How Hollywood Wrote the Story of Israel

A new history misunderstands the American film industry’s role in cementing the US–Israel relationship—and the part Hollywood has played in scripting the tales both states tell about their settler-colonial origins.

Hazem Fahmy
April 26, 2022

Paul Newman in the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger.

Screen Prod / Alamy

Discussed in this essay: Hollywood and Israel: A History, by Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman. Columbia University Press, 2022. 368 pages.

The myth that Jews control the media lies at the heart of virtually every modern iteration of antisemitism. Emerging from the conspiratorial notion of “Jewish influence” over the global economic order, it remains prevalent in mainstream American discourse, even as the bluntness of its language has somewhat softened. Instead of claiming that “the Jews” dictate what we say and think, right-wing and fascist pundits now allude to “global elites” like George Soros, even as they recycle age-old rhetoric about a hidden agenda that seeks the very collapse of Western civilization.

The foulness of this trope makes it difficult to discuss the real and complicated legacy of Jewish Americans’ role in US media, and specifically in Hollywood, where, with a few high-profile exceptions—such as Walt Disney and Spyros Skouras—the overwhelming majority of early studio founders and major executives were Jewish emigrés from Europe. The last few decades have seen the publication of several chronicles that avoid propagating antisemitic frameworks. For example, Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, published in 1989, carefully outlines the way in which Jewish immigrants came to lead the studios, maintaining their hold by assimilating into the WASP business cultures of New York City and Southern California.

But even as surveys of the industry’s Jewish roots have appeared, Hollywood’s historic relationship with the State of Israel has remained a more or less untouchable topic. Now, historians Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman have set out to tell that story in their new book, Hollywood and Israel: A History. In addition to uncovering the legacy of collaboration between filmmakers and producers in the two countries, the book seeks to shed light on the role Hollywood has played in the diplomatic, military, and cultural relationship between Israel and the United States. The authors ask: How can we further understand America’s “special relationship” with Israel by examining the two states’ cinematic ties?

The book’s greatest strength lies in its elucidation of the economic dimension of the relationship between Hollywood and Israel. Though many Hollywood films across the years—from Exodus (1960) to Munich (2005)—have been guided by explicitly Zionist politics, normalizing and often glorifying the colonization of Palestine, the authors make it clear that these productions were driven first and foremost by business considerations, and only secondarily by ideology; the studios never went ahead with a project unless they were confident that it would make money. Following the 1967 Six Day War, for example, Israeli officials were “immediately inundated with letters of intent” from American filmmakers “seeking official cooperation for feature films or documentaries about the war,” Shaw and Goodman write. The obsessive coverage of the war in US media had convinced studio executives that there would be an appetite for films dramatizing Israel’s victory––and the subsequent occupation of all of historic Palestine, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai. A similar surge of interest followed the widely-covered 1976 raid on the Entebbe airport in Uganda, in which Israeli commandos foiled a hijacking by Palestinian and German militants attempting to exchange hostages for the freedom of incarcerated Palestinians. But the projects’ commercial potential came to seem uncertain, and neither episode led to a high-profile production.

Even as Shaw and Goodman thoroughly illustrate how Hollywood has both profited off and contributed to Israel’s soft power, however, their book fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the relationship between the American film industry and the Jewish state. Hollywood’s leading figures have long made it clear that, as Americans, they identify closely with Israel’s colonial history. In the 1978 broadcast “The Stars Salute Israel at 30,” comedian Henry Winkler (best known for his role as “The Fonz”) made the connection explicit, showing up dressed as a young Sabra and warmly comparing the settlement of Palestine with the American pioneer story. It was no coincidence that John Wayne, the quintessential avatar of Hollywood’s glorification of America’s colonial past, also starred in the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow, a romantic account of a US colonel’s participation in the Nakba, the mass displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that followed the establishment of the State of Israel—or that he described the film as “a wholly American story.” What Wayne articulates here, better than the authors, is that Hollywood has played a crucial role in weaving together the two countries’ stories of their own origins, and thus their ongoing relationship as allied colonial states.

Though today we tend to take Hollywood’s sympathy with Israel for granted, before the 1940s the US film industry in fact showed relatively little interest in Jewish settlers in the land of Palestine: The authors write that few American Jews “had more reason to disregard Zionism than those in Hollywood’s upper ranks,” who were “busy reinventing themselves as Americans.” As a racialized group in an aggressively WASP-dominated bourgeois business culture, the early Jewish Hollywood moguls found it highly disadvantageous to emphasize any ethnic or cultural difference. In pursuit of acceptance, many anglicized their names: Lazar Meir and Szmuel Gelbfisz, for example, became Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, the founders of MGM. The moguls seldom contributed funds to early settlement efforts in Palestine, and when they did, it was less from a commitment to Zionism than a desire to be seen as prominent philanthropists. If the Zionist project held little personal interest for Hollywood executives, it concerned them even less from a business perspective: Before 1948, the studios did not even treat Palestine as a distinct market, instead lumping it into distribution operations in Egypt and Syria. There was no serious effort to produce American films there, or to collaborate with early settlers’ attempts to produce a Hebrew-language cinema.

In the 1940s, however, as support for Zionism surged in the US in the aftermath of the Second World War, Hollywood heavyweights began to gravitate toward the cause. The screenwriter and director Ben Hecht, alongside the Zionist activist Peter Bergson, lobbied the industry for donations for Zionist forces, and pushed the studios to apply political pressure to Washington to support an independent Jewish state. In widely-circulated short films and traveling theatrical shows, they reframed settler violence in Palestine as “Jewish self-defense” comparable to anti-fascist Jewish resistance in Europe, and urged Britain to “put aside Arab objections and allow the immediate entry” of hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, as Shaw and Goodman write. It was not only Jews who enthusiastically backed the idea of a new pro-Western state in a region that was rapidly fighting off European colonization: The Hollywood luminaries who took out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers demanding that Britain acquiesce to Zionist demands included not just Goldwyn but also 20th Century Fox President Spyros Skouras and movie star Tallulah Bankhead; Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Frank Sinatra were among the celebrities who sponsored events and fundraisers in support of the State of Israel in late-1940s Los Angeles.

Many celebrities and notable filmmakers also openly supported the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary force that even American newspapers widely referred to as a terrorist organization, especially after it orchestrated the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and the brutal Deir Yassin massacre of Palestinian villagers in 1948. Marlon Brando was a regular speaker at Irgun fundraising events, while Hecht wrote numerous columns in support of the far-right militia, including an article published in The New York Post that he styled as a message to the group and facetiously titled “Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine.”

While it cheered on Zionist armies, the American film industry never in any capacity acknowledged the Nakba. Shaw and Goodman replicate this denialism. Instead of being forced into exile, they write that millions of Palestinians simply “left,” or were “evacuated” for “security reasons.” These choices are all the more glaring in light of the authors’ reframing of Israeli war crimes and atrocities as evidence of Israeli “courage” and “achievements.” Writing about the Zionism of Hollywood figures, they often slip into their subjects’ own romantic register. For example, they describe a rally at the Hollywood Bowl to celebrate the founding of the new state, coordinated by the lobbyist group Americans for Haganah, in uniformly glowing terms, writing that the actor Edward G. Robinson “stirringly read the Israeli Declaration of Independence, solemnly promising ‘full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed, or sex’”—promises already irreparably violated by the Nakba. For all the Zionist voices that fill the pages of Hollywood and Israel, the authors have not included a single Palestinian perspective.

After Israel’s establishment, Hollywood studios began to produce more films in the new state, sensing an opportunity in the emergence of a new distribution market. Throughout the 1950s, the influx of American dollars helped satisfy the new state’s need for foreign currency; to encourage production, the Israeli government offered American studios generous tax incentives and extensive logistical cooperation. Filmmakers were also drawn by the promise of “authentic” shooting locations for biblical epics, a genre whose popularity had soared as studios invested in new cinematic technology in order to better compete with television.

Many of the resulting films—such as Sword in the Desert (1949), The Juggler (1953), and Exodus (1960)—retell the story of Israel’s “War of Independence” in romantic terms. In these works, Palestinians—as well as Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians—are portrayed as brutal, irrational, and devoid of any legitimate or coherent reason for their rejection of the Zionist project, if they are depicted at all. The Israeli settlers, on the other hand, come across as courageous and compassionate, desperate for peace if only “the Arabs” will cease their barbaric opposition. Many of these films are ensemble dramas that group European Holocaust survivors with American Zionist volunteers, telegraphing the budding alliance between the US and Israel, and implicitly advancing the argument that the West’s support for the Jewish state was a necessary response to the Nazi genocide. (There were, of course, exceptions, such as the 1977 documentary The Palestinian, produced by and starring the English actor and activist Vanessa Redgrave, which painted a sympathetic portrait of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); the project made Redgrave a target of Zionist groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, which campaigned to eliminate her job prospects in Hollywood.)

In terms of commercial and critical success, no single American film of this period is as notable as Otto Preminger’s Exodus, adapted from the 1958 Leon Uris novel of the same name. Often credited with popularizing Zionism in the US, it follows a group of Jewish settlers in Palestine whose lives intersect with some of the major events of the 1948 war. As Goodman and Shaw note, Uris was a profoundly racist man who once confessed to his sister that “were he not married he would be ‘over there shooting Arabs.’” Though the film attempted to “soften” the novel’s demonization of Palestinians, the screenplay, penned by Dalton Trumbo, all the same depicts them as bloodthirsty and murderous, pursuing violence against Jews solely because of their intrinsic savage ways. The film helped establish the racist tropes that would become a standard feature of American depictions of Palestinians, and subsequently of Arabs and Muslims more broadly, in the coming decades.

As studio budgets shrank in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Hollywood co-produced fewer Israeli features. Following Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, in which it seized all of historic Palestine, the Golan Heights, and Sinai, some Americans began to question the state’s role in the region—especially after it became clear that Israel intended to occupy Gaza and the West Bank indefinitely. Works that were cautiously critical of specific post-’67 policies began to appear, including Costa-Gavras’s Hanna K (1983), a courtroom drama that hinges on questions about Palestinian dispossession and exile, and George Roy Hill’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984), which stars Diane Keaton, Klaus Kinski, and Sami Frey in a love triangle between an American, an Israeli, and a Palestinian, and ultimately casts the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in a brutal light. Still, these works stopped far short of acknowledging the full extent of the colonial violence that Palestinians faced at the time. What’s more, Israeli officials managed to use even these critical films to their advantage, burnishing the country’s image as a liberal democracy by touting their willingness to let the studios film and distribute in Israel.

Whatever skepticism had seeped into American depictions of Israel evaporated in the wake of 9/11, as the two states grew even closer as allies in the so-called “War on Terror.” A new slate of binational collaborations appeared in both countries: Islamophobic and jingoistic shows made with Israeli involvement filled American airwaves, while anti-Palestinian shows produced with American network support entertained Israeli audiences. For instance, Fox remade the Israeli drama Abductees into the notoriously racist CIA thriller Homeland, which began airing in 2011 with the Israeli show’s writer and director, Gideon Raff, attached as an executive producer. Raff went on to direct a number of similarly militaristic and anti-Arab works for US networks, including Tyrant for FX in 2014 and The Spy and The Red Sea Diving Resort for Netflix in 2019. American networks also picked up Israeli shows about Shin Bet, the state’s brutally repressive security agency, including Fauda, which ran from 2015 until 2018, and Our Boys, which aired in 2019.

For all its shortcomings, Hollywood and Israel remains a fruitful history: No other work has so concisely laid out the evolution of the titular relationship. The authors draw on a breathtaking range of archival sources, including the private papers of Hollywood actors, directors, and producers, as well as American religious leaders and government officials. On the Israeli side, they surface sources that document the state’s decades-long interest in bringing American film production to the country.

But the authors’ failure to critically examine the Zionist ideology that shapes all of Israel’s collaborations with the American film industry prevents them from addressing the questions they set for themselves. “How is it . . . that Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of American aid since World War II?” they ask in the introduction. The answer is inseparable from the war crimes that Israel perpetrates against Palestinians and the imperialist role it plays in its region, both of which the authors avoid considering. Instead, they insist on deeming Israel—which organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have recently acknowledged is an apartheid state—the “only democracy in the region,” and refer to Palestinian resistance as “Arab extremism.” In one particularly callous chapter about early American productions in Israel, they describe the ethnically cleansed village of Iqrit in the Western Galilee as having been depopulated for “security reasons.” (In reality, the village’s residents were ordered to leave in 1948 by Haganah soldiers who promised that they could return in two weeks. Three years later, when, still displaced, they pled their case before the Israeli Supreme Court and won the right to return to their homes, the IDF blew up the village before they could do so.)

This ahistoricism undermines even the authors’ foremost aim: to examine the antisemitic myth that Jews “control the media.” Goodman and Shaw are, of course, right to push back against the absurd notion that Israel has some sort of stranglehold on America’s premier cultural industry. But if the trope should be rejected primarily for its prejudice, it should also be questioned for the ways it lets American media itself off the hook. After all, if Israelis are pushing the levers of film and journalism in the United States, then US studio producers and network editors bear no responsibility for their failure to cover Palestine fairly. What the book misses, in other words, is not just the fact that Israelis don’t control the American media, but the extent to which the interests of the American state in truth do. Israelis do not need to drum up hatred against Palestinians in Hollywood—it’s already there by virtue of the industry’s own orientation toward any Indigenous people resisting colonialism. The real relationship between Hollywood and Israel is one of collaboration rather than domination, a partnership that has encouraged two colonial forces to more fully see themselves in one another.

Hazem Fahmy is a writer and critic from Cairo. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mubi Notebook, Reverse Shot, Boston Review, and Prairie Schooner.