Why Young Hollywood Is More Willing to Question Israel's Policies

A view of Tel-Aviv, Israel on July 24.
A view of Tel-Aviv, Israel on July 24.
 AP Images

To 74-year-old Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, Jon Stewart "is a hero to so many of us." But when Foxman watched The Daily Show on July 21 and saw his bit titled "Jon Learns What Happens When You Criticize Israel" pegged to the increasingly controversial Israeli-Palestine conflict, he said he felt "shocked and sad."

"Not everything can be reduced to a joke," Foxman told The Hollywood Reporter. "I know comedians would sell their mother for a joke, but Jon crossed a line." But not everyone agrees with Foxman, including some younger Jewish activists in the U.S. who see Stewart's skit — and the growing number of celebrities, authors and academics publicly supporting Palestinians or criticizing Israel — as evidence that decades of stolid American support for Israel is becoming more tempered.

"I've never seen a dialogue like this going on here or inside Israel," said Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker Gaylen Ross, an American who also holds an Israeli passport. "It's shocking everyone. It's hard to know where to stand when you support Israel and its right to exist, but also understand the right of humanity and the need for restraints. I'm getting unfriended on Facebook by all sides."

Joan Rivers was one of the few celebrities to come out swinging in favor of Israel's policies toward Gaza, yelling "They started it!" meaning the Palestinians, when a TMZ cameraman questioned her Thursday night at LAX. When Rivers was told that Selena Gomez had posted an Instagram sympathetic to Gaza, Rivers said sarcastically, "Selena Gomez, that college grad." When Rivers heard Rihanna had tweeted #FreePalestine, Rivers said, "Can she even spell Palestine?"

The gap between older American Jews like Foxman and even the 51-year-old Stewart is wider than many people realize, according to the New York-based Lisa Goldman, 47, the co-founder of +972, a digital magazine out of Tel Aviv.

"The Lena Dunham generation and fourth-generation Jewish Americans are less connected to the Holocaust than their parents, and they are turning away from Israel because of its policies over the last five years," said Goldman. "I'm an Israeli citizen, but it's unhealthy to be willfully uncritical about the place. Opinions have shifted. Young Jewish professionals in their 30s are less willing to turn a blind eye or justify Israel's policies, and some of what you see being tweeted by celebrities is symbolic of that."

Still, when Vanessa Redgrave took the stage at the Oscars in 1978 and nearly detonated her career by denouncing the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestine, it was hard to imagine that one day her heirs apparent would be the likes of Rihanna (who tweeted #FreePalestine on July 15, then quickly deleted her post after a barrage of criticism) and Selena Gomez (who posted "It's About Humanity. Pray for Gaza" on Instagram July 18).

Sharpshooters were stationed on the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1978 when Redgrave attended the Oscar ceremony because of death threats she'd received for her support of Palestinians. Today, American celebrities tweeting about Gaza get little more than sharp retorts.

Stewart, director Jonathan Demme, Tori Amos, Rob Schneider, Kim Kardashian, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Bourdain, Roger Waters, NBA stars Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, D.L. Hughley, Mia Farrow, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Hawking and Annie Lennox are among the other big names who have weighed in with some degree of support for the people of Gaza or outright criticism of the Israeli government.

None of the growing public sympathy for Palestinians is surprising to Stephen Walt, an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

"There's a generational change right now in the U.S. and elsewhere as World War II and those memories fade into the rearview mirror," Walt said. "The public discourse on Israel has changed. A lot of it is due to social media. It gives people, especially celebrities who have a lot of influence, a platform to say how they feel without being pressured by editors and publishers, who are themselves being pressured by outside organizations."

That comes as good news to Palestinian activists like Washington D.C.-based Samer Badawi, 41, the son of Palestinian refugees who grew up in the Middle East. Badawi said he witnessed the changing perceptions firsthand when he accompanied Emad Burnat, the Palestinian farmer nominated for an Oscar for his documentary, 5 Broken Cameras, to the 2013 Academy Awards. Burnat and his family were famously detained at LAX and almost deported before they were allowed to stay in the U.S. for the awards show.

Michael Moore became enraged about what happened to Burnat and attacked Homeland Security on Twitter and in the press. "After that, we were treated like rock stars by everyone in Hollywood," Badawi said.

"I grew up in a time when the word Palestinian meant terrorist," said the Washington D.C.-based Badawi, the former executive director of the United Palestinian Appeal. "I never thought I'd see the day when it was cool to be a Palestinian."

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