When Israel is at war in Gaza, Hollywood’s silence is golden

July 31, 2014

Many Hollywood celebrities and insiders have taken public stands on the Gaza War, with one glaring exception: Some of the biggest, most well-known supporters of Israel have been the least vocal.  Eager to support Israel in times of quiet, they prefer to keep a low profile when things heat up.

“If I didn’t work for a public company, I’d take to the megaphones,” one high-level, widely-known industry executive told me by phone–  on condition he not to be named.

Prominent entertainment industry leaders who have raised money for Israel and accepted awards from pro-Israel organizations in the past have not been heard from. In recent months, Barbra Streisand has issued statements on gay marriage, climate change and the death of Maya Angelou – but nothing about Gaza. And so far, nopublic comments have been made by industry leaders such as filmmaker Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and NBCUniversal Vice Chairman, Ron Meyer.

“I have not checked on that at all,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance said of the industry’s Jewish leaders, many of whom are major supporters of the museum. “I assume they’re caught up; some are overseas. I don’t know who’s in town. I haven’t spoken to any one of them.”

Still, Hier was quick to point out the up side of the hush.

“You’ll notice,” Hier said, “that none of big names are speaking harshly against Israel. I have not seen any of that. I suspect that if you look back to the ‘67 war” — also known as the Six Day War, when Israel’s neighbors Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked and invaded – “I’m not sure you’ll find that everyone in the community weighed-in during those times, either. It’s the condition. It’s the way it is.”

Not that the quiet is universal.  Elsewhere in Hollywood, the Gaza War has sparked strong reactions.

Radio and TV Personality Howard Stern, Joan Rivers and Bill Maher have been outspoken supporters of Israel.   

“If New Jersey was lobbing rockets over into New York, there would be no Newark,” Rivers said during a July 28 appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show. When TMZ caught up with the comedian outside Los Angeles International Airport, she launched into what many described as a rant, on the same point. “Let me just tell you,” Rivers said, “If New Jersey were firing rockets into New York, we would wipe them out. If we heard they were digging tunnels from New Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey.”

On a recent episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the talk show host said, “I feel terrible for a Palestinian child who dies. But if it’s your father, your brother, your uncle who’s firing those rockets into Israel, whose fault is it really? Do you really expect the Israelis not to retaliate?”

“Stop firing rockets into Israel and perhaps they won’t annihilate you,” Maher said during an interview with the Jewish Journal during the last Gaza conflict in 2012.

And Stern seemed to be directly addressing the silence of his high-profile industry colleagues during his July 28 broadcast.  

“I don’t know why more prominent Hollywood people don’t speak out about what’s going on there,” he said on his SiriusXM radio show, The Howard Stern Show. “They’re all afraid.”

Well, not everyone is afraid. On the other side, actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem were joined by Spanish filmmaking icon Pedro Almodovar and hundreds of other Spanish artists in signing a letter accusing Israel of “genocide.”

Israel “humiliates, detains, and tramples on the rights of the Palestinian population in all of the West Bank every day, also causing many deaths,” the letter said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces as the “Israel Occupation Forces.”

Bardem and Cruz have since softened their statements, saying they abhor violence on all sides. 

“I’m not an expert on the situation,” Cruz wrote in a statement clarifying her position. “I’m aware of the complexity of [the conflict]. My only wish and intention in signing that group letter is the hope that there will be peace in both Israel and Gaza.”

Earlier this week, the grassroots human rights organization Jewish Voice for Peace released a three-and-a-half-minute video in memory of Palestinian civilians who have been killed in the conflict. Participants included celebrities, artists and other activists – including writer Gloria Steinem, playwright Tony Kushner and actor Mandy Patinkin – who each held up signs with the names and ages of deceased Palestinian civilians. In three days, the video “#GAZANAMES” had been viewed more than 100,000 times.

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Disney star Selena Gomez have also spoken out, placing all the blame on Israel.

“Where did she go to college?” Rivers asked a reporter about Gomez. “Ask her if she knows how to spell ‘Palestinian.’”

But for all the outspoken few, many more—on both sides of the debate—have chosen to stay mum.

An article in The Hollywood Reporter last week suggested that in an industry with many pro-Israel supporters, holding an opinion critical of Israel could hurt a person’s career.

“Rule No. 1,” THR declared in a July 23 headline, “Talk about anything political in Hollywood…. Except Gaza.”

That claim prompted numerous online comments that repeated age-old anti-Semitic slurs about “Jewish control.”

“If you speak out on this issue as an American businessman you will be quietly blacklisted,” a commenter who identified himself only as “American Businessman” wrote. “Especially if you work in Hollywood. Everyone knows that, but going on record about it is career suicide. And there is nobody in America that will protect your career or rights when it comes to being blacklisted by the people that control the news, money, and business here.”

He added, “And my wife is Jewish.”

But in such a heated atmosphere, the reason for quiet, others say, is that the situation in Gaza is too complex for simple sound bites. And there are those, on both sides of the issue, who would rather stay silent than join the fulminations frenzy.

“The level of vitriol in the international criticism of Israel is at a higher pitch than ever,” Howard Gordon, creator of the Emmy-winning Showtime series “Homeland” said in an interview. “People’s carelessness with words is horrifying to me.”

In the discourse around Israel and Gaza, Gordon said he was especially disturbed by what he sees as “a reductive, sound-bite oriented assessment of a very complicated situation.”

“People just want to throw rocks and really don’t want to engage in a meaningful discussion,” he said.

“Everybody wants peace, everybody wants the violence to stop,” he added. “Any person with a conscience is mourning the tragic loss of life. But the direct accusation that Israel is trying to commit a genocide is really, really problematic. I don’t think anybody considers the … damage those [words] cause.”

The polarizing language may be reason enough for some of the industry’s prominent Israel supporters – many of whom are widely respected for their business leadership — to avoid exacerbating this latest war of words.

But Hier worries that reaction to this latest conflict has been more divisive and dangerous than any other in recent memory, and that supporters of Israel have a responsibility to speak out. “I feel very vulnerable,” Hier said, urging Hollywood friends of Israel to take a stand. “We’re in a time now where there’s a tremendous amount of hostility and false information going around and we could certainly use all hands on deck. Israel is being blamed for a war she did not start, a war she did not want, so every defender of Israel that can help at this moment should weigh in.”

The one exception to the reticence among entertainment industry high-rollers: Haim Saban.

The multi-billionaire mogul and political donor who is one of the country’s most outspoken Israel advocates said he is puzzled by the deafening silence of some of his friends and colleagues in the industry. “I don’t understand this myself,” Saban wrote in an email. “But starting today I will be working the phones to enlist the vocal support of people who I know have an interest in supporting our staunchest ally in the region — which also happens to be the only democracy in the region.”

“Watch my actions over the next couple of weeks,” Saban added, “because I personally don’t believe that this [will be] over soon, [and] I plan on working hard to enlist those who care but don’t know exactly what to do, and bring under the tent those that are removed from this crisis and from Israel.”

Asked if rising hostilities towards Israel have discouraged him at all from the idea of a two-state solution or the possibility of reconciliation, Saban said, “Not at all.”

“I am 100-percent for two states for two people,” he wrote. “But I am NOT for three states for two people with one of them being an Iranian proxy that rains rockets on Israel specifically targeting Israeli civilians.”

“Remember the famous Golda Meir quote,” Saban warned, paraphrasing the words of Israel’s first female Prime Minister: “We will forgive you for killing our children but we will never forgive you for forcing us to kill yours.”

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