A Tale of Two Jews- Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin (June 24, 2024)

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a scholar and writer, is an international political and strategic consultant. She has advised and conducted research on nine national campaigns in Israel over the past twenty years, and has provided research and advising for elections, referendums, and civil society campaigns in fifteen different countries. She is the author of The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel

In mid-November, about five weeks into the nightmare of this war, the American actor Michael Rapaport told a crowd in Washington “I have never felt this prideful to be Jewish in my life.” In case anyone missed the point, he wore two – not one – Jewish star necklaces. In December, he visited Israel in a solidarity trip, which was nice in itself. But along the way, he gave an interview over beers to the rabid right-wing, Bibi-boosting, warmongering Channel 14. He also spoke at the hostage-release rally that week. That too was nice in itself, but he sounded alternately sluggish or at a loss for words, which he compensated for by using many bad ones. He attacked the Red Cross as a “f*&^%ng disgrace,” as if Israel needed yet another international organization to hate. He said a number of further platitudes, including repeating the hasbara line that this is the whole world’s war, so “get your sh&^%t together.” 

Rapaport then acted in a special episode of Israel’s satire show Eretz Nehederet – whose longtime director explained that his aim at that time was to boost Israeli spirits.  Apparently Israeli spirits were boosted by valorizing Elise Stefanik and the Congressional tribunal that prompted the ouster of U.S. university presidents who had not sufficiently identified all campus expressions against the war as anti-Semitic, and who had failed to suppress them to Stefanik’s liking. 

This is not to minimize the complex reality on US campuses, where there have been anti-Semitic incidents – any is too many – alongside unprecedented pressure to smother mostly legitimate, if radical and sometimes painful, political activism against the war and the occupation. It’s everyone’s right to caricature the university presidents as hypocritical bad-guys (gals), to be sure. But is it right? Rapaport and the not-funny skit glommed onto wildly exaggerated Israeli media portrayals of the campus persecution of Jews, which inflamed vitriol – as if this is what was missing in Israel. 

Rapaport’s characters are often friendly, semi-feckless supporting figures. By contrast, Ben Stiller is a proper comic actor, usually a main character, and his work is sometimes even slapstick. Not that I’m above it – who doesn’t love Zoolander?

It was therefore somewhat jarring to read Stiller’s sober personal essay in Time magazine, and frankly moving. There were no fancy four-letter words. The writing is unadorned, even slightly clipped. In the piece, Stiller laments anti-Semitic incidents in the city where he grew up, and which he loves (New York, where I too grew up, never experienced such things, and still love). He is anguished for his Jewish brethren in Israel, victims of October 7 and the families of hostages. He works with refugees all around the world – which I didn’t know – and had trouble putting his tangled emotions into words. This is instantly relatable: Not a few colleagues and friends who are writers to their core have told me that they too can’t find the words. I too struggle to verbalize this dystopian misery. 

Stiller denounces Hamas’ crimes and moves no less authentically to his own pain for the innocent people who are suffering, displaced and dying in Gaza.  It would be hard to see the latter as lip service, from a person who has leveraged his considerable public following to draw attention to refugees everywhere. That fact puts his commentary about Israel and Palestine into a global context, with the important effect of de-exceptionalizing the conflict. Stiller even makes a simple but rather lovely case for coexistence. His Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother merged their fates, and mined their heritage for jokes – and flourished. 

But what impressed me most of all was something missing entirely from this land, which I last heard never: Humility. I believe it was this quality that led Stiller with a few simple brushstrokes, to the only reasonable conclusion:

Obviously I am no politician or diplomat. I have no solutions for these world conflicts and claim to offer none. I think I, like so many people, am struggling with how to process this all. But as an advocate for displaced people, I do believe this war must end.

Surely, I like Stiller’s article because I agree with his personal opinion. But it runs deeper; there are values and a worldview in there, backed by experiences and personal choices that I respect. When one has those, apparently one doesn’t need f&*^% or sh*t or other cheap shocks to keep an audience.

Still, why spend so much time on two American Jewish movie stars? I’m not the Hollywood gossip type; I don’t do celebrity crushes or read the magazines. But no one can deny star power, and I defend the value of artists using their credibility for political engagement. Otherwise, we would never have had Live Aid; and no one wants to live in a world without Freddie’s performance there.

Maybe Jewish American celebrities can be disarming for Israelis. Israelis can’t reject such celebs quite as easily as non-Jewish stars. Susan Sarandon got into trouble for an essentially innocent point – that Muslim Americans suffer Islamophobia and it’s terrible that Jews should experience anti-Semitism too – but her formulation made her too easy a target. The Jewish screenwriter Jonathan Glazer generated one of the more bizarre social media tsunamis with the half-quote of his sentence in which he opposed the exploitation of Jewish identity and history in defense of occupation and conflict. His words were weirdly twisted, and the whole frenzy could have been avoided with more auspicious grammar (just read my previous sentence). Glazer was denounced, but let’s face it, he’s also not Ben Stiller. Most Israelis had never heard of him  at all. The great celebrity deception is universal: we all feel we know them. If we like their characters, we believe we love them. Their words can’t be reflexively dismissed. 

Finally, who else will Israelis listen to? This is very strange to say, but hardly anyone. In 2012, Israel’s own vaunted security and intelligence chiefs, no less than six former heads of the Shin Bet, went on camera in a riveting documentary criticizing many aspects of Israeli policy, and the occupation. Any number of friends abroad asked whether the film could transform Israeli attitudes. It’s hard to know how many Israelis actually saw the film, but very easy to know how many people voted for right-wing parties the next year, and in every election since. 

To be sure, no English article in Time Magazine, even by a star, can change the course of the war. But I heard about the article from the Israeli radio’s hourly news bulletin at 8am this morning, prime listening time in Israel. Diaspora Jews – you can help. If your cultural icons are taking a bold stand for saving lives, protecting civilians, for standing against racism against anyone, against exploiting the Holocaust for cynical purposes, and especially if they show some humility – show them your support. Take these positions yourselves. Someday, Israelis will listen – to someone.