On Wednesday morning, Feb. 24, The Los Angeles Times published a full-page ad sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation calling Israel an apartheid state and saying it distracts the public from human rights abuses; the same ad had been rejected by Variety.
The ad appears on page 8 of the Calendar section and implores Oscar nominees to “#SKIPTHETRIP,” referring to a luxury trip to Israel offered in a gift bag of various items from Explore Israel (a tourist agency) and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. The gift is being offered to 25 Oscar nominees in the acting and directing categories, plus Chris Rock, host of Sunday night’s Academy Awards presentation. According to The Daily Beast, the total value of the gifts in the bags is about $200,000, including the free 10-day VIP trip to Israel, which is believed to be worth about $55,000. The gift bag also offers one year’s worth of unlimited Audi car rentals from Silvercar, a 15-day walking tour of Japan, a lifetime supply of skin creams from Lizora, and a number of other luxury items. Distinctive Assets, an L.A.-based marketing firm, organized the gift bags.
The Times’ ad describes the free trip to Israel as “at the expense of Palestinians,” and calls on the celebrities receiving the gifts to not “endorse Israeli apartheid.”
“This year’s top Oscar nominees are getting a $55,000 trip to Israel, sponsored by the Israeli government,” the ad reads. “This is part of a larger ‘Brand Israel’ strategy to use celebrities to distract from almost 50 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian land and human rights abuses including separate laws for Palestinians.”
Oscar nominees who have said they would not “visit Israel professionally,” according to Jewish Voice for Peace, include Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) and Asif Kapadia, whose documentary, “Amy,” is nominated for Best Documentary (Feature). Kapadia is not among those being offered the gift.
Both Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation are left-wing groups that support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which claims Israel is an “apartheid state” and aims to weaken Israel and isolate its economy from the rest of the world.
On Monday, Jewish Voice for Peace sent out a press release stating that the entertainment news magazine Variety had refused to publish the ad after initially accepting it. The release said that Variety’s Director of Strategic Partnerships told Jewish Voice for Peace that the ad’s “topic is too sensitive at this time” and that publisher Michelle Sobrino-Stearns had rejected it. Variety did not respond to requests for comment from The Jewish Journal.
Ari Wohlfeiler, Jewish Voice for Peace’s deputy director, said in an email that the price of running the ad was the standard rate for any ad in that section of the L.A. Times – about $10,000. Asked whether an image in the ad of what appears to be a trip voucher to Israel was an image of the actual voucher from the Oscar gift bag, Wohlfeiler said, “As far as we know.”
Wohlfeiler said that when Variety rejected the ad, it did not offer suggestions for edits that might make it acceptable. The L.A. Times also had some editorial requirements, he said, but was willing to run the ad once they were met. “They required we put a bar at the top explaining overly that this was an ad paid for by JVP and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and asked that we remove a link to a webpage describing Variety’s refusal to print the ad,” Wohlfeiler said.
Hillary Manning, a spokeswoman for the L.A. Times, said the newspaper doesn’t discuss any specific ad buys, but that it “accepts advocacy and opinion-based advertising in its pages” and that this ad “was reviewed to ensure that it meets our standards and guidelines.”
Haim Saban, a film and television producer who's also a major supporter of Israel, connected the ad to the BDS movement, saying it follows a pattern of hate toward the Jewish state: “The BDS has made it clear that their purpose is to delegitimize Israel using whatever tactic they can. In this case, using the Oscars for a hate-filled message.”
Saban suggested that anyone viewing the ad “should regard it for what it is – an organization trying to spread anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the L.A. Times for running the ad, but added he’s not surprised, noting that in 2006 the newspaper had published an op-ed by Khaled Mashal titled, “We shall never recognize…a Zionist state on our soil.” Mashal heads the political wing of Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist group whose stated aim is the destruction of Israel.
“For a leading newspaper that has already provided op-ed space to a senior person of Hamas, whose charter is to destroy the Jewish state, what’s the big deal about accepting an ad that’s a lie?” Cooper asked, rhetorically.
Cooper said groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation want to stop celebrities from visiting Israel because “Israel sells itself” to tourists.
“It’s an open society with plenty of warts and plenty of problems, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out pretty quickly that to call it an apartheid state is a lie,” Cooper said. “For the L.A. Times, after other publications in this town rejected it, for the L.A. Times to allow unencumbered Israel apartheid on a full-page ad is a massive victory for people who oppose peace.”
On Feb. 26, JVP, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Artists for Palestine UK and the Palestinian Performing Arts Network sent satirical invitations to representatives for the same 25 nominees “to visit Palestine and experience life through the eyes of Palestinians living under apartheid and military occupation,” according to a press release. Guests would receive an “occupied territories swagbag,” including “settler-inflicted beatings” and an “uprooted olive tree.”
In response to the ad in the L.A. Times, Creative Community for Peace, a Los Angeles-based entertainment industry organization dedicated to countering cultural boycotts of Israel, created the hashtag, #TAKETHETRIP, and the organization posted an altered version of the Times ad on its Facebook page that reads, “This Free Trip to Israel Can Advance Peace with the Palestinians.”
“We were aware JVP attempted to put an ad in Variety. We were aware of that and we’re following it closely,” Jill Hoyt, director at Creative Community for Peace, said in a phone interview. “I can’t say I knew they were planning an ad in the Los Angeles Times today, but once we saw it, we felt the need to respond as we did on social media, and obviously to share with you and other people we think it’s not helpful toward achieving peace and … to get to some kind of resolution.”
Actor Josh Malina, an active supporter of Israel, said it's important to call out hate speech, but to do it wisely: “The anti-Israel forces are certainly strong and vocal, and when they cross the line into hate speech and anti-Semitism, as they often do, they should be called on it,” Malina wrote in an email. “That said, I would urge people who consider themselves pro-Israel to consider that this doesn’t preclude them from being pro-Palestinian as well. We rail against BDS groups because they judge Israel with a striking double-standard, refusing to recognize and reckon with Palestinian violence and terrorism. Let us on the pro-Israel 'side' avoid making the same mistake. Palestinians are fellow human beings. As with all other countries, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israeli actions, and these should be part of the discussion. Ultimately, anyone who suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is something other than a conflict between two parties, is guilty of misrepresenting the truth, and is not helping to create an environment where positive progress might be made.”
The gift bags have caused concern on other fronts, as well. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which oversees the Oscars and does not give out bags, filed a civil suit on Feb. 16 against Distinctive Assets, the marketer behind the gifts, accusing the company of trademark infringement, false advertising and trademark dilution, according to a complaint available on the United States District Court website.
The BDS movement applauded AMPAS’ decision to sue Distinctive Assets, even though the suit has nothing to do with Israel.
“The Academy’s decision to sue Distinctive Assets was based purely on its need to protect its intellectual property and clarify that it is not affiliated in any way with Distinctive Assets or its gift bags,” an AMPAS spokesperson said. “Politics played no role in the decision, and neither the destination of any of the trips involved in Distinctive Assets' gift packages, nor who was paying for them, was relevant to the Academy choosing to file suit.”
UPDATE (Monday, Feb. 29, 10:30am): This story was updated to reflect a satirical invitation sent by pro-BDS groups on Feb. 26.
Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin and Naomi Pfefferman, the Journal's arts & entertainment editor, contributed to this report.