Why sanctimonious stars cannot save the world

Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem are a married couple best known for their ability to pretend to be other people, a talent for which they are paid millions. I wonder, then, who they were trying to be when they wrote an open letter published in the Spanish press, denouncing Israel’s actions in Gaza. Political leaders? Aid workers? Saints who walk among us?

“Gaza is living through horror these days, besieged and attacked by land, sea and air,” they explained in last month’s missive, which was co-signed by a host of Spanish cultural figures including the director Pedro Almodóvar. “Palestinians’ homes are being destroyed, they are being denied water, electricity [and] free movement to their hospitals, schools and fields while the international community does nothing.”

It is not the first time that Bardem has spoken out about Gaza. “It’s disgraceful that western countries are permitting such genocide,” he wrote in a commentary for the Spanish paper El Diario last month. Clearly, Bardem is hoping for a shiny gold halo to join his shiny gold Oscar.

Jon Voight, also best known for pretending to be other people, responded with another open letter (there are a lot of them flying about at the moment, which raises the question: why can’t these stars just hammer it out over a dinner table like everyone else, and leave the rest of us to read the news quietly with our cornflakes?).

The mighty political organ that Voight chose to air his thoughts in was The Hollywood Reporter. “My name is Jon Voight and I am more than angry,” he wrote. “I am heartsick that people like Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem could incite anti-Semitism all over the world and are [sic] oblivious to the damage they have caused . . . You had a great responsibility to use your celebrity for good . . . You should hang your heads in shame.”

Cruz backtracked. “I’m not an expert on the situation and I’m aware of the complexity of it,” she said in a statement. “My only wish and intention in signing that group letter is the hope that there will be peace in both Israel and Gaza.” And here we see the breathtaking arrogance of celebrities, who think that by simply signing a letter they will succeed where countless world leaders have failed.

Both Cruz and Bardem are now said to have been blacklisted by Hollywood executives disgusted by their condemnation of the “Israel occupation army”, as the couple refer to the Israel Defence Forces. Ryan Kavanaugh, the chief executive of the studio Relativity Media, said: “As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I know that anyone calling what’s going on in Israel 'genocide’ [instead of] self-defence is either ignorant and shouldn’t be commenting or is truly anti-Semitic.”

You get the impression that like a particularly gruelling Pedro Almodóvar film, this one could run and run.

Cruz, Bardem and Voight are not the only celebrities offering up an opinion nobody has asked for. Both Rihanna and One Direction’s Zayn Malik tweeted to “#freepalestine”, while it would be fair to say that Joan Rivers has her stilettos in the opposite camp. She told the website TMZ that Palestinians “deserve to be dead . . . They were told to get out. They didn’t get out. You don’t get out, you’re an idiot. At least the ones that were killed were the ones with low IQs.”

How does this help anyone? Why can’t they all keep their exquisitely made-up mouths shut?

Of course, Cruz and Bardem are as entitled to an opinion as the next married couple. What I find troubling is their need to share it with the world – as if they can make a difference to the crisis. In actual fact, all that has happened is that they have made it all about them. They haven’t raised awareness of a conflict you would have to be hiding under a rock to avoid; they have simply raised awareness of a potential crisis in their own careers.

Using “your celebrity for good”, as Voight says, can be done. I’m thinking Live Aid and Comic Relief. A good example is Angelina Jolie (she happens to be Voight’s daughter), who has an exemplary track record in humanitarian causes. When asked recently about the situation in Israel, Jolie’s response was appropriately measured. “It’s so deeply sad because there doesn’t seem to be an answer for what we can do . . . If I knew what I could do or what I could say, to in some way bring an end to this conflict or help with the ceasefire, I would do it in a moment.”

Cruz and Bardem would have been better off taking a similar stance, and then quietly donating some of their millions to the Disasters Emergency Committee. Perhaps I am doing them a disservice. Perhaps they have done exactly that already. But their outpourings have momentarily shifted the focus from this crisis and on to a battle of Hollywood egos instead. There is a risk that the suffering of thousands will be reduced to tittle-tattle by over-indulged stars strutting around in “Team Israel” and “Team Palestine” T-shirts, as if this were a celebrity divorce and not a hideous humanitarian crisis. If Cruz, Bardem, Rihanna and Rivers want to use their celebrity for good, then perhaps they could get back to doing what they do best: making movies, music and comedy that briefly divert people from the everyday horrors in the news.

Bryony Gordon, feature writer and columnist, takes a street-smart, twentysomething view of the irritations, absurdities and occasional epiphanies of modern life.

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