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The uses and limits of celebrity solidarity with Palestine

Famous voices can shape public opinion on Palestine, argues Raoul Walawalker, but walking back solidarity statements does more harm than good

5 to 6 minute read

Mark Ruffalo's Twitter climb-down on Palestine

At the grassroots level, support for Palestinian rights appears to have grown louder this year, thanks partly to support from other social movements like Black Lives Matter. Yet, despite Israel’s two-week bombing of Gaza prompting huge protests this May, in the media and online we witnessed much of the same polarising of opinion as previously – as well as not-so-discreet efforts to shut down areas of free speech.

As usual, supporters of Palestine stressed the asymmetry of the conflict, condemned Israel’s strikes and called for immediate ceasefire. In response, supporters of Israel framed the deaths of Palestinian civilians as propaganda used by Hamas, a ‘terrorist organisation’, and accused Israel’s critics of anti-Semitism or ‘ignorance’.

In an era where people sharing commentary on events online has almost become a social convention, even obligatory for some, saying nothing can reflect negatively on oneself – at a time of unfolding tragedy, it might imply insensitivity or indifference. Increasingly, famous people are sharing thoughts, prayers, condolences, and calls for action. 

On some issues, however, the right to speak out seems to acquire extra sets of terms and conditions, especially for ‘influencers.’ Apparent breaches of these terms have consequences, as can be seen whenever the mega-famous make comments critical of Israel.

Celebrity solidarity with Palestine climb-downs

In May, actor Mark Ruffalo felt obliged to apologise for using the word ‘genocide’ in tweets criticising Israel’s bombing campaigns (1,500 strikes in 11 days), recognising that for Jews the word is ‘inflammatory’ and ‘disrespectful’ – but also stating that it was ‘not accurate’, even while Israel was obliterating homes, forcibly displacing Palestinians and responsible for the deaths of at least 65 children during the last bombardment alone. Ruffalo’s actions disappointed many, especially given his reputation for climate and social justice activism.

Paris Hilton and Lewis Hamilton were among other celebrities who retracted social media posts expressing outrage or grief over Palestinian casualties. Some stars explained their revised views by saying they needed to ‘better educate’ themselves before using words like ‘genocide’ or ‘apartheid’. In Hamilton’s case, a deletion may have been made to amend an inaccurate post, although he did not explain his decision at the time. Online, social media followers speculated that stars’ evolving positions might also be to do with agents warning of possible cancelled contracts or sponsorship deals.  

Sudden, Damascene about-turns by celebrities criticising Israel are not new. Ruffalo’s reappraisal mirrored that of actor Javier Bardem, actress Penelope Cruz and others from the Spanish film industry who originally condemned Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza in an open letter to the press. Their subsequent apology for word choices followed reports that Hollywood executives and directors, many of whom are known to support Israel, were angered by the letter.

The prospect of such a Hollywood ‘gagging’ strategy on celebrities (whether coincidental or coerced) is worrying. While not overstating the impact of stars on politics, it remains the case that major movements for civil rights, anti-war, indigenous rights and environmental campaigns have historically benefited from celebrity activist support. Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Jane Fonda, Eartha Kitt and many others pursued causes deeply set against the conservative, capitalist or racist grains of the time – and as a consequence faced career damage, arrest, public animosity, and the types of CIA / FBI surveillance that ultimately contributed to the death Jean Seberg, the actress spied on by the state for her racial equality activism.

Today’s celebrity activists are not averse to speaking out on important issues. But over Israel and Palestine, the apparent ‘best practice’ is staying silent, or advocating ‘peace all around,’ suggesting both sides must exercise restraint, an option the usually unequivocal Greta Thunberg among others opted for. This position dangerously implies symmetry (of aggression and of military might) even while Israel breaks international law through its land dispossessions, and accounts for over 90 percent of casualties caused.

Strategic posts

A minority of celebrities, like Susan Sarandon, remain unafraid to mince words in criticism of Israel. Others have been more tactful and strategic, for example, supermodel sisters of Palestinian heritage Bella and Gigi Hadid – who between them have around 110 million followers on Instagram and 11 million on Twitter. 

In May, they posted messages of solidarity with Palestine by using a mixture of uploaded images of themselves (crying, attending protest rallies) and other people’s content, for example a simplified retelling of ‘the Nakba’ –  the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. Although the Hadid sisters did not make or share comments that were anti-Semitic, accusations of anti-Semitism were still levelled against them. 

In one case, video footage of Bella Hadid at a protest joining a well-known liberation song that includes the line ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ was spun by the official Twitter account of the Israeli Government as Hadid ‘calling for Jews to be thrown into the sea’. This baseless allegation nonetheless later appeared in headlines on right-wing outlets and pro-Israel newspapers.

Separately, Gigi Hadid smartly drew attention to how charges of anti-Semitism levelled against all critics of Israel can be ultimately damaging to everyone, by retweeting a thread by Jeremy Slevin, who is Jewish, to her millions of followers. Slevin tweeted:

“Needless to say, the constant conflation of Jewish identity with one state’s politics is not good for the Jews… It reduces the personal to the political. For non-Jews it signals that if you support Israeli policies, then you can’t be anti-Semitic and that if you are critical of Israeli policies you therefore hate the Jews, both of which are lies.” 

British celebrity Russell Brand took a similar approach in his May YouTube video featuring Dr Gabor Maté, a Jewish physician and Holocaust survivor who detailed the challenges he has faced in condemning Israeli actions. 

Perhaps paradoxically given their stardom, both Gigi Hadid and Brand demonstrated that it might be more effective to lend their huge platforms to the ‘more-informed’ rather than only state their own condemnations. Amplifying the voices of people like Avner Gvaryahu, an Israeli veteran who speaks out on atrocities committed by the Israeli Defence Force, or the young conscientious objector Hallel Rabin, could further underscore that solidarity with Palestine is not a controversial stance.

The latest siege has ended. Since the ceasefire, however, and although much media attention has moved on, there have been more deaths, more questionable uses of lethal force, and more mass arrests following legitimate protests over still expanding illegal settlements in occupied areas. Further tensions were stoked after thousands of flag-draped Israeli nationalists marched through occupied East Jerusalem in June. 

To their credit, Sarandon and a few other high-profile Twitter users are still pressing for awareness and media openness in coverage of Palestine, and it’s important that others are not discouraged from expressing similarly critical views. Condemning Israeli policies could invite accusations of anti-Semitism or insensitivity, but offering platforms to others, such as Israelis themselves speaking out on the occupation, might make an essential contribution to encouraging resolution – by encouraging even more millions of celebrity followers to ‘educate themselves’ on the realities of the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Raoul Walawalker is a freelance journalist

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