Palestine And Celebrity Culture; A Changing Narrative


Ushah Kazi

Married to books, in a relationship with food, playing dress up since 1993. An unabashed pop-culture junkie. Come talk movies and lifestyle with me!



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As of today, more than two hundred Palestinians and twelve Israelis have been killed. And, tensions between Israel and Palestine continue to rise. As a response to Israeli airstrikes, residential areas have been destroyed. At least 63 children have been killed, and this comes after months of alleged harassment and abuse. Globally, there have been calls for a ceasefire, aid and a general support for Palestine. In particular, Hollywood’s brightest stars have chimed in, with the likes of Gigi Hadid vocalising their support. But, lest the recent outpouring convince you otherwise, such support is not the norm. The violence inflicted on Palestinians may, sadly, not be new. But, the open show of solidarity, strangely, is. In the past, words have been minced, Tweets deleted, and statements retracted. 

And albeit still premature, the shifting trends warrant discussion. Reports of human rights violations have been clear. And yet, political and public stances have often been vague. Hence, when the tide is seemingly turning, it is pertinent to ask why. It is important to understand why the conversation was a difficult one to initiate in the past. And, what changes have allowed activism to take on a more robust quality.

The Recent Escalation

This week, the scale of violence facing Palestinians saw a surge. Throughout Ramadan, there had been reports of rising tensions. Palestinians faced threats of expulsion from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood as settlers continued to make claims on the land. And on the last Friday of the month, Israeli police reportedly clashed with worshippers at Al Aqsa mosque. 

Following this, Hamas fired rockets at Israeli neighbourhoods, most of which were intercepted by the Israeli defence system. In contrast, Israeli airstrikes lead to mass devastation across Gaza. Even as the death toll continues to rise, chances of a ceasefire appear to be slim. 

In many ways, the bloodshed seems repetitive, cyclical almost. The tensions in Sheikh Jarrah themselves go back almost a decade, if not further.

However, this recent surge has been called the worst escalation since 2014A noticeable difference, perhaps, being the global response. 

Hollywood, Israel And Palestine; Brief Context 

U.S. support for Israel is in part political, but also deeply personal. Hollywood in particular has had a longstanding affinity, which dates back to the creation of Israel in 1948. For example, golden age icon Lauren Bacall’s first cousin served as the ninth president and prime minister of Israel. This explained her vocal, and at times, allegedly scalding support for Israel. Rumoured to have reduced a teenage Anderson Cooper to tears for suggesting that “something has to be done to help the Palestinians.” 

This is but one incident, but prominent celebrities’ support for Israel has been an open secret. To the extent that in 2014 The Hollywood Reporter published an article titled, “Rule 1. Talk About Anything Political In Hollywood… Except Gaza.” 

It isn’t a coincidence that such a piece was published in 2014. Because, the responses to the violence essentially cemented as much. There had been outcries, of course, and even outrage. But they were met with equally vocal backlash. Often, any critique of Israel’s policy was met either with a “both sides” logic. Or, with more callous opinion makers touting a “they started it” rhetoric. 

By which I mean, that this was literally Joan Rivers’ response. 

A Turning Tide 

If we shift the lens to today, there is a marked difference in public statements. As an example, let’s compare some comedy sketches hosted by gentlemen named ‘John’. 

In 2014, John Stewart kicked off his Daily Show with a faux news segment, where he ‘tried’ to talk about Gaza. Only to be silenced, repeatedly. 

While the segment made quite a statement, its host also said very little. Reminding everyone that the most politically correct way to talk about Gaza, was to not. 

In contrast, John Oliver’s recent Last Week Tonight episode pulled very few punches. Not only did he deride a ‘both sides’ logic, given the power imbalance, he also accused Israel of war crimes. 

And while it is tempting to explain away these differences as coincidental, a cursory glance across celebrity culture proves otherwise. The support has been more vocal, and less vague. Calls to action have been direct, and detailed. Moreover, back-peddling and ‘neutral’ stances have even been called out. So, what exactly changed? 

Well, a couple of things, actually. 

1, Shifts In US Politics 

I’m focusing on American support in particular, because the U.S. is Israel’s most important ally. It is also the most vocal proponent of both-side-ism. Often ending any condemnation of Palestinian casualties, with the assurance that, “Israel has the right to protect itself.” 

Or at least, that has been the stance, for the status quo. But, anyone following American politics will tell you that the country’s status quo itself has been rattled. 

Recently, the U.S. congress witnessed impassioned speeches supporting Palestinians, and calling out Israeli policy. In particular, four congresswomen of colour, who along with Rep. Ilhan Omar make up the “squad” have been exceptionally vocal. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush voiced support for Palestinians. Going as far as likening current Israeli policies to apartheid. 

Of course, there are grounds for this comparison. Earlier this year, the Human Rights Watch detailed how Israel’s discriminatory policies constitute an apartheid regime. 

But the fact that such sentiments found space on the floor of the American congress is noteworthy. Because, it points to how the face of U.S. politics is changing. In the run-up to the American election last year, Netflix released a documentary about the 2018 congressional election.

It detailed the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) Cori Bush, and other women who sought to change the system. The aforementioned congresswomen succeeded, unfortunately many others didn’t. 

The documentary also highlighted how jaded and archaic the American system had become, and arguably continues to be. And finally, it highlighted the efforts of grassroots organisations like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress. In my opinion, this was its most important contribution. Systemic change is difficult, and often thankless. But, once achieved, it has the ability to inspire. 

Squad Goals 

The same 2014 Hollywood Reporter article briefly mentions electoral funding in America. Noting Israeli American billionaire Haim Saban, “whose largesse to Democratic candidates is contingent on support for Israel”. If you don’t know who Saban is, he’s the guy who brought the Power Rangers to America, and then the world. 

He’s also the guy who openly supported Joe Biden’s campaign. And, the guy who very publicly opposed Bernie Sanders

If you want to understand the current Democrat divide when it comes to Palestine, look no further. The congresswomen in question have been able to espouse contrary rhetoric precisely because they are not fuelled by this funding dynamic. 

But simultaneously, their careers have harnessed the frustrations of the American public. What that means, is that they champion a more direct kind of influence. For instance, AOC, even this early in her career, is an accomplished congresswoman. But, she also enjoys the kind of social media following usually reserved for celebrities. In essence, these women are able to speak so openly, because their allegiance is much less muddled. And because they speak out in this manner, they have the ability to inspire others to do the same. 

2, The Rise Of Pro-Palestinian Celebrities 

A lasting criticism that seems to pop up, even now, is that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. Moreover, there has been a deliberate push by some to conflate anti-zionism with antisemitism. The distinctions between the two are important. 

Antisemitism refers to a hatred of  and hostility towards Jewish people. It has been linked to historical and contemporary acts of violence perpetrated against Jewish communities. Zionism, in contrast, is the belief that Jewish people have a claim over the land in the Middle East that corresponds to the historical land of Israel. Anti-zionism opposes this belief. 

For several years, there has been a movement towards linking anti-zionism with historic anti-Semitic prejudices. In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance put forth a new definition of antisemitism. On the list of contemporary examples of antisemitism, it included “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”. Following this, several Western governments started pivoting towards this new sentiment. 

To be fair, there have been incidences where anti-zionist rhetoric has been hijacked by antisemites. This is both abhorrent, but also counterproductive for pro-Palestinian activism. There have always been Jewish religious leaders, academics and activists who have supported Palestinians. Often, they receive the brunt of Israeli authorities.

The fact that they must then also tackle antisemitism is a disgusting reality. 

But, from the onset, there were concerns about writing critiques of Israel off as antisemitic. In 2019, 127 Jewish intellectuals signed a petition against a French bill that equated the two. Arguing that disallowing free speech on the topic, at a time when Israeli policies became ever more aggressive was a grave mistake. 

And yet, there have also been proponents of this line of reasoning. If you have time, I’d encourage you to watch this Intelligence Squared debate. To say that this is a polarising conversation would be the most unforgivable understatement. 

Same Wounds New Words 

Even before 2016, such generalisations served as an underlying current. And because of it, any critique of Israel, or Israeli policy would often be followed up with back peddling. In 2014, this was certainly the case. Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz signed a letter denouncing Israel’s alleged ‘genocide’. And then, released a statement clarifying their respect for Israeli people. Rihanna Tweeted “#FreePalestine” and then deleted it, opting instead for a more neutral stance. 

However, in the past seven years, a lot has changed within Hollywood’s esteemed circles. In particular, the rise of pro-Palestinian celebrities has ushered in a more blunt conversation. Notably, sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid, who are half Palestinian, have raised awareness in a more personable manner.

Their support does not just pertain to a prescient issue, their family history essentially proves the Palestinian tragedy. 

When Bella, along with Indya Moore joined a pro-Palestine march in New York, it didn’t just inspire others to follow suit. It sent a message to Palestinians themselves. That they are heard, and that the world is watching. 

Moreover, when Gigi both shut down accusations of antisemitism, and shared this, she brought the dichotomy to the forefront.

Her stance is an important one, because many of her followers may as yet be on the fence. It is important that they realise that siding with Palestinians does not make them anti-Semitic. 

Lessons From A Queen 

Of course, accidental antisemitism is just one obstacle facing celebrity activism. The other one being this idea that celebrities should not partake in activism at all; because it isn’t their ‘job’. 

However, this view is also changing. Post 2020, celebrity activism has crossed the threshold. It is no longer accepted; but expected. And nobody explained this better than rapper Fatima Warner, or as she is known professionally, Noname. 

In the past, there was a consensus that celebrities speaking out was a risky, even career jeopardising move. The fated Hollywood Reporter article certainly echoes this sentiment. With political analysts lecturing celebrities to say very little when they are clearly “uninformed”.  But as a response to the recent violence, a Tweet from Noname explains why this way of thinking is a problem. 

As she explained it, “if you don’t understand settler colonialism, annexation and ethnic cleansing, fine. But understand you are helping the U.S. fund it with your taxes. We give billions to Israel so they can continue to murder. And murder. And murder. Celebs pay the most in taxes and the most quiet.”

Her point is an incredibly important one. Given that even in the wake of the violence, the Biden administration has pledged its support for Israel. The U.S. gives an estimated $3.8 billion to Israel as military aid annually. And, as of May 18, 2021, Biden approved a $735 million sale of precision guided missiles to Israel. His decision has been met with criticism, particularly from the aforementioned squad. And given celebrity contribution to US taxes, as Noname pointed out, expecting them to stay silent is kind of ridiculous. 

Celebrity Culture And The Bliss Of Ignorance 

Simultaneously, Noname’s insistence that celebrities need to educate themselves highlights another important issue. Often, people operate under the assumption that celebrities are ignorant when it comes to Palestine. But, this is rather presumptuous, and simplistic.

Firstly, to echo Noname’s sentiments; they have the ability and resources to educate themselves. That they don’t speaks to their apathy. But, simultaneously, giving them a free pass often ignores their questionable politics. 

And for this part, let’s talk about superheroes. 

I remember when Wonder Woman was about to be released, and old tweets of Gal Gadot supporting the Israeli army surfaced. Followed swiftly by calls to boycott the film across many countries. Well, there was another scandal, arguably a little more brazen, which went unnoticed. 

Scarlet’s Web 

In 2014, Scarlet Johansson stepped down as Oxfam goodwill ambassador. At the time, she was slated to promote SodaStream, a company that has a factory on an Israeli settlement. Oxfam, famously critical of Israeli settlements, had criticised her decision. And in return, Johansson opted to support SodaStream instead of Oxfam. 

Now, at the time, there was some conjecture about whether or not Johansson was clear about the politics at play. Until, in an interview with The Observer, she revealed that not only was she clear, but she had actually picked a side. As she herself said, “no, I stand behind that decision.” Further adding, “I was aware of that particular factory before I signed.”

The interviewer then brought concerns raised by international human rights organisations about the factory being illegal under international law, to her attention. To which she responded, “Sure, I think that’s the way you can look at it.” And further adding, “But I also think for a non-governmental organisation to be supporting something that’s supporting a political cause … something feels not right about that to me.” 

To clarify, she was referring to Oxfam’s alleged support for the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement. 

But, why must we dwell on this blast from the past? Well, because it’s important not to coddle celebrities. Sometimes, they may not be aware of an issue. Other times, they may in fact be leaning towards a particular side. In this case, Scarlet Johanson’s support for Israel, in spite of human rights concerns, was obvious. So much so, that Israel’s controversial prime minister even gave her a shoutout! 

3, The Rise Of Alternative Media 

At this point, I think all of us will agree that reportage is powerful. Not just because of the story that it unfolds, but also in light of the one it ignores. For the longest time, it was difficult to get the Palestinian story out in the open. 

Often, pro-Palestinian or even neutral coverage was nearly impossible. This is something that you can still notice if you only look at mainstream media coverage. It is also, essentially what John Oliver called out when he referred to the use of “sanitised terms”. 

In a different segment, about the terrorist attacks in Paris, Oliver briefly mentioned HBO’s business model. Noting that it allowed him more freedom with respect to his content. 

In fact, that has been a recurring charm of his satirical news show. Since HBO does not rely solely on advertisement, nor does that make up a bulk of its revenue, its content does not have to toe the line. Often, this has meant that they are able to include controversial themes and characters in their shows like Game Of Thrones. But, interestingly, it has also allowed John Oliver much more leeway, particularly with regards to his segment about Palestine. 

The Lying Game 

Now, I realise that Al Jazeera’s coverage of Palestine has been as robust now, as ever. But, given its own ties to Qatar, I also understand why it has lost fans. But, as the number of vocal alternative media outlets increases, there are ways to verify. 

Most notably, Palestinian content creators and activists have used social media to draw attention where it is most needed. Simultaneously, platforms like Muslim are imperative, because they break down how typical narratives are constructed and framed. 

Working in tandem with traditional journalism, such initiatives are necessary. Not just because they keep the conversation going, but also because they etch out an end goal. 

The nightmare of contemporary activism isn’t complacence, but compliance. The fear isn’t that we’ll think that we’ve won, but that we’ll believe that we cannot win. And as scholars themselves have attested; all of this feels a little too familiar. It’s not just that we feel like we’ve been here before. It’s that we feel like we can’t get out, or that a different reality cannot exist. 

I realise that. 

And I wanted to write this post for that exact reason. I know the devastation begets demotivation. But, I hope that I can convince you to rest assured and believe that things are changing. This time; for the better.

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