Hollywood fights back against anti-Israeli sentiment

Ad denounces boycott demands made at Toronto International Film Festival.


September 19, 2009

Left, right or center, there’s two things nearly everybody in Hollywood agrees on: There’s no disease that can’t be cured by raising enough money and the state of Israel deserves unabashed support.

These days, sympathy for Israel puts the American entertainment industry at odds with much of the European film and academic communities. In those circles, vehement criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and boycotts of Israeli scholars and artists have become almost fashionable. (In cinematic London, Hamas militants are the new baby seals.) Hollywood has mostly shrugged all this off, until this week, when it decided that an outbreak of anti-Israeli agitation in Toronto was bringing things a little too close to home.

Canadian documentary filmmaker John Greyson pulled his latest movie from this week’s Toronto International Film Festival because he said the event’s sister-city relationship with Tel Aviv was an implicit endorsement of “the smiling face of Israeli apartheid.”

A variety of entertainers — including David Byrne, Julie Christie, Ken Loach, Jane Fonda, Viggo Mortensen and Wallace Shawn — published a letter alleging that Toronto had become an agent of the “Israeli propaganda machine.”

Some people in Hollywood took these initiatives not as a disagreement with Israeli government policies but as an attempt to isolate and ostracize the Jewish state’s vibrant, diverse and independent film community. (If there really is a dirty word in Hollywood, it’s “blacklist.”)

So former CAA agent Dan Adler, acting under the sponsorship of Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation and United Jewish Appeal of Toronto, put together a counter ad that denounced the boycott demands in Thursday’s trades.

“We all spent a lot of time talking about the original protest letter, in the sense that it seemed to be going after the wrong target by attacking Israel and its film artists,” Adler told The Times’ Patrick Goldstein on Wednesday night. “When I sat down at my computer and started asking for people to sign on, all I got was passion and enthusiasm. Everyone said, ‘I’m in,’ and then, even better, added, ‘Can I get you someone else?’ ”

The signatories do read like a who’s who of Hollywood’s elite with a cast that runs from the executive suites to the sound stages and cuts across generations. Among those who signed on are Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Rogen, Robert Duvall, Halle Berry, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Lenny Kravitz, Ed Zwick, Jason Alexander, Chazz Palminteri and David Cronenberg, as well as A-list producers and executives Ron Meyer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sherry Lansing, Neal Moritz, Jonathan Glickman, Nina Jacobson, Darren Star, Nathan Kahane and Gail Berman.

(There’s even a precedent-setting credit for writer-director Michael Tolkin, who “polished” the ad’s text. Now, there’s something the Writers Guild would like to see catch on.)

In a phone interview, former Paramount head Lansing said she and her husband, director William Friedkin, were upset that the Israeli filmmakers had been singled out for retribution, especially as the community starts the Jewish new year and High Holy Days.

“These are independent filmmakers who are not working as the propaganda machine of the state of Israel,” Lansing said. “It’s dangerous to — in any way — turn the film festival into a political event. We do not want to return to the days of blacklisting.”

Media mogul Haim Saban was blunt in his assessment. “The world always had anti-Semites,” he said in an e-mail exchange. “It has now and always will, but the people of Israel always have, and always will live and prosper. Sorry Jew haters. You lose.”

The criticisms of Israel, especially among European entertainers, has intensified since the Gaza war. However, they argue that they are not against the Jews, as Saban suggests, but merely concerned about the innocent victims caught in the crossfire.

In January, singer Annie Lennox and comedian Alexei Sayle called for an end to the “slaughter and systematic murder” of Arabs in Gaza.

The pair was joined by a panel of public figures, which included Ken Livingstone, Bianca Jagger and George Galloway, in a news conference demanding that Israel stop its “siege.”

In posts on her blog and in the Huffington Post, Fonda — who said she initially signed the Toronto letter because she too was concerned about the loss of innocent lives — sought to clarify her position. She admitted that she had not read the full text of the complaint before putting her name on it.

“It was the outcry that ensued that caused me to study it more carefully,” she said. “It was then that I saw that there were parts of it that I did not agree with. . . .”

She went on: “Some of the words in the protest letter did not come from my heart, words that are unnecessarily inflammatory: The simplistic depiction of Tel Aviv as a city ‘built on destroyed Palestinian villages,’ for instance, and the omission of any mention of Hamas’ 8-month-long rocket and mortar attacks on the town of Sderot and the western Negev to which Israel was responding when it launched its war on Gaza.” Fonda added: “By neglecting to do this the letter allowed good people to close their ears and their hearts.”

It’s hard to believe that even Fonda’s well-practiced backpedaling is going to temper the outrage in activist Hollywood, where attacks on Israel in almost any form are a non-starter.

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