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Why are Oscar nominees being given a free trip to Israel?

Oscar nominees are receiving free trips to Israel because Tel Aviv is feeling the pressure from the ever-growing BDS movement

Only some of the stars nominated for this year’s Academy Awards will go home with the golden Oscar trophy. But all of the nominees, winners or losers, will get consolation gift bags worth $200,000 according to a report by the Daily Beast. Among the overpriced frivolous gifts that these stars will receive are skin creams, Audi car rentals, fitness training, cosmetic surgery procedures and a 10-day first class trip to Israel, worth $55,000, care of the Israeli government.

There are a few stories within this story. We could talk about the grotesque excesses in the lives of the rich and famous in times of growing global inequality. We could mention the sickening societal obsession with unreachable beauty norms that can only be achieved through buying more fitness and beauty products, including costly surgery.

But what is a trip to Israel doing in that package?

This wouldn’t be the first time that stars are offered highly subsidised or complimentary trips to Israel. By now it’s such a convention that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism has a page on its official website dedicated to celebrity visits. But make no mistake, this is not simply the work of ambitious tourism promoters.

This is Brand Israel, an Israeli diplomatic strategy which involves courting stars and showering them with free trips, products and propaganda to immunise them against the allure of speaking out in public against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights. Brand Israel was launched in 2006 with the goal of crafting a new story about Israel internationally; less about violence and military occupation, more about science, technology, fun and sun.

The Israeli government has poured millions of dollars into this pursuit, inviting Hollywood stars, government and business leaders and even religious and cultural minority representatives to take specially tailored trips to see the amazing things that the state of Israel is accomplishing, always with a press conference and photo opportunity with Israeli government officials.

What do they not see on these lavish all-expense-paid trips?

The sniper towers and checkpoints along the apartheid wall, from which Israeli soldiers can shoot at Palestinian demonstrations against the brutal military occupation; the prison interrogation rooms, where Palestinian political prisoners, including children, are routinely tortured and denied medical treatment; the Palestinian farmers whose land and livelihoods have been stolen by settlers who then use their outposts as bases from which to attack Palestinian villages with petrol bombs; the bombed out neighbourhoods in the Gaza Strip where children gather scrap metal to replace construction materials that Israel bans, trying to scrape together a living for their destitute families.

These celebrity tourists are also shielded from seeing the Palestinian popular resistance against oppression, manifesting in protests against the apartheid wall, against land confiscation and home demolitions in the unrecognised villages of the Naqab. They don’t meet the Israeli young people who face jail time for refusing to serve in the occupation army. These stories are inspiring and move people to action around the world; it’s no wonder the Israeli government wants to repress them. 

It is no coincidence that this new branding strategy was launched around the same time as over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations called on people around the world to act in solidarity with Palestinians struggling for justice, and to conduct campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to expose and end government and corporate complicity in Israel’s apartheid regime.

The BDS movement exposes the real brutality of Israeli colonialism, the same scenes that Brand Israel is designed to conceal. The South African apartheid regime used nearly identical tactics at the height of international opposition to it.

Many artists and musicians have refused to be co-opted by the Israeli government to whitewash the brutal reality of Israeli apartheid. Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Lauryn Hill and over 1,000 British artists have pledged not to entertain Israeli apartheid. Only a few months ago, hundreds of British scholars publicised their own pledge committing to the same principled stance.

This isn’t simply a case of artists and academics not wanting to get their hands dirty with the crimes of the Israeli state. It is a push back against Israel’s systematic attempts to repress the reality of apartheid. That reality can only be hidden if everyone agrees not to talk about it, to look the other way. And Israel invests heavily in getting this to happen. But it simply won’t work.

Oscar nominees are receiving free trips to Israel because now more than ever, the state of Israel is feeling the pressure from the ever-growing BDS movement, which aims to put an end to international complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights.

No matter who goes home with a statue at the end of the awards ceremony, the growing success of the BDS movement shows that the real winners will be the Palestinians struggling for freedom, and all who stand with them for justice.

- Ryvka Barnard is senior campaigns officer on militarism and security at War on Want

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: A giant statue of Oscar near the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, on 27 February, 2014 (AFP).