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Celebrity no-show: Hollywood stars reject Israel 'PR stunt' trip

Leonardo Dicaprio was among those invited to Israel [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 February, 2017

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Israel's attempt to use Hollywood celebrities to revamp its image has apparently failed, as none have yet visited the state with one of the world's poorest human rights records.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and other Hollywood stars have yet to arrive in Israel for an all-expenses paid luxury trip offered to them last year, in what campaigners describe as victory against the state’s attempt of whitewashing crimes.

None of the 26 Oscars stars offered a free personalised tour, valued at up to $55,000 have visited the controversial state.

"This is a success," said Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which ran the campaign against the visits along with American organisation Jewish Voice for Peace.

"I am very glad there's no evidence that people went. I think it is clear the objective of using the actors to whitewash Israel has failed."

The offer, which sparked a backlash, was part of $200,000 gift bags given out by a marketing firm during the 2016 Oscars, and included other items such as ultra-expensive toilet paper.

Campaign groups accused Israel of trying to use the celebrities to gain positive coverage and downplay crimes and abuses against Palestinians.

The agency behind the plan, said Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence did take up the offer but gave it to her parents.

Israel's tourism ministry declined to comment or confirm which celebrities had taken up the offer.

'Kick back'

Ahead of the 2016 Oscars, Israel's tourism ministry announced the nominees for the top five prizes, as well as host Chris Rock would be offered individually tailored trips, including first class flights and luxury hotels, as part of an attempted PR campaign to improve Israel’s image.

"Every celebrity that is coming to visit us can put online a selfie somewhere and the value is huge," tourism ministry director general Amir Halevi told AFP at the time.

But US-based campaigners placed adverts in the Los Angeles Times and urged the actors to #skipthetrip on social media.

Campaigners then monitored traditional and social media to see if any of the celebrities made public trips.

"So far we have not seen any," Munayyer said.

Mark Rylance, winner of the Best Supporting Actor and a long-time critic of Israeli policies, confirmed to AFP he would not visit.

Jewish Voice for Peace spokeswoman Granate Sosnoff said it was part of a wider cultural boycott.

"(Our campaign) brought tension, interrupted the normalcy of brand Israel and reminded Hollywood elites that there's a social cost of being associated with military occupation," she said.

Dan Rothem, a researcher on US-Israel relations, said Israel wanted to use celebrities "as a way to break the impression there is some sort of isolation or boycott".

Musicians performing in Israel are often put under pressure to boycott from activists, with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters a major campaigner against such trips.

Last week controversy erupted over American footballers visiting Israel, with only five of the 11 players from the NFL joining a trip after the Superbowl.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said he would "not be used" by Israel, quoting reports the itinerary was being sculpted by the government for publicity.

"When I do go to Israel - and I do plan to go - it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives," he said in a statement.

Academic Margaret Campbell, who has written about celebrity endorsements, said the biggest risks of backfire is "that people end up with a worse idea of the brand (the country 'brand' in this case) than before".

The percentage of Democrats who sympathise more with the Palestinians than with Israel has nearly doubled since 2014, research by the Pew Research Center found, and in 2016 was higher than the percentage favouring Israelis (40 percent and 33 percent respectively).


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