November 29, 2023

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Explained | How Israel-Hamas war is dividing Hollywood and celeb world

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For years, Hollywood has been a stronghold of progressive values, where the left-leaning Democratic Party finds resounding support. It’s a place where liberal ideologies are championed, and where celebrities have used their platform to endorse causes like Black Lives Matter. This ideological alignment appeared almost unshakeable until the events of October 7, when an armed conflict erupted between Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups and the Israeli military. 

The attack began with a coordinated surprise offensive by Hamas, codenamed “Al-Aqsa Flood.” It involved a massive rocket barrage launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel and the breach of the Gaza-Israel barrier by Palestinian militants who attacked civilian communities and Israeli military bases. Israel formally declared war on Hamas after the offensive. 

It launched airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, resulting in thousands of deaths. Concerns about a humanitarian crisis have escalated after Israel discontinued the provision of food, water, electricity, and fuel to Gaza.

The war has divided global public opinion, with several pro-Palestine rallies, anti-Semitic attacks and terrorist killings reported from different parts of the world. Hollywood has also not been left untouched. But in order to understand the Hollywood reaction, we need to dig into its past a bit.

Exploring Hollywood’s deep Jewish roots

From the very inception of Hollywood, Jews have played a key role in shaping the entertainment industry. Seeking refuge from anti-Semitism and discrimination in other industries, Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century became pioneers in the burgeoning film business. Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros, Universal Pictures – these major studios, founded by Jewish entrepreneurs, would go on to become the cornerstones of the industry.

Over the decades, Jews have ascended to prominence in various roles within the entertainment and media businesses. Figures like Barbra Streisand, Kirk Douglas, and Natalie Portman have achieved international acclaim as actors, while directors like Steven Spielberg and Mel Brooks have left indelible marks on cinema. Producers, including Carl Laemmle and Lew Wasserman, have played pivotal roles in shaping the industry’s business landscape. The Jewish influence extends beyond the names and faces on the screen, touching upon the stories told, the themes explored, and the values championed.

The resounding silence

What’s remarkable about the recent Hollywood divide is the notable silence that followed the Israel-Hamas conflict. Prominent celebrities, often vocal about global events on social media, remained surprisingly quiet. Major studios, typically quick to comment on socio-political issues worldwide, initially chose silence over action. This stands in stark contrast to the industry’s unified opposition to Russia’s Ukraine invasion in February 2022.

The Writers’ Guild divide

The most evident division emerged within the Writers Guild of America (WGA), representing a significant portion of Hollywood’s screenwriters. The WGA’s decision not to condemn the attacks on Israel left many Jewish writers disenchanted. Some even contemplated severing ties with the union, while others, like Marc Guggenheim, a notable writer and producer, decided to withhold their dues. In contrast, an anonymous pro-Palestinian group known as WGA for Peace supported the union’s stance, arguing that its members were apprehensive about being labelled as anti-Semitic.

A broader ideological chasm

This divide isn’t confined to Hollywood; it extends to the broader liberal landscape. The Israel-Palestine conflict has ignited passionate debates within political circles, among students on college campuses in prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford, and within progressive activist groups and philanthropic organisations. On one side, there’s fervent support for Israel, while on the other, an energised faction perceives the Palestinian cause as an extension of the broader social justice movements that gained momentum in the United States in 2020. Simultaneously, there are voices, including Jewish individuals, advocating for a ceasefire.

Letters to President Biden

Prominent figures, including well-known actors like Paul Rudd and Ben Stiller, expressed their gratitude to President Joe Biden for his diplomatic efforts in one letter. In contrast, another group, featuring notables like Ben Affleck and Tony Kushner, penned a separate letter, urging President Biden to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and Israel.

Social media controversy

Differences in opinion also spilled over onto social media platforms. Notable agent Maha Dakhil at the Creative Artists Agency faced a backlash after characterising Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza as “genocide” in an Instagram post. Dakhil, who represents high-profile stars like Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon, later issued an apology and stepped down from an internal leadership position at the agency. This incident led to the loss of a significant client, screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin, who opted to switch to a rival agency.

Resurgence of anti-Semitism

While the division within the entertainment industry hasn’t led to violence, there’s growing concern among Jewish individuals as anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes have surged in the United States since the start of the conflict. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 388 per cent increase in harassment, vandalism, and assault in the past three weeks compared to the same period the previous year.

Is the complexity of the conflict to blame?

The divide that has emerged within Hollywood may, in large part, be attributed to the inherent complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This multifaceted and deeply entrenched conflict defies simplistic solutions and has fueled a wide spectrum of opinions, even within the liberal bastion of Hollywood.

The conflict’s long and turbulent history, marked by territorial disputes, historical grievances, and competing narratives, has generated passionate advocacy on both sides. Within the entertainment industry, where social and political issues are often under the spotlight, navigating this intricate landscape becomes challenging.

The conflict’s nuances make it difficult for a one-size-fits-all approach to be embraced in a place like Hollywood, where diversity of thought and perspective is generally celebrated. This complexity has contributed to the divide within the industry, with individuals and organisations grappling with how to align their values and beliefs in a landscape marked by conflicting loyalties and deeply held convictions.

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