Last week, an L.A.-based correspondent for BBC World Service emailed me to ask for an interview.
“I am working on an article about the conflict in Gaza, and why Hollywood has remained mostly silent on this issue,” he wrote. “I saw the story you wrote about the controversial twitter [post] by Rihanna and I would like to interview you … to talk about it.”
A week prior, Rihanna had made headlines by tweeting “#FreePalestine” to her 36 million followers, and then, minutes later, deleted it. Amused by her sudden foray into Palestinian politics, I agreed to the interview.
But about thirty seconds in, I realized I had made a naïve mistake: I had assumed that Mr. BBC wanted to know why Hollywood wasn’t more vocal on matters to do with Israel. After all, that is a perennial source of anxiety and concern for the organized Jewish community (meaning, Jews affiliated with Jewish institutions), and I’ve spent a lot of time answering for that over the years, since the name of this blog somehow makes me the resident expert on all things Jewish in Hollywood. I can’t count how many times I have personally been asked, at speaking engagements or public dialogues, why, oh why, don’t Hollywood’s most influential Jews speak out more in support of Israel?
I diligently prepared myself to answer this question -- the Jewish journalism question. The self-reflexive question. The “my readers are my homeys” question.
These were some of my thoughts:
Hollywood sees itself as the arbiter of international culture…. it has deep ambivalence about being seen as tribal…. Success depends on international box office… controversial political stands could cost you… Israel is the world’s biggest hot-button issue … If you’re running a public company political posturing can be dangerous… But then, some people do take a stand… some quietly, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer and Barbra Streisand, who are always in the room when high-level Israeli dignitaries come to town… Though others are more outspoken… like actor Joshua Malina and Jon Stewart and Howard Stern…. Yet others choose to speak with their feet… like Howard Gordon, who fought to have the show “Tyrant” filmed in Israel … and the countless world-renowned musicians – including Rihanna! – who have performed in Israel despite intense BDS-led pressure and protest…
But none of that is what my interrogator wanted to hear. Since Mr. BBC answers to a vastly different readership, he was after an entirely different question of silence. For him, the question was: Why was Rihanna silenced for tweeting “#FreePalestine”? And more specifically: Who silenced her?
“If you’re asking me if I think a cabal of Hollywood-Jewish overlords threatened to ruin Rihanna’s career if she didn’t delete her tweet, the answer is unequivocally ‘no,’” I insisted, then panicked about having used the words “Jewish” and “cabal” in the same sentence.
But after running through my talking points, I could tell he remained unconvinced. Why did Rihanna delete her #FreePalestine tweet?
For the answer, let’s turn to Jon Stewart. Just over a week ago, when Stewart did a segment contrasting the threat of danger faced by Israelis versus Palestinians, he was pilloried for appearing impartial. He followed up with a brilliant sketch in which every time he uttered the word “Israel,” a pop-up crowd of “Daily Show” news correspondents barraged him in protest. “Self-hating Jew!” one of them yelled. Next, he said something critical of Hamas to which another shouted, “Zionist Pig!”
“Obviously there are many strong opinions on this," Stewart said, addressing his audience. "But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel's policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas."
While some Israel supporters can certainly be reactionary and intolerant of criticism, the same is true of Palestinian supporters seeking to isolate Israel. When Scarlett Johansson agreed to being the spokesperson for the West Bank-based company SodaStream, which employs Palestinian workers, international condemnation of her was vehement; Johansson had the wherewithal to endure the fray and ultimately stuck with her endorsement deal, but it cost her her ambassadorship with Oxfam International, a human rights organization, and weeks of public relations headache.
It is almost always a lose-lose situation for celebrities who dare take a stand on controversial issues. Just as with movie executives who court international business, celebrities depend on their public image for their popularity. Speaking out can only be risky: Voice your opinion, and you’re more than likely to be criticized; remain silent, and you’ll be shamed as self-involved and spineless.
On an issue as contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, taking a side in either direction is sure to earn the ire and assault of the other, and many celebrities eventually discover it’s just not worth it.
Would it have been braver for Rihanna to leave her tweet – whatever the consequence, however ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?
Yes; but bravery doesn’t win you hearts in Hollywood the way it does on a battlefield. And what does Rihanna know of that?