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Cancellations, layoffs and accusations of antisemitism: The war in Gaza opens a crack in Hollywood

Actresses Susan Sarandon and Melissa Barrera, who were targeted for their public comments, are the most visible faces of the tension that the movie industry is going through due to the conflict in the Middle East

Actress Cynthia Nixon (c) announces a hunger strike to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, at the White House, November 27.
Actress Cynthia Nixon (c) announces a hunger strike to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, at the White House, November 27.Kevin Dietsch (Getty Images)

Kanye West debuted a new song this week in a surprise appearance at a Dubai nightclub. The popular rapper, who was accused of antisemitism back home, traveled halfway across the world to release the song, titled Vultures, in another sign of his fall from grace at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. The hip hop star praised Hitler exactly one year ago in an interview with Alex Jones, a hero of the alt-right. The new song shows that he has not turned the page: “How am I antisemitic? I just fucked a Jewish bitch,” he raps.

The war in Gaza has also impacted the entertainment world, especially Hollywood. Accusations of antisemitism have been exchanged in the American entertainment capital since October 7 and some celebrities are already affected. Susan Sarandon, a left-wing actress who has never bitten her tongue when it comes to voicing her political opinions, was dropped by her talent agency, which had represented her since 2014, on the basis that she allegedly made anti-Jewish comments at a rally in New York to demand a ceasefire.

The co-star of Thelma & Louise who most recently featured in Blue Beetle stated at that rally that many Jews were afraid of living these times in the United States. “There are a lot of people afraid of being Jewish at this time, and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country, so often subjected to violence,” said the actress. Many considered that Sarandon was justifying acts of antisemitism that have been experienced in recent weeks. This Saturday, the actress attributed her phrase to a “terrible mistake.”

“This phrasing was a terrible mistake, as it implies that until recently Jews have been strangers to persecution, when the opposite is true,” she wrote in a statement shared on Instagram.

The historian Steven Carr is watching the situation with concern, although he admits that the current tense moments are still far from the darkest days of the Hollywood witch hunt. “The House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1940s and 1950s dragged numerous writers, directors, and stars — many of them Jewish — before Congress to testify against their will and report on friends and colleagues. Those investigations led to an entire system that destroyed careers, forced some to leave the country and even caused some suicides. Turning Hollywood into a target over artists’ personal beliefs is a characteristic of a persecuting political apparatus,” says the Indiana University professor.

Actress and activist Susan Sarandon was arrested for civil disobedience in 1982 for trying to stop the demolition of the Moorish theater on Broadway. In 1999 she was also arrested for demonstrating in a case of police violence.
Actress and activist Susan Sarandon was arrested for civil disobedience in 1982 for trying to stop the demolition of the Moorish theater on Broadway. In 1999 she was also arrested for demonstrating in a case of police violence.GETTY

Carr, author of Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War II, believes that recent episodes have revived accusations and suspicion against the Jewish community. “Claiming that Jews are in control of Hollywood has always been an old pretext to target them simply for being who they are. These types of accusations were the cornerstone of Nazism that led to the stripping of all their rights until it led to mass extermination,” the historian points out by email.

A lot of this goes back to the origin of Hollywood. The industry was created by a generation of Jews who arrived from Europe. German-born Carl Laemmle founded Universal Pictures. Hungarian-born Adolph Zukor built what became Paramount. Another son of immigrants from Hungary, William Fox, started the Fox Film Corporation. The Warner Brothers studio was started by the sons of Benjamin Warner, a Polish emigrant who had been, among other jobs, a shoemaker in Baltimore. The most famous movie mogul of that generation was Louis B. Mayer, the great boss of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was born in Russia and adopted the 4th of July, the day that celebrates the independence of the United States, to celebrate his American rebirth.

“What is strikingly similar between these Hollywood Jews is not their common origin in Eastern Europe. What united them was a pronounced and absolute rejection of their past and, equally, an absolute devotion to their new country,” writes Neal Gabler in An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, a story of how these men built the foundations of the industry. The author emphasizes that the common denominator of the mentioned characters was their “patrimony of failure.” They had nothing. Their dominance became a target of wave after wave of vicious anti-Semites, from fire-and-brimstone evangelicals in the teens and early 1920s who demanded the movies’ liberation from the ‘hands of the Devil and 500 un-Christian Jews.’”

Allison Josephs, a communicator who fights to change stereotypes about Jews in the United States, believes that the Jewish community must follow the teachings of African-American activism to dismantle unconscious biases. “We need to educate the world about the ideas that are projected onto us. Jews, regardless of their faith or the level of their religious beliefs, love life, peace and seek justice,” says Josephs. One of her projects, the Hollywood Bureau, has been highlighted by publications such as Variety for its battle to overthrow prejudice.

Josephs, the founder of Jew in the City Hollywood Bureau, highlights how antisemitism has surfaced on social networks. “When people with as many followers as Hollywood celebrities make accusations that Jews are bloodthirsty child killers, it puts them in danger because their enemies believe they deserve it,” he says.

The communicator believes that Hollywood has made it clear that there are already lines that cannot be crossed when it comes to minorities or groups. “When this happens, there are consequences. The pain of Jews matters as much as anyone else’s. Celebrities can say whatever they want except incite violence, but there should be consequences if they say something sexist, racist, homophobic or antisemitic,” she adds.

Melissa Barrera, a 33-year-old Mexican actress, recently learned about these consequences. The artist has been fired from the seventh installment of the Scream franchise after a series of posts on Instagram, where 1.5 million people follow her. Barrera called Israel’s campaign in Gaza genocide and ethnic cleansing. Spyglass, the producer of the horror films, announced the termination, arguing its zero tolerance for antisemitism or inciting hatred in any form.

The actress, who debuted in Hollywood with the series Vida, responded to her dismissal by condemning all types of expressions of hate. “Everyone in the world, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation or socioeconomic level, deserves human rights, dignity and freedom,” he said in a statement. “Silence is not an option for me.”

Melissa Barrera
Melissa Barrera (left) and Jenna Ortega (right), in a scene from 'Scream 6'.Philippe Bossé (AP)

Jonathan Greenblat, one of the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, openly criticized the Hollywood Writers Guild, the organization that led the recent high-profile screenwriters’ strike, for not condemning Hamas after the attack. “Hollywood quickly supported Black Lives Matter, as it should, the Time’s Up movement and many other causes. There is no excuse for them not to condemn Hamas and demand the release of the hostages,” Greenblat told Variety a few days ago. Meredith Stiehm, one of the leaders of the writers’ union, confessed at the end of October to a group of screenwriters that there was no public position because there was no consensus within the organization.

Sarandon and Barrera are the most visible faces of what is feared to be a new chapter of cancel culture in the United States. The authors Saira Rao and Regina Jackson, activists against racism who charged against Zionism on social media, have also lost their representation. Maha Dakhil, Tom Cruise’s powerful agent, had to leave Creative Artists Agency because of her political views and claims that genocide was being committed in Gaza. Not even the Mission: Impossible star, one of the most influential men in the industry, was able to save his representative in these turbulent times in Hollywood.

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