NO HOLDS BARRED: Honoring Hollywood celebrities we may not always agree with

Many have already been in touch asking me about Yoko Ono and some of her controversial postures toward Israel.

Las Vegas gaming tycoon and Israel Hayom proprietor Sheldon Adelson (photo credit: REUTERS)
Las Vegas gaming tycoon and Israel Hayom proprietor Sheldon Adelson
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Our organization, The World Values Network, recently announced our fourth annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, which this year will host, among others, Elie Wiesel, Rev. Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King), Yoko Ono, the Crown Prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi, and Likud MK Amir Ohana. The dinner is hosted by Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson and Judy and Michael Steinhardt and will take place on International Holocaust Memorial Day, May 5, at the Marriot Marquis on Times Square.
Many have already been in touch asking me about Yoko Ono and some of her controversial postures toward Israel. Yoko is one of the foremost cultural icons in the entire world and has devoted her life toward the pursuit of peace. Her path may be different to how I would have done it. But there can be no question that peace is Judaism’s great contribution to the world and its highest value.
No country has striven to create peace, at greater personal cost, than Israel. We all wish Israel had real partners for peace rather than enemies sworn to Jewish genocide and Israel’s destruction.
But we still pray for the Messianic world promised by Isaiah where men will beat their swords into plowshares and no man will again teach his son the art of war.
I faced similar and much more withering criticism when we honored Sean Penn in May 2014.
Sean had saved the life of a Jewish businessman falsely accused and left to rot in Bolivia. Though we were condemned by many for the honor, with critics accusing Penn of being anti-American and even anti-Israel, subsequent to our dinner Penn traveled to Israel to laud an Israeli humanitarian organization that saved lives in Haiti and suddenly all those critics shut up.
The drawing of battle lines and the fight for the State of Israel has been fiercely waged within the ranks of Hollywood and the world of celebrities.
We are living in a time when public figures who make statements or actions that can in anyway be seen as an approval of Israel, or even that acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, will often be met with a torrent of hateful calls for boycotts and condemnation from both fellow celebrities and online hordes of anti-Israel followers. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd is one who will always rear his head when a celebrity does an event in Israel.
It is a very sad time when the forces of anti-Semitism can be so rabid that they would love to see the only democracy in the Middle East weakened and destroyed, no doubt to be replaced by another human-rights abusing dictatorship.
That is why Sean Penn’s recent trip to Israel has been such a blow to the anti-Israel BDS movement and a real victory for the Jewish state.
This was Penn’s first visit to Israel, where he gave the commencement speech for an IsraAid conference. IsraAid is an Israeli based NGO known for its quick and effective disaster relief responses to emergencies around the globe. The conference dealt with Haiti relief and focused on how to rebuild this nation still suffering from the damage caused by the massive earthquake of 2010. I personally visited Haiti right after the earthquake and the carnage I witnessed was unspeakable.
Penn himself is one of the few celebrities who really puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to humanitarian causes. Penn’s organization, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, came to Haiti just after the earthquake struck, and Penn had planned to stay for a few weeks to help.
Instead, he chose to take up residence in Haiti, living in a three bedroom house with 20 other people, where he resided for a year.
During Penn’s remarks to IsraAid, he hailed the amazing work done by the Israeli organization.
Penn explained how, “Their logistics was just more sound, and sincerity in purpose was more complete.” He added, “The indirect impact of IsraAid is that everything that JP/ HRO has accomplished would not have existed without the inspiration and support that they provided.”
Penn’s praises for an Israeli organization’s humanitarian work is priceless. Furthermore, after the conference, Penn met with former Israeli president Shimon Peres at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. The photo op between the actor and the elder Israeli statesmen, publicized across the world, was a victory for Israel and one of the biggest celebrity endorsements Israel has picked up in years.
Now Sean and I disagree substantially on political questions and I believe his recent interview with El Chapo had the effect of whitewashing the drug lord who is one of the world’s worst cold-blooded killers.
There was also Sean’s 2003 meeting with Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz or his calls to impeach George Bush back in 2007, or his praise for former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose policies have now led to a total collapse of the Venezuelan economy. Sean’s perspectives on politics and world leaders has, in my opinion, been off the mark to say the least.
Nonetheless, Penn’s humanitarian activities have been exemplary, which is why we chose to give Penn an award for his work in helping Jacob Ostreicher, an American entrepreneur and Orthodox Jew who was arrested on trumped up charges in Bolivia in 2011 while overseeing a rice growing venture. Ostreicher spent 18 months in Bolivia’s Palmasola prison, an infamous complex described by The New York Times as “a squalid prison.”
Penn heard about Ostreicher’s case and traveled to Bolivia on what he describes as a “humanitarian operation” during which he managed to sneak Ostreicher across a hostile border and back into the US. Penn didn’t know Ostreicher, and had no obligations to risk his life in order to save him. Still, he chose to put himself in danger to help this man, for the simple reason that he was another human being in need.
We were guided by the Jewish principle that the main emphasis is always on people’s actions much more than their beliefs, words, and opinions.
And he who saves one life has saved a universe.
Penn has criticized some Israeli policies in the past. But I am glad to know that he is firmly in the camp of those celebrities who believe that Israel is a nation that practices righteous action.
Hopefully his trip will give other celebrities the courage to publicly support the Jewish state and stand up to the bullying attempts of BDS and other forms of anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.