It’s hardly just another international tour stop when entertainers perform in Israel. But on the second night of Hanukkah in 2021, pop group Black Eyed Peas performed a sold-out show in Jerusalem at the Pais Arena. Right before singing their final song of the evening, front man Will.i.am told a story about the time the band sang their hit song “I Gotta Feeling” at their only show in Saudi Arabia in 2018.
“We sang the song, [and] 80,000 people, 80,000 Muslims sang, ‘Fill up my cup! Mazel tov!’” he said.
The Hebrew lyric appears in the first verse of the song. The packed crowd in Jerusalem cheered when they heard the story.
“Arts have the ability to bring people together in the shared love of culture.”
Will.i.am continued, “That is beautiful! To me that is love—when people are exchanging culture and taking a piece of this wonderful culture and saying a word that means ‘Celebration!’”
That Black Eyed Peas experience is an ideal scenario, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
The reality is that there’s a constant pressure on entertainers to denounce Israel at every turn. Thankfully, the entertainment industry has had a reliable organization that, for over a decade, has helped artists navigate this nasty terrain and continue to embrace their fans in Israel.
That organization is Creative Community for Peace (CCFP). The Los Angeles-based nonprofit has been Israel’s top ally in reassuring entertainers that they are not only welcome to perform in Israel, but that Israel is committed to peace.
CCFP was founded in 2011, when David Renzer, then chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, was in Israel for a recording session in Tel Aviv. Around that time, certain musical artists were starting to cancel their tour performances scheduled in Israel, including his former client, Elvis Costello. Another was Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who wrote an op-ed in The Guardian supporting a cultural boycott of Israel.
“It was pretty clear that the usual Jewish organizations, whether it was the federations or others, weren’t really addressing this in any way,” Renzer told the Journal. “And here we were, people from the entertainment industry, people from the music industry, kind of looking at each other, really troubled by seeing these cancellations and saying, ‘We need to do something, this isn’t being addressed.’”
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel was making headlines as more artists canceled tours. But by 2012, Renzer and Steve Schnur (president of Music for Electronic Arts) founded CCFP, and since then, they have become the go-to nonprofit organization for entertainers creating and performing in a world rife with misinformation about Israel.
It’s been said that “a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots,” but over the past decade, the proliferation of smartphones and social media have enabled misinformation to orbit the planet at light speed (literally), especially when misinformation comes in the form of pressure on entertainers to cancel their shows in Israel.
Renzer and Schnur wanted their new organization to show strength in numbers, and that there was a strong movement to keep a cultural flow of artists between the United States and Israel. Renzer said that part of CCFP’s strength is not only having prominent leaders in the entertainment industry on board, but also support and understanding of the issues from the artists themselves.
CCFP has enlisted many vocal supporters over the last few years. Although CCFP is not content to just have an anti-boycott petition, their website does feature an excerpt of a petition that Renzer said boasts over 40,000 supporters in the entertainment industry.
The petition serves as a reminder to any artist being pressured to abandon a tour date in Israel to stay the course. It begins, “We, the undersigned, wholeheartedly support your upcoming visit to Israel. We know that ahead of your arrival, you may hear negative statements about the country from people pressuring you not to go. We believe that these statements are filled with distortions and untruths, and only serve to discourage meaningful discourse and understanding.”
Artists CCFP has supported include Paul McCartney, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, Enrique Iglesias, Justin Bieber and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The leadership of CCFP know their work is an uphill battle. Keeping up with social media memes that demonize Israel with catchy slogans have been tough to deal with. It’s a public relations war being waged, and CCFP’s current director Ari Ingel is one of the generals rallying resistance against it. Ingel called the BDS movement’s social media postings “a concerted, calculated campaign strategy.”
“They want to keep it as ‘a part-time genocide,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘Israel kills children,’ ‘they’re an oppressor,’ they’re white people,’ and that can fit easily on memes when none of that is true,” Ingel told the Journal. “But to explain that none of it is true takes a little bit more effort.”
This was on full display during clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the spring of 2021. While rockets were being launched into Israel, the BDS movement went online to take aim at American progressives with anti-Israel statements .
One such example was a Twitter post by Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon. She posted a graphic stating, “Myth: Palestine and Israel are in ‘conflict.’ Fact: What is happening in Palestine is settler colonialism, military occupation, land theft and ethnic cleansing. A conflict means there is equal footing, which is not the case. There is an active oppressor (Israel) and an oppressed (Palestine). A colonizer (Israel) and a colonized (Palestine). This is not a conflict.”
Ingel said that such anti-Israel rhetoric often masquerades as progressivism to gain more supporters, which is one of the perils to Israel in the entertainment industry that Ingel and CCFP seek to rectify.
“They’re spreading memes in sort of the social justice atmosphere that we live in, thinking that an American racial lens can just be planted onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Ingel said. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s a totally different situation. We called on the entertainment industry to stop spreading this information because all it’s doing is inflaming the situation.”
On May 14, nearly 130 entertainment figures, including actress Selma Blair, singer Michael Buble and “The View” co-host Meghan McCain signed on to a statement calling on their “colleagues and friends in the entertainment community to stop posting misinformation and one-sided narratives that only work to inflame the conflict instead of bringing about peace.”
The press releases and petitions are only a first step in CCFP’s work in promoting peace and correcting misleading news that hurt both Israel and the arts. CCFP takes precise actions to correct the wrongs running laps around the truth.
For years, Ingel had worked as an entertainment lawyer. When he joined CCFP as director in 2018, Israel had just been thrust into the world’s entertainment spotlight after the 63rd annual Eurovision Song Contest.
The massive event can be described as “The Voice” meets the Olympics—thousands of singers competing under their country’s flag to be declared champion. Past winners who got their big break at Eurovision include ABBA (1974) and Céline Dion (1988). The 2018 winner was Israeli singer Netta. Netta’s triumph also bestowed Israel with the honor of hosting the Eurovision event in 2019.
A massive number of singers were going to be invited to perform in Israel for an internationally-televised singing spectacle.
“We understood right away that these contestants were going to be bombarded with boycott calls to pull out,” Ingel said. “I was in touch personally with contestants and with the participating broadcast companies from all the countries and some of the production people on the ground in Israel that were putting on the event to ensure that no one pulled out.”
Ingel was incensed that contestants who were simply vying to be the contestants representing their home countries were getting calls to boycott. He recalled that there were 12 contestants vying to represent Australia. They were bombarded with accusations that by performing, they would be “supporting apartheid and ethnic cleansing.” Ingel contacted them.
“They were very grateful and thankful that I reached out to them and that they were finally hearing another point of view,” Ingel said. “We were able to ensure that not a single contestant pulled out.”
The event was a success, and The Independent called Israel’s hosting and hospitality “one of the best Eurovision Song Contests in recent memory.”
It’s a tough job to navigate, but CCFP is up for the challenge.
Ingel said one of the tougher parts of the job is when popular artists are directly targeted on social media. Ingel’s team is there to recognize and strategize, because the truth about what is happening in Israel can be easily be buried by bots on the comment boards.
Entertainers are low-hanging fruit for influencers because entertainers themselves are actively on social media, and too often their fans are reading the unfiltered vitriol in the comment threads.
One reason that Ingel said the BDS movement so heavily targets artists, influencers and entertainers is that they are unlike big corporate CEOs, the shot callers who could theoretically pull their products from Israel. But a physical embargo is a tough sell. Entertainers are low-hanging fruit for influencers because entertainers themselves are actively on social media, and too often their fans are reading the unfiltered vitriol in the comment threads.
“They flood their accounts with bots, trolls and fake accounts in calculated organized attacks,” Ingel said, citing two common refrains in these attacks. One is that the BDS movement tries to bully the entertainer themselves from talking about or going to Israel. The second thing is that they overtake the entertainer’s social media feed and use it as their own bully pulpit to influence the impressionable young fans of the entertainer. When the people at CCFP catch wind that this is occurring, they work with these entertainers to alert them about it.
During the summer of 2021, singer Billie Eilish posted a short video promoting her new album to fans in Israel.
“Hi Israel, this is Billie Eilish and I’m so excited that my new album ‘Happier Than Ever’ is out now,” the 19-year old singer said.
Her Instagram alone has over 99 million followers. If Eilish’s Instagram followers were a country, it would rank as the 15th largest in the world—more than Iran, Turkey and Germany. That is a lot of influence one person can have over a lot of people around the world. Eilish’s comment threads are not only enormous, but Eilish’s account quickly became a lightning rod of anti-Israel and antisemitic remarks. The BDS movement trolls overran subsequent posts she made.
CCFP sprung into action, and released an analysis of the attack on Billie Eilish’s social media over the course of two weeks. Of the six posts analyzed, the report focused on organized bots and trolling:
Of the comments that attracted the most engagement, 30% were distinctly anti-Israel and were posted by users who have zero posts on their personal profiles (a strong indicator of bot activity). These comments garnered a total of 235,995 likes.
In addition, 48% were distinctly anti-Israel and were posted by users with 0-2 posts on their private profiles (a strong indicator of suspected bot activity). Those comments garnered a total of 291,995 likes.
CCFP then alerted and talked to Eilish’s management team so they understood what was happening: Eilish was being trolled by coordinated nefarious actors. Never mind that the first single from the album spent its first two weeks as the 11th most-streamed song on Spotify in Israel. Six months later, “Happier Than Ever” is still in Israel’s weekly top 100 most streamed songs.
A similar targeting happened to singer Demi Lovato when she visited Israel in 2019. On social media posts chronicling her visits to Yad Vashem, a disabled children’s center and even a baptism in the Jordan River, the trolls went out in full force.
Both Lovato and her fans were attacked with anti-Israel and antisemitic harassment. CCFP stepped in and put out a press release that was picked up by several media outlets decrying the harassment. Lovato, too, has a huge following of fans—over 124 million.
On January 6, CCFP penned a letter in response to calls for a boycott of an upcoming major arts festival in Sydney, Australia over the participation of an Israeli dance troupe. The letter was signed by 120 prominent people in the entertainment industry to oppose the boycott. It featured a powerful quote from Australian rock star Nick Cave.
“Israel is a real, vibrant, functioning democracy—yes, with Arab members of parliament,” read Cave’s statement in the CCFP letter. “And so engaging with Israelis, who vote, may be more helpful than scaring off artists or shutting down means of engagement.” Other notable rock star signers include the KISS bassist Gene Simmons (a native of Haifa) and Disturbed’s David Draiman.
Before he penned hard rock hits like “Down with the Sickness” and “Ten Thousand Fists,” Draiman pursued a Torah study and cantorial training in his teens. And when he hears that bands he’s connected with are putting Israel on the tour calendar, he reaches out to offer support and answer those bands’ questions.
“I try to be just a source of information and I try to assure and reassure them and help them understand that you’re going to dealing with a wave of [explicative]. It’s going to be temporary, and at the end, you’re going to end up gaining a tremendous amount of more fans…it’s unfortunately the extremist voices that are the loudest. Of course, there aren’t as many of ‘em as you think. But they tend to scream quite a bit.”
Those loud voices and faceless fights are always a challenge for CCFP. With a world glued to smartphones, it is dangerous to ignore the public relations war against Israel. Even if most of the infantry of the anti-Israel social media crusade would never talk in person the same way they talk online, the stakes are too high to be taken lightly for Israel’s future.
Ingel’s frustration with anti-Israel hypocrisy becomes even more evident in his voice when he mentions the calls for a boycott of the Tel Aviv International LGBTQ+ Film Festival (TLVFest).
“There [are] Palestinian filmmakers [who] are part of that event,” Ingel said. “That’s not something you would assume [the BDS movement] would go after—and they do.”
There were two films by Palestinian filmmakers that were featured in the 2021 festival. Ingel and CCFP were able to have over 200 prominent entertainment figures sign onto the opposition of the boycott of TLVFest, including actor Neil Patrick Harris and actress Mila Kunis.
Another prominent entertainment figure who is always quick to sign on to CCFP’s initiatives to oppose cultural boycotts of Israel is Ben Silverman. While he is an Emmy-award winning executive producer of NBC’s “The Office,” Silverman has spent his career working on dozens of films and television shows that shed light on injustice and misinformation.
“It really infuriated me that there was such hypocrisy about the arts coming to Israel. [It’s] a place that not only fosters some brilliant artistic output, but is also such a democratic and culturally-tolerant state.”
“I truly care about giving voice and opportunity to artists around the world,” Silverman told the Journal about his continued reasons for staying involved with CCFP’s mission. “It really infuriated me that there was such hypocrisy about the arts coming to Israel. [It’s] a place that not only fosters some brilliant artistic output, but is also such a democratic and culturally-tolerant state.”
Every time he is asked by CCFP to make a phone call to help out the cause, he remembers his motivation.
“The arts— artistic conversations and artistic moments—open conversations, open doors and build bridges. It’s actually one of the great and most effective tools of humanity to connect people through laughter or music or drama or painting and all the emotions that great art can convey,” Silverman said. “So it’s just particularly disappointing and pathetic that people would not allow artists to thrive wherever they wanted to go and to travel freely to express their art. So I’m passionately supportive of CCFP’s mission.”
“The arts— artistic conversations and artistic moments—open conversations, open doors and build bridges. It’s actually one of the great and most effective tools of humanity to connect people through laughter or music or drama or painting and all the emotions that great art can convey.”
Silverman sees entertainment and storytelling as an elevated way to shine a light on multiple subjects and a means to give voice to those who may not have a voice. He’s especially irked by mobs of people making harmful statements about complicated subjects without understanding them. And he took on the role of entertainment “bridge builder” long-before he became active with CCFP.
One of Silverman’s earlier projects he produced, a documentary series on FX called “30 Days,” epitomizes his approach to using the arts to build bridges. Each episode would document a person in an unfamiliar situation for 30 days. The 2005 episode, “Muslims and America,” had a conservative Christian man live with a Muslim family and embrace their customs for 30 days.
The family, the Christian man and the show’s host Morgan Spurlock presented an inspiring arc of breakthroughs and illuminations about religious respect, peace and coexistence. For that episode, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles gave the show a “Media Bridge Builder” award.
CCFP uses their platform every year to award individuals in the entertainment industry who have championed the cause of promoting the arts as a bridge to peace and counter antisemitism in the entertainment industry. The honor, called the “Ambassadors of Peace” award, also galvanizes “support against the cultural boycott of Israel.” Past honorees have included musician Ziggy Marley, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. and 12-time Oscar nominated songwriter, Diane Warren.
One particular 2021 honoree, Electric Feel Entertainment CEO Austin Rosen, made a simple but impactful reminder in his acceptance speech that music is a universal language that brings people together. The 33-year old New York native will be expanding his production business to Tel Aviv this year by building a studio and signing Israeli-based talent. Rosen, who is also the manager of rapper Post Malone, was named “Manager of the Year” by Variety.
CCFP’s continued success depends on young leaders like Rosen to maintain a creative pipeline between Israel and the rest of the world. But long-time veterans of the entertainment industry may have some of the most practical advice to the people CCFP aims to influence.
Haim Saban, an Israeli-American media mogul and longtime CCFP advocate, had much to say about what the future may hold for the public affairs war against entertainment and Israel.
“An environment which values and fosters dialogue as a tool to understand each other can change realities,” Saban told the Journal. “I think it’s important to have patience, and accept when someone disagrees. Just because someone is on the other side today, doesn’t mean they will be tomorrow.”
Saban’s words hold much gravity in this realm. He was born in Egypt, raised in Israel and has spent over 50 years in the entertainment business. His success has put him in the ear of heads of state in both the U.S. and Israel. He has negotiated lucrative mergers and acquisitions in the entertainment industry. As a fervent Israel advocate and a business leader, Saban has a valued vantage point in foreseeing the basic challenges of CCFP’s mission. He said it starts with humanization.
“Too many folks see Israel and Israelis solely through the conflict in a very one-sided, politicized manner, rather than as human beings with complex stories.”
“Too many folks see Israel and Israelis solely through the conflict in a very one-sided, politicized manner, rather than as human beings with complex stories,” he said. “In recent years, we’ve seen an improvement in the representation of Israelis and Jews in the media, but there’s still work to be done. When someone like Gal Gadot is featured in the media, the audience connects with her as an Israeli.”
While Israel’s virtues should speak for themselves, it’s difficult for the small country to compete with the BDS movement’s coordinated campaigns. And while it may be easy to dismiss what an entertainer has to say about critical world issues, it’s dangerous to underestimate the ease and speed at which entertainers may be influenced by the millions. That which entertains us has the power to influence our thinking. CCFP exists to ensure there’s a future of discourse and arts flowing between Israel and the rest of the world.
“Nonprofits like Creative Community for Peace provide an avenue for artists and public figures to stand in solidarity in the pursuit of peace,” Saban said. “The only way to counter boycotts, misinformation and cultural pressure is to push for dialogue and continue to build bridges through artistic expression. Arts have the ability to bring people together in the shared love of culture.”