With the Academy Awards fast approaching this Sunday, it’s been a full year since Israel offered all-expenses-paid trips to 2016 Oscars host Chris Rock and 25 top nominees including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Mark Rylance, and Cate Blanchett. The Israeli tourism ministry organized the trip with hopes that the superstars would use their platforms to show Israel in a positive light, countering worldwide outrage over Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
So what happened? It was an utter failure. One year later, it appears that not a single star visited Israel. Last night, the AFP wire service ran this extraordinary headline appearing in many media outlets, “Israel invited 26 Oscar stars to visit. So far none has.”
Bringing celebrities to Israel has long been part of a “Brand Israel” strategy to improve the country’s image abroad. As Israeli tourism minister Yariv Levin explained last year, “These are the most senior people in the film industry in Hollywood and leading opinion-formers who we are interested in hosting. Their visit will have enormous resonance among millions of fans and followers, including social media.” But as of this week, the Israeli tourism ministry would not confirm any visits by the stars, and there was no evidence of trips on social media.
It seems that the harder Israel tries to improve its image, the worse it fails. Yesterday’s news comes on the heels of former Super Bowl star Michael Bennett and several other NFL stars also choosing to #SkipTheTrip that they were offered by Israel.
Far from achieving their desired effect, these propaganda trips give us an opportunity to create broader awareness about the Israeli government’s brutal policies and attempts to whitewash them. While not every celebrity will turn down such offers, our cultural boycott campaigns are ensuring that every celebrity facing the choice must now consider the Israeli government’s cynical motivations and the impact on Palestinian communities struggling to survive.
That’s why days after the Oscars trips were announced last February, the US Campaign helped organize a coalition of Palestinian, Israeli, European, and U.S. organizations to launch a #SkipTheTrip campaign including a petition to the stars, individual letters to actors, and a comprehensive social media strategy. The dynamic campaign included creative memes, a comical video, and a satirical invitation from the legendary Brian Eno highlighting the types of “holiday” experiences one could have visiting Palestine like being interrogated, tear-gassed, beaten, and shot at.
Our efforts caught the attention of the Academy, which quickly distanced itself from the gift bags that included the trip and filed a lawsuit against the company that put them together. Then, when we tried to place an ad with member group Jewish Voice for Peace in Variety — the most important paper in the entertainment industry — calling on performers to #SkipTheTrip, we were censored! We were not about to be stopped. We called out Variety’s double standard and placed a full-page ad in the LA Times, generating headlines worldwide.
In the end, Israel’s big Oscars outreach campaign to showbusiness ended up netting them a bunch of no-shows instead.
Congratulations to everyone whose efforts led to the wonderful headline we got to read this morning. And if you want to be a critical part of future successful campaigns like this one, please consider making a contribution to the US Campaign today.