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Mixed feelings on Hamas attack among Jews in Hollywood

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HOLLYWOOD: The response to the Oct. 7 assault, and to Israel’s retaliation, has revealed a schism in the entertainment world that many did not realize was there. The following is a reproduction of the New York Times report.

With the exception of the rare conservative, Hollywood has long seemed to exist in an ideological bubble — a bastion of progressive politics, where Jewish people have thrived, Democratic politicians have been celebrated and stars have espoused liberal ideas from the Oscar stage and rushed to support movements like Black Lives Matter.

For the most part, people in the entertainment world could trust that they were on the same political page.

That changed abruptly with the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Reactions to the assault, and to Israel’s retaliation, have revealed a schism that many in Hollywood did not realize was there, and it has left many Jews feeling like outsiders in an industry they founded and where they have long felt safe and supported.

“There are divides that never really get talked about,” said the veteran screenwriter Barry Schkolnick, whose credits include TV shows like “Law & Order” and “The Good Wife.” “This has brought them to the surface, and it’s hurtful and disorienting.”

Many say they are disillusioned — and angered — by the trickle of public condemnation from Hollywood regarding the Oct. 7 attack. There was no flood of support on social media from celebrities. Most studios initially tried to duck, staying silent. One leading union, the Writers Guild of America, refused to put out a statement, and stuck with its decision in the face of enormous backlash from hundreds of its members.

The silence has been deafening,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Wrap, an entertainment trade news site, on Oct. 12.

A few statements and open letters condemning the Hamas attacks started to arrive. But the damage had been done.

To the producer Jeremy Steckler, “the lack of support feels like they’re punching me in my heart and in my identity.”

“I’ve never been somebody who’s been highly attentive to identity or specific religion,” he said. “I’ve always just thought I was in this little bubble and everyone’s supportive and it’s L.A. and no big deal. It’s really in the last week, have I woken up and felt othered.”

While the effect is pronounced in Hollywood, where there is a large Jewish presence, the entirety of liberal America has been similarly convulsed. On Capitol Hill, across college campuses and among progressive activist groups and philanthropies, a raw divide has emerged. On one side, there is ardent support for Israel. On the other is an energized faction who view the Palestinian cause as an extension of the racial and social justice movements that swept through the United States in the summer of 2020. And there are others, including Jewish people, calling for a cease-fire.

In Hollywood, the most prominent example of the fraught nature of the moment is the controversy involving the writers’ guild, which represents more than 11,000 screenwriters.

Jewish writers reacted with horror to the guild’s refusal to condemn the attacks on Israel. Some threatened to leave the union, while others, including the writer and producer Marc Guggenheim (“Arrow,” “Carnival Row”), said they were withholding dues. But an anonymous pro-Palestinian group calling itself WGA for Peace applauded the union’s decision, saying its members were scared to identify themselves because they would be labeled antisemitic.

“After Oct. 7, it wouldn’t have been hard for people to put out statements that said under no circumstances is rape or murder or kidnapping of civilians acceptable — and we need to work toward a just future for Jews and Palestinians in Israel and Palestine,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and senior rabbi of Ikar, a congregation in Los Angeles where many screenwriters, directors and Hollywood executives are members.

“But that’s not what happened,” she said. “And so as a result, a lot of people are shocked, afraid.”

The situation with the writers’ guild intensified on Oct. 15 when a group of more than 300 writers, including Jerry Seinfeld, Eric Roth (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) and Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) sent an open letter to guild leaders asking why they had not publicly denounced the attack on Israel, as the other major Hollywood unions had. The initial response to the letter came in an email to members from Meredith Stiehm, president of the Writers Guild of America West. She wrote that the lack of a public response was because “the board’s viewpoints are varied, and we found consensus out of reach.”

That made the situation worse. Faced with a growing rebellion, the guild ultimately released a public statement in which it condemned the attack and tried to explain its initial silence. It said it was not “because we are paralyzed by factionalism or masking hateful views” but rather because “we are American labor leaders, aware of our limitations and humbled by the magnitude of this conflict.”

The statement mollified some people, but many felt it fell far short of what was needed. Some outraged writers said they felt betrayed, pointing out that they were loyal to the guild during a strike that ended last month. The guild was able to negotiate what its leaders called an “exceptional” new contract with studios in large part because of union solidarity.

“There has been a sense of community in the W.G.A. and taking care of each other over the past five months — and then, suddenly, silence when Jewish members needed support,” Mr. Schkolnick said. He added, “A lot of people have pointed to the statements — important statements — the union made about Black Lives Matter and everything else. Now, suddenly they’re rendered mute?”

The pro-Palestinian group of anonymous guild members circulated its petition last week to push against “recent pressure campaigns by certain high-profile members of our guilds to issue statements in support of Israel amidst its ongoing siege of Gaza.” More than 300 people added their initials, explaining that they were afraid of “being doxxed or blacklisted” as antisemitic if they signed their names. The group claimed the initial refusal by the writers’ guild to release a statement as a victory.

“Please keep speaking out knowing that you are not alone, and you are on the right side of history (and they can’t fire all of us!),” the group wrote in a post on Medium on Wednesday.

The New York Times requested an interview with an organizer for the group. A representative declined to speak on the record, saying in an email, “Anonymity is critical for us in this time of heightened censorship.”

Highlighting the heterogeneous views, a group including boldfaced names like Paul Rudd and Ben Stiller issued a public letter to President Biden, thanking him for his diplomatic efforts and urging “the fight for their freedom to continue until all hostages are home.” Another group, including notables like Ben Affleck and Tony Kushner, signed a separate letter also addressed to Mr. Biden, urging him to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and Israel. Bradley Cooper signed both.

Divisions were also on display when a prominent agent at the Creative Artists Agency posted messages on Instagram that used the word “genocide” in describing Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza. The agent, Maha Dakhil, represents stars like Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon. She quickly removed the post, issued an apology and resigned from an internal leadership position at the company.

Ms. Dakhil lost a prominent client: the screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin, who decamped for a rival agency and said in a statement, “Maha isn’t an antisemite, she’s just wrong.”

Rabbi Brous noted that while many Jewish people “have found a home in Hollywood,” their relationship to the entertainment business has not been without complications. There is a history of antisemitism in the industry, from stereotypical characterizations of Jews in films and television shows to the false trope that Jews control the media.

While the controversy within the writers’ guild has not resulted in any violence, Jewish people are on edge as hate crimes and antisemitism have spiked in the United States since the Hamas attack. According to a report on Tuesday from the Anti-Defamation League, incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault had increased by 388 percent in the past three weeks, compared with the same period last year.

And there are ways in which Hollywood’s Jewish community has recently begun to feel taken for granted.

Bitter feelings linger, for instance, over the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The museum opened in late 2021 with a focus on diversity and inclusion; exhibits highlighted the often-overlooked contributions that women and people of color made to the art form. But the Jewish immigrants who founded the studio system were barely mentioned. After complaints, including from Haim Saban, the Israeli-American media entrepreneur who had donated $50 million to the museum, curators scrambled to put together a new permanent exhibition on the Jewish founders. It has not yet opened.

In part because Jewish immigrants founded Hollywood as a way to escape the antisemitism they faced in more established industries, this current moment of agitation feels profound.

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