Hollywood And Israel: A History

Hollywood’s relationship with Israel is deep and wide-ranging and reaches back to the days when Zionists sought to establish a sovereign state in Palestine. Historians Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman examine this topic in Hollywood and Israel: A History, published by Columbia University Press.

Their comprehensive and readable volume touches every conceivable angle. “It is about where politics, war, diplomacy and celebrity intersect,” the British and Israeli authors write. “It is about the interconnectedness between identity, ethnicity and capitalism.”

They also shed light on Israel’s “privileged status” within the world’s most powerful and influential entertainment industry and on contentious issues like Jewish power in the American media.

In addition, they argue that Hollywood occupies an important place in American politics, that Israel has always regarded Hollywood as a focal point of its public relations strategy, and that famous entertainers and movie stars have lobbied for or supported Israel financially and politically.

Hollywood, in short, has been one of the “great cultural gluing agents” in the United States’ strategic alliance with Israel, “forging and magnifying pro-Israel sentiments in American society … Given Hollywood’s power to entertain and persuade, this has been of inestimable value to Israel and its American supporters.”

In recent years, Israel has been subjected to a torrent of criticism in the United States, but the “love affair” between Hollywood and Israel has proven resilient, Shaw and Goodman contend.

Interestingly enough, cinema and political Zionism both emerged in the late 1890s. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, regarded moving pictures as an integral segment of his cause. The authors do not elaborate on this point, but note that the earliest Hollywood moguls — Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer, among others — provided financial and moral support for the Zionist project in British Mandate Palestine, where American films had cornered more than half of the market.

Paul Muni, left, greets Ben Hecht in 1946

One of its stars, the Jewish actor Paul Muni, visited Palestine in 1938, becoming the first Hollywood celebrity to set foot in the Holy Land. In the meantime, Zionist propagandists were developing a local film industry, which yielded a 1935 documentary, Land of Promise, a travelogue concerning Zionist achievements in Palestine.

The Land of Promise

During this era, the vaudeville singer, dancer and comedian Eddie Cantor was the most prominent Zionist fundraiser. The first Hollywood celebrity to contribute funds to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he raised $500,000 for German Jewish children in Palestine. Paulette Goddard, the half-Jewish Hollywood actress, donated $10,000 to a scholarship bearing her name at that university.

Ben Hecht, a former Chicago journalist and Hollywood’s best-paid screenwriter in the interwar years, joined forces with activist Hillel Kook to publicize Zionism. Hecht’s pageant, We Will Never Die, drew immense audiences in the early 1940s. In 1946, Hecht wrote another pageant, A Flag Is Born, which starred a newcomer named Marlon Brando.

Bette Davis

After World War II, actors and directors running the gamut from Melvyn Douglas and Humphrey Bogart to Bette Davis and Orson Welles supported the Zionist demand for mass Jewish migration to Palestine.

The first U.S.-made feature film about Palestine, My Father’s House, an initiative of the Zionist organization the Jewish National Fund, appeared in 1947. During the final months of the British Mandate, the writer Meyer Levin made The Illegals, which follows the flight of a fictional young Jewish couple from Poland to Palestine.

My Father’s House in New York City

Moshe Pearlman, the first spokesman of the Israeli armed forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, understood the importance of cinema to burnishing Israel’s image. Along with Reuven Dafni, Israel’s first consul in Los Angeles, he worked tirelessly to bring Hollywood film productions to Israel.

Moshe Pearlman in 1951

Hollywood’s first feature film about the birth of Israel, a drama titled Sword in the Desert, was released in the summer of 1949. Shot in California, it appeared shortly after the first Arab-Israeli war. “The beaches of Monterey served as the shores of Palestine and a ranch … near Los Angeles fronted as a dust-beaten kibbutz,” the authors disclose.

The major players in Sword in the Desert

Otto Preminger, the director of the 1960 blockbuster Exodus, attempted to make a film about Israel in the early 1950s, but he came up short. The actor and director Charlie Chaplin similarly  expressed an interest in making a picture there, but the McCarthy witch-hunt ruined his plan.

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited MGM’s studios in 1951. Two years later, The Juggler appeared. Written by Michael Blankfort and starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor who settles in Israel, it was the first Hollywood feature film set in Israel and made there. Douglas was smitten by Israel and remained a lifelong supporter.

Spyros Skouras

The authors examine Hollywood’s foray into biblical epics, which offered Israel, desperate for foreign currency, a golden opportunity to attract U.S. dollars. Spyros Skouras, the Greek Orthodox president of Twentieth Century-Fox and the first Hollywood mogul to visit Israel, played a role in this trend.

Exodus, probably the greatest Hollywood film about Israel, was the culmination of the Israeli government’s effort to harness Hollywood’s power. To that end, the Foreign Ministry assigned an official to escort Leon Uris — the Jewish American author who had catapulted to fame with his war novel Battle Cry — around the country for several months in 1956.

Uris had signed concurrent contracts with a major publishing house and a Hollywood studio to write a novel and a screenplay about Israel’s struggle for independence. Exodus, published in 1958, was a success, with two million copies sold in the United States. Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir reported that it contained “a lot of kitsch.” Ben-Gurion thought it was a first-rate “propaganda book.”

Preminger arrived in Israel in 1958 and was promised all possible assistance by government ministers. Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthty hysteria, was hired as screenwriter. His screenplay was “tilted to the Israeli side, in some respects even more than the book,” Shaw and Goodman write. Paul Newman, who was Jewish on his father’s side, and Eva Maria Saint, who was married to a Jew, were chosen as the lead actors.

Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint in Exodus

Filming began in March 1960, with the Israeli army supplying trucks and groups of soldiers to act as British military units. Exodus, shot over a period of three months in Israel and Cyprus, offered Israel an excellent opportunity to show off its sights to American journalists.

“With its stellar cast, Technicolor hues, beautiful landscapes, authentic locations, and Ernest Gold’s soaring score, Preminger’s Exodus was for Zionists in many ways a perfect on-screen accompaniment to Uris’ novel,” say Shaw and Goodman.

Although critics panned its distortions and melodrama, Exodus was very popular and lucrative. Arab states and Turkey, however, banned it.

After Exodus, Preminger directed Rosebud (1975), the first Hollywood film to highlight the threat of Arab terrorism. It bombed at the box office and dealt a heavy blow to his career.

Capitalizing on Exodus’ popularity, Israel tried to cajole Hollywood to turn its attention to the pro-Zionist British intelligence officer Orde Wingate and the Masada rebellion. These projects flopped, yet Hollywood proceeded to crank out two more movies about Israel — Judith and Cast A Giant Shadow — which were released in 1966.

Sophia Loren in Judith

The first, starring Sophia Loren, was inspired by the memoirs of a refugee from Nazi Germany and was the first Hollywood film shot entirely in Israel. The second, starring Kirk Douglas and John Wayne, was based on the life of Mickey Marcus, an ex-U.S. army officer who was killed in a friendly fire incident in Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

Kirk Douglas in Cast A Giant Shadow

Regarding Cast A Giant Shadow as an important Zionist answer to the film Lawrence of Arabia, Israel used it as a fund-raising vehicle in the United States.

During the 1960s, when Hollywood movies still accounted for about half of the films shown in Israeli theaters, Israel took its first serious steps to develop an indigenous movie industry. The Hollywood screenwriter Carl Foreman contributed to this objective by conducting a film writing seminar at the Hebrew University and planning the creation of Israel’s first film school at Tel Aviv University.

Contrary to expectations, Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War did not produce a bumper crop of Hollywood films about Israel. Shaw and Goodman attribute this to Hollywood’s  disappointment concerning the meager profits that Judith and Cast A Giant Shadow generated and the baneful influence of the Arab boycott of Israel.

Hollywood moguls, though, never ceased being pro-Israel. Arthur Krim, a key fundraiser in the Democratic Party and the co-chairman of the United Artists studio, which had financed Exodus and Cast A Giant Shadow, used his clout to persuade U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to adopt a firmer pro-Israel position during and after the Six Day War.

Dore Schary, another Hollywood stalwart, launched a campaign to pressure Coca-Cola to build a soft drink plant in Israel, something the company had refused to do out of fear of offending the Arabs.

As Shaw and Goodman point out, some of the leading mega-stars in Hollywood were resolutely in Israel’s camp.

Elizabeth Taylor at the Western Wall in 1975

Elizabeth Taylor, a convert to Judaism, was a generous benefactor to Israel. In 1959, she purchased $100,000 worth of Israel Bonds. The Arab League blacklisted her and her films due to her close identification with Israel.

Frank Sinatra, a friend of Israel

Frank Sinatra, who appeared in Ben Hecht’s pageant We Will Never Die and Cast A Giant Shadow, was drawn to Israel out of an aversion to racial bigotry.  He donated funds to build a youth centre in Nazareth and a student center at the Hebrew University, both in his name. And in 1972, he gave $250,000 to Israel Bonds.

Barbra Streisand and Leah Rabin, left, the wife of Yitzhak Rabin, in 1968

Barbra Streisand donated funds for the construction of a Hebrew University building on Mount Scopus named after her late father.

Danny Kaye paid more visits to Israel than any other Hollywood celebrity.

Danny Kaye

Woody Allen publicly backed the establishment of a pro-Israel political action group during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sherry Lansing, the first female president of Twentieth Century-Fox, urged colleagues in that year to do everything in “our power for Israel’s survival.”

Steven Spielberg, whose movie Munich was the most important Hollywood film about Israel since Exodus, was instrumental in the establishment of a Jewish cinema archive at the Hebrew University.

Two years after Munich’s appearance, Adam Sandler came out with You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Hollywood’s first farce about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel’s Entebbe commando raid in Uganda in 1976 led to a profusion of films, notably Victory at Entebbe, Operation Thunderbolt, Raid on Entebbe, The Delta Force and Black Sunday, which the authors describe as Hollywood’s first “fully-fledged terrorism blockbuster.”

Vanessa Redgrave and Palestinian friends

The British actress Vanessa Redgrave, a Palestinian sympathizer, broke the pro-Israel mould by virtue of her 1977 documentary, The Palestinian, and her appearance at the 1978 Academy Awards ceremony, during which she delivered what was widely regarded as an inflammatory speech in support of their cause.

Hanna K, directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, went against Hollywood’s grain inasmuch as it did not glorify Israel. Released in 1983, it attempted to walk a fine line between Israel and the Palestinians, but it was a box office failure, lacking the pace, intrigue and excitement of his previous thrillers Z and State of Siege.

Hanna K was followed by The Little Drummer Girl, which humanized the Palestinians and suggested that Palestinian violence was understandable.

By the late 1990s, the authors claim, “the shine had started to come off the Hollywood-Israel relationship” due to the increasing doubts about Israeli policies in the occupied territories and the concomitant popularity of the Palestinian narrative. This was a period when divisions between liberals and conservatives in Hollywood surfaced. “For Israel, Hollywood was turning into a less reliable, more complicated place,” Shaw and Goodman observe.

Ironically, the greatest challenge to Hollywood’s cosmetic portrayals of the Arab-Israeli dispute came not from within, but from Israeli filmmakers themselves in movies like Beaufort (2007), Waltz With Bashir (2008), Ajami (2009) and The Gatekeepers (2012).

Palestinians, of course, were always critical of Israel. With his thriller Omar (2014), the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad railed against Hollywood perceptions of Israel. A story of a Palestinian Arab in the West Bank forced to collaborate with the Israeli secret service, Omar was the first Palestinian picture to be nominated for an Oscar.

Four Israelis — Arnon Milchan, Haim Saban, Gal Gadot and Gideon Raff — have exerted influence in Hollywood.

Haim Saban

Milchan produced Pretty Woman, The King of Comedy and Once Upon A Time in America. Saban, the creator of the Power Rangers television franchise, funded The Saban Center for Middle East Policy and advised Hillary Clinton on Israeli affairs when she was U.S. secretary of state between 2009 and 2013.

Gal Gadot

Gadot, the super heroine of the Wonder Women series, is probably the most high-profile Israeli actress in Hollywood. Raff, a screenwriter, created the American version of Homeland, a successful spy drama, and The Spy, the Netflix mini-series about Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who was executed in Syria in 1965 after infiltrating the uppermost levels of the Syrian regime.