NEW YORK (JTA) — Big-time Hollywood Jews sent a strong message last year to artists protesting Israel: Don’t mess with Tel Aviv.
What’s the buzz these days following the release of a sequel of sorts aimed at the West Bank Israeli settlement of Ariel?
The fight in September 2009 was over the decision of the Toronto International Film Festival to spotlight Tel Aviv. More than 1,000 prominent filmmakers, actors and academics — including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Julie Christie and Alice Walker — signed on to statement asserting that by showcasing movies from Tel Aviv, the festival, "whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine."
In response, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles put together a counter statement criticizing the protest and defending the film festival’s focus on Tel Aviv. The pro-Israel statement was signed by a smaller but more prominent list of celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Alexander and Lenny Kravitz.
This year’s brouhaha centers on the opening of a new cultural center in Ariel, built with more than $10 million of public funds. More than 50 Israeli theater professionals signed a petition in late August saying that they will not perform in the new cultural center when it opens in November. The boycott also has attracted the support of at least 150 Israeli academics and authors.
But several major Israeli theaters are scheduled to stage productions there this year, and top Israeli governmental leaders have slammed the boycott.
Jewish celebrities again are jumping into the fight — but on the side of the artists taking aim at Israeli policy.
More than 150 American television and film artists have signed a letter in support of the Israeli artists’ boycott. Signatories include actor Ed Asner of "Lou Grant" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Cynthia Nixon, who played Miranda on "Sex and the City,” as well as playwright Tony Kushner and actors Mandy Patinkin and Theodore Bikel.
They praised the "brave decision" by Israeli theater professionals who “have refused to allow their work to be used to normalize a cruel occupation which they know to be wrong.”
"Most of us are involved in daily compromises with wrongful acts,” the letter said. “When a group of people suddenly have the clarity of mind to see that the next compromise looming up before them is an unbearable one — and when they somehow find the strength to refuse to cross that line — we can’t help but be overjoyed and inspired and grateful.”
To be sure, when it comes to attracting Hollywood A-listers, the recent letter does not match last year’s statement in support of the Toronto Film Festival. But many of the big names who weighed in last year on Israel’s side are absent from the debate this time.
Observers on both sides of the issue said the different reactions to the two fights do not represent a weakening of support for the Jewish state, but simply reflect the deep divide among American Jews over the issue of Israeli settlements.
Patinkin, star of the television drama "Chicago Hope" and the one-man ode to Yiddish "Mamaloshen," supports Israel in a variety of ways, but says the settlements "ignite the situation" between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The settlements are in direct violation of the Green Line and of international law,” Patinkin told JTA. “It is now the artists who are standing up and saying, we refuse to play in a new theater that you have built in an illegal settlement, and we are asking the world to pay attention. American artists who signed this two-paragraph piece are saying, we are with you.”
Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, draws a distinction between this campaign, which is directed against a settlement beyond the Green Line, and artistic boycotts directed against Israel in general.
“This is not about delegitimization, it’s about an issue that Israeli and American Jews are divided on,” he said. “A number of the artists who signed [the current letter] are supporters of Israel.”
But, he added, “most are not.”
Sanderson tried to downplay the significance of the letter, saying it was spearheaded by “fringe artists" who "are not major Hollywood performers or community leaders.” he said.
The more well-known actors who signed on are “expressing their personal opinions, they are not representative of Hollywood,” Sanderson said. “Many more celebrities in Hollywood want to have their voices heard in a constructive way, in support of Israel.”
Jacob Dayan, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles and liaison to the film industry, sounded a similar note in an interview with the Forward, saying that the letter did not signal a shift against Israel in Hollywood.
“I think our standing is really, really good,” the Israeli diplomat told the newspaper.
Sanderson said the federation is not planning any counter activity.
The recent petition was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, a national left-wing Jewish group that refrains from defining itself as Zionist. The organization’s executive director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, told the Forward that the “first to sign on were the older ones, like Theodore Bikel and [Broadway producer] Hal Prince, because they remember the McCarthy times and the civil rights struggle.”
Bikel, who more than 60 years ago co-founded Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, said in an interview with the Forward that “there’s an umbilical cord that ties me to Israel, but I have to act according to my conscience.”
The boycott has been condemned by members of the Israeli Cabinet, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The State of Israel is under an attack of delegitimization by elements in the international community,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of a recent Cabinet meeting, according to The Jerusalem Post. “The last thing we need at this time is to be under such an attack — I mean this attempt at a boycott — from within.”
Limor Livnat, minister of culture and sport, also slammed the boycott, warning that the government could respond by cutting support for theater groups that refuse to perform at the new Ariel center.
Livnat, as well as Ariel’s mayor, also criticized a right-wing Knesset member and activists who protested the boycott by storming the stage during a Sept. 6 performance at the Cameri Theater.
(Staff writer Sue Fishkoff in San Francisco contributed to this report.)