring their restaurant to Los Angeles. “We’re absolutely convinced it would be a smash hit here,” Josephson said.
Which is just the point: A visit to Israel is no longer just about sightseeing and having a good time, it’s about collaboration and commerce. “It’s very easy to be in Israel and in the course of one day, broker a deal for a new Israeli reality format and then be in the kitchen of a phenomenal Jerusalem restaurant making another deal,” Tassler said.
“Commerce with consciousness,” Ben Silverman calls it, because it’s one thing to do business wherever there’s potential for profit — but for a Jew, enterprising with Israel is an added success. And should the relationship grow, Hollywood’s investment in the country will inevitably deepen as its own fortunes become tied with Israel’s.
“There’s great outreach to our community to come to Israel to shoot,” Tassler said. “As the mayor of Tel Aviv likes to say, ‘We want to do Vicky Cristina Tel Aviv.’ ”