If you want to pack a ballroom full of Jews, try this theme: Hollywood and Israel.
It’s a relationship the Jewish community never tires of exploring, no matter how fraught or flimsy or confounding the connection.
An event organized by the pro-Israel World Alliance for Israel Political Action Committee (WAIPAC) on Sept. 14 drew a crowd of 350 to the Luxe Hotel Sunset Boulevard. There, Hollywood hotshots Sherry Lansing, Marc Platt and David Lonner thrashed out their passions and prescriptions for a Hollywood that cares — even as Israel faces an unfriendly media and artist boycotts, and as increasing political tensions tug at American Jewish loyalties.
Do people in Hollywood care about Israel? Sure. The only problem is that no one knows what Hollywood should do.
“Hollywood is packed with people who know how to influence opinion,” said Lonner, founder of Oasis Media Group, whose clients include writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams and producer/director Jon Turteltaub. “If we can figure out a way to harness that, I do believe we can make a difference.”
But Hollywood is not monolithic. It’s “just a group of individuals,” said Lansing, former head of Paramount Pictures and founder of The Sherry Lansing Foundation. “There are people who care deeply, people who are indifferent and a group that is vocally opposed to Israeli policies,” she added. To lump the whole of Hollywood together would be misguided, but the panelists agreed that the prevailing industry ethos toward Israel is characterized by deep uncertainty and ambivalence.
“Hollywood loves an underdog,” said theater and film producer Platt (“Legally Blonde” franchise, “Wicked”). “Always has.” But while the Jewish state may have played that role well for generations past — a newly minted, vulnerable nation under constant threat and attack — these days, young Hollywood isn’t buying the Israel-as-victim ticket. Even with a nuclear threat from Iran, young Hollywood sees an Israel with power and prestige, an Israel that hasn’t always acted wisely — or kindly — when it comes to the Palestinians.
“Because Israel is in a position of power,” Platt said, “power can be abused, and that leads to criticism.”
Though not in this room. After all, WAIPAC is not JStreet, so instead of discussing the tough choices Israel faces, the panelists stuck to their comfort zones: how much they love Israel, how they want to improve its image and how to get other people to love it, too.
“Emotionally, I can never be objective about [Israel] because I love it so much,” Platt said.
“I was always somebody who was very proud of being Jewish, but I had no idea how much I loved Israel until the plane landed on the ground [on my first trip], and I walked outside and started to cry,” Lansing said.
“I always say I’m like a light socket plugged into an energy source when I’m there,” Lonner added.
Both Lansing and Lonner have organized industry trips to the Holy Land, the best pro-Israel aphrodisiac: “The best way to convert somebody who isn’t pro-Israel is to take them to Israel,” Lansing said again and again.
Prompted by moderator Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Lansing, Lonner and Platt offered up their 2 cents on how Hollywood could be of more use to Israel’s welfare.
Lansing stressed education — Internet campaigns and public service announcements; Platt said the industry needs leaders and role models who can galvanize support.
Lonner borrowed a play from Mel Gibson.
“I think there’s a gigantic market for biblical stories,” Lonner said, calling for the industry to try its hand at Hebrew bible narratives. “Ironically, and upsettingly, the effect Mel Gibson’s movie had in this country and around the world showed that biblical stories — violence and all, sex and all — do have a marketplace.”
Sanderson wondered whether the days for telling stories about Israeli and Jewish history are over. Couldn’t a contemporary “Ten Commandments” do the trick?
Remember, Platt warned, Hollywood is a business, first and foremost. So, while it’s nice to dream up movies that showcase Jewish values and the nuances of life in Israel, more importantly, they’ve got to sell.
“We all appreciate and respect Steven Spielberg’s great film ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” Platt said, “but it did take the most successful director of the 20th century, a best-selling novel and a protagonist that was a Gentile, to tell the story of the Holocaust.”
“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I’m actually more concerned today than I’ve ever been in my whole life,” Lansing said. Someone in the audience raised the issue that Lansing sits on The Carter Center board of trustees. Jimmy Carter’s 2007 book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” presents a critical view of the Israeli government.
Lansing said the book upset her, but it was no reason to end her friendship with the former president: “To leave the table and not engage in dialogue is to ensure that no one will ever change their mind.”
When something is glaringly offensive, such as last year’s boycott of the Toronto Film Festival’s spotlight on Tel Aviv, Hollywood rallies to the cause. But, for the most part, the Jewish Hollywood behemoth can’t be bothered with the everyday trials of the Jewish state.
Besides, the film community is becoming increasingly global, where party lines do not prevail nearly as much as they do in Washington.
“More and more voices are being heard,” Platt said, “including Israeli voices. And there’s also, as there should be, the other side — Arab voices and Palestinian voices that are also important.”
Maybe instead of asking what Hollywood can do, Hollywood Jews should ask themselves who they want to be.
“I don’t think there’s a collective response,” Platt said. “I feel it’s in the actions of people, in the stories you tell and how you tell them, the way you behave and how you wear your Jewishness.”