Hollywood, Saddam, and Israel

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The recent visit to Baghdad by actor Sean Penn and the petitions signed by other high-profile actors and entertainers opposing American action against Saddam Hussein, have thrust Hollywood into the murky labyrinth of Middle Eastern affairs. The irony is that while today’s celebrities are extending themselves on behalf of a dictator who vows to destroy Israel, an earlier generation of Hollywood stars worked actively to help bring about Israel’s creation.

During the 1940s, American Jewish organizations worked hard to mobilize American public support for the cause of creating a Jewish state. Some groups focused on attracting the support of Hollywood celebrities, knowing that their involvement would arouse public interest. One of the most successful in this regard was the American League for a Free Palestine, a political action committee created by a militant Zionist emissary from Jerusalem, Peter Bergson.

Bergson’s League sought to rally public support for the Jewish underground militias that were fighting the British administration in Palestine, particularly the Irgun Zvai Leumi led by Menachem Begin, a future prime minister of Israel.

To make the Jewish revolt more understandable to the American public, the American League for a Free Palestine constantly invoked analogies from America’s own history. “It’s 1776 in Palestine!” was the League’s rallying cry. Its pamphlets compared Irgun fighters hanged by the British to Nathan Hale. It organized a “George Washington Legion” of American volunteers for the Irgun. The League’s boycott of British goods was staged under the auspices of the Sons of Liberty Committee, in imitation of the Americans who boycotted British goods in the 1770s. Thomas Jefferson’s memorable phrase, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” adorned the League’s press releases. Such comparisons made it easier for Americans to sympathize with the Jewish struggle for a state in Palestine.

Many Hollywood figures joined the ranks of the American League for a Free Palestine. They included comedians Harpo Marx and Carl Reiner; actors Vincent Price, Jimmy Durante, Charles Bickford, Sidney Blackmer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Canada Lee; producer David O. Selznick; Edward Buzzell of MGM Studios; singer Frank Sinatra; conductor Leonard Bernstein; and many others.

A rising young star named Marlon Brando volunteered for the lead in “A Flag is Born,” a pro-Irgun play authored by Hollywood’s leading screenwriter, Ben Hecht, which the League staged throughout the U.S. during 1946-1947. Brando also spoke at showings of “Last Night We Attacked,” an 18-minute film heralding the Irgun’s exploits which the League sponsored in many cities. The London Evening Standard denounced “A Flag is Born” as “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” Hecht dismissed such criticism; “Britain may be able to patrol the Mediterranean [against ships bringing would-be Jewish immigrants to Palestine], but she cannot patrol Broadway,” he declared.

Big-name athletes also lent a hand to the Bergson group’s pro-Irgun campaigns. Former middleweight boxing champion Barney Ross spoke at ALFP rallies. College basketball, which in those days was more popular than the professional league, also did its share: a team of college basketball stars staged exhibition games in the Catskills in the summer of 1947 to raise money for the Irgun’s fight against the British in Palestine.

What motivated so many celebrities to embrace the cause of creating a Jewish state?

There was in Hollywood, as elsewhere, considerable sympathy for the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust, and a desire to resolve the problem of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languishing in Displaced Persons camps in Europe.

Perhaps for some celebrities, it was exciting to cheer for the handful of Jewish freedom-fighters battling for their people’s independence against an army so much larger and mightier than they–a plot that could have come straight out of a Hollywood action film.

But perhaps the most important explanation for the difference between Hollywood’s view of the Middle East then and now has to do with changing perceptions of the justification for war. Celebrities who lived through World War II and witnessed the birth of Israel understood that there are wars which are morally just. The generation reared in the crucible of the Vietnam conflict seems to believe that there is no war worth fighting.

January 2003