On the scene

Star-studded summit examines antisemitism and Hollywood after Oct. 7 attacks

‘I wasn't really aware of how much the world hates us,’ Israeli actor Swell Ariel Or tells Variety conference 

LOS ANGELES — An estimated 300 entertainment professionals gathered at the 1 Hotel West Hollywood to discuss antisemitism and the entertainment industry in a daylong summit created and hosted by Variety magazine, which was held in the shadow of last week’s brutal terror attacks in southern Israel in which the largest number of Jews were murdered in a single day since the Holocaust.

The mood at the star-studded event was predictably muted. But that yielded to livelier conversations during a series of talks and panels packed with industry speakers and representatives from the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and Holocaust Museum LA.

The Antisemitism and Hollywood Summit had been in the works since June, but the massacres of Oct. 7 and the ongoing war between Israel and the Hamas terror group gave the proceedings greater emotional and political valence and new urgency. Many attendees were Israeli and others had professional or personal ties to Israel or to the Los Angeles Jewish community. 

Israeli actor Swell Ariel Or, who plays the lead in Netflix’s “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” told Andrew Wallenstein, president and chief media analyst of Variety VIP, that she lost seven childhood friends in the Oct. 7 attack. She called this moment “the first time I’ve been exposed to how the world sees us.” 

“I wasn’t really aware of how much the world hates us,” she told the assembled industry professionals, adding that she is being attacked online by those who deny the severity of the attacks. “I’m trying to navigate between feeling the pain of the people I’ve lost, feeling scared of every notification of rockets on Tel Aviv, of every friend who’s texting me that he’s now on the way to the border, and do whatever I can in the same time — I’m speaking wherever I can. I’m working a lot on social media. I’m using my voice.” 

With a friend, Or created The Giving Back Fund, to help IDF reservists abroad pay for their flights back to Israel. 

Speaking alongside Or on a panel, actor Odeya Rush, who also has Israeli roots, said her inboxes on social media are full of death threats.

“I haven’t been able to sleep. I haven’t been able to function. The only thing I can really do is constantly check in on my family, make sure they’re safe and then watch the news and more horrific things come out every day and it affects us when there’s so much propaganda online,” Rush said. “I’m just trying to share people’s stories and share as much truth on social media. I feel like that’s what I can do from over here.”

A panel of social media influencers — Claudia Oshry, Josh Peck and Ellie Zeiler — also shared their experiences facing antisemitic and anti-Israel comments online. 

The summit was presented by The Margaret & Daniel Loeb Foundation and antisemitism-awareness initiative Shine A Light; other supporters included the Ruderman Foundation, Shari Redstone and National Amusements, the USC Shoah Foundation, AJC, ADL and Holocaust Museum LA. Representatives from Kirsh Philanthropies shared a Shine A Light video illustrating the initiative’s traction over the last two years.

Between sessions, participants leafed through the special issue of Variety, which included a series of essays on the topic of antisemitism by industry insiders such as Gene Simmons, Emanuelle Chriqui, Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Platt and Mayim Bialik.

“I want to thank all the Jews for being here and the non-Jews for being here too,” said Daniel Loeb, CEO/CIO of Third Point LLC in his opening remarks. “We often feel like we’re alone in this fight,” he said. “I think we’ve even felt a little left alone by some of our allies.”

A more lighthearted panel, dubbed “How to Tell a Joke,” featured Jewish comedians Marc Maron, Alex Edelman, Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish, who discussed the need for humor even in the darkest moments. 

“It is important to laugh once you’ve removed a little bit of time and a little bit of emotion,” said Barinholtz, who described his emotional state as “dismayed and broken and sad.” He added, “I do think Jews are able to find comedy in horrible things and horrible moments and I don’t think we’re there yet with this. I don’t know if we ever will be with this [Oct. 7],” he said. “I listened to some Israelis talking last week and they were saying you need some gallows humor. And some of my favorite Jewish jokes are ones that are incredibly dark.”

“You can’t heal without laughter,” said Haddish, who worked as an “energy producer” for more than 500 b’nai mitzvah parties and whose father was an Eritrean Jew. “In order to process it and understand it — which is very difficult to understand right now — but through humor, you’re able to process this and be able to move forward and do better for others. That’s what I use my humor for.”

“Sometimes people say to me, ‘I’m basically Jewish, I love bagels,’” said Edelman, whose limited-run show “Just for Us” just closed in New York and will be traveling to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco over the next few months. “Judaism has to be something deeper: holding two complex emotions at once. That’s Jewish. To understand the tension between the collective and the individual, that’s Jewish. To understand the need for keeping your traditions whole, and also being part of the secular world that we live in, that’s Jewish,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with your religion, or your practice. It has to do with your mindset, with your discourse or the conversations you have with each other.”

Actor Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife,” “The Morning Show”), responding to a question from Variety’s chief production officer Claudia Eller about why Hollywood was not standing up for Israel, said she’s been asking herself the same question. 

“The last thing I thought in my life was that I’d be the one actress speaking up for Jews. But I’m proud to be here and I hope I inspire other people to come out and talk and use their voice and their platform to draw attention to this,” said Margulies.

When she received an unexpected check, Margulies recounts, she decided to give half to the ADL and the other half to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City to start HESP, a Holocaust education program in public schools, which includes a paid internship for college students. The actor said the program reached 7,000 students who knew little or nothing about Jews in the Holocaust.

In an onstage interview, Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, spoke with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner about Hollywood history: how the business of entertainment was built and how it changed over the years, including the blacklist years. 

“I don’t really think you can remotely understand Hollywood and the creation of the motion picture industry, unless you understand it was created by Jews who did everything in their power to try and hide that fact because they knew they were under tremendous duress,” said Gabler. “The fear of antisemitism, in my estimation, is the driving force for the creation of Hollywood and, in many respects, the throughline.”

In the last panel of the day, some of Hollywood’s Jewish storytellers were asked what responsibility they feel to dismantle stereotypes and what inspires them to include Jewish stories in their work.

“In our own crafting of stories, especially in comedy, when we perceive ourselves as a dominant force, we often restrained ourselves from telling Jewish stories. So there’s responsibility to be taken there,” said Bill Prady, co-creator of “The Big Bang Theory.” Diversity, equity and inclusion stories are important alongside Jewish stories, Prady added, “it is an amazing, wonderful thing that we’re hearing the kinds of stories now that we’ve never heard. We Jews would like to be considered and to be part of that, [but] not to the exclusion of other wonderful stories that are coming to the fore.”