It was only a few weeks ago that pop star and actress Demi Lovato faced what she said was her “biggest fear”: Posting an unedited photo of herself on Instagram and letting her 74.5 million followers view her “being authentic.” Lovato declared that she was “unashamed, unafraid and proud” of her body, cellulite and all.
But the threat of body shaming was nothing compared to the tidal wave of scathing criticism and fierce attacks the singer has faced this week after photographs were posted of her whirlwind visit to Israel. What was intended as an image-building exercise — both for Israel and the onetime “X Factor” judge — ended in an apology she posted, and subsequently removed, on Instagram.
Lovato apologized for having “hurt people” by coming to the Jewish state and pleaded ignorance of the “potential backlash” such a trip could unleash. She added that she was “sorry” she was “not more educated” and for “thinking the trip was just a spiritual experience.”
Visits by celebrity performers, promoted and funded by Israeli government agencies as well as pro-Israel nonprofit organizations, are nothing new. They have been part of the country’s image-making efforts for decades. In the current age of social media, such visits need not be announced in advance — unlike performers coming to play a concert — nor publicized to local and international media. Instead, the celebrity who is brought to Israel and their publicity team do the media work themselves, and the lack of advance notice helps to preempt pressure by pro-Palestinian advocacy groups to cancel the visit.
Younger performers have been particularly sensitive to such criticism. In 2017, 21-year-old singer Lorde canceled a scheduled concert in Israel in response to entreaties by activists in the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement.
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Lovato’s trip was a stealth visit that was not announced to the press before her arrival, and was only reported in local Israeli media when she was spotted by bystanders visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on September 19.
It was days later that Lovato, 27, posted photos of her Israel trip three times on Instagram: One was a photo of her baptism in the Jordan River; another was at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem; and a third was at the Shalva National Center for children with special needs, whose band performed at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. Each post was accompanied by positive comments about her experience. “There is something absolutely magical about Israel,” Lovato wrote in the photo caption of her baptism. “This trip has been so important for my well-being, my heart, and my soul. I’m grateful for the memories made and the opportunity to be able to fill the God-sized hole in my heart. Thank you for having me, Israel." At Yad Vashem, meanwhile, she wrote that her “heart was absolutely broken.”
One by one, each post garnered hundreds of angry comments that attacked her for ignoring the plight of the Palestinians, accusing her of being used as a “Zionist propaganda tool.” Many posted calls to “Free Palestine” decorated with Palestinians flags. Opinions supporting and criticizing Lovato made their way on to Twitter as well.
In what appeared to be a panicked response to the angry feedback, Lovato removed all comments from the three posts. She then posted an Instagram story with an apology for what she said was a mistake born out of ignorance of the “potential backlash” of a trip to Israel.
“I’m extremely frustrated,” she explained. “I accepted a free trip to Israel in exchange for a few posts. No one told me there would be anything wrong with going or that I could possibly be offending anyone. With that being said, I’m sorry if I’ve hurt or offended anyone, that was not my intention. Sometimes people present you with opportunities and no one tells you the potential backlash you could face in return. This was meant to be a spiritual experience for me, NOT A POLITICAL STATEMENT and now I realize it hurt people and for that I’m sorry. Sorry I’m not more educated, and sorry for thinking this trip was just a spiritual experience. Going against all advice right now and apologizing because it feels right to me and I’d rather get in trouble for being authentic to myself, than staying quiet to please other people. I love my fans, all of them, from all over.”
Neither Lovato’s posts from Israel nor her apology specified the organization that underwrote her controversial journey, offering her the trip “in exchange for a few posts.”
After Lovato apologized, Israeli news site Ynet challenged the singer’s account that she had received more than a free trip in exchange for her posts. It reported Thursday that the singer was paid more than $150,000 for agreeing to the visit, according to "sources involved with the singer's arrangements" - without specifying whether or not that sum included the star's travel expenses. The Ynet report said that Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin had underwritten approximately $57,000 of the cost of bringing Lovato to Israel from his office's budget. (Elkin met with Lovato during her visit.) The rest of the sum was provided by a “private donor.” Elkin confirmed to Ynet that his ministry systematically seeks to host celebrities whose social media following rivals that of the mainstream media and praised “Demi Lovato’s successful visit and the historic exposure of Jerusalem to new audiences.”
Together with a tremendously successful career since becoming a star on the Disney Channel, Lovato has had a rocky personal life. She has been public about her battles with depression, eating disorders and self-harm, and has been hospitalized for physical and emotional issues, substance abuse and eating disorders. In 2018, following what she later said was a relapse after six years of sobriety, Lovato she was brought to a hospital in what was later reported to be an opioid overdose.
Despite the fact that she describes herself as “uneducated” on Middle Eastern matters, Lovato has been politically active on domestic U.S. political issues, advocating for LGBTQ rights and mental health issues — including an appearance at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She also performed at the “March for Our Lives” that advocated for gun control.