My Take

Why sexy US star Scarlett Johansson rejects Israel boycott

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 3:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 7:57pm

A major difference between the British-American cousins is their vastly different public attitudes towards Israel. This feeds into how their respective celebrities position themselves with the Jewish state.

The latest row involves Scarlett Johansson, the sultry Hollywood A-list star with the husky voice. Given her star power, Johansson became a godsend for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement last week when she appeared in a TV commercial for SodaStream, an Israeli maker of fizzy drink dispensers, which runs a factory in occupied Palestinian territories.

BDS put pressure on Oxfam - of which Johansson was a longtime supporter - to force the actress to drop SodaStream. Instead, she dropped Oxfam. Johansson was never political but was forced to make a strategic decision that will benefit her Hollywood career. Madonna was put in a similar position when she was pressured not to perform in Israel. She played there every time.

What BDS didn't realise was that no one in Hollywood or Washington had ever suffered in their careers for supporting Israel; indeed, the more uncritical and gung ho, the better. On the other hand, criticism of Israel and Jewish influence in the US, whether made fairly or not, could be a career- or job-ending move for celebrity journalists and authors such as former White House reporter Helen Thomas and ex-CNN anchor Rick Sanchez. Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, was uninvited last summer by the University of Michigan to give a speech because of her open support for the Palestinian cause.

How different in Britain. Last year, cosmologist Stephen Hawking started a row when he joined BDS' boycott of a major Israeli science and tech conference but it blew over quickly. Fellow Brits such as musicians Roger Waters and Brian Eno, film director Mike Leigh and authors Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes have all spoken out against the Israeli military occupation as a matter of course. A generation ago, British actress Vanessa Redgrave started criticising Israel's treatment of Palestinians. She has become a liberal icon in Europe.

British public attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are in line with the rest of the world. But for Israel, the only public that really counts is in the US.