Academy disavows Oscars gift bag featuring Israel junket

Actor and 2016 Oscar nominee Mark Rylance is among more than 1,000 UK artists who have pledged not to go to Israel. (Garry Knight)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has filed a lawsuit against Distinctive Assets, the company distributing a luxury gift bag to Oscar nominees which includes an all-expenses paid trip to Israel sponsored by the Israeli government.

“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 the Hollywood trade publication Variety.

“The Academy has no affiliation with Distinctive Assets,” the spokesperson added.

According to Variety, the lawsuit, filed in a California federal court this week, notes that media coverage of the 2016 gift bags has focused on “the less-than-wholesome nature of some of the products contained in the bags,” including a certificate for plastic surgery, a “vampire breast lift,” a sex toy and a marijuana vaporizer.

Directors speak out

As an example of the false representation, the Academy’s lawsuit (PDF attached below) specifically cites a 5 February tweet from Distinctive Assets promoting an article headlined: “Inside the Absurd $200K Oscar Gift Bag: Vapes, a Trip To Israel, and a Vampire Breast Lift.”

Variety also notes that “one of this year’s items, a luxury trip to Israel funded by that [country’s] government, has come under fire from Artists for Palestine UK, with the organization imploring attendees to ‘give your bag to a Palestinian refugee.’”

Director Mike Leigh, who has been nominated for an Oscar several times, said, “A five-star trip to the land of their parents and grandparents is just what exhausted Palestinians from the refugee camps could do with.”

“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,” Leigh added in a statement from Artists for Palestine UK.

Ken Loach, multiple BAFTA winner and Palme d’Or winner, added: “Just think what $55,000 could do for Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed and their lands stolen. Let’s hope that film people can see through this crude propaganda.”

Loach was referring to the estimated value of the Israel trip.

Meanwhile, musician and composer Brian Eno quipped, “Visit Palestine! Enjoy a tear gas-filled weekend in an East Jerusalem ghetto!”

Palestinian campaign

Palestinians are welcoming the Academy’s public disavowal of the ostentatious gift bags.

“By distancing itself from the company marketing Israel’s propaganda trip to Oscar nominees, the Academy is taking a step in the right direction,” said Omar Barghouti of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the broad coalition that steers the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel.

“The so-called ‘Oscars swag bag’ has fallen into further disrepute with its association with the Israeli regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid,” Barghouti added.

“The Academy needs to do much more, clearly, to address the serious charges of bias and racism raised by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign as well as Palestinian human rights campaigners, among many others,” Barghouti said, referring to recent high-profile criticism over the lack of racial diversity among nominees.

Barghouti said that campaigners would continue to urge nominees to reject “Israel’s latest propaganda attempt to whitewash its war crimes and other egregious violations of human rights.”

“Any artist with a conscience would have similarly declined a free trip paid for by the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s,” Barghouti added.

The BNC noted that Oscar nominees Mark Rylance and Asif Kapadia have already pledged not to visit Israel professionally as long as human rights violations persist.

Nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition, launched by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation calling on nominees to turn down the propaganda trips.

Many have also tweeted about the campaign using the hashtag #apartheidOscars.

Attacks on culture

The Palestinian Performing Arts Network, a coalition of Palestinian arts groups, noted the hypocrisy of Israel’s effort to use the Oscars to whitewash its reputation.

“As part of its attacks on Palestinians, Israel deliberately attacks Palestinian art and cultural production,” PPAN said. “For example, Israel banned in 2009 all displays of culture connected to Jerusalem as the Arab League and UNESCO designated Capital of Arab Culture.”

It also drew attention to the case of Mohammad Abu Sakha, a Palestinian circus performer and mentor for children with disabilities, who is in his second month of detention without charge or trial by Israel.