92NY, a renowned Jewish cultural center that is also one of the leading literary venues in New York, was planned to host an event featuring the participation of the Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen. The author, born in Vietnam, regularly criticizes Israel and supports the BDS movement, which did not prevent his previous performances at the prestigious institution on the Upper East Side. This time, a few hours before the scheduled talk about his new autobiography, 92NY announced the cancellation of the event, after Nguyen signed, along with more than 750 writers and artists, an open letter in the London Review of Books in which he harshly criticized Israel.
"We are a Jewish institution that has always welcomed people with diverse viewpoints," 92NY said in a statement. “The brutal October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the continued holding of hostages, including senior citizens and young children, has devastated our community. Given the public comments by the invited author on Israel, we felt the responsible course of action was to postpone the event."
Instead, the reading with Nguyen moved to a small bookstore in downtown Manhattan, where about 100 people gathered, but the tumult did not end there. It was just getting started. Several writers scheduled to appear on 92NY in the coming weeks withdrew from events in protest, two of the senior managers resigned, and this week 92NY announced it was putting its current literary reading series “on pause.”
This is just one example of the fallout in the U.S. following the Hamas attack and the war in Gaza, which in recent weeks have caused almost unprecedented internal tensions when it comes to a non-American event, which also involved the cultural community. The ground that has been bubbling for years concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reaching a boiling point, and naturally, it is expressed by those who always express themselves on the subject: artists.
At this point, the discourse has already spread far beyond tweets on Twitter and posts on Instagram, and social media fights over who says what and what words are being used. The discussion now in the U.S. involves freedom of expression, overt and hidden antisemitism, and dehumanization, and is also about the limits of what is socially acceptable to say about Israel.
This has happened in every round of fighting against Hamas in the last decade, and usually, the same celebrities are involved: Sarah Silverman on the one hand and the model sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid on the other. The difference is that this time it's not "another round", and many more celebrities are involved. What has not changed, it is important to note, is the numerical ratio between the parties. Despite what one might think from what is being featured on Twitter - the support of the American elites in Israel is almost absolute.
The only place where there is discord - apart from the academia - is in the realm of culture. It is indeed a more diverse community, with a large representation of artists who identify with the Palestinians long before October 7, and their hypocrisy was finally revealed after it - but eventually, the vast majority of cultural icons who did speak out, stand with Israel.
It can't be denied, though, that the playground is becoming more and more challenging for Israel's supporters, even in Hollywood, an industry that historically has always stood with Israel, without thinking twice. Now they do think twice before showing sympathy, they look at the list of donors, and check in which countries films should be distributed and where they should make a tour while taking into account the young audience, and the young audience in the U.S. shows skepticism toward Israel.
"The ground is shifting," says an Israeli technologist who works at one of the major studios, "I feel it all the time. Hollywood has always been a target for antisemitism because many Jews run the studios, and sometimes people become anti-Israel so as not to be suspected. Today, more and more people are truly anti-Israel, they no longer pretend, and these people are also the future of the industry. At present the situation here is quite good, but we should be very worried about the years to come."
Walking a very tight rope
In the first days following October 7, Hollywood stood united showing clear support for Israel, Jews, and non-Jews alike. The video of Bono dedicating a song to the people who were murdered in the Nova music festival is perhaps the best informational and cultural moment [in terms of Hasbara] that Israel has had in many years.
At least 700 Hollywood celebrities signed a letter of support for Israel, calling for the release of hostages and asking the entertainment community not to share misinformation about the war. Gal Gadot, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Pine, Liev Schreiber, and Michael Douglas were among the signatories; Barbra Streisand, Ellen DeGeneres, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and NBA superstar LeBron James, who is also a fruitful Hollywood producer, an unusual support has been established, unlike the past. It no longer involves just Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.
The first days were indeed the "best" days for Israel in terms of artists' support, but there is one thing that should be clear: it is almost impossible for Israel to win such a long-term battle of Hasbara. As far as the world is concerned, the history of the conflict did not begin on October 7. An artist who is unable to condemn the barbaric acts of Hamas without adding the word "but", has lost his moral grounds; nevertheless, we should be prepared for responses that condemn both Hamas and Israel's attacks in Gaza and the occupation in general.
As the days went by, the shift could be felt. Fifty-five Hollywood figures penned a letter to President Joe Biden, urging for an immediate cease-fire. "Beyond our pain and mourning", they wrote, "we are motivated by an unbending will to stand for our common humanity. We refuse to tell future generations the story of our silence, that we stood by and did nothing."
The list of signatories includes a large number of Oscar and Emmy award winners, such as Cate Blanchett, John Stewart, Joaquin Phoenix, Jessica Chastain, Mahershala Ali, Andrew Garfield, Channing Tatum, Jeremy Strong, Kirsten Stewart, Mark Raffaello, Oscar Isaac and Sandra Oh. Not only are they very prominent figures, but they are also younger - or at least much more influential to a young audience in today's U.S.
Days later, another letter of support for Israel came out, with even bigger and better-known names. The Hollywood aristocracy thanked President Biden for his help in the release of the four hostages and urged him to assist in the release of all the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza: "We urge everyone to not rest until all hostages are released."
The impressive list of signatories included over 200 notable names, such as Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Katy Perry, Chris Rock, Courteney Cox, Sacha Baron Cohen, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow and more.
Alongside all these, other shrill voices are being heard. Dave Chappelle, for example, got himself into trouble; in recent years he has become very popular among the right-conservative wing, mainly because he was revealed to be a transphobe. Now it turns out that he hasn't completely lost empathy for the so-called progressives, he's just become very selective about who gets it from him.
Recently, Chappelle told his audience in Boston - the city of Harvard University, from which a student letter accusing Israel was published the day after the attack - that he didn't think students should lose job offers for supporting Palestinians. When someone in the audience asked him to shut up, Chappelle criticized Israel for cutting off water to Gaza and accused it of killing innocent people. Several dozen Jewish spectators got up and left the hall. When the media asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Chappelle said he "denies being in Boston last night."
This idiotic response is not only an insult to anyone who bought a ticket to Chappelle's concert, it also puts a finger on some of the biggest problems this war has in store: the end of truth, the death of shame, and the stamp of social media as being one of the most destructive tools mankind has created. If Dave Chappelle can say that he was not at all where he was, and not pay any price for it, then no words are left to say.
The easy falling for disinformation also got pro-Israel celebs into trouble. Jamie Lee Curtis, for example, published shocking photos of children she thought were Israeli, but soon turned out to be children from Gaza. Sarah Silverman republished an Instagram post (which was later deleted) that justified Israel's decision to cut off water and electricity to Gaza.
The hardest time is of course for Israeli actors, and especially for Gal Gadot, who has become a Hollywood star and needs to walk a very tightrope. Israel's treatment of Gadot has never been fair - not only is she a very successful ambassador to Israel, but she does not compromise her Israeliness, and yet it seems that she will never be able to please everyone. But for three weeks now she has been dedicating her social media accounts, which have millions of followers, to Hasbara and attempts to help the families of abducted and missing people. Gadot is also among the initiators of the artists' letter to President Biden. She is being slammed from all sides, but unlike most of her colleagues, she knows what she is talking about.
"I am neither Jewish nor Palestinian," wrote journalist Elizabeth Spiers in The New York Times, "and none of my gigs have anything to do with foreign policy, but the other day I opened Twitter to find people I don’t know demanding that I make a public statement about what’s happening in the Middle East," she writes, because if she failed to post, it necessarily means that she supports something or someone. "The impulse toward loud declarations reflects genuine fear about the horrors", she adds, but this does not help us as a society. The conflict in Gaza has been going on for decades, and posting on social media won't solve it, she explains.
And this is another important point. In the past, celebrities refrained from commenting, also because stating to the media was complicated. Now you can write a 200-word post easily from bed, and the response itself is part of the brand. If a celebrity doesn't respond, then why is he a celebrity? Not only are they expected to respond, but they are required to say what they think about a variety of current events. There are cases, such as Me Too or Black Lives Matter, where celebrities have knowledge and experience that can contribute to the discussion, but very few celebrities can explain, even in general terms, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Those who understand this best are probably the most notable stars, the tenants of Hollywood's penthouses, who simply don't comment publicly on almost anything anymore. Actors like Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts - all political activists throughout their careers - now share not only a salary of more than 20 million dollars per film but also complete abstinence from social media.
When celebs speak out, it sends message to millions
Without underestimating the sincerity of the statements of Hollywood stars, in the end, there is no meaning to what one or another celeb says. It generates a lot of movement and makes a lot of noise, and nothing more. Hollywood as an institution is another matter, it has much more power and influence. That is why Anti-Defamation League Chairman Jonathan Greenblatt published an article in the Hollywood Reporter, aiming both to convince those sitting on the fence to back off, and also to reprimand them.
To illustrate to his readers how terrible the Hamas attack was, in a language they would understand, Greenblatt said that the creators of Fauda rejected an idea for a storyline in which hundreds of Hamas terrorists infiltrate Israel and take over a village because it sounded too crazy and wouldn't be realistic.
"When celebrities speak out, it sends an important message to their tens of millions of followers that this is the right side to be on. Keep in mind that these are followers who may be too young to know the full complexity of an issue or too busy to learn it. In light of how distorting social media algorithms can present the world, it’s even more important for these voices to cut through", writes Greenblatt.
"As screenwriters, we know that words matter. But we also write the silences, and they speak volumes,” the screenwriters wrote. “The crimes committed on October 7 were simple and cruel. If we cannot stand up to call it what it is — a monstrous act of barbarity — then we have lost the plot”
Like quite a few liberal American Jews, Greenblatt complained that a large group of personalities, that have taken positions on important matters of the day, whether that’s the George Floyd murder or the #MeToo movement, now remain silent.
"For those who were outspoken on one subject, being quiet about Israel sends a message of its own. It says they perceive the loss of innocent Jews as less relevant and less important — and, worse, that they care more about the loss of followers than about the loss of innocent Jews," he adds.
One such Hollywood institution is the Writers Guild of America (WGA), whose silence is deafening also because many of its members are Jewish. Indeed, many of them published a very sharp letter of protest against the union.
"As screenwriters, we know that words matter. We spend weeks, months, and years agonizing over getting the story straight, the dialogue, the message. But we also write the silences. They are scripted in the whites of the page, and they speak volumes. Every lack of response, every blind-eye turned, every coward who says nothing in the face of cruelty. We write it all. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is complex and full of nuance, but the crimes committed on October 7 were simple and cruel. If we cannot stand up to call it what it is — a monstrous act of barbarity — then we have lost the plot," conclude the screenwriters.
The list of signatories includes several of the best and most successful writers in Hollywood, including Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and author James Patterson.
It is clear that quite a few celebrities are simply afraid to express an opinion on everything related to the conflict, and one can understand them. But silence in the face of antisemitism is unacceptable in any way, one must warn against it all the time and few people do it consistently, like Julianna Margulies. The star of ER, The Good Wife and now The Morning Show has been active for many years against antisemitism and has no problem scolding her silent colleagues.
At the Variety Hollywood and Antisemitism Summit, she said that she’s “trying to understand and work around why every single person in our industry isn’t standing up [against the massacre]. “Maybe they are afraid?” Margulies wondered. “I don’t know what they are afraid of. Losing followers? It’s just insane to me."
Margulies also spoke about passive and almost subconscious antisemitism in Hollywood. She said that when she joined the Morning Show last season, during her costume fitting for the series, the show’s costume designer put a cross necklace around her neck as part of her character as news anchor LauraPeterson. "I didn't think twice and wore the cross," said Margulies.
At the end of that season, Margulies became the leader of a Holocaust education program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and then also asked herself why she so easily agreed to wear the necklace, without any explanation or reason, even though Christianity is not significant to the character.
"The only times characters wear the Star of David are if their practice of Judaism is a central issue. I don't believe that the religious aspect of the characters I play should be part of their backstory, but if it’s so easy to put on a cross, why isn’t it just as easy to put on a Star of David?" she stressed.
Julianna Margulies also has a very limited presence on social media, with a modest Instagram account and less than 230 thousand followers. She does most of the work outside of this crazy swamp. In her first year as the leader of the Holocaust education program, her team managed to reach 7,000 children who knew nothing about Jews or the Holocaust. So maybe the big problem is the importance attributed to what celebrities tweet, compared to what they do when no one puts a "like" on their posts.
"Most people on social media seem to be refocusing their rage on someone who tells jokes or sings songs for a living", said Mary McNamara, culture columnist, and critic for the Los Angeles Times. "The celebrities, because they’re celebrities, become the news, feeding the fury while offering at best no new information and at worst disinformation. Many, in turn, become the targets of the same hate that has fueled the war they are posting about. The only people who benefit are Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. And there are so many other ways people can speak out", she wrote.
"It is possible for celebrities, and everyone else, to call for action that could lead to the end of violence. It is even possible to deplore both the atrocity of the Oct. 7 attack and the response of the Israeli government, just maybe not on Instagram," she concluded.