Nominees to the 2016 Academy Awards were announced on 14 January, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was immediately criticized for its lack of diversity. While the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was trending on social media, and actors, producers, and directors of color were calling for a boycott of the awards ceremony, a related issue began making headlines.
In addition to disproportionately awarding white artists for their cinematic works, the Oscars also provides extravagant so-called swag bags. The gift bags, given to each Oscar nominee, were valued at over $200,000, with this year’s bags including a $55,000 trip to Israel.
In a press release on 7 February, the Israeli tourism ministry took responsibility for the idea. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin gushed about the great publicity that a Hollywood star’s trip to Israel would create for the state. “If they do indeed accept the invitation, their visit will have enormous resonance among millions of fans and followers.”
Israel’s blatant attempt to capitalize on Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence has also been criticized as an attempt to counter the growing popularity of the international BDS movement. As BDS efforts gain increased coverage in mainstream media outlets, forcing companies like Veolia, SodaStream, and Airbnb to address their complicity in the Israeli occupation and settlement enterprise, Israel and its supporters have been channeling millions of dollars into the state’s hasbara campaigns to boost Israel’s image internationally. In an attempt to depict Israel as a “relevant and modern” state, Brand Israel efforts are aimed at distracting consumers and travelers from the Israeli occupation and state discrimination against ethnoreligious minorities.
In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, Palestinian rights activists launched various campaigns to bring international attention to the issue. The Palestinian Performing Arts Network (PPAN), a coalition of Palestinian artists and cultural groups, called on nominees to reject the Israeli government-sponsored trip, noting that “Israel deliberately attacks Palestinian art and cultural production.” Similarly, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) pointed to the parallels between the Academy’s racism and Israel’s racist laws. “The news about the decision of the Academy to allow Israel to use the awards as a propaganda vehicle comes in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal,” said the BNC in a press release. “Israel has over 50 racist laws that directly discriminate against its indigenous Palestinian citizens on the basis of race.”
Ten days before the ceremony, the Academy unexpectedly disavowed the extravagant gift bags. The VIP trip and other absurd items—among them a “Vampire Breast Lift” and a portable vaporizer—led the Academy to file a lawsuit against Distinctive Assets, the company responsible for the gift bags. “Distinctive Assets has been falsely representing that its extravagant ‘gift bags’ [are] redistributed by the Academy, at its direction, or with its endorsement or approval,” an Academy spokesperson told Variety.
Variety also noted a solidarity campaign organized by Artists for Palestine UK, which called on Oscar nominees to “Give your bag to a Palestinian refugee!” Endorsing the campaign, director and five-time Oscar nominee Mike Leigh said, “I think the world would be happy to see Israeli government money used for once to make reparations to Palestinians—and I hope the stars will agree.” The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation took similar action, launching a #SkipTheTrip social media campaign and an online petition that garnered almost 10,000 signatures in the first week.
In a collaborative effort, Artists for Palestine UK, PPAN, JVP, and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation offered their own gift to the Oscar nominees. They sent them sarcastic invitations to visit Palestine and experience the Israeli occupation firsthand. The invitations were sent to the nominees’ representatives via e-mail. (Nominees Mark Rylance and Asif Kapadia had already signed pledges to decline both professional invitations to Israel and funding from institutions linked to the Israeli government.)
In the days leading up to the 28 February ceremony, Palestine solidarity groups continued their work to push Oscar nominees to decline the trip to Israel. On 24 February, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and JVP published a full-page #SkipTheTrip advertisement in the Los Angeles Times. Variety, in which the ad was originally slated to appear, rejected it at the last minute after having accepted payment from JVP earlier that week.