Many of the stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame generate as much controversy as the Star of David does, and the media coverage of both Tinseltown and Tel Aviv is often sensational and wrongheaded. But the relationship between the two is something that has gotten much less attention than the much-hyped and much-misunderstood relationship between Israel and America. In Hollywood and Israel: A History, Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman set the record straight about the relationship between Israel and Hollywood and provide interesting insights into both.
In some ways, Hollywood and Israel is two books in one: Part of the story is a business history of the film industry portraying Zionism, Israel, and Middle Eastern affairs and producing movies in and around Israel. Woven into this story is another about American attachment to Israel. Hollywood executives may trade on heroism and sentimentality, but they are as hard-nosed as any other group of CEOs. To them, Israel may be great, but profits are even greater. For that reason, there were very few movies about Zionism before World War II. After the war, a few movies established many of the themes of subsequent movies about Israel, such as Holocaust survivors moving to the Jewish state. However, these movies’ relatively low returns demonstrated that Zionism was not a big box-office draw.
Biblical epics were a different story. In the 1950s, directors such as Cecil B. DeMille made a run of movies that were loosely based on events in the Bible. Since the Bible is full of Jews, there were natural opportunities for screenwriters to add references to Israel and Jewish statehood. Some of these movies, such as Salome, were filmed in Israel even though the Israeli government disapproved of its overtly Christian messaging. Israel’s rapid economic development provided some benefits for production crews but bedeviled location scouts: While the Palestine of the 1930s was full of pristine desert, Israel’s new buildings and infrastructure filled some of the best vistas with anachronistic backgrounds.
The first blockbuster about modern Israel was Exodus, made in 1960 with Paul Newman starring as Israeli patriot Ari Ben Canaan. Leon Uris, an up-and-coming screenwriter, wrote a draft of the novel Exodus during a visit to Israel. His goal was to communicate Israel’s story to an American audience, and he succeeded: The book sold millions of copies, and its success convinced Hollywood to take another chance on movies about Israel, historical, contemporary, or both. The Israeli government, which was hunting for foreign investment and hard currency, gave the movie unprecedented support, and the movie smashed pre-release box-office records.
Changes in the industry limited Hollywood’s interest in ripped-from-the-headlines pictures during some of the most telegenic moments in Israel’s history. After Israel announced that it had captured Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann, Uris began work on a screenplay about the Nazi’s capture, only for the studio to spike the project when it realized that a cheaper made-for-TV movie would beat it to the punch. The aftermath of the 1967 war and the hostage-freeing raid on the Entebbe airport were similar.
Thrillers and action movies were a different story. Rosebud, the first Hollywood movie portraying an Arab-led international terrorist organization, bombed when it was released in 1975. However, Black Sunday, about an Israeli counterterrorist agent helping Americans foil a Palestinian terrorist attack in the United States, did pretty well two years later. Less cerebral action movies such as The Delta Force portrayed Americans and Israelis partnering against Arab terrorists. Israeli jets served as a stand-in for American fighters in Iron Eagle, and Afghanistan movies Rambo III and The Beast were filmed in Israel with Israelis playing the Afghan extras.
Steven Spielberg captured Hollywood’s shift away from Zionism and Israel. His searing Holocaust drama Schindler’s List made as strong a case for Israel as any Hollywood movie. But during the 2000s, his Zionism became more lukewarm. His 2005 movie Munich, about the spies who avenged the murder of 1972 Israeli Olympic team members, may have been designed as a critique of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but the subject of the movie was Israel.
The past decade has seen a mini renaissance of movies about Israel. Beginning with World War Z, several movies have portrayed Israel as a valuable U.S. ally. In addition, spy movies such as Operation Finale and Red Sea Diving Resort have depicted Israeli secret agents as patriotic and resourceful professionals who bring justice to Nazis and protect victims of ethnic violence. Gal Gadot, an Israel Defense Forces veteran, has become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and portrayed Wonder Woman in several comic book movies.
The Hollywood-Israel relationship is interesting not only because of the big names involved but also because of what it reveals about the relationship between Israel and the U.S. In many ways, this book portrays a microcosm of American views about Israel.
Many of the early movie moguls were Jewish, and many of them held the same views about Zionism as their Jewish countrymen. They raised funds to help victims of the Arab riots in Palestine in the 1920s and to help Jewish refugees flee Europe in the 1930s, but otherwise, they were not closely affiliated with the Zionist project. It was only once World War II started that they became strong advocates of Zionism. Ironically, the Americans furthest to the political left were the biggest supporters of the right-wing Irgun militia in Israel, largely because of Hillel Kook’s and Ben Hecht’s tireless and attention-grabbing public relations efforts. After Israel won its independence, Los Angeles was one of the more important fundraising sites for Jerusalem.
Some Christians vied to be the strongest Israel advocates, however. Spyros Skouras, the Greek Orthodox president of 20th Century Fox, unsuccessfully lobbied the Greek government to vote for the United Nations resolution that partitioned Palestine and established Israel. Only a few months after the partition war ended, he traveled to Israel, making him the first Hollywood executive to do so. MPAA President Eric Johnston, an Episcopalian, was one of the pillars of the pro-Israel American Christian Palestine Committee, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him as special representative to the Middle East. Christian-influenced films, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, drew protests from Israelis, but evangelical Christians such as Pat Boone have been forthright supporters of Israel for decades.
For many Americans, inside and outside of Hollywood, religion had nothing to do with their affection for Israel. And contemporary political sorting maps poorly on the past. Bartley Crum, a lawyer who defended the Hollywood Ten blacklisted by the House Un-American Affairs Committee under Joe McCarthy, became a Zionist while serving on a government committee investigating Palestine in 1946. Some of those blacklisted screenwriters, such as Dalton Trumbo, worked on the script for Exodus even though staunch anti-communists such as Jack Warner raised funds for Israel.
Other Hollywood stars liked Israel because when they looked at Israel, they saw things that resonated with them. John Wayne played a supporting role in Cast a Giant Shadow, a biopic about U.S. Military Academy graduate Mickey Marcus’s role in the Israeli war for independence, and had his production company contribute to the film because, at the height of the Cold War, he liked movies that showed Americans helping small countries fulfill their aspirations. Frank Sinatra’s reasoning was simpler: He liked “underdogs.” Robert Shaw, who starred in Black Sunday, disliked Palestinian terrorists as thoroughly as he did the Irish Republican Army, which was setting off bombs all over his native England.
The first crack in the pro-Israel wall was Vanessa Redgrave. A lover in equal parts of Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and the IRA, Redgrave participated in a pro-Palestine Liberation Organization documentary and danced around on camera while brandishing a rifle. When she won a 1978 Oscar for Julia, a movie about saving Jews from the Holocaust, she criticized “Zionist hoodlums.” Other presenters that night, believing that she had other Zionists in mind than the ones protesting her outside, rebuked Redgrave publicly, and she was shunned at the ball following the ceremony. Over the years, other Israel critics have emerged, and today the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement feuds with the Creative Community for Peace over Israel.
Shaw and Goodman argue that “the celebrity capital of the world has for many decades occupied a special position in the U.S.-Israel alliance.” At its best, fiction provides fresh perspectives on reality by highlighting dynamics that are otherwise overlooked. When it comes to Israel, Hollywood does that just as well when the cameras are off as when they are rolling.
Mike Watson is associate director of Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.