It was a summer of war here in the Middle East, with missiles flying over Tel Aviv and F-16 bombs leveling apartment blocks in Shujaiya and Gaza City. But far from the bomb shelters of Israel and the blown-out buildings of Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, as this 50-day war was called, also opened a new front on the social-media pages of Hollywood.
In post-WWII, Hollywood, movie stars’ personas were carefully cultivated, and politics was handled with kid gloves. Besides, the town was undeniably pro-Israel.
But the Holocaust is now several generations removed from Hollywood’s A-listers, and Zionism, once a given in Tinseltown, has a sullied image. Add in a war with a disproportionate number of civilian deaths, nonstop media coverage and a Twitter-obsessed fanbase, and the result is a steady ping-pong of industry hactivism over Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Pop star Selena Gomez was one of the first to take the political leap, posting an Instagram picture on July 18 that read, “It’s about Humanity. Pray for Gaza,” and adding, “Please pray for those families and babies today. Please always remember what’s important in life. It’s not any of this. We are here to help, inspire and love. Be that change. #wearethenextgeneration.”
However well-intended the generalizations, the post sparked a vicious debate in the Twitter comments section: Hamas was called a terror organization that targets Israeli civilians, and Gomez was accused of not knowing this. Gomez quickly posted another image, this time of a serene women sitting on a beach at sunset, with the message, “And of course to be clear, I am not picking any sides. I am praying for peace and humanity for all!”
A few days earlier, on July 15, Rihanna had felt the sting, tweeting — then frantically deleting — “#FreePalestine.”
The insta-regret of celebrity commentary often comes when an A-lister’s handler offers some coaching after the fact. In this war, where images of bloodied children and decimated neighborhoods flooded the Internet with little context, that sort of ex-post-facto discussion is crucial. “A celeb may have taken more of a reactionary stand, only to be advised later that the issue is more layered than say, a startling war photograph,” says Melissa Zukerman, a partner at Principal Communications Group, an L.A.-based PR firm.
Other celebs refused to hit the delete button. Rob Schneider tweeted: “To not be outraged at the killing of children is to risk your very soul. #Gaza,” on July 21, while One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik seemed to channel Rihanna, also tweeting “#Free Palestine,” a move the media immediately decided must have caused a riff with his bandmate, occasional Jewish wannabe Harry Styles.
The conflict also elicited a wave of tit-for-tat letters and castigations, with celebs taking the opportunity to tell each other how to behave.
Jon Voight unleashed a scathing public letter on Aug. 2, accusing Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem of inciting anti-Semitism. The brouhaha began on July 28, when Cruz and Bardem, as well as director Pedro Almodovar and dozens of other Spanish artists, added their names to a letter condemning Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip and terming them “genocide.” The letter appeared in Spanish in a number of newspapers, and was quickly translated and sent around the Internet.
Both Bardem and Cruz later issued clarifications, with Cruz releasing a statement that said, “I don’t want to be misunderstood on this important subject. I’m not an expert on the situation and I’m aware of the complexity of it.”
Before hostilities ended, those weighing in on social media on the side of Israel included Bill Maher, Howard Stern and Roseanne Barr. And Creative Community for Peace, a pro-Israel activist org, released a petition with 200 names in support of Israel. Sylvester Stallone, Seth Rogen, Minnie Driver and Arnold Schwarzenegger were among the signatories, as were several top studio execs.
Adalah-NY, the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, accuses CCFP of being in bed with Israeli right-wing political interests.
“We wonder if CCFP explained to the Hollywood luminaries who signed its statement, like Ziggy Marley and Sarah Silverman, that its apolitical message of ‘art building bridges for peace’ is actually a sanitizing front for the right-wing, pro-settler organization StandWithUs, that has deep ties to the Israeli government?” Felice Gelman, a member of Adalah-NY and an active supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, wrote on the org’s website.
CCFP co-founder Ran Geffen-Lifshitz denies ties with StandWithUs, and says his organization’s goal is to help people understand that the conflict is far too complex to be summed up in a few tweets or Facebook statuses.
“We don’t necessarily expect everyone to turn pro-Israel overnight. We just want them to look beyond the dialogue of hate,” he says.