Hollywood, Palestine, and the problem with celebrity 'breadcrumb activism'

Hollywood, Palestine, and celebrity 'breadcrumb activism'
11 min read
02 February, 2024

As debates rage on whether or not celebrities have a social responsibility to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis happening in Gaza and Palestine, many of the world’s most visible people in Hollywood have found a way to appease those looking for recognition, while maintaining an image that keeps them employable.

But in an age where celebrity influence has the power to boost economies and cause riots, this breadcrumb activism must be called out in favour of more direct action.

When the Golden Globes and Emmys aired in January, I waited to see if anyone on the carpet for either event would mention Gaza or use their platform on stage to speak about humanitarian rights.

It’s not an unfathomable thing to expect, given that several celebrities during the 2022 Oscars wore pins to show their support for Ukraine and its victims, many of them also saying something while on stage. But, however predictable, advocacy for Palestinian rights was missing from both events, and I was left disappointed. 

"Half of this war depends on people ignoring Palestine and refusing to acknowledge what’s going on, and when we (as Palestinians, activists and allies) are given a platform to raise awareness, we must use it. But as proven so far this awards season, even the loudest voices are forced to silence themselves for the sake of profitability"

Then someone mentioned that Ramy Youssef did say something, so I raced to search for the clip, expecting a meaningful contribution on camera like he makes on social media, but all I found was a brief mention of the words “ceasefire now,” sandwiched into a joke about Jeremy Allen White’s underwear campaign.

Although Youssef followed up these remarks with a longer, more serious red carpet answer with Variety at an Oscars carpet later that week, it was evident that he – and many of his colleagues – harbour a sense of fear that prevents them from saying anything on camera that would later be weaponised against him professionally.

Neither sound clip specifically mentions Gaza, and both are low-risk statements meant to keep people comfortable. These are surprising things coming from Youssef, who has been a staunch advocate for Palestinian rights, even going so far as to film an entire episode of his series, Ramy, in Jerusalem.

Palestine and Hollywood

Outside of red carpets, Youssef does great work advocating for Palestinians and using his platform in ways many celebrities have refrained from, which is why his relatively tame statement is so confusing.

He’s not one to shy away from the subject, and anyone who follows him knows he cares deeply about the issue. In fact, headlines were made when Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Gigi Hadid were all photographed entering his comedy show, where all proceeds were donated to Anera, a foundation that aims to help people in the West Bank and Gaza. 

It’s not Youssef’s commitment to the movement that is being questioned, but the forces at play that make even the loudest advocate for Palestine so quiet when given access to one of the world’s largest platforms on Hollywood’s biggest nights. 

Half of this war depends on people ignoring Palestine and refusing to acknowledge what’s going on, and when we (as Palestinians, activists and allies) are given a platform to raise awareness, we must use it. But as proven so far this awards season, even the loudest voices are forced to silence themselves for the sake of profitability.

Despite his pro-Palestine stance, Ramy Youssef has avoided explicit statements of solidarity in the press [Getty Images]
Despite his openly pro-Palestine stance on social media, Ramy Youssef has been largely quiet in press interviews [Getty Images]

I have no doubt that many celebrities might also be doing incredible advocacy and fighting for Palestinians off camera, but because we are so silenced in every field, of every industry, we need their voices on camera, too. We can’t applaud celebrities for signing open letters or saying something about us without even actually mentioning Palestine.  

These kinds of acts are what I like to call “breadcrumb activism,” where celebrities know the socially responsible thing to do is to acknowledge something, but refuse to put in the work or really use their voices in ways that matter, specifically in the limelight. 

Take Gomez and Swift for example. These are two of the most recognised people in the world, with audiences and follower counts that tally up to more than 10% of the world population. It’s clear that they have the influence and ability to make their fan bases think about things they never have before – evidenced by the way Swift fans all became American football fans as soon as she started dating a player. If she could make people care about American football, she could certainly make her followers care about the war.

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After attending Youssef’s show, the inevitable question arises: Does the attendance of these celebrities mean they support Palestine? If so, why are they so quiet about it? Well, at least we have an answer to that question. It’s clearer than ever that outwardly supporting the Palestinian cause while working in the entertainment industry will get you fired, or even worse: blacklisted. 

Being blacklisted in Hollywood is a terrifying concept for those who’ve spent their entire lives building their careers. Imagine working hard for years only to irritate some racist or misogynist once and never get hired again.

Harvey Weinstein, recently found guilty of rape and sexual assault, blacklisted several people in the industry who dared to bring up his horrific behaviour, often robbing the women he’s assaulted of any chance of further success in show business. It’s a tactic used by petty, small people who don’t like the power others accumulate, so they do everything in their own power to squash it. 

It’s not conjecture to say that pro-Palestinian voices are being blacklisted, because we have the receipts to prove it. Susan Sarandon was dropped by her agency for comments made at a pro-Palestine rally, Melissa Berrera was fired from her spot as a lead in the latest Scream instalments for advocating for Palestine, and Sara Ramirez was recently fired from her role in the Sex and the City reboot for her own pro-Palestinian stance. 

Blacklists, celebrities and cancel culture

These firings and blacklists are the exact reason why so many celebrities are terrified of speaking up on camera, even if they’re willing to post a “ceasefire now” image on their Instagram profile or raise money for victims of the genocide.

If you’re famous enough, you have enough ground to be able to voice your concern on your personal platforms, but don’t you dare interrupt an international broadcast and bring that activism to the mainstream! 

What we’re inevitably left with, after executives prevent anyone from doing anything meaningful, is breadcrumb activism. Does it do any good? Sure! By attending Youssef’s show, Gomez, Hadid and Swift at least brought attention to the subject. And by at least having one person with a platform be willing to say the words “ceasefire now” on a red carpet, however brief and nondescript, it contributes to public conversation which in turn adds pressure to call for a ceasefire.

But in the grand scheme of things, these tiny efforts represent single molecules of water inside of a pressure cooker. They help, and they contribute to a finished product, but they are so hard to see and if you take them away, honestly, it barely makes a difference. 

"We must demand an end to this breadcrumb activism because we know the world’s most famous, rich and powerful are capable of giving so much more. Their influence is unparalleled, and it is wasted"

What we’re missing, and what we are fully capable of getting, are massive acts of activism like bringing up Palestine on the world stage during awards ceremonies, or the world’s most followed celebrities posting resources on how to get educated on Palestine. Unlike breadcrumb activism, these aren’t just molecules of water that you’ll miss. These are the robust, piping-hot bursts of steam that are impossible to avoid and directly responsible for delivering you a finished meal.

Knowing what we’re missing makes watching anything that happens in Hollywood remarkably frustrating. Over the past few weeks, it’s been maddening to see a celebrity get touted for calling for a ceasefire when all they did was sign that Artists4Ceasefire list. Articles get published, and people start gabbing.

“Did you see that Andrew Garfield called for a ceasefire?!” someone will ask me. I ran to the internet like I did when someone told me about Youssef, only to discover that, actually, he didn’t say anything. All he did was add his name to a list of what is quite literally the barest of minimums any celebrity must do. Calling for a ceasefire over a hundred days into an active genocide does not deserve praise, it deserves questioning.

We’ve seen how celebrities run to causes they deem worth their public attention, so what about Palestine scares you so much that you’ll only add your name to a list once a handful of other notable celebrities have? And why is it that you’ll spend personal time outside of the limelight educating yourself and perhaps donating to good causes but you refuse to let the public know? And yes, I know we’ve already answered this, but these are questions that must be repeated, even if we know the answers. Because if those questions make you uncomfortable, you deserve to feel the heat.

If the actors’ and writers’ strikes have taught us anything in the last year, it’s that solidarity and community give us more power than any single check possibly can.

Fear is what the studios relied on to try and force their writers and actors to accept deals they knew were grossly insufficient – but it didn’t work! The writers and the actors knew exactly what their bargaining power was, and they held their ground until the executives were forced to give them at least a small percentage of what they deserved. 

The very same fear studios relied on during those strikes is what racists and colonisers are depending on during this war. Fear is what has kept the settler-colonialist ideals of Zionism so strong, because of how deeply entangled they have made their beliefs with Judaism. Supporters of this war will have you think that decrying Zionism and calling for a ceasefire are somehow antisemitic, when in reality it is Zionism that feeds the growth of antisemitism by committing horrific, inhumane acts of war in the name of Judaism. 

Thankfully the world is finally beginning to see this. In a remarkable turn of events, the war on Gaza has shattered the illusion that Zionism is synonymous with Judaism.

Thousands of anti-Zionist Jews have protested all over the world, blocking highways and filling train stations with calls for a ceasefire, proving to us that it is possible to denounce Zionism while supporting the Jewish community. 

But even still, celebrities are terrified to voice their support for Palestine on national television because the people who are writing these pretentious blacklists have their eyes on everyone who dares to even raise a finger on the subject. People are shackled by this fear, and it’s the only thing holding back any sort of real change. If only they realised how easy those shackles are to break. 

We must demand an end to this breadcrumb activism because we know the world’s most famous, rich and powerful are capable of giving so much more. Their influence is unparalleled, and it is wasted. We know it’s wasted because we have seen people in this industry, who are fully capable of utilising their influence for the greater good, being totally and completely silent on this cause when millions of people could benefit from being introduced to the subject by them. 

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The best parts about this industry are the stories it gives us. Stories about fighting greed and evil, about underdogs, and about knowing when to speak up when you need to. I find it a little outrageous that so many people who write these stories are blind to the fact that if this was the story they were writing, they would all be the villains. So, I end with a note to the brilliant hard workers in the entertainment industry:

Why should protesters be the only ones we expect to speak up and disrupt? Why would we let the most vulnerable among us get so burned if we have the power to withstand fire? Do the ideas of justice, equality, and fighting for the greater good only matter to us in our films? Have the movies taught us nothing?

You are the reason any executive in this industry is making any money. You are the reason these studios have blockbusters with faces people want to look at. You are the driving force of this business, which is one of the greatest machines for social change we have in this world.  Are you going to continue to let some pale-faced bald executive in a poor-fitting suit control what you say?

We’ve had enough of this breadcrumb activism, and these tiny little things that make a spark when what we need out here is a god-damned forest fire. People praise you like gods, so where’s the lightning?

Tariq Raouf is a Palestinian-American Muslim writer, based in Seattle. 

Follow them on Twitter: @tariq_raouf