Let’s face it: everyone gets excited when someone famous comes to town, and we Israelis have never been good at playing it cool. Every celebrity - from pop stars to movie idols, to familiar faces from television - that graces our shores gets the full red carpet and paparazzi treatment.
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As a rule, the VIP guests try to purely focus on their professional reason for being here - performing in their concerts, promoting their latest movie, or communing with their fellow seekers at a Kabbalah conference. With their desire to alienate the fewest number of fans, the last thing they want to do is weigh in on Middle East politics, and if they do, they limit it to a brief and ambiguous shout-out to “peace.”
The is especially true for those who are brought here by organizations looking to burnish Israel’s image, like the stars of popular shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Criminal Minds and House, who were brough to Israel last week by “America’s Voices for Israel.” The purpose of these freebie five-star junkets appears to be providing gossip blogs with attractive photo ops of pretty faces at Israeli tourist attractions, as well as opportunities for the stars to tweet to their fans how totally awesome they found the Western Wall and the Dead Sea.
The past week, however, brought us two celebrities who broke that mold, each in their own individual style.
Exhibit A: Mandy Patinkin
Patinkin landed in Israel, as we all know by now, to shoot episodes of “Homeland”, the hit U.S. series based on the Israeli series “Hatufim.” He arrived with views on Israeli policy that were no secret. An active member of Americans for Peace Now, he signed the controversial petition supporting the actors who refused to perform at the Ariel Cultural Center.
True to his politics, Patinkin arrived in Israel early, several days before his shoot began, and spent two days touring the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Peace Now and Breaking the Silence. He then proceeded to share his impressions at a meeting of Peace Now in a speech that has garnered thousands of views on YouTube.
In an emotional speech, Patinkin described the backlash following his signing of the petition in support of actors with “thousands and thousands of e-mails sent out to boycott Mandy Patinkin’s concerts.” He confessed that “I was overwhelmed and I was frightened.” In the end, his concerts were well-attended and successful and “my fears were over.” The experience, he said “made me strong.”
And now for something completely different.
Exhibit B: Peter Berg
Unlike Patinkin, no one expected Berg, the actor-turned-director of the blockbuster film Battleship, to arrive in Israel for his press junket to share opinions on the Middle East. Clearly, Jason Danino-Halt, the hapless entertainment reporter who interviewed him for Channel 10 didn’t expect it. That poor guy simply expected him to discuss his fluffy summer movie which is based on - of all things - a board game. When Berg launched into an obscenity-laced diatribe, Danino-Holt looked like a deer in headlights.
Berg’s rant sounded, at first like a combination of a news report and pitch for a Hollywood action film, which then morphed into a merciless attack on his interviewer, who was so taken aback that he could only nod and mumble “right” at the appropriate pauses.
“What the F**K is going to happen in Israel?” Berg demanded. “What’s the nickname for Benjamin? What do you guys call him? Him and that secretary of defense, the defense minister. You have two men that are now dictating a policy toward Iran. It’s a real mess because you've gotta decide whether its better to allow Iran to be armed and whether a nuclear Iran is less of a threat than an attacked Iran. If you attack Iran now, they’re gonna fight you back, right there’s gonna be blood, Israelis will die, right? No question. Would you rather take that now or let them develop a nuclear bomb?”
Then a flash Berg went into interrogation mode, turning on his yes-man. “Have you been in the Israeli army? No? What? How did you get out of that? Are you a draft dodger? How old are you? 25? You’ve got to join the army, motherf**ker!”
Danino-Holt looked like he might faint with embarrassment until finally, he mumbled that “we aren’t going to have this conversation” and that he felt “like I’ve been bombed.”
The Berg incident got far more publicity than anything Patinkin did - it was covered in every Hollywood gossip website and all over the entertainment press. The various YouTube videos of the rant have racked up hundreds of thousands of views in just a few days.
So there you have it: Patinkin vs. Berg (who, interestingly, worked together for years on the series Chicago Hope. Was there something in the water?) One thought-out and well-planned sharp political speech and one spontaneous and unhinged rant.
Some commentators in the Israeli media criticized Hollywood types who have the chutzpah to step off the plane and jump straight into the fray.
Frankly, I liked it. Even if you believe Patinkin’s views on the occupation are too simplistic, even if you strongly suspect that Berg forgot to take his meds the morning of the interview and shouldn’t have bullied poor Jason, you have to appreciate their passion.
First of all, let’s not take for granted that these two men didn’t hesitate to come. If it’s a choice between boycotting or coming and criticizing - I think we should take the criticism.
Each of these men, in their own way, was passionate, aware and fully engaged with what is happening here. It mattered to them. They cared enough to get their hands dirty and speak out, even though sounding off on Middle East politics doesn’t help their careers in any way, and puts them at risk of backlash.
I’ll take that over a toothy smile and an Old City photo-op any day.