Kirk Douglas: Academic Study Comes Out in Time for His Memorial
Just this past month, an academic article on Kirk Douglas was published online. Called, Star Power, the article seeks to shed light on a subject so far unexplored in the research: the influence of Hollywood, in this case, of this particular actor, on the Israel-Arab conflict.
Much more than a colourful film history, the book sees the world’s entertainment capital as a key player in international affairs and as a vital but hitherto neglected component of the history of Zionism.
The Pro-Israeli Activities
We are all aware of the daily interpretive, opinion-oriented and sometimes factual reporting in the mass media, and communications faculties around the world have long been studying the impact on popular opinions, voting patterns, etc. What has been neglected is an academic study into how Hollywood personalities and other celebrities [who seem to think that their celeb status gives them special expertise to] voice opinions and try to shape public views regarding important issues. Shaw and Goodman write:
The absence of sustained research into Hollywood’s part in the Arab-Israeli conflict is especially noteworthy given the undisputed power of American film and television, the United States’ substantial interests in the Middle East, and the historically strong Jewish presence in the U.S. entertainment industry.
In the beginning, Jews in the film industry underplayed their Jewishness in order not to face charges of dual loyalty. Douglas did not attach any significance to his being Jewish and was not part of the “pro-Zionist vanguard” in 1948. But shortly after that, he did start to take an interest in the Jewish state and, like others in Hollywood, he:
. . .saw Israel as a cross between a post-Holocaust sanctuary and a workers’ paradise. Many of them . . . belonged to a generation of Jewish liberals in Hollywood who were as passionate about Israel and its progressive promise as they were about liberal causes in the United States, and who wanted to use their power to nurture Israel’s image and development.
Douglas starred in the “The Juggler“, which was filmed in Israel; while here he was feted by senior government officials, something that was to characterize Israel’s reception of Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities throughout our history. He said of his experience in Israel that this was:
. . .the most inspiring and uplifting event of his career.
Over the next decades, Kirk Douglas
. . . was consistently among the most active pro-Zionists in the American entertainment community. What Douglas often described as his ‘love’ for the Jewish state can partly be explained by his frequent visits to Israel (one of which was linked to his role as an American goodwill ambassador) and by the close ties that he established with Israeli officials and politicians, including prime ministers.
As Israel moved right on the political map, she lost the support of many younger Hollywood celebrities. This was not true for everyone.
As he reached eighty years of age in the 1990s, Douglas’s acting career waned, yet his support for Israel if anything hardened. By this point, Douglas had become a ‘legend’ outside and within Hollywood. There, his veteran status as one of Israel’s special friends kept him at the apex of Hollywood’s pro-Israel community, its spokesman and interlocutor with many of the great and the good in entertainment and politics.
In addition to discussing the four major “Israeli” films in which he starred, the article describes Douglas’ pro-Israel activities:
From the early 1950s to the 1980s, he starred in a series of films promoting the principal Zionist themes that Israel was a sanctuary for Holocaust survivors and that its establishment and fight for survival in the face of Arab aggression was a just and moral cause. Douglas’s remarkable range of pro-Israeli activities off screen – philanthropy, public relations, petitioning, diplomacy, and event co-ordination – was just as, if not more, significant, drawing on the power of Hollywood celebrity to solicit funds for Israeli institutions and to garner support for Israeli policies. The star was aided in his endeavours by Israelis of many stripes: filmmakers, public diplomacy officials, military officers, politicians and even prime ministers. Douglas was not a mere spokesman for Israel but used his communications experience to help craft pro-Israeli messages.
Did Kirk Douglas Make a Difference?
Because the effects of celebrity activism are so difficult to gauge, it is impossible to measure the overall impact of Douglas’s various pro-Zionist activities or to pin down his net worth to Israel. What can be said is that not all of the films about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict that Douglas starred in were as commercially successful as he and Israeli public diplomacy officials would have liked. At least one of the films, Cast a Giant Shadow, was also marred by behind-the-scenes arguments between Douglas, the director and Israeli officials over logistical, financial and political issues – thus showing that the Douglas-Israel connection was not without its difficulties. Moreover, we should consider the extent to which Douglas was preaching to the converted when he lobbied for Israel within many quarters, especially the American Jewish community, or whether, conversely, the support for Israel from famous Jewish figures like him was counterproductive because it fed longstanding allegations that Jews only looked after themselves and that they had too much media power.
This said, Kirk Douglas was most definitely an asset to Israel. . . . On the one hand, his rough-and-ready, tough-guy image helped project Israel as a virile and vibrant country where Jews were healthy and could look after themselves. On the other, his liberal credentials acted as a counterweight to those who alleged that Zionism had condemned native Palestinians to refugee status and, in later decades, that Israel was a discriminatory state. His experience as a roving goodwill ambassador for the United States lent him an open-minded, internationalist air and enhanced his public diplomacy skills and contacts. And his acting and communication talents made him a highly persuasive lobbyist and fundraiser. . . .
Yet it is what Douglas represents that is just as important as what he did for Israel. Douglas did not plough a lonely furrow. He was a leading player in a much wider, special relationship that developed between Hollywood and Israel after 1948. . . . [This is not to] say that Jews simply dictated how Hollywood treated Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict on and off the screen over the decades. For one thing, Hollywood had to take into account wider American political and public opinion on the conflict, and, as a business, it had to put profits before propaganda and market appeal before ideological-cum-ethnic affinity.
The fact is, however, that the strong interconnections between Hollywood Jews, Zionism and the state of Israel certainly helps to explain why, over the decades, American films by and large framed Israelis as the ‘good guys’ in the Arab-Israeli conflict and why so many powerful Hollywood figures advocated for Israel off screen. To these people, Israel was not just a key ally in the Middle East or at the epicentre of the revered Holy Land. It was first and foremost the world’s only Jewish state. Given Hollywood’s cultural and political power, this was of inestimable value to Israel and its American supporters. It helped give ordinary Americans and Israelis a sense of unity, marginalized Arab opinion, and acted as a cultural gluing agent in the U.S.-Israel alliance. Hollywood cemented U.S.-Israeli relations not simply by reflecting existing pro-Israel sentiments in American society on screen, but by magnifying these and giving them a sharper political direction. Simultaneously, it lobbied for the Jewish state off screen. These interlocking roles made Hollywood more than America’s entertainment capital and gave it a unique position in the U.S.-Israel alliance.
ls this still true today or has something fundamentally changed?
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My earlier article on Kirk Douglas: Can You Really Liken Trump to Hitler? Really?