Hollywood and Israel: A History
By Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman
Columbia University Press, 358 pages
When the state of Israel turned 30 in 1978, its supporters in Hollywood threw a party in the form of a two-hour ABC-TV variety special. They called it “The Stars Salute Israel at 30,” and they weren’t kidding: The celebrity guests at the packed Dorothy Chandler Pavilion included Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, Billie Jean King, Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr. and Natalie Wood. Walter Mondale was piped in from the vice president’s office in Washington DC, Zubin Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Barbra Streisand chitchatted on the phone with Golda Meir back in Israel.
This dramatic illustration of the star power Israel has commanded over the years serves as the opening scene in Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman’s new book, a meticulously researched and thoughtful account of the financial and emotional ties between two sets of world-class mythmakers—the creators of the Hollywood dream factory and the builders of the modern Jewish state.
It’s hard to imagine that kind of all-hands-on-deck event taking place today, when Israel’s image as a scrappy and beloved underdog has grown darker and more complex and Hollywood more wary in its public embrace. Think of it as the difference between Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), whose heroes are courageous freedom fighters facing overwhelming odds against Imperial Britain and the massed armies of the Arab World, and Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), whose heroic Israeli operatives must reckon not only with their enemies but with their own increasing doubts about the righteousness of their mission.
The pioneering founders of Hollywood and Israel came largely from the same gene pool—Eastern European Jews who migrated to America or Palestine in the early 20th century. But the early studio moguls were extremely cautious when it came to advertising their Judaism or Zionism, fearful of constant attacks from antisemites who ranged from rabid evangelicals to America-Firsters and Red-baiters. But after World War II and revelations about the Holocaust, American support for opening British Mandate Palestine to mass Jewish immigration became a popular cause that liberals and conservatives alike could unite behind. Still, the moguls were extremely cautious about making movies with overtly Jewish themes or characters, under the not-so-mistaken assumption that such films would fail to attract large audiences. The authors’ icy verdict: “Ultimately they were in filmmaking for the money.”
Then came Exodus. Leon Uris, a young Jewish-American novelist and screenwriter, convinced MGM executive Dore Schary to advance him $7,500 for a story about the birth of Israel. The Israeli foreign ministry pitched in with an escort and a government car to ferry Uris around the country, and Uris allowed an official to make changes in the manuscript. The novel, published in 1958, became a huge bestseller and then was turned into a movie by Otto Preminger. Israel helped Preminger as well, giving him a 25 percent discount on every dollar his production company changed into Israeli shekels and providing “technical assistance,” including permission to shoot all around the country.
It all paid off. When Paul Newman, playing the brave, resourceful and incredibly sexy Jewish freedom fighter Ari Ben Canaan, appears 10 minutes into the movie “swimming ashore stripped to the waist with a Star of David necklace glistening on his chest,” write Shaw and Goodman, it marked “a turning point in the cinematic representation of Jews, replacing their stereotypical roles as victims and weaklings with muscular heroes and tough boys.”
More than any history book or magazine article, Exodus—both novel and movie—became for many Americans “the definitive account of the origins of the Jewish state and of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Hollywood and Israel has, as they used to say, a cast of thousands, including Israelis like Teddy Kollek, the Jerusalem mayor who served as middleman on many film projects and fundraising drives; Israeli filmmaker Menahem Golan; and actor Haim Topol, the Israeli crossover star of Fiddler on the Roof, another cinematic event. Then there are Americans such as Arthur Krim, chairman of United Artists and a major Democratic Party fundraiser who was Lyndon Johnson’s informal go-to advisor when it came to Israel, and the aforementioned Schary, who as production head of MGM became one of Israel’s most vocal supporters and later national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
The Six-Day War was the high-water mark of Israel’s popularity. Once again Hollywood rallied to the cause of the scrappy underdog, staging a Rally for Israel’s Survival at the Hollywood Bowl on June 11, 1967, the day a cease-fire took effect. The rally featured then-California governor Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Sellers, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, Edward G, Robinson, Barbra Streisand and Danny Kaye. A week later, a cocktail party at studio mogul Jack Warner’s estate raised $2.5 million in one hour.
It’s particularly striking how many non-Jewish celebrities flocked to Israel’s side during the glory years. Chief among them was Sinatra, who first visited the country in 1962, staging performances to fund the Frank Sinatra International Youth Center in Nazareth promoting amity between Jewish and Arab youth. Sinatra sat with David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan on the reviewing stand of the IDF parade for Independence Day that year. Later he would bring 200 Hollywood figures to Israel for the opening of the Frank Sinatra International Student Center at Hebrew University.
Israel’s status as Hollywood’s most favored nation would inevitably decline. The old-line Labor Zionist leaders who had fastidiously cultivated ties with the entertainment industry were replaced by rightists whose policies and personalities were less palatable to Hollywood liberals. The ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon, followed five years later by the Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, caused many American Jews to distance themselves from Israeli policies, if not from Israel itself. Polls suggest a new generation is less enamored with both Hollywood and Israel.
Shaw and Goodman write that “For Israel, Hollywood was turning into a less reliable, more complicated place.” And, one could add, vice versa.
Hollywood’s turnout for Israel’s 70th birthday in 2018 was quite a bit smaller than previous celebrations: a private VIP reception at Universal Studios. “Hollywood didn’t love Israel as much at the ripe old age of 70 as when it was a vibrant 30-year-old,” the authors conclude a bit glibly. But, they add, “Suffice to say that Hollywood held no party for any other country in 2018. In Hollywood, Israel was, still, unique.”
Glenn Frankel is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post. His latest book is Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic.