There are too many bad takes on the internet as it is, and celebrities only add to misinformation around Israel-Palestine.
In times of crisis and current affairs, there are four kinds of celebrities in the world. The current escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine has exemplified this.
The first are the ones who drink the Kool-Aid of western imperialism, posting American talking points on Israel’s innocence. They tell audiences that supporting Palestine is supporting Hamas (it’s not) and that supporting Palestine is anti-semitism (it’s not). They’re people like Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman and Gal Gadot (who as an Israeli did her mandatory two years in the IDF), who speak with great authority and their followers will listen.
The second – a much smaller category – are those who are clued in enough to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict and why words like “war” cannot apply when only one side is armed to the teeth and supported and funded by western countries.
The third category is celebrities who do nothing. Perhaps they’ll hit pause on posting on social media for a bit to be polite. But life goes on otherwise; they see no need to tick off their fans by “talking politics”.
And then there’s the fourth, perhaps the most piteous. These are celebrities without a clue, but desperate to contribute in some way to ongoing discourse. Their PR reps work overtime to find them ways to prove they’re aware and they care about the world.
The result? It’s celebrities sitting in their lavish homes during the pandemic and singing Imagine, or Bollywood heroes ignoring all issues back home to tell us #BlackLivesMatter. It’s an actor posting a video about how the world would be different if she’d been Vladimir Putin’s mother, and a billionaire singer posting a picture of Gaza with the caption “praying for Israel”.
Now, this works well for less controversial issues like animal rescue or saving the environment – issues that aren’t as contentious as geopolitics. But when it comes to the latter, more often than not, these efforts go horribly wrong.
We are joining hands with The News Minute for the upcoming assembly elections in five states. Over the last ten years, you, our readers, have made ground reportage possible. Its now more important than ever to have facts from the ground. Help us get boots on the ground that will bring you reports, interviews and shows.Contribute
And it’s the mistakes we remember, not the wins. It’s Kendall Jenner’s ad proposing we can tackle police brutality by offering them a can of Pepsi. Or Kim Kardashian telling women to “get your ass up and work” (though we’ll also commend her work for death row inmates).
But why should celebrities speak out at all, you might ask? Their job is to entertain, not assume the position of political pundit. After all, wouldn’t it have been better if Kangana Ranaut didn’t meet the Israeli ambassador to pontificate on “Hindu genocide” and thus the similarity between Hindus and Jews?
The problem is that news and opinions today are driven not by content but by amplification. It isn’t enough to report on issues, you need to attract enough clicks to go viral.
It’s why more people get their news today from celebrities and influencers, not journalists. It’s also why celebrities began hiring social media managers in the early 2010s to craft “storylines” for themselves on the causes they’d like to support, or be seen supporting, while also coming off as organic and authentic.
And celebrities lend a weight to causes that wouldn’t exist otherwise. In 2020, a single tweet by Rihanna on the Indian farmer protests – “why aren’t we talking about this?” – drew global attention to what was happening. It annoyed the Indian government enough that the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement saying “vested groups” were “trying to enforce their agenda on these protests”.
The Palestine question
In the United States, the line between celebrity bubbles and politics blurred long ago, with superstars throwing their weight behind presidential candidates and campaigns. In more recent history, it was the endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 election, and the bitter divide between supporters of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016.
But when it comes to Israel, it’s not as simple. Here, it’s important to remember that western media outlets have acted as cheerleaders for some of the worst atrocities committed by western powers in the 20th century, from The Economist’s support of the Iraq war to The New York Times and its ilk parroting IDF talking points. They sell the version that Palestine is Hamas, or that Israel’s occupation wasn’t an occupation at all.
This positioning – of the US and co. as “good” versus generic “evil” – is also what led to the debacle in the Canadian parliament last month over the Ukraine-Russia war.
On paper, it sounded straightforward enough: After a speech by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, assembly speaker Anthony Rota said a 98-year-old “hero” was in attendance that day, a man named Yaroslav Hunka who had “fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians” during the Second World War. Led by Zelensky and Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau, everyone rose to their feet and gave Hunka two standing ovations.
Hunka looked slightly taken aback. As well he might, because there’s one simple issue here – who was it who fought against the Russians in WW2? Hunka was a member of the First Ukrainian Division, better known as the SS 14th Waffen Division – a Nazi unit.
Here’s a version of that ovation with an edited voiceover to really drive that point home:
The Canadian speaker resigned.
Elsewhere, dozens of celebrities this week – including Gal Gadot, Sasha Baron Cohen, Taika Waititi and Madonna – signed a letter to US president Joe Biden on his “unshakeable moral conviction, leadership and support for the Jewish people” and how they want “freedom for Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace”.
Others like Sarah Silverman went a step further and insisted that it’s really not inhumane of Israel to cut off water and electricity to Gaza.
Meanwhile, you can count on your hands the number of celebrities who support Palestinian causes, like the Hadids (whose father is Palestinian), Florence Pugh, Tom Morello, John Cusack, Zayn Malik and Susan Sarandon. Morello, Sarandon and Cusack have long supported left-wing causes.
A letter was also signed by celebrities like Bella Hadid, Hasan Minhaj and Mark Ruffalo, asking Biden to “call for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Gaza and Israel before another life is lost”.
In India? The usual suspects like Swara Bhaskar tweeted in support of Palestine. Sonam Kapoor chipped in too.
But the silence otherwise isn’t surprising. Indian celebrities are notoriously cowardly. They stay in their line and in some cases, who can blame them? Even India’s biggest superstar, a Muslim, could do nothing when his son was jailed on seemingly trumped-up charges.
To a lot of people, this approach – saying nothing – works best. They accuse celebrities of attempting to use their platforms to “polarise” public opinion. This opinion is influenced by whether or not you agree with what the celebrity is saying when it comes to politics.
But social media has changed the way we express ourselves. We’re living in an age of information overload and where “facts are not facts”.We are – or we should be – checking our news against multiple sources, learning that our media heroes have feet of clay, and depending on Community Notes on Twitter to parse for lies.
Celebrities can no longer get away with phoning in templated messages, posting flag emojis, or signing tepid statements. If they want to participate, they need to put in the work – or pay their PR reps to do that work for them, since we probably wouldn’t know the difference.