Hollywood, the heart of the world’s entertainment industry, has become a prime location for the political showdown between Israel and Palestine. This showdown manifests itself in celebrity and activist social media statements, boycott and divestment campaigns, and politically motivated TV and film productions.
For example, many well-known celebrities have taken to Twitter in recent months to express their dissatisfaction with, or support for, the State of Israel since Hamas fired rockets into the nation, and the Israeli military responded by conducting airstrikes in Gaza.
One such statement was made by actor Mark Ruffalo, who tweeted: “1500 Palestinians face expulsion in #Jerusalem. 200 protesters have been injured. 9 children have been killed. Sanctions on South Africa helped free its black people – it’s time for sanctions on Israel to free Palestinians. Join the call.”
Facing a torrent of criticism, Ruffalo later tweeted an apology: “I have reflected & wanted to apologize for posts during the recent Israel/Hamas fighting that suggested Israel is committing ‘genocide’. It’s not accurate, it’s inflammatory, disrespectful & is being used to justify antisemitism here & abroad. Now is the time to avoid hyperbole.”
I have reflected & wanted to apologize for posts during the recent Israel/Hamas fighting that suggested Israel is committing “genocide”. It’s not accurate, it’s inflammatory, disrespectful & is being used to justify antisemitism here & abroad. Now is the time to avoid hyperbole.
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) May 25, 2021 
Israeli actress Gal Gadot, known for her role as Wonder Woman, wrote on her Instagram account: “My country is at war. I worry for my family, my friends. I worry for my people. This is a vicious cycle that has been going on for far too long. Israel deserves to live as a free and safe nation, our neighbors deserve the same. I pray for the victims and their families, I pray for this unimaginable hostility to end, I pray for our leaders to find the solution so we can live side by side in peace. I pray for better days.”
These are just a few examples of a litany of anti- and pro-Israel statements made by prominent members of the Hollywood elite, reflecting the fairly recent phenomenon of Hollywood’s changing attitudes regarding Israel’s relationship with Palestine. These changing attitudes are symbolized by the revolutionary technologies of social media and online streaming, and accelerated by activists in alternative media. Contemporary Hollywood’s reality is now defined by new voices and diverse opinions, along with a growing reluctance of Jews in Hollywood to use their platform to advocate for Israel, as was done in the past.
Hollywood insider and political activist Judy Balaban, of Beverly Hills, California, has witnessed not only the impact the Jewish people have had on the American entertainment industry, but the advocacy for Israel that was once universal in Hollywood. Balaban’s father, Barney Balaban, was an innovator in the film industry and the president of Paramount Pictures from 1936 to 1964. Judy Balaban recounts her father’s active support for the establishment and defense of the young State of Israel, stating that she “grew up with Moshe Dayan visiting her house” and would frequently be in attendance at “dinners and lunches with Golda Meir.”
Many Hollywood historians have described the lengths Jewish studio executives and celebrities went to downplay and even hide their Jewish heritage. However, being surrounded by the people that build Hollywood, Balaban told the Media Line that “there was never really a stigma of being Jewish in Hollywood,” as “the Hollywood community is very Jewish to begin with” and is “mostly a liberal, progressive, and humanistic” place.
Balaban’s close friend the legendary agent Lew Wasserman also actively supported the State of Israel’s creation. Balaban said that “as studio executive and talent agent at MCA, Mr. Wasserman would frequently raise money for the Israeli war for independence effort during luncheons with the United Jewish Appeal and Bonds for Israel.” Balaban said that the widespread support Israel enjoyed in mid-20th century Hollywood was rooted not only in the Jewish ancestry of many in the film industry but also Israel being seen as “the major underdog” in its region.
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David Lonner, who has over 30 years of experience in Hollywood as an executive producer and talent agent, told The Media Line that he noticed a paradigm shift in Hollywood in recent years. This shift was marked by loss of the industry’s robust behind-the-scenes support for Israel and by the increasing prevalence of anti-Israel narratives throughout the industry. But “most people behind-the-scenes,” Lonner says, are “more apathetic than anti-Israel.”
The increase in anti-Israel rhetoric among some of the more outspoken Hollywood elites on social media is a result of “a narrative that’s being spun that portrays the Israelis as demons.” This narrative has grown out of the “no peace, no recognition, no negotiation” dogmatic framework promoted by radical anti-Israel groups throughout much of the Arab world. Lonner explains that pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment in Hollywood has been “swept up in the social justice movement that has swept this nation over the past year.” He worries that the inclusion of anti-Israel sentiment in the social justice movement could cause antisemitism to “rise tremendously across the entire world.”
Lonner said that to combat this growing narrative, he has actively pursued the goal of exporting Israel’s culture to Hollywood in particular, by bringing the industry’s top tastemakers and influencers to the Holy Land to “show what it’s like to be an Israeli citizen, with all of the good, the stressful, and the demanding and obligatory aspects of Israeli life.”
Steve Sosebee, president of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, feels that the Palestinian people and their culture are locked away from the rest of the world, and that the entertainment industry and mass media could help shine a light on the Palestinian experience. Sosebee has been traveling to Palestine for 30 years. He told the Media Line that on his initial visit, he was struck by “the humanity, the kindness, and the hospitality of the Palestinian people.” His organization’s primary goal is “to provide health services for Palestinian children” through the “development of cancer departments, intensive care units, and other health-related services and institutions.”
Sosebee said that the Palestinian people would benefit greatly from the export of their rich culture, and that until recently Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had not had the ability “to have access to the world.”
The Palestinians are “dehumanized in our media and our culture,” Sosebee says, but there is “a huge opportunity for Palestinians to share their culture with the world, and have it recognized and appreciated.” This, he said, could be done through social media and Hollywood productions, enabling the Palestinians to finally “share their reality and share what life is like on the ground,” providing exposure for a people that he feels are misunderstood and not fully appreciated.
On the other hand, Sosebee, who stressed that he was only giving his personal views and not speaking on behalf of his organization, said the boycott of entertainment produced in or tied to Israel could be “a very effective tool, and a nonviolent tool” that applies economic pressure on the Jewish state “so that real change can take place.” Drawing parallels with boycotts that, he said, helped end apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the American South, Sosebee said anti-Israel boycotts “have nothing to do with religion or race and have everything to do with equality and freedom,” and that there is absolutely “no place on the side of the Palestinian liberation movement for anti-Semites.”
Renowned journalist and filmmaker Abby Martin, a leading voice in independent alternative media, hosts the web series The Empire Files and recently releasing a feature-length documentary film, Empire Files: Gaza Fights for Freedom. Martin told the Media Line that “the tide has turned tremendously across the entirety of alternative media,” which “has become very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause” and “alternative media is spearheading the critique of Israel at this point.”
“There is a lot that entertainment can do” to expose the hidden realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Martin says. “There are movies and shows about Palestine every year that are released in Hollywood, but if you look at the framing of these movies” you “rarely hear about Israel for the entirety of the movie.” This, she says, “whitewashes and sanitizes everything that is going on.” Many people only want to approach the subject “from an abstract view” because they “don’t want to deal with the controversy” surrounding Israel’s actions, she says.
Martin said that productions like Empire Files: Gaza Fights for Freedom face significant resistance from American lawmakers, tech giants, and portions of the entertainment industry who view heavy criticism of Israel as antisemitism. “Because we have grown up in American society, understanding that Israel is an extension of the US and needs to be protected at all costs, any criticism of it [Israel], because it’s an exclusively Jewish state, is by definition [perceived to be] anti-Semitic.”
Jacob Sagert is a student at Pepperdine University and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.