Agent Questions

I spent part of last week on the phone with Dustin Hoffman’s and Meg Ryan’s people.

Various newspapers had reported that the actors had pulled out of planned appearances at the Jerusalem Film Festival to protest Israel’s handling of the Turkish flotilla. 

According to The Jerusalem Post, Cinematheque associate director Yigal Molad Hayo said that while neither Hoffman nor Ryan said they were withdrawing because of politics, “It became quite clear that this was the reason.”

The anti-Israel blogs and pundits celebrated this news with such gusto and schadenfreude, you’d almost think it was true.

It took two phone calls to Hoffman’s agent and publicist — and an e-mail to Ryan’s publicist — to get Hoffman’s and Ryan’s side of the story: It was false.

Hoffman did not pull out of the Jerusalem Film Festival to boycott Israel. He had never committed to going.

Ryan, through her publicist, said the same thing: She had been invited but had never accepted.

“Meg did not pull out of the Jerusalem Film Festival, as she never accepted the offer to attend,” her publicist, Stephen Huvane,e-mailed me. “She was invited, but her schedule did not allow her to attend the festival.”

The Jerusalem Post and The New York Times eventually printed small retractions to the initial large Hoffman stories, although the reports of a major Hollywood star “boycotting” Israel still show up as fact on myriad blogs and Web sites.

No news outlet has corrected the Ryan assertion or, it seems, even bothered to verify it.

The truth aside, the pro-Israel community practically sat shiva over the news. That because it seemed to jibe with the fact that the country’s vibrant cultural scene has been hit with a series of quite real cancellations lately, mostly by top musical acts: The indie rock band The Pixies canceled, along with alternative rockers Gorillaz, the British band the Klaxon, American singer Gil Scott-Heron and rock legend Carlos Santana.

Perhaps the cruelest cut came when pop legend Elvis Costello canceled two planned June concerts in Tel Aviv. That came in response to Israel’s May 31 attempt to redirect a Gaza-bound ship, during which nine passengers were killed.

Israeli have taken to calling this a “cultural intifada.” Instead of slinging stones or taking up arms, the country’s foes are trying to pressure Israel through an artistic boycott. Each cancellation has loud echoes on the Web and on college campuses, where a similar aspect of an earlier BDS movement (Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions) helped isolate and pressure apartheid South Africa.

The alarm bells are a little premature: Major acts like Elton John, Jethro Tull and Missy Elliott have openly resisted pressure to stay away.

But now, even erroneous reports of a boycott get all sides tied up in knots — a sure sign that the battlefield in the Middle East has grown to include media, pop culture and the arts.

That’s where we, the Jews of Los Angeles, come in.

The agents, managers, publicists and friends of many of these celebrities happen to live here. They can do their clients and companions a favor by pointing out how such a boycott plays into the hands of extremists and undermines the many powerful forces in Israel backing a just solution to the Palestinian issue.

If a client calls and wonders aloud if boycotting Israel is the right thing to do, here are three questions and a suggestion his or her agent can offer:

1. Are your facts correct? The Middle East crisis is a cesspool of misinformation. Breaking news stories are the most susceptible to lies and spin. The initial reports following the shooting of Muhammed al-Dura, the so-called massacre at Jenin, even the flotilla raid all proved exaggerated, misleading or false. Before you decide, make sure you get the facts. 

2. Are you being fair? Israel is an imperfect democracy. But poll after poll shows its people want to reach a just resolution to its problems with the Palestinians, and numerous Israeli governments have tried. For all its flaws, Israel doesn’t come close to the levels of social and political oppression, injustice, occupation, resource theft or cruelty that is common in Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Syria or Egypt — to name a few. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq killed more innocents in seven years than Israel ever would or could — but no one’s boycotting the Staples Center. Why single out Israel?

3. Are you being effective? Once you are informed and you put Israel’s transgressions in perspective, by all means take the right action — speak out.  But speak out against extremists and fanatics on all sides. That’s the real battle here: between fanatics on all sides who want to perpetuate hate and deny the other side’s rights, and moderates on all sides who want a better future for their children. The band Jethro Tull donated proceeds from a concert to groups that bridge gaps between Jews and Arabs. Use your platform to support the many people in Israel fighting for a just solution. The artistic, musical and film communities are at the forefront of this struggle — your support for them can really make a difference.

Do you really want to be effective? Go to Israel today, and dedicate your talents to the forces for peace on all sides.