The Epic Battle In Hollywood Over The Holy LandIn The City Where Myths Are Made, The Israeli And Palestinian Storyline Is Always In Rewrite.
Throughout the long summer of 2014, as Hamas fired rockets deep into Israel from Gaza and the Israeli military retaliated with air strikes, a bizarre celebrity cultural phenomenon 8,000 miles away caught the media’s attention: A narrative tug-of-war between Israelis and Palestinians took center stage in Hollywood as famous actors, musicians and industry insiders weighed in on the conflict.
Mark Ruffalo, better known as the Incredible Hulk and a persistent critic of Israel, regularly retweeted stories from Gaza and slammed Israel’s military campaign. On Instagram, singer Madonna compared a photo of flowers to “the innocent children of GAZA.” Pop star Selena Gomez joined the fray, as did actor John Cusack and comedian Rob Schneider. Some celebrities jumped in only to retreat quickly: The singer Rihanna and basketball player Dwight Howard both tweeted—then deleted—#FreePalestine, while Spanish actors Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem signed an open letter that referred to “genocide” against Palestinians, then backpedaled when faced with a severe reaction from colleagues.
Other celebrities, such as comedians Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen, actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, rushed to Israel’s defense in a published rebuttal, and actress Natalie Portman, a dual Israeli-American citizen, held a meeting at her home to educate invitees about the situation. Meanwhile, TV star Mayim Bialik, an outspoken supporter of Israel, was prolific on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. “I wish all of the Israel haters would learn more about Israel,” she wrote on the Jewish parenting website Kveller. And, she added, “I wish no one cared what celebrities think about the situation in Israel.”
Hollywood is a high priority and rising for BDS, according to BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti.
But they do care. And because Los Angeles is the ever-beating heart of the world’s entertainment industry, Hollywood has increasingly become a location where the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play out in public view. Sometimes that takes the form of social media sniping, and sometimes it manifests in campaigns to persuade entertainers to distance themselves from Israel, a strategy of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The subsequent publicity from these actions helps activists share their message widely, which makes Hollywood a “high priority and rising” for BDS, according to BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti.
For many people, these flare-ups define the modern Hollywood-Israel relationship—that and Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who made the blockbuster Wonder Woman her own last summer with a distinctly Sabra flair. But the storyline is far more complicated, and much of it takes place off-screen in studio offices and living rooms of canyon homes, away from cameras and social media. In addition to outspoken celebrities and BDS activists, the cast includes pro-Israel agents, managers, producers and Jewish communal leaders who have long worked to build bridges between Hollywood and Israel. Today, they’re seeing the payoff. “In terms of people, in terms of content, in terms of business,” says Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a former television executive, “I don’t think there’s a country that has a stronger relationship with Hollywood than Israel.”
A Budding Hollywood-Israel Romance
The State of Israel was born in 1948 but didn’t become a Hollywood star until Otto Preminger’s seminal 1960 film adaptation of Leon Uris’s blockbuster novel Exodus. With Paul Newman as the stoic protagonist Ari Ben Canaan, the high-profile film proved a watershed moment in the relationship between Israel and Hollywood. Widespread infatuation with, and support of, the scrappy new state coincided with the heyday of the studio epic to produce a cultural artifact that helped define American-Jewish identity for more than a generation.
The film also marked a major about-face for an industry largely built by Jews who were initially wary of the idea of a Jewish homeland. Hollywood’s Jewish founders—many of them immigrants working in fashion and retail who headed West for new opportunities—built the studios we know today: Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). But the appeal of Hollywood was its promise of assimilation, the ability to create worlds in which they were welcome. What united the Jewish studio founders, wrote Neal Gabler in his 1988 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, was “their utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country.”
Prior to statehood, Hollywood’s Jews had “never shown much interest in a Jewish homeland,” Gabler wrote, because “this would be yet more evidence of divided loyalties.” MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was “ardently anti-Zionist, believing that it would lead to nothing but trouble.” Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, when pressured to attend a fundraiser for Israel where Golda Meir spoke, was furious when he was chastised for not contributing enough. His brother, Jack, visited Israel but was “appalled by the beards and payess.” But with the founding of the state, “there was a course correction,” says the Jewish Federation’s Sanderson. Jewish Hollywood leaders suddenly “got very involved in the Jewish community and in the establishment of the State of Israel.”
That was the start of what Ido Aharoni, a former longtime Israeli diplomat and marketing guru with a background in film and television, calls the “romantic phase,” when “Hollywood icons were recruited to tell the story of Israel.” In addition to Exodus, this included the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow with Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra. “It was ‘in,’ even for non-Jews, to be part of the Israeli narrative,” Aharoni says. Participating in that historical moment, even cinematically, inspired Sinatra to fund a plaza at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that still bears his name.
Meanwhile, Lew Wasserman, the late legendary head of media giant MCA, a major force in mid-20th-century Hollywood, was wielding his influence around the industry. “He would call people up and say, ‘You’re giving money to Israel’ and that was that,” says Danny Sussman, a talent manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners who today is one of Hollywood’s most outspoken Israel advocates. By the 1980s, however, “Wasserman was gone, people got onto their own causes, Israel wasn’t as popular,” he says.
In particular, 1982 was a turning point. “The romantic phase ended with the first Lebanon war,” says Aharoni. “Because the war became so controversial in Israel, it also became controversial among American Jews.” From that point on, he says, Israel became largely defined by its complex geopolitics, which scared Hollywood. When filmmakers broached Jewish topics, they largely did so from the morally unambiguous place of Holocaust films (a trend that shows no signs of abating). Very little, if any, original Israeli content made its way to L.A., and Israeli actors were generally cast as terrorists or Mossad agents. During this period, Israeli producers in Hollywood such as Arnon Milchan (Pretty Woman), Avi Lerner (Rambo) and the cousins Yoram Globus and Menachem Golan (Masters of the Universe) became hugely successful. But they largely steered clear of Israel-related and even overtly Jewish stories. In other words, Aharoni says: “For about two decades, Hollywood retreated from Israel.”
Israelis Get A Lesson in Hollywood
Things began to change in 1997 when the L.A. Federation’s Entertainment Division partnered with the Jewish Agency for Israel to launch what was known as the Master Class. For nearly 15 years, the Master Class brought countless actors, directors, producers, agents, managers and top studio and network executives to Israel, introducing many of them to the country for the first time, and taught Israelis how to pitch their projects. Producer Zvi Howard Rosenman, who served in the Israel Defense Forces before making classics such as Father of the Bride, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 2017 critical darling Call Me by Your Name, helped run the program in its early years. He and a parade of well-known guests explained to Israelis the inner workings of Hollywood. “They knew nothing,” Rosenman says. “So we taught them the arcane systems that work out here and the culture of each studio and each network.”
The Master Class cultivated a generation of aspiring Israeli writers just as Hollywood was entering a new Golden Age of Television: An onslaught of smartly written, lavishly produced series coincided with the explosion of platforms and producers. With Netflix, Amazon and Hulu joining cable giants such as HBO and Showtime, and middle-weight networks such as FX and USA disrupting network dominance, the hunger for fresh content was nearly insatiable. Add to that the rise in global distribution opportunities, and it was a near-perfect storm for a foreign invasion that Israelis, thanks to their talent and friends, were well poised to exploit.
The 2010 Master Class was titled “The Magic of Partnership: How Creative Alliances Shape Success in Hollywood,” and it’s an apt description of the program as a whole. Consider the example of writers Sarah Treem from Los Angeles and Hagai Levi from Israel: Levi had developed a Hebrew-language show about a psychologist and his patients called B’Tipul (in treatment), and one day he called Rick Rosen, head of the television department at the influential William Morris Endeavor agency, out of the blue to pitch it to America. “I had never spoken to an Israeli writer before and I just said, sure, send it to me,” Rosen told me. Rosen sold the format (industry-speak for a television show’s concept) to HBO, where it became the Emmy-winning hit In Treatment. Levi and Treem then went on to create the popular drama The Affair on Showtime. Through Levi, Rosen met Avi Nir, the revered head of the Keshet Media Group, the largest commercial broadcaster in Israel. And from that meeting, a small Israeli show called HaTufim (Prisoners of War) was Americanized into the blockbuster TV series Homeland.
“After Homeland, it was clear that it was time to build a business,” says Alon Shtruzman, the energetic, bespectacled CEO of Keshet International, Keshet’s global arm. It was launched five years ago in the image of major international media companies such as Holland’s Endemol and the UK’s FremantleMedia—“an independent vertical studio that develops, distributes and produces, checks all the boxes in this chain of [intellectual property],” Shtruzman explains. In a 2016 article, Fortune called Keshet International’s rise “meteoric.” Today the company boasts ten hubs, with offices in Tel Aviv, London, Hong Kong, Munich and Mumbai, among others. (The L.A. office, known as Keshet Studios, opened three years ago in the Fairfax District, the historic heart of Jewish Los Angeles.) Keshet sells content from its huge catalog of shows—both imported from Israel and locally grown—to more than 40 countries, an “ongoing pipeline,” as Shtruzman calls it, that includes dramas, comedies, game shows and reality shows.
As it turned out, Israel’s low-budget but high caliber creative content, with its focus on strong characters and smart plots, really clicked. “We used to say, we’re making amazing television, if only it wasn’t in Hebrew,” Shtruzman jokes. He says it was Nir, the soft-spoken leader often described as a creative, meticulous, hands-on genius, who figured out how to monetize content. “Nir said, ‘If we can’t sell shows, we’ll sell ideas,’” says Shtruzman.
Collaboration between Israelis and Hollywood is now so widespread that a few years ago, the Federation ended the Hollywood-Tel Aviv Master Class. “We didn’t need to do it anymore because there are a number of Israeli companies that have offices within two miles of my building right now, and it’s hard for me not to bump into an Israeli producer,” says Sanderson. But Rosenman, one of the program’s earliest leaders, thinks this is a mistake. “The younger generation will get a diluted version from their seniors and they won’t understand pitching,” he laments, “and they won’t understand the cultural rules.”
Israel Makes A Play For Hollywood
The Israeli government is also paying attention to the power of Hollywood. When Sam Grundwerg was preparing to assume the post of Israel’s consul general in L.A. in August 2016, he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed priorities. In addition to normal diplomatic duties, Netanyahu zeroed in on Hollywood. “The prime minister is a creature of the media,” says the American-born Grundwerg. “He understands very well the impact of media and Hollywood in terms of influencers and opinion shapers.”
Since then, and following in the tradition of his predecessors, Grundwerg, deemed “Our Man in Hollywood” by the Israeli paper Maariv, has focused on building connections within the entertainment industry. He invited actress Sharon Stone to speak at a memorial service for the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres last year (Stone has called Peres—who understood the power of Hollywood and enjoyed its glamour—a mentor). Grundwerg hosted an iftar, the traditional Ramadan breakfast, at his official residence with basketball icon Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and he arranged for pop star Britney Spears to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and for members of the rock band Aerosmith to meet Netanyahu during recent trips to Israel.
One of his key objectives is to get industry insiders to visit the Holy Land. His most prominent guest so far has been Conan O’Brien, the comedian and late-night TV host who last fall filmed an episode of his show in Israel, during which he marveled at the beauty of Israeli men, stalked Gal Gadot at her Tel Aviv apartment and visited a Palestinian refugee camp. O’Brien’s trip was a triumph for Grundwerg, who pitched the trip to the show’s executive producer and helped the show navigate access and red tape. “Part of why we were successful was because I made them feel comfortable,” says Grundwerg, who says he didn’t interfere on content or push for favorable treatment. The largely well-received result painted Israel in both light-hearted and serious tones. From Grundwerg’s perspective, “It exceeded all expectations.”
Last September, Grundwerg co-led a trip to Israel with Adam Berkowitz, co-head of the television department at Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood’s most influential talent agencies. Berkowitz is one of several prominent members of the industry, along with William Morris Endeavor’s Rosen and Brillstein’s Sussman, who consider it an honor to marry their love of Israel to their work. For years, Berkowitz has been bringing industry colleagues to Israel. “My goal is to help the country and also help the artist,” Berkowitz says in his office, where a poster of Tel Aviv hangs. On the coffee table is a photo album featuring Berkowitz with Shimon Peres, who once invited Berkowitz to a conference in Israel and asked him to “bring a celebrity.”
A few miles down the road in Beverly Hills, Sussman kicks his feet onto his desk the way brash executives do in the movies. “I’m probably responsible for 3,000 Jews in show business going to Israel for their first time,” he says. “I’m proud of sitting at this desk and using the pulpit of the industry to witness…the blossoming of [Israel’s] industry.” On the bookcase behind him sits a row of Exodus paperbacks stacked above a row of Leon Uris’s other monumental work, Mila 18, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. “Every person I know going to Israel, I give a copy of both,” he says. Sussman has led or helped facilitate many trips, including those affiliated with the Federation. “We’ve been doing it from the days of Lew Wasserman,” the Federation’s Sanderson says of the trips. “If we see there’s a group of people that we need to take [to Israel], we take them.”
After years of trying to convince people to visit Israel, Sussman reports that trips to Israel have become “a very fashionable thing to do in Hollywood.” Today, celebrities and executives travel at the invitation of their colleagues and Jewish leaders to attend annual film and TV premieres and for industry events and conferences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “The Jewish community has helped grease the wheels of the relationship for business to help it really take off,” says Marc Graboff, the former head of NBC Entertainment, now at Discovery, and the current lay leader of the L.A. Federation’s Entertainment Division.
But Graboff is one of many Israel supporters who are disappointed that Israel isn’t living up to its potential as a go-to location for production, given its condensed geographic diversity, capable English-speaking crews, abundance of historically significant sites and favorable year-round weather. Part of the problem, of course, is geopolitics. In 2013, Homeland preemptively scrapped plans to shoot in Israel, citing the unraveling situation in Syria, and went to Morocco. Dig, a high-profile drama from USA Network about political and archaeological intrigue in Jerusalem, relocated to Croatia and New Mexico because of safety concerns during the Gaza conflict.
But Joseph Chianese, an expert on tax incentives for the entertainment industry, says producers are willing to overlook the risk if the price is right. “If there was a competitive [tax] incentive in Israel, there’d be more consideration of filming there,” he says. Consul General Grundwerg, who is pushing Knesset legislation to address this gap, says that such a financial investment is “still viewed by a lot of the politicians as a luxury, and not a must.” Like Grundwerg, former diplomat Aharoni finds this shortsighted. “It’s not about money,” he argues. “It’s about the country’s reputation, which you cannot quantify. It’s an intangible asset.”
BDS Sets Its Sights On Hollywood
Hollywood has always been a stage for political activism. The first celebrity to notoriously wade into the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was actress Vanessa Redgrave. In 1978, at the 50th Academy Awards, Redgrave won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a young medical student who fights the Nazis in the film Julia. As the world watched, Redgrave accepted the award with an infamous speech in which she denounced—to gasps from the audience—a “small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world.” The British actress, an outspoken defender of the PLO at the time, was referring to the radical far-right Jewish Defense League, whose members had targeted her for producing and narrating the 1977 documentary The Palestinian.
It was decades before Israel’s geopolitics would again make such waves in Hollywood. But in 2005, BDS—a global network of loosely coordinated grassroots organizations—began calling for the academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel. Los Angeles became a BDS hotbed, with vocal student groups organizing at nearby universities, and Hollywood soon became a target. Omar Barghouti, the BDS cofounder, cites the influence of vocal Israel supporters in assessing the bias he perceives in Hollywood. “Hollywood has for the most part justified or covered up ongoing Israeli aggression and violations of Palestinian human rights,” he says, pointing to Jack Shaheen’s 2001 book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which documents a history of negative onscreen stereotypes. Despite these grievances, BDS recognized Hollywood’s value in spreading its message. BDS activists working in the entertainment industry, though far less entrenched than pro-Israel industry insiders, began to harness the power of open letters and social media campaigns to complicate the narrative around Israel, as they have successfully done on many college campuses.
BDS’s first significant victory occurred in 2009, when 1,500 artists and writers, including actress Jane Fonda (Redgrave’s costar in Julia) and actors Viggo Mortensen and Danny Glover signed a letter protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s focus on Tel Aviv. “That was actually the beginning of the BDS movement impacting Hollywood,” according to Sanderson. It was the start of a strong pushback, too: Actor Sacha Baron Cohen, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and musician Lenny Kravitz were among those who signed a counter-letter, causing Fonda to distance herself from her initial stance and to call it “unnecessarily inflammatory.”
Then in 2010, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a far-left grassroots group founded in 1996 that also supports the boycott of Israel, organized a public letter in support of Israeli artists who refused to perform in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Redgrave signed on, as did JVP advisory board members actor and playwright Wallace Shawn and TV legend Ed Asner. (Although Asner is still listed as an advisory board member on JVP’s website, he says he no longer affiliates with the organization and has distanced himself from BDS.) Since the boycott was targeted at settlements, the letter was also signed by some who otherwise support Israel, such as actors Theodore Bikel, Mandy Patinkin, Julianne Moore and Cynthia Nixon.
Also in the summer of 2010, BDS made a big splash when Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd cofounder and rock icon who has become BDS’s most vocal celebrity ambassador, convinced musician Elvis Costello to cancel scheduled concerts in Tel Aviv. Music executives David Renzer and Steve Schnur were in Tel Aviv at the time to participate in the Federation’s Master Class, which focused that year on composers. When Costello canceled his shows, “we looked around the industry, hoping someone would respond, but there was no response,” Renzer says. So in 2011 the two founded the Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), with initial funding from the Federation to galvanize the entertainment industry to oppose boycott efforts. CCFP also received early backing from, and is under the fiscal sponsorship of, the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs. (In December, the Israeli government announced funding to start a nonprofit meant to counter BDS as well.) CCFP’s well-placed advisory board and deep industry reach gave it direct access to celebrities, which Schnur says is a “massive advantage.”
That access came in handy in 2014 when BDS pressured actress Scarlett Johansson to sever ties with SodaStream, the Israeli company for which she was a spokesperson, because the company had a factory in the West Bank at the time. During that controversy, “We worked very closely with Scarlett and her manager and her publicist to help her actually craft the statement that she put out after she was receiving all this pressure,” Schnur says.
Prominent BDS activist Anna Baltzer helped lead the campaign to pressure Johansson. When petitioning a celebrity, “we always appeal directly to the target themselves, before we go public,” says Baltzer, director of organizing and advocacy for the non-profit U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of hundreds of national anti-occupation groups that was founded in 2001. “We give them the opportunity to do the right thing. Sometimes we don’t go public,” says Baltzer, who is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. But Johansson was not dissuaded, publicly defending her association with SodaStream. “I stand behind that decision,” she told London’s The Guardian.
When Johansson “refused” to dissociate from SodaStream, Baltzer says, “we switched the target to Oxfam,” the global poverty consortium for which Johansson was an ambassador. Depending on whom you ask, Johansson either left the charity or it dropped her. Either way, BDS sees it as a victory. “When Scarlett was refusing, I don’t think we’ve ever seen so much media attention,” Baltzer says. “Regardless of what she did, we were reaching millions of people with the message that this is controversial. People had to learn about the occupation to decide what they would think about it.”
Pressure And Counterpressure
BDS claimed another public relations coup in 2016. In the lead-up to that year’s Academy Awards, Israel’s Tourism Ministry offered a free VIP trip, worth $55,000, as part of a swag bag given to 26 nominees, including actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Winslet. The PR gambit backfired when BDS organizations in Palestinian territories, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States kicked into action, launching a #SkipTheTrip campaign, which CCFP countered with a #TakeTheTrip campaign. Estee Chandler, who founded and runs the Los Angeles JVP chapter (one of more than 70 chapters nationwide), says that as far as she knows, no one took the Israeli offer, which BDS counts as a win, even though only one—British actor Mark Rylance, already a vocal critic of Israel—publicly rejected it.
As part of their campaign, JVP tried to buy ad space in the Hollywood trade magazine Variety. But according to Chandler, the paper returned the group’s money and refused to run the ad. The organization says it was told, “The topic is too sensitive at this time and we will not be in a position to add it to next week’s edition.” Chandler, whose father is Israeli, says the incident encapsulates how “great pressure is put upon people who are seen to be not taking the position that some people would want them to” on Israel-related issues. Asner, a loud and longtime liberal voice in Hollywood, knows that from personal experience. He has expressed both his love for, and criticism of, Israel, but the nuance is lost in Hollywood. He says, “If you’re not marching in lockstep, then you fall prey to being called a self-hating Jew.”
Such pressure may be silent or merely perceived, but its effect for some is to feel that voicing the wrong views on Israel may be business- or career-damaging. Redgrave experienced a career lull after her Oscar win, according to biographer Dan Callahan, who wrote, “The scandal of her awards speech and the negative press it occasioned had a destructive effect on her acting opportunities that would last for years to come.” Chandler, a former actress now working as an independent special effects producer and radio host, says she knew she was taking a professional risk in starting JVP L.A. Soon after she established the chapter, which counts about 50 active members, a “Wanted” poster with her name, photo and profession appeared at her home, accusing her of “treason and incitement against Jews.” (Eight years later, no one has been charged and the police investigation remains open.)
According to a veteran industry executive who requested anonymity to protect his clients and employees from association with his views, “This is a subject that has been discouraged from being discussed openly and with nuance. There is an impressive push by the pro-Israel people to constantly celebrate themselves and attract power,” which makes others wary of publicly contradicting them. But BDS cofounder Barghouti says this is changing. There is “a new trend in Hollywood where stars are less afraid to speak their minds for Palestinian rights,” he says. Chandler agrees. “We are seeing a crack in that wall where there are people at a certain point in their career where they feel they can speak out,” she says, referring specifically to Richard Gere and his visit to Israel last spring for the Jerusalem premiere of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, by Academy Award-nominated Israeli director Joseph Cedar.
Gere, a longtime peace activist, worried that the trip might be too contentious. “He has close relationships with activists on both sides,” Cedar explains. After “months of negotiating on who he was allowed to speak with, who he’s going to visit, where he’s going to go, which hotel, which side of the wall,” Gere attended the premiere but also used the trip to shed light on politics. He met with the coexistence group Women Wage Peace, toured Hebron with the controversial Israeli anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence and told the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “There’s no defense of this occupation.” Cedar considers the trip a success, albeit a qualified one. “Jerusalem needs to be a place that can host someone like Richard Gere. And it did, but it wasn’t smooth.”
More recently, BDS activists were heartened when pop star Lorde cancelled her concert in Israel in response to an open letter co-written online by a Jewish and a Palestinian activist in her native New Zealand. Some familiar names—Ruffalo, Mortensen and Cusack among them—then signed a letter in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper in support of her decision. BDS’s Barghouti points to that letter as “a good indicator of how the wind is blowing.”
Pro-Israel supporters dispute that characterization and downplay the impact. “I don’t think [BDS] has been effective,” said William Morris Endeavor agency’s Rick Rosen, a member of CCFP’s advisory board. “I think they make a lot of noise and they scare a lot of people at times.” For every Lorde or Lauryn Hill who cancels a trip, there are dozens of stars such as Kanye West or Paul McCartney who have no problem performing in Israel. Although BDS may have reshaped discourse on U.S. college campuses, its influence in Hollywood, particularly in relation to film and television, has been sporadic and primarily symbolic. Sanderson agrees with Rosen, but with a caveat. “I’m concerned sometimes about the damage it causes,” he says. “I’m concerned when a news story focuses on the negative.”
The news was certainly negative when WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Sony studios in the fall of 2014, revealing an extensive and sometimes peculiar batch of Israel-related exchanges, invitations and calls for action. In perhaps the feistiest exchange, the prolific film producer Ryan Kavanaugh (The Social Network, Mamma Mia!) chastises Natalie Portman—the 2018 winner of the prestigious Genesis Prize for her contributions to the Jewish community—for asking to be removed from an email chain. “Sorry,” Kavanaugh wrote to Portman sarcastically on August 26. “You are right jews [sic] being slaughtered for their beliefs and cannes [sic] members calling for the boycott of anything Israel or Jewish is much much less important then [sic] your email address being shared with 20 of our peers who are trying to make a difference.” He informs her that at lunch a day earlier, he had discussed her support of the left-leaning Israel advocacy organization J Street with Israel’s then-consul general, who “was so perplexed confused and concerned when he heard you supported them.”
A few days earlier, according to a leaked email invitation Portman sent to former Sony chief Amy Pascal, Portman had hosted an “intimate salon style discussion” led by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami at her home about the Gaza conflict “and some possible next steps forward.” Although Portman’s salon raised Kavanaugh’s hackles, there was nothing unique about it. Such salons have become something of a tradition in Hollywood when conflict occurs, says Danny Sussman, the talent manager who is a strong advocate for Israel. “When Israel went to war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, I went with [then-Federation head] John Fishel to a lot of parlor meetings all over Hollywood,” he says. He did the same in 2014. “We sat around and we had a really great debate for a really long time,” he recalls. The key, he says, is to sidestep domestic divides. “You try to get the American politics out of the wash.”
Producer Rosenman, another strong voice on behalf of Israel, says the salons vary ideologically—some lean toward J Street, others toward AIPAC. “Depends which side you’re on,” he says. But for Israeli consul general Grundwerg, sides don’t matter. The existence of the salons means people care. “We can sit around and disagree on the next steps, but the fact that people are engaged and having those events is very important,” he says. And regardless of political perspective, all sides encourage participants to help Israel financially. “When Israel’s in trouble, Hollywood comes forward with all it has,” Sussman says. Donations pour into the Federation, Friends of the IDF and the Jewish National Fund, among other charities. All of this backstage bickering and strategizing exasperates former Israeli diplomat Ido Aharoni, who dislikes the negativity caused by infighting. “That’s exactly the problem,” he says. “When Israel becomes defined by the conflict, it’s a non-starter. That’s exactly the thing that buried Israel in Hollywood for two, three decades.”
Rekindling The Romance
As off-screen conversations about Israel have become more complex, so too has its portrayal onscreen, owing in part to the influx of imported Israeli content. A prime example is Fauda, an international hit about an elite Israeli intelligence unit working undercover in the West Bank to track a terrorist. The show, now on Netflix, is a decidedly complex look at the conflict, humanizing both Israelis and Palestinians. “Fauda’s all the rage, because it’s even-handed,” says Rosenman. Jewish-American storytellers are also grappling on a personal level with their feelings for Israel, as exemplified by Jill Soloway’s acclaimed Amazon series Transparent. In that show, the Pfeffermans—one of the messiest, most unabashedly Jewish families ever seen onscreen—go to Israel to meet long-lost kin. One character connects with young, dynamic Palestinians in the West Bank and becomes disillusioned with the image of Israel she grew up with. In season six of Homeland, the primary character Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, visits his sister in a West Bank settlement. And familiar stories are being looked at from new angles, such as the recently released 7 Days in Entebbe, which includes the hijackers’ perspectives on the daring Israeli rescue of airline hostages in 1976.
Benjamin Netanyahu is a creature of the media. He understands the impact of Hollywood in terms of influencers and opinion shapers.
More shows presenting Israel in grayscale are in the works: Joseph Cedar and The Affair’s Hagai Levi are collaborating on an HBO-Keshet production currently called the Summer of 2014 Project, which centers around events during that period in Israel. It could only be made in Hollywood, Cedar says, since its politics are outside the mainstream of public opinion in Israel and thus may not have found government funding there. Some think a similarly selective force is at work in Hollywood as well, albeit on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Rosenman, a self-described “right-wing Zionist in a world of progressives,” says that two overtly pro-Israel projects he pitched couldn’t find backers. One is a story about the Israeli air force to which Spielberg was once attached. It was postponed after the first intifada, and again after the second. Rosenman says he was told the project wouldn’t fly because “who could be sympathetic to an Israeli pilot today?” He also owns the rights to historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren’s book on the Six-Day War. After acquiring a top director, well-regarded screenwriter and a wealthy investor, he shopped it to 20 distributors, including Amazon, Hulu, CBS and NBC. They all declined. “Why?” he asks rhetorically, then posits his belief: “The progressives in this town hate Netanyahu.”
As for the Israeli prime minister, now embroiled in bribery and corruption allegations in which Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan has a supporting role, he would like to see a return to the period half a century ago when Israel and Hollywood were more romantically involved. “The prime minister himself has said, ‘What we need is the modern-day Exodus movie,’” Grundwerg says. In a business fond of sequels and remakes, where history is constantly recycled and old stories never die, what would a modern-day Exodus look like? Jay Sanderson, the Federation head, has thought a lot about it. “I actually had the remake rights to Exodus for many years,” he says in his office in the Jerusalem stone-clad Federation building with sweeping views of the Sunset Strip and the hills beyond. When he closed his production company to lead the Federation, he let the rights lapse. But for him and other Jewish Hollywood insiders, that’s still the story they want to tell.
Brian Schaefer is a contributor to The New York Times and Haaretz. His work has appeared in The New Yorker online, New York Magazine, Bloomberg/Businessweek and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications. He was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in the International Reporting category for his 2012 Moment story, “The New Normal,” about the history and politics of Israel’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.