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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Washington DC

‘People are being penalised’: Hollywood divided over Israel-Hamas conflict

Susan Sarandon speaks at pro-Palestinian rally in New York City
Susan Sarandon speaks at pro-Palestinian rally in New York City Photograph: Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

On a chilly day outside the White House, tourists milled about, Secret Service agents stood guard and a group of protesters held aloft a banner that demanded: “Over 14,850 Palestinians killed, how many more before a ceasefire?”

Among activists embarking on a five-day hunger strike is a face instantly recognisable to fans of TV series such as Sex and the City and The Gilded Age. Cynthia Nixon is following in a long tradition of actors using their platform to further a Washington cause. But she is also stepping into a Hollywood rift.

While the entertainment industry has shown remarkable unity in recent years over Donald Trump’s presidency, Black Lives Matter and abortion rights, the Israel-Hamas war is proving uniquely divisive. The air is thick with terms such as antisemitism and genocide. One-time allies are trading accusations of censorship, hypocrisy and betrayal. High profile figures who take a stand are facing abuse, ostracism or, in some cases, dismissal.

“People are being penalized for speaking out,” says Nixon, wearing a long black coat and cream scarf and holding a water bottle. “But there are a lot of actors and performers getting together a response to that and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t OK,’ we may not agree about everything – and maybe some of us can express ourselves a little more carefully – but it doesn’t mean that people should then lose their livelihoods.

Israel has historically enjoyed staunch support in Hollywood. Its birth in 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, was celebrated by a capacity crowd at the Hollywood Bowl who listened to a recorded message from founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion. In 1967, at the same venue, a “Rally for the Survival of Israel” demonstrated solidarity after the six-day war with stars such as Frank Sinatra, Peter Sellers and Barbra Streisand.

But as decades went by, some in the community came to identify Israel not first and foremost as a left-leaning underdog but a US-backed oppressor of the Palestinians now led by the most rightwing government in its history. Its current bombing of Gaza, which has killed nearly 15,000 people, according to the territory’s health ministry, has prompted outrage and demands for a ceasefire.

David Clennon, an Emmy-winning actor and longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, says via email: “Hollywood used to be unanimous in showing its admiration and loyalty to Israel. A new show business generation is beginning to challenge that dominant ideology. And of course the old guard will do everything in their power to intimidate them.”

Clennon admits: “I considered requesting anonymity for this interview, but I’m an old-timer, and I don’t have as much to lose as the younger folks who feel empathy and solidarity with the people of Palestine.

“Other actors, writers and industry employees have been fired, or threatened, for criticising the ideology and practice of Zionism. But these same criticisms are made by Israelis themselves – intellectuals and political activists. It’s ironic that there is more open debate about Zionism in Israel than is allowed in Hollywood.”

Cynthia Nixon with a group of activists, state legislators and actors on the third day of the five-day hunger strike in front of the White House
Cynthia Nixon with a group of activists, state legislators and actors on the third day of the five-day hunger strike in front of the White House Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Among those who have paid the price for speaking out is Susan Sarandon. The Oscar-winning actor and activist was dropped by the United Talent Agency (UTA) after comments she made at a recent pro-Palestinian rally in New York: “There are a lot of people that are afraid, 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.”

Variety magazine reported that several agents at UTA also demanded that the agency axe writer Ta-Nehisi Coates after he led an open letter that used language including: “Hamas militants broke out of Gaza. More than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed.” But Coates survived.

The Creative Arts Agency (CAA) has also been shaken. Last month one of its most prominent agents, Maha Dakhil, resigned her board seat after sharing a social media post accusing Israel of genocide; she later apologised. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin subsequently announced he was quitting CAA, saying: “Maha isn’t an antisemite, she’s just wrong.”

According to Variety, a group of assistants threatened to walk out over CAA’s treatment of Dakhil, who will continue as an agent. The magazine noted: “It didn’t hurt that her most important client, Tom Cruise, made it known to CAA that he was backing her. Cruise met with Dakhil at her CAA office on 15 November. A knowledgeable source says he took the rare step of going in person to show support for his embattled agent.”

But CAA did sever ties with assistant Jouman Barakat, who described all participants at a pro-Israel rally as white supremacists, and writing team Regina Jackson and Saira Rao after the latter posted on social media: “Zionists are starting to panic that more and more of the world sees them for the bloodthirsty genocidal ghouls they are.”

Pro-Palestinian activists and protesters rally in Freedom Plaza, calling for a ceasefire and a free Palestine in Washington, DC on 4 November 2023.
Pro-Palestinian activists and protesters rally in Freedom Plaza, calling for a ceasefire and a free Palestine in Washington, DC on 4 November 2023. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Meanwhile the actor Melissa Barrera was fired from the film Scream VII by production company Spyglass Media over social media posts interpreted as antisemitic. Barrera had described Israel as committing “genocide” and “brutally killing innocent Palestinians, mothers and children, under the pretence of destroying Hamas”.

The industry’s punishments worry free speech advocates such as Donzaleigh Abernathy, an actor and activist who is the daughter of civil rights stalwart Ralph Abernathy and goddaughter of Martin Luther King. She says: “I’m so sorry for the actors who suffered because they’ve expressed their opinion. I don’t think that’s fair. The bottom line is we’ve got to figure out how to save lives and we shouldn’t punish each other. Are the advocates of war being punished and discriminated against? I don’t know. But the war has to stop and the hostages must be freed.”

Many artists do continue to take a stand. Bradley Cooper, Alfonso Cuarón, Selena Gomez, Janelle Monáe, Lupita Nyong’o, Jenna Ortega, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance were among more than 260 who signed a letter urging Joe Biden and Congress to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

So too was Nixon, a former candidate for New York governor whose film credits include Amadeus, James White and A Quiet Passion. Sitting outside the White House with Muslim and Jewish activists and state legislators, she argues that the term antisemitic is being abused in an effort to silence critics.

“Two of my three children are Jewish and their grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” Nixon says. “My oldest son in particular is very active in the demonstrations and he was arrested about a week and a half ago. For him, never again means never again for anybody and, as the grandchild of survivors, it’s so incredibly personal for him.

“Antisemitism is no joke. It’s a terrifying force: 6 million Jews were killed in world war two. But to see anybody saying that any criticism of the far-right Israeli government, which is wildly unpopular with its own people, is antisemitic? Antisemitism is not a political football to be tossed around by warmongers. It’s a serious thing that we mustn’t tarnish and abuse and put up every time somebody says something that we disagree with or that scares us.”

Melissa Barrera in Scream
Melissa Barrera in Scream Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP

Similar arguments have rattled corporate boardrooms, college campuses, street protests, the halls of Congress and even the Biden White House. A different perspective is offered by some progressive Jews who say they have been shocked by a lack of compassion shown by people with whom they allied in numerous other causes.

They feel that many pushing for a ceasefire have repeatedly failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the 7 October assault in which Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals and took around 240 hostages.

Last month Michael Seitzman, a film and TV writer and showrunner, published a column on the Deadline website highlighting a letter making the rounds in Hollywood that condemned civilian deaths in Gaza but “couldn’t find one word for the rape, torture, murder and kidnapping of Jewish civilians, including children”.

In a phone interview, Seitzman says: “I’m not perplexed by their criticism of Israel necessarily. I am perplexed by how they manage to ignore what happened on October 7th. If you’re somehow unable to say that rape, murder and kidnapping is antithetical to a civilised society then aren’t you saying that rape, murder and kidnapping is in fact ethical? And shouldn’t you have a problem with that?

“It’s fine to criticise Israel. It’s fine to criticise the [prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu coalition, which I certainly do, and in my piece I do. It’s just odd how many of these people seem to ignore what started all this. They ignore this event that is singularly the most horrific act of barbarism against Jews since the Holocaust.”

Seitzman, whose credits include the film North Country and series Code Black, argues that agencies and producers have the right to not work with actors who engage in hate speech. Nor is he impressed by Nixon’s hunger strike in Washington.

“What’s she planning on doing to free the hostages? I wish that these people who are screaming ceasefire could just spend 10% of their energy saying, let go of the infants that you’re holding hostage. It is confusing to me that there is not even a mention of October 7th in many of these open letters and so many of these protests. It’s depressing but also just incredibly confusing.”

The furious finger pointing and scrambled allegiances stand in contrast to the solidarity that Hollywood actors and writers displayed during long strikes this year. In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, when many organisations issued statements condemning the atrocity, the Writers Guild of America did not, having failed to come to an agreement.

Seitzman was among those who felt let down. “If you’re looking for proof that people are afraid to speak out, you need to look no further than the Writers Guild of America. There’s an organisation founded in large part by Jews, likely has the largest percentage of Jewish members of any secular organisation in the country and yet, when confronted with the most horrific, unimaginable acts of evil committed against innocent Jews since the Holocaust, they couldn’t muster up the courage to say a word about it.

“It’s certainly not because they don’t view October 7th as horrific. It’s either that they were in disagreement with each other about whether to say something, which to me is already problematic, or they’re fearful of the backlash that they’re going to get.”

Some Jewish people have turned to WhatsApp, the mobile messaging platform which, encrypted and invitation-only, allows them to say in private what they prefer not to say in public. It has been an outlet to cite instances of perceived antisemitism or share articles such as a Simon Sebag Montefiore essay for the Atlantic magazine that contends leftist intellectuals are using a fashionable but false ideology, “decolonization”, to justify the killing of Israeli civilians.

Others in Hollywood advocate empathy, humility and lowering the temperature after turbulent years that have witnessed the Trump presidency, a coronavirus pandemic that shut down production and a paralysing double strike.

Kieren van den Blink, an actor and writer, says: “My industry is very sensitive right now and very raw. This issue is very intimate for people. Speaking out, like any action we ever take, is going to have a consequence. That doesn’t mean that the consequences are condoned. It means that we have to be aware that it will, that it could, and that’s all of our own personal responsibility. How far are we willing to go?

Van den Blink resists impulsively tweeting herself into the fray. “I will sit quietly and I will listen because I don’t know enough and I don’t know what it feels like to be Jewish and I don’t know what it feels like to be Palestinian. I don’t want to become part of a violent, angry, racist rhetoric on either side. I want to be part of a solution. I want to be part of love. I want to be part of peace.

Activists pushing for Israel to show restraint and end the bombing welcome the intervention of Hollywood stars who are using their public megaphone. Rae Abileah, who in 2011 disrupted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress, says: “It’s incredible that so many celebrities are speaking out for a ceasefire.

“There has been somewhat of a gag order on people to speak out because there’s been so much fear of repression, of being blacklisted, of being labelled - wrongfully of course – as antisemitic. The number of people that signed on to a ceasefire and the calibre of celebrities that signed on is pretty amazing. Of course some are facing repercussions and we need to fight back against that because people are facing issues of job loss left and right.”

Abileah, a Jewish clergyperson and creative change strategist based in Half Moon Bay, California, recalls meeting Sarandon years ago at a protest against the Iraq war. “She’s an inspiring person for her consistency of being anti-war but there’s a lot of others who are newcomers who are speaking out and it takes a lot of courage to do that when you think future work might be on the line.

“But it’s nowhere near the amount of courage that it takes to wake up in the morning and go through another day with your children when you’re in Gaza City.”

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