Twitter tiffs and celebrity clashes as stars wade into Gaza debate

The new politicians. EPA/Juanjo Martin

Celebrity humanitarians have had a profound impact upon the practice of international political communication. New forms of political participation have emerged as celebrity activists have reconfigured politics for a more fragmented and image-conscious public arena.

But until the current controversy concerning Israel’s military action within Gaza, celebrities have largely steered clear of the Israel-Palestine dispute, reserving political opinion for other, perhaps less fractious issues. But the human rights debate concerning Israel’s military action within Gaza has been accompanied by a vitriolic debate amongst film, music and sports stars. Tweets, retracted tweets, multiple open letters and then statements after barrages of complaints … it’s all a bit messy.

Spanish film celebrities including Academy Award winners Penelope Cruz and her husband Javier Bardem, along with Spain’s leading director Pedro Almodovar, initiated a storm last month when they signed an open letter condemning Israel’s “genocidal” devastation of Gaza.

Consequently Cruz and Bardem retracted their initial criticisms by stating that it was only their intention to facilitate a peaceful negotiation between both sides.

But Jon Voight sees the pair as inciting anti-Semitism. “You have defamed the only democratic country of goodwill in the Middle East: Israel,” he said. “You should hang your heads in shame.”

British musician and record producer Brian Eno also waded in, writing a widespread condemnation (which was distributed on Talking Head’s star David Byrne’s website) of the United States (US) government’s support of Israel. “It’s like sending money to the Klan,” he said.

The list goes on. We have the #FreePalestine tweets from Rihanna and One Direction’s Zayn Malik, among others. Rihanna deleted hers eight minutes later – PR quick to the rescue? And Madonna posted an Instagram picture of herself flanked by two topless male dancers one bearing the Star of David and another with a Muslim Star and Crescent accompanied by the slogan: “No Separation! We all bleed the same colour.” Russell Brand, Joan Rivers, Howard Stern, and many others have also involved themselves.

Red-carpet causes

Now of course these statements and arguments are extraordinarily varied in tone and intelligence, but they do raise an important question: how should celebrities comment on situations like this? Does it help? It’s especially important to consider now that entertainment rather than news is what most people consume. If people are getting their news through such celebrities, it’s important to consider how this occurs, and what the worth of celebrity activism is.

Modern political communications are changing swiftly. The Gaza debate has transcended many of the characteristics of celebrity humanitarianism – I think we’re seeing a sea change here. This is one of the first times we’ve seen celebrities clash in such a high-profile manner, prompted by the ideological divisions at stake.

Celebrity activism has become increasingly politicised. But usually, it has operated within a framework where agreed principles concerning human rights and liberal internationalist causes have been manifest. With the divisive exception of Vanessa Redgrave’s support of the Palestine Liberation Organisation when accepting her Academy Award in 1978, Israel-Palestine has remained a no-go area.

With the rise of social media, previous editorial controls have been lifted. These new communication platforms have enhanced celebrities’ influence – they facilitate a direct linkage with their fanbase. And surely raising these issues in new arenas is a good thing. But of course there are dangers in the over-simplification of complex histories and politics, and this is certainly something to consider as more and more people consume their news via entertainment.

Politicised celebrities need to demonstrate ideological substance so that the public may achieve a real sense of connection with political causes. The complexity of such situations needs to be stressed. But if done well, perhaps we could see a wider re-engagement with politics.