Life & Culture

The Hollywood stars who backed - and attacked - Israel

A new book traces the relationship between Tinseltown and the Jewish state


Hollywood’s relationship with the Jewish state is traced in a new book. Jenni Frazer asks its authors about the stars who backed — and attacked — Israel

It is early April 1978 and an impossibly young, shaggy-haired John Travolta, white evening scarf flying over his tuxedo, bounces down the stairs of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to give out the first award of the 50th Oscars ceremony.

And on this glittering occasion, the statuette for best supporting actress in the film, Julia, goes to Vanessa Redgrave. She begins her speech of thanks conventionally enough, but then morphs into full political mode, complaining about fascism in Hollywood and beyond. With two words, “Zionist hoodlums” — Redgrave draws gasps from the starry audience. Legendary producer, Fred Zinnemann, records in his autobiography that “in 30 seconds, the temperature dropped to ice”.

Fast forward a month, and the stars come out again to the same venue, for a nationally televised spectacular salute to Israel to mark its 30th year of independence.
The Stars Salute Israel at 30, filmed live, features every Hollywood star you can think of, names that still resonate today, from Elizabeth Taylor to Paul Newman, a two-hour-long festival of songs, sketches and dance, including, among others, Barry Manilow, Henry Fonda, Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz, dressed as a sabra), Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr, and even tennis player, Billie Jean King.

The evening is topped off by Barbra Streisand interviewing Israel’s former prime minister Golda Meir, and if that were not enough, concluding events by singing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah.

In their hugely absorbing and entertaining book, Hollywood and Israel, A History, the academics Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman trace the relationship between America’s film industry and Israel, as it evolved from the pre-state years until almost the present day. The trajectory is by turns astonishing and hilarious, with the words “who knew?” rippling through the reader’s mind.

Who knew, for example, of the depth of friendship for Israel by non-Jewish stars such as Frank Sinatra, whose name still means something to young Israelis today, in the form of the Frank Sinatra International Student Centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem? Tony Shaw, digging deep into the archives, found an invitation to film legend Gregory Peck from Sinatra in the late 1970s: “Hey, I want to take all my Hollywood friends to Israel. I’m going to hire a DC-10 aircraft, fill it with stars, take you all to Israel and show you how wonderful Israel is. You’ll meet the prime minister…”

Shaw, professor of contemporary history at the University of Hertfordshire, has previously written at length about propaganda, and discovered the Sinatra letter in 2014, while much of the world — including contemporary actors such as Javier Bardem — were erupting with fury about Israel’s actions against Gaza. Meanwhile, Giora Goodman, who is also a historian, who chairs the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, was working separately on “projects which all dealt with the way in which Israel presented itself to the world”. For him, a natural starting point was the iconic film Exodus, particularly the behind-the-scenes machinations with the writer of the original novel, Leon Uris.

When Goodman gave a lecture in Los Angeles on Exodus, a mutual friend in the academic world introduced him to Shaw. The result is a fascinating work, scholarly yet designed to appeal to a mass audience.

“We wanted this to be as accessible as possible”, says Shaw, while kibbutznik Goodman jokes that their natural affinity was compounded by their near-obsessive football fandom (“mine for Leeds United, because my dad’s family is from Leeds, Tony’s for Manchester United”) — and both are clear in how much they enjoyed writing the book.

Shaw emphasises: “This is a proper academic book, in the sense that it comes from the archives. This is really about what the archival treasures can bring you, the private papers of the movie stars, their directors, the agents — and you come across these wonderful examples. It’s a question of knowing where to look — and then your eyes pop out of your head”.

Shaw and Goodman do two things in the book, tracing both the relationship between individual Hollywood “names” and Israel, and the films that were made about the country and actually shot in the Jewish state.

“The films reflect the ideals,” says Goodman, laughing that so many of the early films made by Hollywood about Israel seemed obliged to include “the kibbutz and hora dancing”.
The seminal figure in individual support for Israel and in the films made was Kirk Douglas, the much-garlanded “tough guy” of the movies, whose re-embrace of Judaism after he became seriously famous, coincided with his film work in Israel.

Though Shaw and Goodman tell us that the “first, fully-fledged feature about the birth of Israel,” Sword in the Desert, appeared in August 1949, it did not star Kirk Douglas, nor was it filmed in Israel. That honour fell to 1952’s The Juggler, Hollywood’s “first feature film both set in Israel and made there”. Douglas plays a German-Jewish entertainer who washes up in Haifa after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, bereaved as hiOscars in 1978 s wife and children have died in the death camps.

For Goodman, “the biggest surprise was the discovery that [part of] The Juggler was filmed in the [Galilee] village of Iqrit, which turned out to be one of the symbols of Palestinian displacement in Israel. And [the irony of] the scene itself, in which Kirk Douglas is talking about Jewish homelessness and loss, because of the Holocaust” — because the houses of Iqrit had been blown up by Israel on Christmas Eve 1951.

Goodman says that the scenes in The Juggler showing the ruins of Iqrit “have in retrospect an unexpected documentary power and symbolic significance that neither the filmmakers nor Israeli authorities could ever have envisaged”. Douglas, of course, went on to star in 1966’s Cast a Giant Shadow, about the US army colonel who prepares the fledgling Jewish state to fight the Arabs.

For Shaw, there were also surprises, not least the discovery of a rabbi whose name is barely known today, Max Nussbaum. Nicknamed “Rabbi to the stars”, in the 1930s and 40s, Nussbaum led the important synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, and was responsible for the conversion to Judaism of both Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr. “Because he was such an important Zionist himself, he was also responsible for raising their support for Israel.”

Shaw trawled through Temple Israel’s archives “and really found out what Nussbaum was doing behind the scenes”. He is described in the book as a serious mover and shaker, networking assiduously, and powerful enough to provide on-hand rabbinical advice for films such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Exodus. In fact, it was due to Nussbaum, say Shaw and Goodman, that the word “shiksa”, used to describe the non-Jewish Kitty Fremont in Exodus, was dropped from the film script.

It’s the behind-the-scenes actors who are almost as interesting as the film stars themselves. Teddy Kollek, for example, who we are used to thinking of primarily as the charismatic mayor of Jerusalem between 1965 and 1993, turns out to have played a major role both in cajoling Hollywood moguls to film in Israel, and in persuading writers and actors to visit.

He also schmoozed his Hollywood contacts into giving generously to his Jerusalem Foundation.

Shaw says that he and Goodman were attempting to capture what was going on off-screen as much as on. So we read a lot about the intriguing activism of the writer Ben Hecht, a fervent and outspoken supporter of the right-wing Irgun in the late days of the British Mandate.

Probably most famous today for his acid-tongued newsroom comedy play, The Front Page, Hecht was so involved in Zionist campaigning that he eventually began to write anonymously for Hollywood in case his political activism for the Irgun got him boycotted. For Israel, Hecht wrote and directed flamboyant gala fundraising events and took out full-page adverts in American newspapers, decrying British government policy — to the extreme nervousness of his Hollywood paymasters.

We also discover that the revered Austrian-born Jewish director and writer Billy Wilder — the man behind the eternal smash Some Like It Hot — once tried and failed to make a film about the birth of Israel. Even though he and his long-time co-writer Charles Brackett had apparently developed a skeleton script, Wilder didn’t manage to get in to pre-Mandate Palestine in 1948, growling that the only way he could have entered “was to join the Egyptian army”.

Shaw and Goodman bring the often fractious relationship between Hollywood and Israel right up to date, casting a clear eye on the work of Steven Spielberg, praised for Schindler’s List and mauled for Munich, the story of Israeli revenge for the perpetrators of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes.

And the pair are clearly deeply amused by Adam Sandler’s comedy, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, the 2008 satire in which an IDF veteran becomes a ladies’ hairdresser in New York.According to the early publicity more closely , this was based on a true story, though Shaw and Goodman have their doubts.

One conclusion to draw from the book might be that the gala spectacular of 1978 could never take place today. While there are few who would publicly echo Vanessa Redgrave’s accusation of “Zionist hoodlums” — and it is still unclear if she was referring to all Israel supporters or just the angry members of the Jewish Defence League who picketed her wherever she appeared — Tony Shaw says he and Goodman “only had the opportunity to touch on the impact and role of BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) in Hollywood.”

If, in grand Hollywood tradition, he and Giora Goodman get to write a sequel, they’d like to look more closely at that.

Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman will be discussing their book with Jenni Frazer at Jewish Book Week on Sunday, March 5. For details click here

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