Where celebrities went wrong opining on the Israel-Gaza war – The Washington Post

A star-studded rendition of “Imagine” in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. AnnaLynne McCord’s poem during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which the “90210” actress lamented that she isn’t Vladimir Putin’s mother. And now, in the wake of a deadly war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Justin Bieber is accidentally “Praying for Israel” alongside a photo of destruction in the Gaza Strip, and Farrah Abraham is misspelling Hamas like a pita dip.
Celebrities have a long and not very illustrious history of moonlighting as moral arbiters during major crises. The social media fishbowls they live in pressure them to assume a position on headline events or be considered careless — even if the only posts most people remember are the ones that go terribly wrong.
Examples of the latter ran rampant on social media this month, as celebrities attempted to referee a brutal conflict that has reportedly killed hundreds of civilians on both sides of the Israel-Gaza Strip border.
Crisis communications professionals don’t fault the entertainers for speaking out, but they say some could have avoided the worst of the fiascos with a modicum of due diligence and public pulse checks.
“Gone are the days of keeping mum on what were considered taboo topics. The pressure to speak up has intensified, because, for some, silence equals condoning bad behavior,” said Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications in Los Angeles. “Silence can speak louder than words, but fumbling through a rushed response often does more damage than staying silent.”
Sarah Silverman was criticized for implying that Israel — which has long controlled access to water and other crucial resources in the crowded, impoverished Gaza Strip — had no obligation to continue providing them during the war.
“Many are saying that it’s inhumane that Israel is cutting off water/ electricity to Gaza,” said the post Silverman shared, originally written by an Israeli food TikToker. “… ISRAEL DOES NOT NEED TO SUPPLY GAZA WITH THESE RESOURCES (which they do, for FREE) . If Hamas didn’t spend billions of dollars on terrorism they would be able to build the infrastructure to support themselves.”
After Silverman became a trending topic on social media and critics accused her of “justifying genocide,” the “Saturday Night Live” alum deleted her message and explained that she “realized it was a mistake to post in the stoned fury of wondering where the hostages are in all this madness.”
Entertainers aren’t expected to double as experts in geopolitics, but PR experts such as Nathan Miller, the chief executive of Miller Ink, often advise them to judiciously weigh in on monumental events of a certain threshold, recognizing that millions of people view celebrities as cultural influencers.
“It’s their duty as citizens of this country, and as people who others listen to, to speak out,” Miller said. “Americans are hungry for moral leadership.”
But he also warns them of the danger in rushing out statements without guidance from subject matter experts — particularly when the topic is as historically complex and emotionally fraught as with Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Kylie Jenner lost about 800,000 Instagram followers over the course of two weeks after she shared a post from a nonprofit group captioned “Now and always, we stand with the people of Israel!” with a picture of an Israeli flag.
Many other celebrities — not to mention President Biden and many members of Congress — also posted support for Israel in the days after Hamas’s surprise attack on the country. But Jenner caught some of the fiercest backlash from people who felt Israeli violence against Palestinians was being ignored. Many argued that the makeup mogul’s well-known friendship with Dutch Palestinian supermodel Bella Hadid should have made Jenner sensitive that thousands of Palestinians are reported to have died in the war, and exponentially more have suffered because of Israeli occupation policies.
“She never reposted any of Bella’s informative and educational posts about what’s been happening in Palestine,” one Reddit user commented.
Jenner deleted the post from her Instagram story shortly after, and a few days later shared another from her half sister Kim Kardashian that called for “compassion toward innocent victims.”
“I also ask that, during difficult times like these, not to judge who is or isn’t speaking out, because everyone should be allowed to deal with times of crisis in the way that they feel most comfortable, whether it be privately or publicly,” Kardashian wrote.
Others have provoked fury by making obvious errors in their statements or drawing facile comparisons between the war and their personal struggles.
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“Teen Mom” star Abraham accomplished both when she likened the Israel-Hamas conflict to a lawsuit in which she said she was unfairly convicted of battering a security guard, and misspelled Hamas in an Instagram comment: “I’m Jerusalem & security is Hummus lying with terrorism tactics that fail.”
Photos can cause trouble, too. Charlotte-based crisis communications expert LaToya Evans noted a string of celebrity posts that spread misleading information and imagery by relying on material from other influencers or organizations.
“TERROR FROM THE SKIES,” Jamie Lee Curtis wrote on Instagram earlier this month, accompanied by an Israeli flag emoji and a picture of children looking up with fearful expressions. It turned out that the photo, taken by a Gaza-based freelance photojournalist whom the Oscar-winning actress credited, actually shows Palestinian children. Curtis has since deleted her post and, like many celebrities, later restated her concerns with less polarizing language.
“I took down the post when I realized my error,” Curtis told HuffPost. “… It’s an awful situation for all the innocent people in the line of fire.”
Justin Bieber made a similar error, quickly deleting an Oct. 11 post he shared from a Christian podcast that showed support for Israel. As pointed out by many social media commenters, the post featured a damaged building in Gaza. Both Bieber and the podcast group later reposted the same message, “Praying for Israel,” without the image.
Even cleanup attempts can come across as callous. Evans and Gillott noted that many flawed posts were simply deleted without explanation.
“Deleting a post without acknowledgment looks like an admission of guilt,” Gillott said. “Acknowledge mistakes, apologize if needed and clarify your stance constructively.”
Although the blunders have drawn a lot of attention, many entertainers have found ways to speak out with minimal blowback. More than 100 celebrities, including Wanda Sykes, Hasan Minhaj and America Ferrera, signed an open letter that urged Biden to call for a cease-fire, for example. And comedian Pete Davidson — lately beset by reports of car crashes and angry outbursts — earned widespread praise last week with an emotional SNL monologue about the conflict.
“I saw so many terrible pictures this week of children suffering, Israeli children and Palestinian children, and it took me back to a really horrible, horrible place, and no one in this world deserves to suffer like that, especially not kids,” Davidson said, referring to his memories of losing his father in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Evans called the speech an effective response to the crisis — an appeal based in personal experience to sympathize with the most vulnerable victims. It may have helped that Davidson added in some sarcastic self-deprecation, rarely seen in his colleagues’ attempts to opine on the war.
“This week, we saw the horrible images and stories from Israel and Gaza,” he said. “And I know what you’re thinking: ‘Who better to comment on it than Pete Davidson?’”

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