Scarlett Johansson controversy shows Hollywood’s fading Zionism

The backlash against the celebrity's endorsement of Sodastream has forced liberal Zionists to reconsider where they stand on Israel, writes Max Blumenthal

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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weekend eye

These are trying times for the generation of liberal Zionist baby boomers. As American Jews, many of them became magnetised to Israel after the war of 1967. As liberals, they became convinced that their Zionism could be seamlessly intertwined with the liberation movements they supported during the heady days of the 1960s.

When they entered positions of influence during the 1980s, they urged respect for multiculturalism and immigrant rights, campaigned for nuclear-free zones, puttered around in eco-friendly vehicles and demanded free-range eggs at the organic co-op.

And at the same time, they rallied around a far-off ethnocracy that concealed a vast nuclear arsenal beneath the veil of strategic ambiguity, while doing everything in its power to eliminate the phenomenon of free-range Palestinians.

They are the PEPs – Progressives Except for Palestine – and today they find themselves consumed in anguish.

If there was any date that marked the high point of PEP-ism in Jewish-American life, it was May 8, 1978. That evening, a star-studded cast appeared before an audience of millions of Americans in The Stars Salute Israel at 30, a nationally televised gala beamed live by ABC from the Los Angeles Music Center.

The stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was filled with Hollywood A-listers, including outspoken liberals like Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft and Barry Manilow. None were asked to ponder the cruelty of Israel’s 11-year-old occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before signing on to appear in the gala. Back then, celebrities leapt at the opportunity to sing and dance for Israel, if not out of genuine conviction, then at least out of careerist considerations.

Of all the stars on stage that night, it was the proudly Jewish singer and actress Barbra Streisand who stole the show. The curly-haired Streisand belted out schlock anthems like Tomorrow and Happy Days Are Here Again to an enchanted crowd, before the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir appeared on a gigantic television screen above the stage to greet her.

The raspy voiced Meir was an icon to many Jewish American liberals, who either studiously ignored or quietly endorsed her Milwaukee-accented denial of the existence of Palestinians and her orders to carpet bomb refugee camps.

“The country needs you, and the world needs you,” Streisand told Meir before launching into a soaring rendition of the Israeli national anthem.

Starting with her donation to the Emergency Committee for Israel during the 1967 war, Streisand’s unabashed Zionism propelled her career. She has been a regular headliner at benefits for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and serenaded Israeli President Shimon Peres on his 90th birthday last year. When she withdrew in protest from a celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary, it was not out of opposition to its siege of Gaza or destruction of South Lebanon, but because the bane of all good-hearted American progressives, George W Bush, would be in attendance.

By marrying liberalism and Zionism during decades in the public limelight, Streisand became the ultimate embodiment of the PEP sensibility that influenced Jewish-Americans baby boomers.

However, thanks to the rise of the BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) movement she is a relic.

These days, celebrities who shill for Israel can expect to be relentlessly harried and forced to declare where they stand on Israel’s ongoing dispossession of Palestinians.

For those who have attached themselves to humanitarian do-gooder causes, the potential for PR damage is considerable — certainly enough to give them second thoughts. As the price tag on pro-Israel activity rises, some performers are quietly opting out of attractive deals before the controversy shatters their image.

But others like Scarlett Johansson, the comely blonde starlet described by Woody Allen as “sexually overwhelming” were not willing to let apartheid get in the way of a sizeable profit.

In January, the Israeli company Sodastream signed Johansson to promote its home soda-making machines in a $16 million (Dh58.8m) Super Bowl ad that featured her sucking suggestively on a straw off-and-on for two minutes.

Johansson, a standard-fare Hollywood liberal who proclaimed in 2008 that her “heart belongs to Barack”, cast her deal with Sodastream as a shining example of “conscious consumerism and transparency”.

She seemed oblivious to the fact that Sodastream operates out of Maale Adumim, an illegal Israeli mega-settlement built on privately owned Palestinian land whose master plan would eventually bisect the West Bank.

Within days of inking the deal, she found herself at the centre of a global controversy, as Palestine solidarity activists homed in on her global ambassadorship with the international aid agency, Oxfam, which opposes all Israeli settlement activity.

With demands rising for Oxfam to cut ties with Johansson, the actress published a crafted press release, with apparent help from her PR handlers.

Johansson claimed that Sodastream was “supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights” in its settlement factory, recycling the paternalistic arguments familiar to apologia for the apartheid regime of South Africa. The deeper she waded into the controversy, the more she confirmed her indifference to the facts on the ground in occupied territory.

After more than a week of internal dissension and high-level anxiety, Oxfam finally compelled Johansson to withdraw her ambassadorship.

What at first seemed like an enviable endorsement deal had transformed into a PR nightmare for one of Hollywood’s rising stars.

Johansson had become the target of widespread derision on social media, with viral internet memes mocking her cynical motives and humanitarian pretensions. The campaign gained so much mainstream traction that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in on Twitter, calling BDS “immoral and unjust”.

Shaken by the PR catastrophe, operatives from Israel’s multibillion dollar propaganda machine rallied around Johansson, deploying a series of dunderheaded and downright weird social-media postings, demanding supporters thank her for combating “hate and bigotry”.

Unlike Streisand, an ardent Zionist who acted on her convictions, Johansson had never visited the Holy Land or expressed any opinion about the place prior to her endorsement deal with Sodastream. Whether she liked it or not, the clueless starlet had suddenly become the new poster-girl for Zion.

Unlike the behaviour of pro-Israel PR operatives, which was amusingly predictable, the liberal Zionist reaction was stunning to behold.

Having always insisted that they were personally opposed to Israel’s settlement enterprise, major pro-Israel liberals were forced to demonstrate their stated principles. Asked about the campaign against Sodastream during a Huffpost Live segment, Jewish Daily Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner typified the mealy-mouthed liberal Zionist response: “It’s complicated … we’re trying to sort it out.”

A week later, she orchestrated an editorial denouncing settlement boycotts as “unfair”. By closing ranks with right-wing partisans of Greater Israel, Eisner and a chorus of liberal Zionists revealed their claims to reject the settlement enterprise as empty bluster.

As the discussion on Israel-Palestine slips from their control, the greying band of PEPs has nowhere to turn but the past. All they have are dreams of the magical night in 1978 when Streisand stood in the spotlight of Hollywood, sang for Israel, and the nation cheered. They are marching forward against BDS in a rosy haze of nostalgia, united by the terror of what lies beyond.

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel

On Twitter: @MaxBlumenthal