Why It Matters That More Celebrities Than Ever Are Speaking Out In Support of Palestine

Nothing’s going to change if we don’t talk about it.


Stacy Lee Kong

May 14 2021

12 mins read



A note before we start: I swore I was writing a short newsletter this week, but the thing I can’t stop thinking about—celebrities posting and speaking out in support of Palestine—is complicated, so please forgive me/buckle in. Second, I want to be very clear: antisemitism is very real and happening all the time (sometimes by people who belong to marginalized groups themselves, as we saw this week). White supremacist groups are inherently antisemitic and their reach exploded in 2020, so it’s not surprising that in Canada, there were 2,610 recorded antisemitic incidents last year, an 18.3% over 2019. (Jewish Americans also experienced historically high numbers of assaults, harassment and vandalism in 2020.) That being said, criticizing a nation’s right-wing apartheid policies isn’t antisemitic, and to suggest that’s the case is disingenuous. Discrimination against Jewish people is completely unacceptable in all instances; holding Israel accountable for its policies and actions is necessary if Palestine is actually going to achieve liberation.


So. I noticed something fascinating this week, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: explicit, widespread, public support for Palestinians, particularly from celebrities. This is not to say that people in the entertainment industry, who are by and large a left-leaning bunch, haven’t expressed support before. Jon Stewart regularly criticized Israel’s actions when he hosted The Daily Show, Mark Ruffalo calls for Palestinian rights on an ongoing basis, and actors including Emma Thompson and Danny Glover have called for boycotts of Israel, or organizations that support Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. But taking this stance has always led to criticism, especially when they speak out on social media, which means many celebrities have learned to be carefully neutral when trying to speak on this issue.


Until very recently, some celebs got spooked when they were criticized for supporting Palestine


Remember when Rihanna tweeted #FreePalestine? It was in response to the 2014 Gaza war, when Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu authorized land, air and sea attacks on the occupied territory in an attempt to destroy tunnels built by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, who used them to attack Israel. Just eight minutes later, after receiving a “barrage” of criticism, she deleted the tweet and posted a picture of two boys, one Jewish, one Arab, hugging in its place. Selena Gomez and NBA player Dwight Howard also posted in support of Palestine around the same time and were similarly criticized. Both walked back their comments, Gomez clarifying that she wasn’t “picking sides,” Howard straight-up calling his post a “mistake.” They were all clearly worried about being perceived as antisemitic, which is likely why Rihanna’s most recent comment was so carefully worded.

And honestly, I get it. I’ve been reading about Israel and Palestine since I was in university and have supported the Palestinian right to self-determination ever since. But it’s hard to talk about it, especially on social, because sharing any opinion on the topic can attract trolls. It's also really easy to feel intimidated by the scope of the conflict—I’m not a political scientist; I literally just read a lot. Here’s the thing, though: Israel-Palestine is actually not as complicated as you might think, but characterizing it that way has a chilling effect on conversations about it, positions it as ‘impossible to solve,’ which of course benefits the more powerful party, and helps uphold the idea that acknowledging Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is harmful to all Jewish people. (This is a really excellent breakdown of why that’s not true.)


How did we get here?

But obviously, something has changed, because not only are celebrities like Steven Yeun, Yara Shahidi, Viola Davis, the Hadids, Henry Golding, the Weeknd and Trevor Noah speaking out in greater numbers, they’re also handling these conversations with more nuance and grace than politicians (ugh, Andrew Yang), including reminding their followers to condemn Israel’s policies, not Jewish people. And, they’re not backing down when their mentions are flooded with criticism.


Before we get into why, a brief history lesson:


There are several good primers on the roots of this conflict (though I think we should be wary of the ones that position Palestine and Israel as equally-matched adversaries), but briefly according to Vox: “Jews fleeing persecution in Europe wanted to establish a national homeland in what was then an Arab- and Muslim-majority territory in the Ottoman and later British Empire. The Arabs resisted, seeing the land as rightfully theirs.” After World War 1, the League of Nations issued a “British mandate for Palestine,” which granted Britain control over the region and tasked it with creating a homeland for Jewish people there. In 1947, the United Nations proposed a plan that would partition Palestine into two independent states with Jerusalem, which both groups claimed as its capital, designated an international territory. This plan never came to fruition—Jewish leaders agreed, but Arab leaders saw it as colonial theft. Instead, in 1948, Britain pulled out of Palestine. Jewish leaders declared the land was theirs, named it Israel and almost immediately entered into a war over territory with five neighbouring Arab countries.


According to another Vox article (and truly, thank goodness for Vox), “Israeli forces won the 1948 war, but they pushed well beyond the UN-designated borders to claim land that was to have been part of Palestine, including the western half of Jerusalem. They also uprooted and expelled entire Palestinian communities, creating about 700,000 refugees, whose descendants now number seven million and are still considered refugees.” After another war, in 1967, Israel began an occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, both Palestinian territories, which continues to today. Israel says this is necessary to protect itself from foreign invasions, but this occupation violates Palestinians' human rights, according to Human Rights Watch, and empowers Israeli settlers to displace even more Palestinians—which is at the core of the Sheikh Jarrah “evictions” that we’re all talking about this week.

Palestine-Israel is complex, yes—but not incomprehensible

I’m not trying to make this sound simple—it’s definitely not. I understand why Israel was created, and why Palestinians resisted its existence then and continue to do so now. There's infighting between Palestinian groups, too; the two occupied territories have different leadership with different goals who often clash with one another. The West Bank is governed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which has accepted Israel’s right to exist since 1993, when Israel recognized it as the legitimate representative of Palestinians. Gaza, on the other hand, is governed by Hamas, a militant group that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has been retaliating with violent attacks since 1987.


But at its core, we’re not talking about a ‘war’ between two countries. We’re talking about a land dispute between a wealthy, industrialized and militarized nation and the stateless group of millions who it has colonized, oppressed and, in Gaza, constrained to what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison, something that was always egregious but is particularly so during COVID. It is a place where there is “a lack of clean water for people to wash their hands with, a paralyzed sewage-treatment system due to the lack of electricity, widespread poverty and the inability of many Palestinians to socially distance in densely packed refugee camps or to leave because of the siege,” according to a 2020 Washington Post op-ed by Canadian doctor and humanitarian Tarek Loubani.


And we all need to see what’s going on.


The language of social justice has become mainstream


That’s where the Hadids, Yeuns and Shahidis come in.

Gigi, Bella and Anwar, whose father is Palestinian, are definitely making an impact here, and not only by sharing information. Thanks to the phenomenon of parasocial relationships, where fans feel like they ‘know’ a celebrity or public figure, the siblings’ followers aren’t just becoming exposed to the ideas they share online, they may actually take up the Hadids’ causes themselves, including calling for a free Palestine. The same applies to the family’s circle of famous friends—Zayn Malik, who’s Muslim himself and in a relationship with Gigi, Dua Lipa, who’s dating Anwar, and the Weeknd, who used to date Bella, have all posted about Sheikh Jarrah on Instagram, though some kept their support to Stories instead of the main feed.


But it’s more than the Hadids’ social circle. In fact, I’m pretty sure the biggest reason so many celebrities feel confident speaking out about Palestine now is last year’s racial reckoning. It not only amplified white people and non-Black POC’s understanding of anti-Black racism, but also gave people of all races a stronger understanding of injustice, resistance and liberation as concepts. Suddenly, many more people know how to identify colonization and oppression, even when it doesn’t directly affect them, and are equipped with the language to actually articulate what they’re seeing.


Why these conversations matter


When it comes to social justice, I usually think of celebrities as useful tools—their actions can help us analyze complex issues, and their platforms can help amplify worthwhile causes. That second one is what really matters here, I think.   

It’s incredibly rare for mainstream media outlets in the West to honestly identify what Israel is doing in the occupied Palestinian territories by name—that is, colonization and apartheid. In fact, one of the only recent examples I can think of is Wednesday’s episode of Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa, which included an interview with Rami Khouri, director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, who explained just how Israel’s actions amount to ethnic cleansing in plain, devastating language. (You can watch the whole segment here.) But most of the time, media outlets adhere to a scrupulously ‘unbiased’ approach that ends up presenting this conflict as the result of ever-rising tensions or escalations by both sides, not state-sanctioned violence. In fact, according to a recent op-ed by Toronto writer and journalism instructor Andrew Mitrovica, when Human Rights Watch released a report in late April that found “since the middle of the last century, [Israel] persecuted and viciously practised apartheid against Palestinians [and] that much of that pervasive inhuman treatment has got nothing to do with keeping Israel safe… only two Canadian news organisations produced stories about HRW’s damning report: The Canadian Press wire service and the Globe and Mail newspaper.”

Meanwhile, if you look to politicians, from Justin Trudeau to Joe Biden to basically everyone running for mayor of New York City, you'll almost always get pro-Israel statements, especially concerning the country’s need to protect itself, which Jezebel rightly characterizes as “a sort of goofy both-sides-ism that doesn’t actually reflect the reality of what is happening on the ground. It’s true that both sides have acted in violence, but only Israel has an ultra-advanced military and police force with billions of dollars in budgetary support from the United States.” (Western complicity is absolutely a factor here; Canada also supplies arms to Israel, btw.)


Even social media platforms have seemingly tried to shut pro-Palestine conversations down this week. Palestinian activists say Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have been removing posts about Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Instagram Lives from broadcasting and otherwise censoring Palestinian voices. (The platforms blamed glitches for the deleted posts.)


All of these factors create and control a narrative that upholds Israel’s colonialism—and while there are limits to celebrity activism, especially when stars’ ideals bump against their ability to accumulate wealth, subverting this narrative is one thing it actually can help with.

Because in Sheikh Jarrah right now, Israeli forces are helping settlers literally walk into people’s houses and just... decide to stay. And nothing’s going to change if we don’t talk about it.


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And Did You Hear About…


Lawyer-turned-romance novelist Courtney Milan’s review of Pride and Prejudice, which looks at the classic from a legal perspective.


This really smart and thoughtful review of Hunter Biden’s recovery memoir, Beautiful Things, by Canadian writer Nour Abi-Nakhoul.


The latest episode of You’re Wrong About on the Chicks, the subjects of the first cancellation via internet, and one of the few examples that complicate my belief that cancel culture isn’t real.


Writer Jiayang Fan’s excellent, nuanced article about the Disgusting Food Museum in Sweden, and what happens when Westerners decide what’s gross. 


The Cut’s v. accurate reminder that Bennifer was never low-key.

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