#OccupiedOscars: Brand Israel at the Academy Awards

You’ve heard of #OscarSoWhite. Now get ready for #OccupiedOscars.

As reported in Ha’aretz, Israel is trying to capitalize on the entertainment industry’s biggest night by stuffing Oscars gift baskets with an all-expense-paid trip to Israel for 2 valued at $55,000.

Oscars gift baskets are a glittery tradition dreamed up by the marketing pros of fashion houses and car brands: Everybody loves free stuff, actors attending the Oscars are a captive audience, and A-List celebrities might be photographed enjoying the free goodies dumped on them.

Gift baskets are handed to all nominated actors and presenters and, according to Vanity Fair, last year’s loot-bag was valued at $168,000. Perks included: free Silvercar Audi rentals for a year, a $1,200 Matrone bicycle, and $4,000 worth of liposuction (it’s Hollywood, after all).

Privileged actors might be the last individuals worthy of free goodies – if the actor avails him or herself of them – but the publicity is certainly worthwhile for the company or nation, as it were.

And it is the publicity that would accompany, say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Jennifer Lawrence (two nominated actors receiving gift bags) that the Israeli Tourism Ministry, which is reportedly shelling out $1.5 million for the vouchers, is hoping for. Even before the Academy Award broadcast (on Feb. 28), the Ministry’s already gushing in an emailed press release, “Are DiCaprio, Lawrence and Stallone on their way to Israel?”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said the trip would allow celebrities to “experience the country first hand and not through the media,” adding, “their visit will have enormous resonance among millions of fans and followers, including social media.”

Israel isn’t merely aiming to boost its tourism industry but, rather, to enlist unwitting movie stars in a counter-campaign against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – BDS – movement that aims to hold Israel accountable to international law and end the nearly half-century occupation of Palestinian lands.

Israeli politicians are fretting more and more about BDS’s impact, from the labeling of illegal settlement goods sold in the European Union (previously, incorrectly labeled “Made in Israel”) to the growing ranks of artists boycotting Israel,  in a move harkening to the artistic shunning of Apartheid South Africa. In recent years, numerous musicians – including Elvis Costello and Roger Waters – have publicly supported the boycott. At other times, there’s a less vocal boycott, as was most likely the case when Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffman quietly withdrew from an Israeli-sponsored film festival in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government has noticed the trend toward international isolation; but Israel’s rightist leaders are in no hurry to end the occupation and have opted to counteract BDS with a marketing ploy called Brand Israel. Instead of dealing with the source of opprobrium, Brand Israel seeks to divert attention away from the occupation by highlighting, say, the foodie scene in Tel Aviv or the city’s gay pride parade.

If past Israeli marketing is anything to go by, the Oscars trip will present an Israel sans military occupation and its corollaries of illegal settlements, home demolitions, separation barrier, roadblocks and checkpoints, land theft, administrative detention, and religious-nationalist racism. Nothing to see here, move along folks. Call it Exodus Redux! But, this time around, not even Hollywood could stage a production of such extraordinary make-believe.

Gifting a trip is not a novel idea. Last year, there were trips to Canada and Italy and Japan this year. Actors wishing to avoid becoming pawns and dupes in a propaganda campaign might consider other options.

Update 2/24/2016: The gift bag is not an official Oscars bag. In fact, as reported by The Warp,

“Last week, the Academy sued Distinctive Assets over the bag, charging that the company misled people into thinking that its gift bag was an official Academy offering. In fact, AMPAS [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] discontinued its own gift bags a decade ago, after paying back taxes on the lavish bags for a number of previous recipients.”