As the McCarthyite fever that’s hit US institutions in recent weeks continues surging, the question remains: Is there an actual coherent, consistent standard for what is and isn’t acceptable to say about Israel’s war in Gaza? Or are there two standards — one that harshly deals with critics of Israel’s war according to the most ungenerous interpretation of their words, and another that allows supporters of the war to utter whatever they want without any pushback?
So far, it’s looking like the second one.
The focal point of this McCarthyite climate has now migrated from universities and media to Hollywood. Several actors and others have recently lost jobs or been dropped by their agencies for criticizing the Israeli military campaign, which has now killed more than fifteen thousand people in less than two months, the overwhelming number of them civilians, including a chilling six thousand children.
United Talent Agency (UTA) dropped actor and left-wing activist Susan Sarandon last Tuesday soon after she made remarks at a pro-Palestinian protest that have been labeled antisemitic. Sarandon reportedly said that “there are a lot of people that are afraid of being Jewish at this time and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country” (one particularly loaded interpretation of those words claimed Sarandon was saying “that American Jews have it coming”) and praised people for educating themselves about Israel-Palestine and “stepping away from brainwashing.” Sarandon’s retweeting of a post by former Pink Floyd artist Roger Waters, who has likewise been accused of antisemitism, has also been cited as a reason for the decision.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, another UTA client, has reportedly also been targeted for his involvement in a letter calling for an end to the war. Variety reports that “many industryites felt [the letter] dehumanized Israelis and softened Hamas’ actions,” pointing specifically to a line stating that “Hamas militants broke out of Gaza,” and that “more than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed” (even as the signatories made clear they “deplore the loss of all innocent life” and that they are friends with and even related to some of those taken hostage by Hamas). The agency has not dropped Coates yet.
Creative Artists Agency (CAA) has likewise jettisoned influencers Saira Rao and Regina Jackson as clients, one of whom had tweeted that “Zionists are starting to panic that more and more of the world sees them for the bloodthirsty genocidal ghouls they are.” A-lister Tom Cruise, meanwhile, reportedly stepped in to save his agent, Maha Dakhil, from being fired by the company after she wrote on Instagram last month: “What’s more heartbreaking than witnessing genocide? Witnessing the denial that genocide is happening.”
As inflammatory as some of these statements are, it’s highly debatable whether any of them are antisemitic. Israel’s assault on Gaza has been termed a genocide by numerous experts, including an Israeli scholar of the subject, and Sarandon — who was making a point about the physical danger Muslim-Americans have lived in ever since the “war on terror” — thanked “the Jewish community” for taking part in the protest she spoke at. (Many of the most high-profile protesters against this war as well as critics of Zionism are Jewish.)
But what’s clear is that, as we’ve seen repeatedly now, the standard by which Sarandon and others are being held to and punished for doesn’t appear to apply to other clients of these agencies — particularly those openly supporting Israel’s war.
Everybody Loves War Crimes
One UTA client is actress Patricia Heaton, maybe best known for her decade-long Emmy Award–winning role on sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Long a high-profile Hollywood conservative, Heaton has spent the past two months not just openly cheering on Israel’s unprecedentedly brutal campaign, but regularly writing and sharing posts that would have triggered a firestorm if they were pro-Palestinian comments about Hamas’s October 7 massacre.
Last Tuesday, Heaton retweeted a post from pro-war account Israel War Room, which placed scare quotes around the death toll of ten thousand Palestinians, implying that the figure was false or exaggerated. (This talking point has been repeatedly debunked, with a state department official recently saying the death toll could in fact be much higher). Heaton has continuously spread the equally debunked “Pallywood” conspiracy theory, which holds that the images of dead Palestinians we’re seeing are actually fake and staged by actors.
Heaton has also criticized President Joe Biden for issuing a statement condemning Islamophobia (which he did as a belated response to the murder of a six-year old Muslim boy over Israel’s war). Just imagine if a pro-Palestinian figure had criticized the administration for its condemnation of antisemitism.
Like many backers of the war, Heaton spent the days of the war angrily denouncing claims that the Israeli military bombed the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza (responsibility for which is still not clear), before more recently justifying its attack on the al-Shifa hospital, which has left the facility nonfunctional and killed more than twenty people, including eight premature babies.
Last month, a clip made the rounds of a Sky News anchor questioning former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett about what Israel’s illegal siege would mean for Palestinian hospital patients and premature babies, and Bennett replying, “Are you seriously keep [sic] asking me about Palestinian civilians? What’s wrong with you?” Heaton wrote as she shared the clip: “Love seeing this pushback against these jerks at @SkyNews.”
Another listed UTA client is Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to Berlin. Prosor has explicitly justified the killing of Palestinian civilians, responding to a question from Politico about the assault’s impact on innocent Palestinians who don’t back Hamas by saying that “trying to differentiate that is a real problem,” since “the people that you saw out, raping, killing and shooting families, little children and burning people alive in their own homes — those are the people in Gaza.” In that same interview and elsewhere, Prosor has used arguably racist language, including casting the war as one of “civilization against barbarity” and against “animals.”
Also on the roster is Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, who once said that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims,” and that “if your name is Yusuf Islam,” airport security “better have a good close look.” Over the course of this war, Kilmeade has defended bombing residential buildings and a hospital, suggested that civilians shouldn’t be let out of Gaza because it would let terrorists get away, said that “you have to let [Israel] finish off Gaza,” and agreed that the death of civilians is “not Israel’s problem,” explaining “the fact that there’s going to be civilian casualties doesn’t mean that you can’t attack something.” He’s also backed reinstating Trump’s Muslim ban, claimed “so-called” Islamophobia “doesn’t exist,” and criticized Biden for launching his national strategy to combat the bigotry at a time of rising hate crimes against Muslims.
Meghan McCain, another UTA client, has similarly slammed Biden’s anti-Islamophobia initiative and has approvingly shared videos of Islamophobe Douglas Murray (who has repeatedly downplayed the Nazi Holocaust) mocking the concept of military proportionality as a “fetish” and “obsession,” and of Nikki Haley insisting that Israel must not exercise “restraint” in its bombing of the densely populated enclave.
In other words, these UTA clients have made discriminatory remarks about a religious group, criticized government efforts responding to rising hate crimes against that group, and supported, justified, and defended the indiscriminate killing of civilians from the same group — it just so happens that the religious group in question is Muslim, specifically Palestinians. Unlike Sarandon, all of them are still with the company.
This disparity lines up with the ethos of another UTA client: Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which has been accused (in the pages of Israeli newspaper of record Haaretz, no less) of a “crazily irresponsible” and “longstanding campaign to falsely equate criticism of Israel with the growing threat of antisemitism.” Greenblatt has personally defended Trump over antisemitic comments he made in 2015, pointing to Trump’s support for Israel as a counterpoint, and, like his predecessor, also stayed silent on antisemitic preacher John Hagee’s appearance at a recent pro-Israel march. Under Greenblatt’s leadership, the ADL secretly advised police to infiltrate activists protesting neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.
Meanwhile, some UTA clients have a history of not just objectionable speech on questions of war and peace, but objectionable actions on the matter. Among the agency’s roster of speakers is George W. Bush’s former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, a key figure in Bush’s torture program who once pushed for the United States to opt out of the Geneva Conventions.
Creative Artists for Atrocities
Likewise, CAA counts as clients a number of figures who have said a variety of objectionable things about this war — only about Palestinians and Muslims, and in favor of the violence being carried out by Israel.
One client is comedian Bill Maher, who has a long record of outright racist remarks about Muslims and Islam — so much so that two separate anti-Islamophobia groups have compiled fact-sheets detailing such statements by him. Maher has repeatedly defended and justified the Israeli military’s killing of civilians throughout the war.
“I think they have killed babies,” he said in an October episode of his HBO show, Real Time. “That’s collateral damage, which is another horrible thing, but that’s part of war.” In a November 10 episode — by which point the Palestinian death toll had surpassed eleven thousand, and even US secretary of state Antony Blinken believed that “far too many Palestinians have been killed” and that “we need to do more to protect” them — Maher again defended it as merely “collateral damage.” Maher has a history before this war of going to bat for the Israeli military, as in 2014 when he complained that “somehow when Israel reacts to [Hamas attacks] they have to do everything in a way that doesn’t kill any civilians — people die in wars.”
In the same recent episode, Maher conflated Palestinians in Gaza with Hamas. “I do believe Arabs living in that land should have their own country and they could, again, if they just didn’t act like a coiled snake,” he said, before quoting the head of Hamas. When guest Matt Duss explained that “Free Palestine” means “giv[ing] the Palestinians a state,” Maher responded: “They gave it to them. And did they use it to build a state? No. They used it to bring in weapons and attack them!” He denied that Israel’s gradual annexation of Palestinian land counted as colonization because Jews have “quite a connection to Israel,” and elsewhere said Palestinian women “should be so lucky as to get colonized.”
Maher sits on the CAA client list alongside frequent Real Time guest Bari Weiss, who only two years ago got in trouble for saying of Israel’s May 2021 bombardment of Gaza — which killed at least 151 Palestinian civilians, one third of them children — that while “some of these people are entirely innocent non-combatants, including children,” this was sadly “one of the unavoidable burdens of political power.” Weiss has taken a different tack with this war, avoiding putting her foot in her mouth when discussing Palestinian deaths by simply not talking about them at all: It’s no exaggeration that in all the extensive writing Weiss has done on this war, you will struggle to find even a perfunctory mention of the horrific and ever-growing Palestinian death toll — despite its unprecedented nature.
It’s a glaring absence at a time when figures like Ta-Nehisi Coates and pro-Palestinian activists are being targeted for similarly failing to mention Hamas’s attacks, or for referring to them in ways that displease critics — critics that include Weiss herself, who singled out Coates for censure, calling the offending line in the letter he had signed onto “depraved.” The only exception to this pattern in Weiss’s writing is the, by comparison, unparalleled attention she has given to the Palestinians killed in the October 17 explosion at al-Ahli hospital — to complain about media coverage that prematurely blamed Israel for the blast. Since then, Weiss has pivoted to explicitly justifying Israel’s attacks on hospitals.
At the same time, Weiss — who has a history of targeting Muslim and Arab professors with career-destroying accusations of racism that were found to have “no evidence” — has made statements that would cause a firestorm if they were about any group besides Muslims and Palestinians.
She’s blasted the Biden administration for talking about anti-Muslim hate crimes, claimed Muslims aren’t disproportionately targeted, and approvingly tweeted out a thinly disguised racist screed warning that “America and her allies are the only places in the world where [liberal] values are even considered values,” that Western civilization was under threat of “collapse” and replacement with “barbarism,” and that “unconstrained” immigration was why there were “pro-Hamas rallies” in Western capitals where people “celebrate[d] mass murder.” (Weiss herself previously blamed rising antisemitism on European Muslims). She’s repeatedly promoted the recent conversion to Christianity of longtime professional acquaintance Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who believes “we are at war with Islam” and that the religion must be “crushed,” that 9/11 was approved of and “actively support[ed]” by “every devout Muslim,” and that Muslim immigration to Europe is a threat to women and women’s rights.
Another fan of Hirsi Ali is fellow CAA client Jordan Peterson, who made headlines for urging Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “give ’em hell” in the wake of the Hamas attack. When questioned about the resulting civilian casualties, Peterson explained his view that ordinary Palestinians weren’t blameless for the situation they found themselves in, and that when it came to the question of what responsibility “people who are living under the thumb of totalitarians have for the fact that they’re living under the thumb of totalitarians . . . the answer isn’t none.” Palestinians, he said, “bear the responsibility to live in truth and to stand up to tyranny in their deeds — in their intention, and their deeds and their actions, because if you don’t, then you pay for that, and so do your children, and so do your grandchildren.”
“You might think that it’s pretty unfair that the world is set up that way,” concluded Peterson, who has previously been brought to tears about the plight of involuntarily celibate young men. “Hey, it might be unfair, but it is set up that way.”
One could go down the list and find figures whose support for Israel’s brutal war would not similarly escape notice if they were expressing support for Hamas’s rockets or the various crimes the group similarly justifies on the basis of self-defense. GOP pollster Frank Luntz, for instance, who has done polling to help Israel improve its propaganda. Or the influential former Obama official Michèle Flournoy, who put her name to a recent letter backing the Biden administration’s unconditional underwriting of the war that fails to mention the Palestinian death toll, other than to say they’ve “suffered terribly under Hamas rule” and been used “as human shields.”
UTA and CAA did not respond to requests for comment about what standards they use to determine unacceptable speech among clients about this war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly.
A Perennial Double Standard
The point here isn’t that the recent spate of firings and professional intimidation should be broadened or the effort to comb through every public figure’s history intensified. There are few trends more tiresome, not to mention harmful to free and open discourse, than the increasingly common threat to yank away someone’s livelihood for having the wrong political opinions.
The point is that there are wildly different standards by which people are being held. If you speak out for Palestinian rights, so much as criticizing Israel’s war too harshly or simply failing to put enough emphasis on the lives taken by Hamas, you can get fired or publicly tarnished. If you back Israel’s war, you can openly advocate for more violence, justify war crimes and the killing of children, and say hateful things about Muslims and Arabs or endorse those who do, and face absolutely no repercussions.
And unfortunately, there’s little sign this campaign is slowing down anytime soon, let alone inspiring any introspection.