True Love or a Marriage of Convenience?

A new book looks at the vicissitudes of the relationship between Hollywood and Israel.

This article is kindly sponsored by the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA

On June 10, 2018, Universal Studios hosted “Hollywood Salutes Israel,” a 700-person private reception to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country’s independence. Speakers included Mayim Bialik, Kelsey Grammer, and Billy Crystal; prerecorded congratulatory messages from Robert de Niro, Michael Douglas, Bill Maher, Gal Gadot, and Benjamin Netanyahu were screened to the audience.

The event’s pomp notwithstanding, it was but a pale shadow of the televised black-tie gala celebrations of Israel that were once a staple of the Hollywood calendar. These reached their pinnacle with 1978’s “The Stars Salute Israel at 30,” a two-hour live concert at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Headliner Barbra Streisand sang to an audience of 3,000 (with more watching a live telecast at Jerusalem’s Hilton Hotel) accompanied by Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic Orchestra, then spoke with former prime minister Golda Meir by phone while a film crew captured the images from her home in Israel. The supporting cast for that night included Anne Bancroft, Daniel Barenboim, Debby and Pat Boone, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, Michael Landon, Barry Manilow, Paul Newman, and Bernadette Peters; the evening concluded with a rousing rendition of Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. The next evening, 18 million people tuned in to a prime-time taped replay of the celebration on ABC. That event, and the palpable enthusiasm it generated, stood as proof of Hollywood’s deep commitment to Israel. 40 years on, while there were still celebrities willing to publicly stand by their support for Israel, the plucky little country was no longer viewed uncritically; the glamor and cachet once associated with its existence had waned, both in Hollywood and in the public eye.

Hollywood and Israel: A History, a new book by the British film scholar Tony Shaw and the Israeli historian Giora Goodman, traces an association that for three-quarters of a century has had marked financial, military, and public relations importance for Israel. Offering a well-researched and lucidly written narrative, they provide an absorbing tale of intrigue, Hollywood gossip, artistic and commercial experimentation, wrapped in a history based on extensive archive research in Britain, the United States, and Israel.

Positioning Hollywood as a bridge between two cultures, the book sets out to show how the US-Israel alliance extended far beyond what was viewed on screen. The activities of these actors committed to Israel’s political future were, at times, able to shape international opinion on both the new country and the Arab-Israeli Conflict—and also affect US foreign policy on the Middle East more directly. Studio heads and key figures in Hollywood, the book argues, deployed the significant political and cultural weight of the film industry to influence American politics.

Tracing the first involvement of Hollywood moguls and Zionism to Jewish philanthropy—albeit of a not-particularly Zionist flavor much of the time—the book details an evolving relationship: at first apathy, then, after the Holocaust, guilt. In between, Palestine emerged as a place of commercial interest. Even with 44 cinemas and extremely high attendance per capita during the 1930s, smuggling and film piracy impacted revenues from the territory. The British Mandate administration agreed to impose a copyright model; Palestine soon became a significant income stream for the nascent movie industry, with more than half of all films screened in Mandatory Palestine coming from the United States.

A rich cast of historical characters populates this book, men who were strongly committed to Israel’s survival, demonstrating the popularity of the cause and the broad support it enjoyed through the late 1960s and 1970s. One was producer Spyros Skouras, a Greek Orthodox Christian and the president of Twentieth Century-Fox, who would go on to become the United Jewish Appeal’s “non-sectarian Chairman.” Another was Bartley Crum, lawyer to the “Hollywood Ten” film industry members who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and admit to their own or others’ involvement in communist activities, leading to their imprisonment and blacklisting. Roman Catholic by birth, Crum served on an official Anglo-American investigation committee on Palestine in 1946 and subsequently became a vigorous supporter of Zionism. On the talent side of the equation, internationally renowned actors including Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra led the Hollywood charge in support of Israel. There were also colorful characters with roles to play. There was Micky Cohen, the celebrity gangster; Dore Schary, an American playwriter, director and producer; and film directors Billy (Samuel) Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, both Austrian émigrés.

Reuven Dafni, appointed the first Israeli consul general in Los Angeles in 1948, and Moshe (Maurice) Pearlman, head of the publicity department jointly established by the nascent Israel Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry, played major roles in shaping the US-Israel partnership on and off stage. It was their personal relationships that proved vital in creating connections between industry insiders and politicians in Hollywood and in Israel. Several prominent female figures—such as Margot Klausner, who headed Israel’s first film studio, and  Margaret Mayer, wife of studio head Louis B. Mayer, vice-chairman of the Los Angeles branch of the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and a supporter of early Zionist propaganda films—are only mentioned in passing, a notable lacuna in an otherwise meticulously detailed work.

The lengthy list of Israel’s champions in Hollywood includes Jews and non-Jews, supporters of right-wing and left-wing efforts to establish and then build the state. While at times bitterly opposed to each another’s tactics, their fundraising, protests at US government passivity over the refugee crisis in the post-war period, and activism against British governance of the Mandate would strongly impact public opinion and eventually even the US administration’s actions. Moments after Israel’s declaration of independence, US President Harry Truman telephoned Crum to announce that he was recognizing the new state—signaling the central role Hollywood played in this decision.

Hillel Kook, who changed his name to Peter Bergson when he immigrated to the United States, saw the media as a powerful influence in shaping public opinion. After he recruited Ben Hecht to his vision, the celebrated writer would become synonymous with propaganda activities in support of Zionism. His “unflinching” full-page adverts in some of the leading newspapers, attacking the indifference of the allies to the massacre of Jews in Europe were only the beginning. Building on a history of propaganda pageantry, Hecht was the driving force behind the spectacular We Will Never Die, which played before an audience of 40,000 in Madison Square Garden in New York in 1943. It focused on episodes of Jewish history and challenged the indifference to the ongoing destruction of European Jewry. With a score by Kurt Weill and a cast that included Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra, We Will Never Die played in Washington DC to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and members of Congress, before travelling to Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. Its final stop was the Hollywood Bowl, before an audience of 10,000. Members of the Los Angeles committee of the production included Louis B Mayer, David O Selznick, and Harry Cohen, all heads of major studios. However, plans for a film version fell by the wayside, as was often the case with Zionist productions or films made in Israel. Despite the ideological commitment to the Jewish people and to Zionism, Hollywood and Israel notes that commercial interests all too often took precedence over ideology in determining the fate of a Hollywood project.

Nonetheless, during its heyday, support for Israel became “one of the great moral causes of early postwar American public life, for Jews and non-Jews alike.” There was consistent support for mass Jewish immigration to Palestine. Among celebrity sponsors of pro-Zionist events in Los Angeles in the summer and fall of 1946 were Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Betty Davis, George Cukor, Gene Kelly, Groucho Mark, Vincent Price, Frank Sinatra, and Orson Welles. Also active in the campaign were the American Christian Palestine Committee; one leading member was Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s principal trade association.

Despite general condemnation by Hollywood’s more liberal-minded Zionist supporters of the Irgun’s 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, Ben Hecht used the opportunity to create A Flag is Born. This story of a Holocaust survivor who dies before he can reach Israel, and of his son who then joins the Jewish underground (played by a 22-year-old Marlon Brando), the film ran for 10 weeks in New York before going on tour. Hecht became more outspoken, horrifying the Zionist leadership in the United States and Palestine, who were bitterly opposed to the Irgun and were “aghast at the damage to the movement’s image by Hecht’s and others’ activities.” Gershon Agronsky, editor of the Palestine Post, denounced Hecht in the British newspaper the Daily Mail; advertisements were placed in the New York and Los Angeles trade press, condemning these Hollywood “playboys.” Hecht found himself increasingly on the outside in Hollywood society, underlining a more general move towards liberal interventions for support. What remained particularly noticeable during this flurry of Zionist activity, though, was the studio moguls’ general avoidance of publicly criticizing Britain. The British Empire remained one of the largest international export markets, particularly with the rise of the “talkies”—which had damaged European studios’ inroads in the British markets, due to the added costs of dubbing and subtitles needed for English-speaking audiences. Despite their sympathy for Jewish causes, alienating such a ready market went against Hollywood’s commercial interests. With the end of the Mandate, many of these self-imposed restrictions fell away, and during the war for Israel’s independence studio heads were at the forefront of fundraising activities for the new state.

Along with the behinds-the-scene history—which for a general reader will likely prove the most interesting—there is substantial consideration of film projects, from the earliest My Father’s House (1947) through detailed analysis of big budget productions such as Exodus. Certainly, the ubiquitous Otto Preminger film is a standard for any work on Hollywood and Israel; however, the inclusion of significant numbers of lesser-known films, and the studios’ constant vacillation between the aspiration to make local productions in Israel and the lack of viability for many of them, offers a richer look at the tensions between ideological and practical concerns.

Despite several attempts by ardent Zionists to make a film about Israel’s War of Independence, the first to tackle the topic was 1949’s Sword in the Desert, written by Robert Buckner. Based on a short story he had penned after visiting Palestine while a journalist in the mid-1930s, it was inspired more by journalistic than political motives. He spent two years trying to get it made, amid concerns that the British would be outraged by the film hampering production. After the British withdrawal from the Mandate, he was given the green light from Universal-International Pictures, with direction by George Sherman. Filming eventually took place in California, the beaches of Monterey serving as the shores of Palestine, and a ranch near Los Angeles as a kibbutz.

The lack of resources and post-production equipment in Israel meant that it was almost impossible for American studios to seriously consider filmmaking in the country, despite Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s enthusiasm. Several ideas were developed. One project advertised in the trade press, entitled A Candle for Ruth, included Baruch Dienar—a young Israeli NYU film school graduate who had an advising role on Sword in the Desert— the Slovakian Leopold Lahola, and Otto Preminger. But like many such projects, it never materialized. The first American film both set and made in Israel, The Juggler (1953), was produced by Hollywood hot property Stanley Kramer and starred Kirk Douglas. It met with mixed reviews in both Israel and the United States but gave Israelis what they really needed: an influx of foreign currency at a time when the state was desperate for ready cash and a sympathetic portrayal of Israel, the latter proving far more effective as indirect propaganda than the now tiresome fundraising films.

Despite dozens of conversations during the 1950s with optimistic Israeli bureaucrats and interested studios, no films were made about contemporary Israel during this decade, due to a lack of commercial viability. However, during this period there was growing interest in films set in a biblical past. Allusions to Israel, whether filmed there or not, continued to feed the general public’s interest in the nascent country. Exodus opened the doors to new filmmaking, but it was the 1967 war, and its triumphant dramatic conclusion that significantly changed Hollywood’s interest in filmmaking in Israel. Several projects, including star-studded productions of Judith and Cast a Giant Shadow cleared the path; during the 1980s, dozens of B-list films would make use of Israel, either explicitly as a setting or as a safer and more pleasant environment for making films set in the Middle East. Filmmakers active during this period included Israeli duo Globus and Golan, whose Hollywood studio Cannon Films were responsible for the low-budget action adventures Delta Force and Rambo III.

The change in Israel’s standing as a moral cause for Americans and the West happened gradually, but with several clear signposts along the way. Support for Palestinians by the radicalized Black Panther movement, along with accusations of Zionist racism and imperialism, cemented a relationship between activist groups through the 1970s. In 1977, Vanessa Redgrave provided narration for The Palestinians, a documentary. Protests over her participation spilled over into the Academy Awards season. Receiving the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Julia (playing the role of an anti-war activist saving Jews from Nazis), Redgrave criticized “Zionist hoodlums” during her acceptance speech. Even though her comments were directed at the radical Jewish Defense League, who had vociferously advocated for a boycott of the actress, this nuance was lost in the reception of her public statement, which was heckled by sections of the audience. Redgrave was the first of a tranche of distinguished Hollywood actors to lend vocal support for the Palestinian cause, which would become more pronounced in the coming decades. The 1978 invasion of Lebanon provoked increasing censure of Israeli actions; while the country still had her stalwart supporters, opposition during the 1990s eventually coalesced in the 2000s into the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which undermined the blanket support Israel had once enjoyed in Hollywood. The rise of Palestinian filmmaking and its increasing popularity and commercial success in the twenty-first century would offer a new look at the situation of Palestinians and increase alienation towards Israel in progressive circles.

But, as Shaw and Goodman show, not all has been lost. A new generation of filmmakers, ambivalent about Israel or Jewish by birth, have started to show increased interest in engaging with the history and politics of the country. A charm offensive by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has helped shine a spotlight on the complexity of the region, and ongoing support from older luminaries including Barbara Streisand and Steven Spielberg has meant that Israel has not yet lost her Hollywood friends. A younger generation of Israeli superstars, such as Natalie Portman and Gal Gadot, have carved out successful Hollywood careers. The growing number of award-winning Israeli productions, and an increasingly developed industry with technical infrastructure has meant that Israel serves as a source for talent and a popular location for filmmaking. With the rise of streaming, the Israeli film industry has found its stride; and as always, Hollywood remains eagerly invested in opportunities for commercial success.

*Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman, Hollywood and Israel: A History, Columbia University Press,  2022, pp. 368.

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