Has Hollywood Fallen Out of Love With Israel?
A recent book examines the origins and end of an affair between the film industry and the Jewish state.
In 1947, a full-page advertisement ran in the U.S. film industry’s trade publication, Variety, saluting then-U.S. President Harry Truman’s efforts to encourage the British government to accept increased Jewish immigration to Palestine. The signatories included many of the luminaries of Hollywood, from singer Frank Sinatra and actor Edward G. Robinson to director William Wyler, whose film about returning veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives, had won the Oscar for Best Picture the previous year. This was a collective cause du jour—whither the European Jewish refugees?—that was also a matter of the utmost personal relevance to many of the luminaries who affixed their names.
Director George Stevens (Swing Time) had spent the war years as the head of a U.S. Army Signal Corps documentary crew, filming the liberation of Dachau and the countless dead left behind there; writer and director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) had fled Berlin ahead of the Nazis, leaving behind his mother, stepfather, and grandmother, all of whom were murdered in concentration camps. In supporting the Zionist cause after the war, they perhaps wondered about who might have been saved from the inferno of Europe by the existence of a Jewish homeland.
The next year, when Israel became a state, Robinson—the Jewish star of 1930s gangster pictures like Little Caesar—read the country’s Declaration of Independence at a rally at the Hollywood Bowl, including its clarion call for “full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed, or sex.”
Hollywood is an industry whose roots are, like Israel’s, in the heroic and sometimes self-negating efforts of a small band of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who believed themselves to be imposing their will on an arid landscape. (Cue the old joke about Moses, that legendary stutterer, wanting to ask God for California as a homeland but getting caught on that first syllable and receiving Canaan instead.)
For much of the past 75 years, the state of Israel has been engaged in an effort that Israelis call hasbara. Translated literally, the Hebrew word means “explanation,” and the effort, as documented by authors Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman in their engaging new book Hollywood and Israel: A History, has often consisted of politically driven attempts to translate the Israeli experience into terms that might be easily understood outside the country’s borders as well as to plump for Israel’s understanding of its place in the region.
“Hollywood,” Shaw and Goodman argue, “has always been a focal point of Israel’s hasbara strategy, off-screen as well as on it.” Hasbara was about taking the fundamentally foreign experience of Israeli life—comprised of equal parts socialist utopianism, Mitteleuropa fantasia of the mysterious East, and rock-ribbed militarist realism—and arguing that Israelis were freedom-loving cousins of Americans, architects of a multiethnic democracy, protectors of Jews in a post-Holocaust world, defenders against terrorist hordes, or anything else that might stir wealthy, powerful Americans to action or advocacy. And the profound links between Israel and the American film industry meant that figures from author Leon Uris (who allowed Israeli officials to make prepublication edits to his novel Exodus) to actor Kirk Douglas (who “worked closely with hasbara officials to convince the international media that Israel’s invasion of Lebanon had been necessary” in 1982) to actress Elizabeth Taylor were inclined to support Zionism in their work or use their fame to Israel’s benefit.
Jewish stories in Hollywood existed in the uncomfortable gap between who the proprietors of the industry were and who they wanted—or needed—to be. For the studio moguls, perhaps some of the belated support for Israel came as a result of their near-complete failure to address the immolation of European Jewry during the war.
Outside of Warner Bros., the studios did not make movies before Pearl Harbor that referenced the Nazi threat; and even when they did, those movies somehow managed to denounce Nazism without ever using the word “Jew.” It was not until 1947, two years after the liberation of Auschwitz, that the U.S. film industry made its first films about the horrors of antisemitism. Gentleman’s Agreement, the Elia Kazan film that won Best Picture that year, somehow starred uber-WASP Gregory Peck as a journalist attempting to pass as a Jew and centered on—I kid you not—discrimination at an upscale hotel. The Zionist cause was hardly on Hollywood’s radar.
Israel became an attractive destination for studio productions, particularly in the 1950s, when the rise of television led to a brief boom in Biblical extravaganzas. Even in that earliest phase of its transformation to hyper-capitalist start-up nation, Israel had far too many electric pylons and telephone wires to comfortably pass for the land of the Bible.
Hasbara also sometimes meant overlooking the cruelties of the day to tell the stories of the past. The production of 1953’s Salome benefited from a nighttime curfew imposed in the Arab town of Nazareth, which cleared the streets for filming. Similarly, 1953’s The Juggler, starring Douglas as a Holocaust survivor, was shot in part in the village of Iqrit, where the Arab population had been expelled just five years prior, their houses destroyed by the Israeli army. “To build a ruined Arab village like Iqrit,” observed director Edward Dmytryk, would cost “a quarter-million dollars.” Tragic histories of conquest and displacement made for bargain-basement location shooting.
Shaw and Goodman rightly note the image of beautiful blue-eyed actor Paul Newman emerging shirtless from the sea in 1960’s film adaptation of Exodus, “Star of David necklace glistening on his chest,” as a key moment in the iconography of postwar Jewish life. More than that, Newman’s idealistic Zionist character was meant to represent an ideal of multiethnic inclusivity that reached its apotheosis in this pre-Six-Day War era. “Rather than choose the ‘weary path of exile,’” Hollywood and Israel suggests, “Ben Canaan begs the Arabs to stay in their homes and become an equal part of the Jewish state.” Israel wanted to be depicted via the Cinemascope magic of the movies as a land of muscular, sun-kissed, kindly warriors, and Exodus, directed by Austrian Jew Otto Preminger, marked a high point for Israel in the American imagination.
Shaw and Goodman see the Six-Day War, with its apocalyptic fears leading to euphoric triumph, as ushering in a high point of Zionist pride in Hollywood. Comedian Milton Berle appeared at the Rally for Israel’s Survival in June 1967, laying a claim for Israel as the patriotic successor to the United States: “Israel is in the same position as the United States in the War of 1812 … fighting for democracy and its life,” he said. “In retrospect,” Shaw and Goodman argue, “the decade and a half between the 1967 war and Israel’s historic peace agreement with Egypt coming into effect in the early 1980s represents a golden age in American, especially Jewish-American, sympathy for Israel.”
The deeply researched, artfully written Hollywood and Israel documents the extensive and occasionally absurdist tentacles of the California connection. Newman struck up a friendship with future Israeli President Ezer Weizman during the Exodus shoot. Taylor and actor Richard Burton raised nearly $1 million after the Six-Day War “at a stars’ dinner at London’s Café Royal.” Following the Entebbe raid of 1976, studio executive Lew Wasserman directly cabled then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to negotiate exclusive film rights to the story. And another production house, Merv Griffin Enterprises, “assumed it had the inside track on the race for Entebbe because its President, Murray Schwarz, had actually been among the hostages.”
In 1978, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated the Frank Sinatra International Student Center, paid for by the legendary singer and Oscar-winning star of From Here to Eternity. And according to a story too good to fact-check, courtesy of the film’s producer, Arnon Milchan, Pretty Woman was given its name by future prime minister Ehud Olmert. In addition to producing Pretty Woman, the authors note, Milchan also oversaw a “propaganda campaign” on behalf of the apartheid-era South African government; “bought arms and clandestinely worked for a secret Israeli intelligence organization, responsible for obtaining technology and material for Israel’s nuclear program”; and served as a producer for the likes of The King of Comedy and L.A. Confidential.
The moral blindness that allowed big-budget movies to shoot on the ruins of Arab villages began to wear off with the 1982 Lebanon War and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. The massacre helped to inspire the film adaptation of author John le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl, with le Carré saying of the invasion of Lebanon that “it is the most savage irony that [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and his generals cannot see how close they are to inflicting upon another people the disgraceful criteria once inflicted upon themselves.”
The solution was, as always, more hasbara. “Israel was at fault for failing to get out its message… and for allowing itself to be portrayed as Goliath when in fact it was David,” Shaw and Goodman write, summarizing one Hollywood insider’s response after 9/11. Cinematically, the era of U.S. production in Israel gave way to that of the Israeli mogul in Los Angeles, like weapons procurer-turned-producer Milchan and schlockmeister Menahem Golan, which gave way to the contemporary era of Israeli television as a farm team and mood board for American TV remakes like Homeland and In Treatment as well as for wildly popular Israeli series like Fauda and Shtisel.
As Hollywood and Israel definitively establishes, Israeli stories might make for hot international properties but the era of hasbara has come to an unceremonious end, doomed by the failure of the Oslo peace process and the rise of a muscular, furious Israeli conservatism ill-inclined toward dialogue with Palestinians. No one today could read Robinson’s text from the Declaration of Independence about “full social and political equality of all its citizens” without instinctively feeling the falseness of those claims when millions of Palestinians lack anything remotely approaching equal rights.
Israel’s democracy, like that of the United States, is deeply flawed, threatened by powerful internal forces that have lost faith in democratic governance. But the ways in which Israel falls short—its brutish treatment of its Palestinian minority; its comfort with extending full citizenship to some, but distinctly not all, of its populace—are failures that no amount of hasbara or a commendable movie like director Steven Spielberg’s Munich (which seeks to grapple with the complexities of Israel’s security conundrum) can solve or wish away.
Defenders of the Zionist ideal that once saved and protected millions of Jews from terror and death would be hard-pressed to argue that Israel is a flourishing democracy, and no Gal Gadot cameo will be enough to overcome its diminished status after a decade of rule by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Recent Oscar nominees like The Gatekeepers, 5 Broken Cameras, and Omar paint a notably different picture of Israel than Exodus once did, and while Hollywood remains pro-Israel, the nature of that affection has changed—dimmed by Netanyahu and former U.S. President Donald Trump. “It’s difficult not to conclude,” Shaw and Goodman wearily argue, “that, simply put, Hollywood didn’t love Israel as much at the ripe old age of seventy than when it was a vibrant thirty years old.”
As goes Hollywood, so goes America.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of five books, including Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, the New Republic, and other publications.
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.