Elizabeth Taylor visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in December 1982. Since converting to Judaism in 1959, the actress was a steadfast supporter of Israeli causes. (AP Photo/Max Nash)
March 25, 2011

The world lost an icon Wednesday with the death of Elizabeth Taylor — and Israel lost one of its best friends in Hollywood.

Wednesday also brought the first bombing in Jerusalem in nearly four years, so the news of Taylor’s death was overshadowed there by the explosion and by escalating rocket fire from Gaza. But the actress’s passing represented the end of a relationship with the Jewish state that may have been the last of its kind.

American media coverage of Taylor’s life has understandably focused on her on- and offscreen dramas, as well as her pioneering AIDS activism. But she was also a supporter of Israel to a degree that largely went unmentioned this past week, bringing to the cause a commitment nearly unimaginable among Hollywood stars today. In a life famously shared with seven husbands, Taylor’s relationship with Israel was one of her longest.

It began in 1959, when Taylor, then a recent convert to Judaism, purchased Israel Bonds in such volumes that her films were boycotted in Arab nations. The elements of the story are so mismatched — the sultry starlet and the Third World country then absorbing displaced Jews from the Arab world — that it makes your eyes pop, as Taylor did in so many of her films.

Eight years and two Oscars later, Taylor canceled a visit to Moscow to protest the U.S.S.R.’s condemnation of Israel in the Six Day War. She would later sign a letter denouncing the United Nations’ odious “Zionism is racism” resolution, and in 1976, she offered to trade places with one of the hostages held by Palestine Liberation Organization hijackers from a flight originating in Tel Aviv. (Her willingness to become a hostage didn’t lead anywhere in real life, but she eventually got to play one in a TV version of the incident, ABC’s “Victory at Entebbe.”)

She was Hollywood’s most famous Cleopatra, and she stayed involved in the Middle East long after her career slowed down. She lent her star power to Israel with a 1982-83 visit — she met with Prime Minister Menachem Begin — and by publicly supporting the right of the Soviet Union’s trapped Jewry to emigrate there.

Like her old-school glamour and professional roots in the original studio system, Taylor’s activism for Israel was, in many ways, an artifact of a different era. An increasingly cynical world challenged the actress and Israel in similar ways, with their idealized early images coming back to haunt them. Taylor, it turned out, was merely mortal, and prone to tabloid-worthy missteps despite her preternatural beauty. Israel, with its foundations in Jewish desperation and trauma, could be as dysfunctional and disappointing as any other nation.

Of course, Taylor’s passing doesn’t sever the link between Hollywood and Israel. Boldface names remain a regular presence at Israel-affiliated fundraisers, and A-listers including Nicole Kidman, Michael Douglas and Ridley Scott drew notice in 2006 by signing a petition backing the country’s war against Hezbollah. But by and large, gone are the days of advocacy like Taylor’s, of stars aligning publicly and treating Israel as a cause.

Partly that’s a function of Israel’s improved economy, as well as the abundance of other pressing concerns. But what was striking about Taylor’s activism was its emphasis on the positive — on visits, on fundraising, on creating connections.

When it comes to celebrities and Israel, the headlines in recent years have highlighted stars who cut ties at the request of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international activist network that sees Israel as an oppressor and seeks its isolation in virtually every realm.

It has latched onto entertainers as a public way to ostracize Israelis and humiliate them overseas. (Critics note ruefully that, in addition to overlooking Palestinian transgressions, the same artists usually have nothing in particular to say about China, Russia or repressive Muslim regimes.)

In a telling similarity to long-standing Arab tactics — which focused more on tearing down Israel than on building up Palestinians — BDS has defined the issue in terms of inaction: stars who won’t perform for, talk to, visit or teach. It’s a contrast with Taylor, who, with the exception of that canceled Moscow trip, focused on raising money and forging bonds overseas.

In 1977, the actress and her sixth husband, soon-to-be-senator John Warner of Virginia, were honored in Beverly Hills for their work with the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization that had transformed Israeli deserts into forests. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a news service, reported that a section of forest near Jerusalem would be named in their honor.

As the JNF’s world chairman delivered his remarks to the crowd, he was speaking about his organization, but he could just as easily have been speaking about Taylor, when he said: “We hate to destroy, we love to build.”

Nathan Burstein is a former arts and entertainment editor at the Jerusalem Post.

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Nathan Burstein on the bond between the Hollywood star and the Jewish state