Posted Thursday, September 26, 2002

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It's easier to come out as a gay in Hollywood than as a Jew. I'm frankly shocked at how many people are in the closet about their Jewishness. -- Publicist Howard Bragman

Los Angeles TIMES

Los Angeles, September 25, 2002

In Hollywood, a Small Break in the Silence on Israel

A group of insiders wants Jewish players to take a stand. But the issue's complexity and the industry's assimilated nature are obstacles.



Last May, after a rash of suicide bombings in Israel and the Israeli army's incursion into Palestinian territory, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had breakfast with some Hollywood players. These weren't his usual conservative hosts but mostly liberals, among them TV legend Norman Lear, "Rock the Vote" co-founder and record executive Jeff Ayeroff, and film director Jon Turteltaub.

Most had paid $10,000 apiece for this sit-down, money that was to seed a new Hollywood group seeking to somehow help Israel in the court of public opinion.

After listening to what some perceived as Netanyahu's right-wing politicking, though, many were overwhelmed with the sense that Israel was in desperate need of a distinctly Hollywood commodity: the public relations blitz.

There's hardly a cause in the world that isn't attempting to harness Hollywood's star power to raise awareness and cash. Elizabeth Taylor drew the limelight to the AIDS crisis, for example, and Charlton Heston has become an advocate for the right to bear arms.

Yet the question of Israel and whether to wholeheartedly embrace its cause is posing a surprisingly provocative and uncomfortable dilemma for many in the industry, all the more notable because the movie business was founded by and is still well-populated by Jews. It's one issue on which few are speaking out, rare in a town where people spout off on almost every political concern from guns to whales.

"There's been a puzzling silence," says Dan Gordon, screenwriter of "The Hurricane" and a strong supporter of Israel. "We're in an industry that takes stands on everything. People can't shut us up! I'd love to see the indignation about homicide bombers that is reserved for smokers. You smoke in this town, and you're dead. Rob Reiner will come after you."

Like Jews in many communities in America, Jews in Hollywood are divided, from those who support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government to others who question his settlement policies or commitment to the peace process but don't want to do so publicly for fear of appearing anti-Israel.

Unlike Jews elsewhere, though, those in Hollywood are in the hot seat because of who they are and what they do. They also spring from an industry with a history of ambivalence toward its heritage. And though few in Hollywood are nervous about appearing pro-environment or anti-smoking, there is trepidation about the unwelcome typecasting that being unabashedly pro-Israel might bring. "One of the stereotypes is that the Jews control the media," says David Brandes, writer-producer of the 1991 film "The Quarrel." "A lot of Jews have been intimidated unnecessarily because of the stereotype."

"I don't think Jews in general know what to do, and Hollywood knows even less what to do," journalist-turned-screenwriter Andrea King says. "Jews in Hollywood have never been big flag-waving Jews to begin with. If the Jewish community is struggling, then the Hollywood community is paralyzed."

Publicist Howard Bragman goes further: "It's easier to come out as a gay in Hollywood than as a Jew. I'm frankly shocked at how many people are in the closet about their Jewishness."

Now a nascent effort, spearheaded by a mostly younger group of rising players, is trying to challenge the status quo and galvanize Hollywood's powerful communication machine.

Unofficially spearheaded by Dan Adler, a 39-year old Creative Artists agent who organized the Netanyahu breakfast, the effort, dubbed Project Communicate, this fall will launch a marketing push on college campuses. The idea is "to create defenders and advocates of Israel," says Adler, the son of a Holocaust survivor whose group is trying to navigate Hollywood's political divisions by adopting a non-ideological stance.

"We're trying to be pro-humanity and pro-solution, rather than simply pro-Israel," he says. As for creating advocates and defenders of Israel in Hollywood, that could be a unique challenge of its own.

Israel's consul general in L.A., Yuval Rotem, says he's made dozens of phone calls trying to get a high-profile Hollywood figure to visit Israel and so far has failed. "Ever since March, when we lost 140 people in one month, which was the trigger for our incursion into the territories, I've asked this question over and over again: 'Where have they been?' " Rotem says.

Ever since the movie industry's founding, many Jews in Hollywood have had ambivalent feelings about their heritage. The founding studio chiefs, primarily Jews, were leaders in the charge for secularization and ultimately assimilation. According to Neal Gabler's book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," they tended to compensate for their ethnicity, and rebuff the anti-Semitism they faced, by promulgating an image of America as a corn-fed, Midwestern, paternalistic utopia.

Even today, with the exception of Holocaust-related films and documentaries, it's not uncommon for projects to be dismissed as "too Jewish." There have been few movies made about Israel, although David Mamet is developing a project about the formation of the Israeli air force, as is the production company run by director Robert Zemeckis and Jack Rapke.

"Most people don't identify with what's going on there. They're Americans and interested in making movies and making money," says Zvi Howard Rosenman, producer of such films as "The Family Man," who is developing the air force movie with Zemeckis.

"We are 60 years away from the Holocaust," says David Lonner, 40, a partner at the talent agency Endeavor who also runs the entertainment division of the Jewish Federation of L.A., a social services charity. "And, obviously, out of the Holocaust, Israel was born."

In a recent fund-raising foray for the federation, Lonner encountered at least one producer who was worried that the group's money would go to the Israeli government. (It doesn't.) "Hollywood is a community that's classically liberal and left-wing," Lonner says. "Some people are uncomfortable with the Sharon government and their policies and the government's view on the West Bank."

Others point to the Democratic Party's lack of leadership on the issue and to the absence of former President Bill Clinton. Some of Hollywood's highest-profile players, such as Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, made support of Clinton their primary mode of political activism. They're not as involved in public life now that George W. Bush is in the White House.

Other pro-Israel liberals say they feel isolated by the rightward drift of the larger Jewish community and pressured to toe a strict, unquestioning, Israel-right-or-wrong line, at least publicly. "I think Israel is walking down a dangerous road if it doesn't get out of the territories, but it's hard to say that in public," says one writer, echoing several others.

"Liberals are on the side of the underdog," says writer-director Michael Tolkin, author of "The Player" and "Changing Lanes." "The people who've had their cities turned into rubble look like the underdog. There's embarrassment about being a Jew and a feeling of alienation from the Jewish community, a fear that it's been taken over by the right wing." At times, the left in Hollywood sounds as anguished as the left in Israel.

"One thing everybody shares is total depression and disappointment over the peace process' failing," says Marge Tabankin, who runs both Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, which is devoted to domestic Jewish causes, and the Streisand Foundation, which handles actress Barbra Streisand's diverse charitable donations. Speaking personally, she says, "I don't know where to put my heart and soul in my volunteer time as a person who cares both about human rights and the existence of the state of Israel."

As the U.S. faces the prospect of war against Iraq, producer Sean Daniel ("The Mummy") notes Israel's precarious position in the region. If Iraq were to attack Israel, he says, "there would be an outpouring."

Running through every conversation is an unusual nervousness about projecting private beliefs into the public arena.

"It's clear there's an assumption that the industry is dominated by Jews and that the media industry is very powerful," adds attorney Ken Hertz. "Unlike during the time of [late MCA Chairman] Lew Wasserman, most of these are publicly traded companies, run by Jewish executives who are not comfortable putting their own religious, social or cultural affiliations on the company."

Given the supercharged emotional nature of the debate (which is being waged with heated passion particularly on the Internet), it's not surprising that some fast-growing urban legends have sprung up, including one about Jerry Seinfeld's supposedly embarking on a trip to Israel. (A friend of his announced it in the Israeli press, but the visit has not yet materialized.) Spielberg has been subject to a hoax, an announcement sent to dozens of media outlets falsely claiming that he was making a movie about Palestinians.

Director Henry Jaglom, whose latest film is "Festival in Cannes," is part of the Hollywood crowd that finds itself drawn to the Internet. Jaglom, who describes himself as a "progressive, pro-Israel Zionist who's left-wing," became incensed after he received an e-mail from a producer he barely knew, attacking Israel after the battles in the Jenin refugee camp. He says she sent it to her 800 closest friends, most of whom appear to be in the film business. "She started it. Before that it was a trickle, and now it's torrential," says Jaglom, who spends several hours a night e-mailing the 4,000 people in his Israel address book.

For the most part, Hollywood's boldface names, the people who dot power lists and whose opinions galvanize the community, have not yet publicly embraced the issue. Reiner, Katzenberg, Seinfeld, David Geffen, Harvey Weinstein and Adam Sandler all declined to comment for this article.

According to their representatives, Geffen, Katzenberg, Streisand and particularly Weinstein, a Miramax co-chairman, have donated money to various Israel-in-crisis campaigns. Weinstein has been agitating behind the scenes, meeting with former liberal Prime Minister Ehud Barak and arranging for Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, to meet with "Life Is Beautiful" actor-director Roberto Benigni to discuss ways to combat anti-Semitism in Europe.

Spielberg is one of the Hollywood elite most devoted to Jewish causes. During the last decade, he spent his $62 million in profits from 1993's "Schindler's List" on the Righteous Persons Foundation. Spielberg declined to comment, although his representative, Marvin Levy, noted that "Schindler's List" ends in Israel and adds, "I think it should be obvious to people where his heart is." Recently Shimon Peres, the liberal Israeli foreign minister, has requested a meeting with Spielberg, pending the scheduling of Peres' next trip to the U.S.

One top player who has been vocal and active is Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing. "I've always been pro-Israel," she says. "This is the first time in my life that I have feared for the existence of Israel."

The highest-profile entertainment figure to visit Israel recently has been Mamet, who went to the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer and toured the sites of suicide bombings with Jerusalem's mayor. Sandler planned to visit children in hospitals in Israel in August but pulled out two days before he was supposed to leave because of the bombing at Hebrew University, according to someone familiar with his decision.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who recently analyzed American attitudes toward Israel (partly at the behest of Project Communicate), believes that one person who could dramatically and immediately affect public opinion is "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin.

"He has the ability to explain the Middle East situation in a straightforward, unbiased fashion that will influence America," said Luntz, once a consultant on the show.

Sorkin declined to comment, but he did touch briefly on the Mideast crisis in last year's season premiere. A schoolchild asks Rob Lowe's character what you call a country where you can't go out for pizza without getting blown up. Lowe answers grimly, "Israel."

For the new young activists seeking to draw Hollywood into the fray, the Wasserman legend hangs heavy. A nonobservant Jew, Wasserman privately made sure that people opened their checkbooks. One prominent member of the Jewish community recalls a planning meeting for a Jewish charity dinner during the Wasserman heyday. The MCA leader stood up, pointed to each studio chief or his representative, and announced, "You're going to buy two tables. You're going to buy three tables." Within 10 minutes, the event was sold out.

Contemplating what it might take to galvanize the Hollywood elite, Lonner sighs. "It takes a Lew Wasserman."

In the short term, Project Communicate's activism looks much like Rock the Vote's, which is focused on young people and draws wide support.

The 100 or so activists behind Project Communicate are mostly newcomers to Jewish causes. They include Adler, Ayeroff, Bragman, Lear and Lonner, as well as "Simpsons" writer Jay Kogen, William Morris agent John Fogelman and Art Levitt, CEO of Fandango, a movie-related Internet site.

Last summer, the group hired Luntz to run a pair of focus groups of college students, plumbing their attitudes about the image and rhetoric from the Middle East crisis. The outcome was that "the non-Jews were predominantly open to pro-Palestinian messages and the Jews were utterly apathetic," recalls King, the writer, who attended.

Project Communicate is using Luntz's research to focus its marketing points, some of which the group hopes will be delivered by high-profile Jewish celebrities, although specifics of the campaign are under wraps.

But even Hollywood's most persuasive communicators acknowledge how hard it is to render the Mideast simple terms.

As Tolkin sees it: "Everybody in Hollywood is obsessed with story and used to thinking their way out of a plot. There's no obvious way out of this. I don't know anyone who can get three paragraphs through a discussion of the Middle East crisis without being struck mute."..


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