HOLLYWOOD In Hollywood, Criticizing Israel’s Assault on Gaza Comes With...

In Hollywood, Criticizing Israel’s Assault on Gaza Comes With a Price

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Jews are not a monolith. And yet, for the past several decades, those in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration have mendaciously branded any criticisms of the Israeli government as antisemitism. It is a curious conflation, given how a 2021 Pew Research Center survey revealed that only 58% of Jewish adults in the U.S. “feel very/somewhat attached to Israel.” In that same survey, only 33% said “the Israeli government is making sincere effort toward peace.” And in March of this year, a Gallup poll stated that “for the first time in its history of polling American attitudes toward Israelis and Palestinians,” Democrats’ “sympathies in the Middle East now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49% versus 38%.” And these were published before the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Hamas’ terrorist attacks of Oct. 7, resulting in the deaths of over 1,200 people in Israel and around 240 hostages taken, and Israel’s military response, which has taken the lives of an estimated 13,000 Palestinian civilians —  U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called it “a killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict since I have been Secretary-General,” though he should pay closer attention to what’s happening in Sudan — have brought the Israel-Palestine issue to the top of everyone’s social media feeds, including those in Hollywood, a town with lots of Jews in it (for historical and cultural reasons explained here). And the ways Hollywood leaders have retaliated against any criticism of the Israeli government during the ongoing conflict could start to resemble a new Hollywood blacklist.

First came top CAA agent Maha Dakhil, who was demoted from her post as co-chief of the powerful talent agency’s motion pictures department after sharing an Instagram post calling Israel’s bombardment of Gaza “genocide.” Dakhil, who represents the likes of Tom Cruise, Reese Witherspoon, and Natalie Portman, issued a heartfelt apology and deleted the post, but that didn’t stop one of her big clients, Aaron Sorkin, from dropping her over it. A subsequent report in Variety alleges it took the personal intervention of Cruise for Dakhil to keep her job, and The New York Post said that Dakhil has since embarked on a “Jewish listening tour,” meeting with Hollywood rabbi Steve Leder and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

On Oct. 12, CAA’s top leadership joined 2,000+ other Hollywood luminaries in signing an open letter stating: “As Israel takes the necessary steps to defend its citizens in the coming days and weeks, social media will be overrun by an orchestrated misinformation campaign spearheaded by Iran. We urge everyone to remember the horrific images that came out of Israel and to not amplify or fall for their propaganda.”

CAA agent Maha Dakhil.

Kate Green/Getty Images

Susan Sarandon didn’t get the same reprieve as Dakhil. The Oscar-winning actress and activist was dropped by her talent agency UTA, where she’d been a client since 2014, after speaking out at a pro-Palestine rally on Nov. 17 in New York City.

“There are a lot of people that are afraid, that are afraid of being Jewish at this time, and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country, so often subjected to violence,” Sarandon said.

Like Dakhil, Sarandon’s words were quickly twisted and weaponized against her. Her comments were called “antisemitic” in numerous headlines, even though she was relating the fears of Jews to those Muslims have experienced in post-9/11 America. (Sarandon did not provide comment for this article.)

Next in line was Melissa Barrera, who was dropped from her upcoming lead role in Scream VII for what the film’s production company, Spyglass Media Group, described thusly: “We have zero tolerance for antisemitism or the incitement of hate in any form, including false references to genocide, ethnic cleansing, Holocaust distortion or anything that flagrantly crosses the line into hate speech.”

A Variety report highlighted how Barrera had apparently been guilty of “resharing a post that accuses Israel of ‘genocide and ethnic cleansing’ and one from Jewish Currents magazine about distorting ‘the Holocaust to boost the Israeli arms industry.’” Barrera had previously toplined the fifth and sixth entries of the Scream horror franchise.

Let’s take a look at that Jewish Currents story Barrera shared on her Instagram. The piece, published Oct. 13, is penned by Raz Segal, one of the world’s foremost Israeli historians and Holocaust scholars, and calls the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza a “textbook case of genocide.” It also makes mention of a previous piece he’d written in The Nation about “the distortion of the Holocaust to boost the Israeli arms industry.” When you actually read that Nation piece, it explicitly criticizes how Elbit Systems, Israel’s biggest arms company, allowed Bulgaria to whitewash its Holocaust history. Elbit co-published a book that cast Bulgaria as WWII heroes to Jews, and granted Bulgaria a series of arms contracts. In reality, as Segal writes, “The Bulgarian state during World War II very much aimed for the forced removal of Jews from Bulgaria… Bulgarian state authorities enthusiastically and brutally planned and carried out the arrest, plunder, and mass deportations of around 12,000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied western Thrace and eastern Macedonia to Nazi death camps in March 1943.”

I will continue to speak out for those that need it most and continue to advocate for peace and safety, for human rights and freedom. Silence is not an option for me.

In other words, Segal’s piece is far from the “Holocaust distortion” that Spyglass claimed. In fact, it’s a preeminent Holocaust historian using his authority and expertise to critique the Israeli military and its arms-makers — for their actions in Gaza, and for allowing Bulgaria to whitewash its role in the Holocaust. And now, reports are saying that Barrera’s co-star Jenna Ortega, who has also been vocal about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza on social media, has exited Scream VII — though Spyglass is claiming that the decision was reached some time ago and has nothing to do with Barrera’s exit or Ortega’s posts. (Barrera and Ortega have not responded to requests for comment; in an Instagram post, Barrera wrote, in part, “I will continue to speak out for those that need it most and continue to advocate for peace and safety, for human rights and freedom. Silence is not an option for me.” ). Meanwhile, the director of Scream VII, Christopher Landon, tweeted out, “Everything sucks. Stop yelling. This was not my decision to make,” accompanied by a broken-heart emoji. He then deleted the post.

On top of that which befell Dakhil, Sarandon, and Barrera, the aforementioned Variety report cited how CAA “cut ties with a staffer and two clients over incendiary anti-Israeli social media posts,” and that Hollywood power producer Marc Platt, the father of Ben and man behind La La Land and The Little Mermaid, had “texted WME leadership about why Boots Riley was still a client after the Sorry to Bother You writer-director urged his followers on X to boycott an industry screening of footage of Hamas atrocities at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles,” dubbing the footage “murderous propaganda” because it was compiled by the IDF. Meanwhile, Platt’s fellow producer on La La Land, Gary Gilbert, was busy sliding into people’s DMs threatening violence if they protested the screening. The piece also claimed that “WhatsApp text chains have popped up all over town” filled with Hollywood players “sharing instances of perceived antisemitism,” and that one such chain targeted filmmaker Ava DuVernay merely for speaking up in support of Dakhil, her agent. 

And at the time of reporting, every Hollywoodite who has been fired or demoted over comments criticizing the Gaza crisis – Dakhil, Barrera, and the three CAA firings – has been a woman, and all but Sarandon are women of color.

During his 2006 Oscar acceptance speech, George Clooney championed Hollywood’s history of progressivism. “We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing. We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular… this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when Blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.” 

But Hollywood has also castigated stars for speaking up about the plight of the Palestinian people. Actress Vanessa Redgrave sold two of her homes to help finance The Palestinian, a 1977 documentary that sought to “document the lives of and the struggle of the Palestinian people” through “interviews with survivors of the siege of Tel al-Zaatar during the Lebanese civil war, and with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.” Redgrave received widespread condemnation for producing the film — especially from the far-right extremist Jewish Defense League, who burned effigies of her, offered a public bounty to have her killed, and later bombed a Beverly Hills cinema set to screen the doc. And during her acceptance speech at the 1978 Academy Awards, where Redgrave won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of an anti-fascist freedom fighter taking on the Nazis in Julia, she denounced the JDL, or “the threat of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” 

Redgrave was roundly criticized for her remarks and later dressed down later in the show by Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky at the behest of the show’s producer, Daniel Melnick. And her use of the phrase “Zionist hoodlums” was further misconstrued as an attack on all Jews, not just the “small bunch” of JDL members who’d targeted her. At that night’s Governor’s Ball, Redgrave correctly explained that the JDL “do not represent the Jewish people and their behavior is an insult to Jewish people all over the world,” adding, “Of course I’m on the side of the Jews who have struggled in a most glorious struggle against fascism.” But the damage was done. According to Vanessa, Dan Callahan’s 2014 biography of Redgrave, “The scandal of her awards speech and the negative press it occasioned had a destructive effect on her acting opportunities that would last for years to come.” 

More recently, actor Mark Ruffalo was pressured into apologizing and retracting his remarks after calling for sanctions against Netanyahu’s Israeli government and their “calls of genocide” two years ago, writing, “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.”

Those celebrities who have refrained from directly criticizing Israel or labeling what’s happening in Gaza “genocide” and are simply calling for a ceasefire, however, have been spared of any professional consequences. In late October, a number of A-listers — Joaquin Phoenix, Cate Blanchett, Drake, Ben Affleck, Channing Tatum, Andrew Garfield, Florence Pugh, Dua Lipa, Kristen Stewart, Tom Hardy, Jennifer Lopez, and Jon Stewart among them — signed an open letter to President Biden calling for a ceasefire. It read, in part: “We ask that, as President of the United States, you and the U.S. Congress call for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Gaza and Israel before another life is lost. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the last week and a half – a number any person of conscience knows is catastrophic. We believe all life is sacred, no matter faith or ethnicity and we condemn the killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.” 

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Where is the line here? And why is everyone from a top Hollywood agent to an Oscar-winning actress to a rising franchise star being pilloried for criticizing Israel and/or speaking up about Palestinian human rights? All while celebrities like Sarah Silverman can receive no professional ramifications for arguing that Israel should be allowed to turn off the water and electricity to Gaza, thereby killing civilians in the process? Or Amy Schumer can share a meme implying that all Gazans are rapists? 

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