BDS and Celebrity

I seem to have gotten through the last US election without paying attention to how Bruce Willis or Whoopi Goldberg wanted me to vote. In fact, the whole notion of celebrity political endorsement has always struck me as somewhat silly.

After all, actors and actresses (even the most well-paid among them) are craftsmen, just like fine carpenters or chefs. And if they have a reputation as being wiser than members of these other professions, perhaps it is because: (1) their craft is the ability to convincingly deliver clever and articulate dialog; and (2) that dialog is provided to them by teams of writers who hone and polish words to ensure that they are clever and articulate before being placed into an actor’s mouth.

I swiped that observation from someone’s online essay I’ve since lost that also brought up the interesting point that the actors who have actually gone into politics (Schwarzenegger, Reagan, the guy who played Gopher on Love Boat) have in common low to mediocre acting skills. Not that some of them (notably Schwarzenegger) have not had successful acting careers, but they have largely succeeded by avoiding roles that would stretch so-so talent past its limitations.

In contrast, much better actors who occasionally threaten to run for high office (such as Warren Beatty), never seem to work up the nerve to actually expose themselves to the will of voters. And who can blame them? If you’re Martin Sheen, why bother to run for President in an uncontrolled environment called reality when you can play the President on TV, ensuring that you win all the major fights and get all the best lines, even if you encounter occasional setbacks (sometimes triggered by fate, sometimes by your character’s tragic, but sympathetic, character flaws).

This is a long way of asking whether we should care about which celebrities are or are not choosing to visit Israel this year. After all, if Harvard or the Presbyterian Church chose to boycott or divest from Israel (neither has), that would imply that the moral weight of these centuries-old institutions was now bearing down in judgment on the Jewish state. But can the same moral weight be assigned to Meg Ryan?

Why bring up Meg Ryan, you ask? Well, apparently, her decision to skip the Jerusalem Film Festival is being hailed as the latest and greatest victory in the BDS culture wars. Oh, I’m sorry… you were asking “Who is Meg Ryan?” Well she’s appeared in a couple of Simpson’s episodes. And she was pretty funny in When Harry Met Sally in the 1980s. And she’s married to Dennis Quaid. In short, her decisions regarding what festivals to jet off to carries the same political and moral power as decisions made by Jethro Tull regarding where he will play his electric flute.

In the press releases hailing Ryan’s decision to skip Jerusalem, the BDSers also fingered Dustin Hoffman as allegedly joining their boycott, an allegation that turned out to be (surprise! surprise!) another hoax. But even if an acting heavyweight like Hoffman had joined a light comic actress in skipping a particular film festival, what does this represent beyond putting attending or not attending Israeli cultural events on the menu of moral indulgences available to the rich and famous?

Even if we accept the highly questionable notion that being dissed by a well-known (much less a not-so-well-known) actor or singer makes it easier for the next entertainer to follow the same course, what are we to make of the justifications these celebrities are using to explain their decisions? Elvis Costello nearly ran out of server space providing his long-winded, mealy-mouthed justification for screwing his Israeli fans, providing a convoluted argument that completely skirted the fact that his name was now being leveraged by BDS activists around the planet as the celebrity poster-child for their program.

But in the cake-taking department, nothing can beat this quote by singer Devendra Banhart regarding why he chose to cancel his Israel tour:

“We were coming to share a human and not a political message but it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own. We will be overjoyed to return to Israel on the day that our presence is perceived and reported on as a cultural event and not a political one.”

Note the inversion in this telling quote. After all, it is the boycotters that are pressuring celebrities to cancel their Israel appearances, and then turning around to claim (globally) that these decisions “prove” that Costello and Ryan and Banhart et al are all aboard the Israel=Apartheid program. Yet for Banhart, it is Israel that is allegedly claiming his concert tour is a political endorsement (for what he does not say).

Of all the various BDS activities, the celebrity cultural boycott lays bare the distance between rhetoric and behavior. The BDSers have made it clear that they have every intention of making a celebrity’s life hell if they keep their commitments to perform in Israel and have already demonstrated that they will exploit the name of any celebrity who caves into their demands. But the Banhart’s and Ryan’s and other first, second and third-string celebrities of the world who go down this route can always turn their acts of cowardice and hypocrisy into ones of virtue and courage by simply projecting the BDSers manipulative motives onto the Jewish state.

One of the great benefits of fame is the ability to live in a closed bubble, separate from reality and largely shielded from the consequences of your decisions. And while it’s always sad to discover a famous person has used the extraordinary bounty that often accompanies celebrity to spiral into a life of booze, drugs, and sex, at least those indulgences have the benefit of being self-destructive, rather than designed to cause harm to others whom the famous may fly over, but never meet.