Rule 1: Talk About Anything Political in Hollywood ... Except Gaza
Even passionate industry supporters of Israel stay silent but privately call pro-Palestinian celeb tweets "uninformed" as dinner-table conversation goes dark.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As casualties mount in Gaza, an uncharacteristic reticence about the conflict has settled over high-level Hollywood. Cultural affinity and political support for Israel run deep in the entertainment industry, as they have since Israel's founding in 1948. It's commonplace for top executives to be on a first-name basis with prominent Israeli politicians and business leaders. As a consequence, the current Israeli incursion into Gaza, even with its civilian and child casualties, has not generated public debate among executive ranks. The celebrities and athletes who have expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments are being dismissed — for now at least — as "uninformed," an adjective expressed to THR by several top executives.
"What would happen if three missiles were shot into Texas from Mexico?" speculates one top talent agent who asked not to be named. "There would be a full-scale war. It's amazing Israel is using so much restraint." A leading studio executive, who also asked not to be named, tells THR: "Israel didn't start this conflict, but what are they supposed to do when they're being attacked? They have a right to defend themselves."
While these sentiments are strong and widely shared, few will discuss them on the record. Israel-raised billionaire mogul Haim Saban, whose largesse to Democratic candidates is contingent on support for Israel, was asked for comment on pro-Palestinian tweets by pop diva Rihanna and NBA star Dwight Howard. He produced a statement so strong that it was sent to his publicist for review, who then opted for Saban not to comment at all.
In fact, Rihanna and Howard managed to offend all sides by first sending out identical tweets — "Free Palestine" — then retracting them. L.A.-based political consultant Rick Taylor called on Hollywood publicists to better school clients on social media. "Celebrities have every right to express an opinion, but they've got to weigh what they say and understand that there will be a backlash," he says. Tennis Channel CEO and top Democratic fundraiser Ken Solomon, whose grandparents lived in Israel, tells THR: "I think there's a place for celebrities to get involved, whether it's the environment or social issues. But getting involved in foreign-policy debates? It doesn't make a lot of sense. … With all due respect to Rihanna, unless she's been studying this, she shouldn't be talking about it."
Reporters in Gaza also have been stung by social media missteps. CNN veteran Diana Magnay was withdrawn and reassigned to Moscow after a tweet calling Israelis "scum." A CNN spokesperson said the reporter had reacted angrily after being "threatened and harassed."
Among the most forthright public critics of the Israeli offensive is Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who offered a view more nuanced than social media allows: "Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this," he said on his July 21 show. "But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel's policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas."