Four days after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel, WME invited Steve Leder, the rabbi from Wilshire Boulevard Temple, to visit the agency’s Beverly Hills headquarters. He came to provide comfort for employees reeling after the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust. Although the event was not mandatory and Leder’s speech was considered secular, several staffers voiced complaints, which made their way to WME co-chairmen Richard Weitz and Christian Muirhead. Instead of caving, WME invited Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt to speak to the agency on Nov. 1. Greenblatt didn’t mince words, according to those in attendance, calling out the Writers Guild of America for refusing to issue a statement after the Hamas attacks.
Across town, the agency’s fiercest rival, CAA, was dealing with a crisis. Maha Dakhil, one of its top agents, had ignited a firestorm with her Instagram posts, including one that said, “What’s more heartbreaking than witnessing genocide? Witnessing the denial that genocide is happening.” (She later apologized.) In response, Dakhil was relieved of her duties as co-chief the motion pictures department, though she was allowed to remain an agent. It didn’t hurt that her most important client, Tom Cruise, made it known to CAA that he was backing her. Cruise met with Dakhil at her CAA office on Nov. 15. A knowledgeable source says he took the rare step of going in person to show support for his embattled agent.
But the Dakhil issue didn’t end there. A group of CAA assistants threatened to walk out over the agency’s treatment of her, sources say. They believed she was being railroaded by management but ultimately abandoned their threat. At the same time, some of the agents who complained internally about Dakhil’s posts felt disillusioned, believing she should have been fired. Separately, CAA cut ties with a staffer and two clients over incendiary anti-Israeli social media posts.
Similar instances of firings, finger-pointing and feelings of betrayal are playing out across Hollywood as the industry wrestles with the raw emotions aroused by the eruption of violence in the Middle East.
From power brokers to the rank and file, a growing number are incensed by the hostile rhetoric surrounding Israel and the lack of solidarity, even as some 240 hostages continue to be held by Hamas. Others feel a kinship with the Palestinian cause and believe Israel is the aggressor. The polarization is notable because the industry has largely presented a united front when it comes to politics, from its blanket opposition to former President Trump to its uniform support of reproductive rights. But when it comes to Israel, the cracks are showing.
“There’s just no excuse for not condemning Hamas and demanding the release of the hostages. Hollywood was quick to declare Black Lives Matter, as they should, and Time’s Up, as they should, and myriad other important causes,” Greenblatt tells Variety. “There’s plenty of room for criticism of Israel or to voice concerns about the ongoing war in Gaza, but that doesn’t provide celebrities and industry reps with an open license to wage unfair accusations against Israel, such as accusing it of ‘apartheid’ or ‘genocide’ or, worse, to celebrate the actions of Hamas terrorists.”
Some have had enough. Spyglass quietly dropped Melissa Barrera as the star of the next “Scream” film, sources say, due to her social media posts that referred to Israel as a “colonized” land and floated an antisemitic trope that Jews control the media, writing: “Western media only shows the [Israeli] side. Why do they do that, I will let you deduce for yourself.” Barrera did not respond to a request for comment.
Spyglass initially declined comment, though a spokesperson offered a statement to Variety later in the afternoon to clarify that the actor was fired because her posts were seen as antisemitic: “Spyglass’ stance is unequivocally clear: We have zero tolerance for antisemitism or the incitement of hate in any form, including false references to genocide, ethnic cleansing, Holocaust distortion or anything that flagrantly crosses the line into hate speech.”
Likewise, insiders say “La La Land” producer Marc Platt texted WME leadership about why Boots Riley was still a client after the “Sorry to Bother You” writer-director urged his followers on X to boycott an industry screening of footage of Hamas atrocities at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. He dubbed the footage “murderous propaganda” and warning that “when IDF and Israeli officials are at The Hague for war crimes, massacres and genocidal actions- you wont want your name or image to have been anywhere near it.”However, Riley remains an agency client. A Platt rep says he merely flagged the posts.
Meanwhile, several agents at UTA have expressed outrage internally over a recent open letter spearheaded by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and believe he should be dropped from the agency’s roster. Coates was the first signature on an Oct. 14 letter that many industryites felt dehumanized Israelis and softened Hamas’ actions with such lines as “Hamas militants broke out of Gaza. More than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed.” The agency is sticking with him, though it has severed ties with Susan Sarandon over her controversial words on the conflict.
CAA, too, has been more willing to cut ties over problematic social media missives. The agency fired assistant Jouman (Jasmine) Barakat over her posts that called all Israelis white supremacists and mocked a post from the country’s official handle that stated, “Even Israelis Deserve to Live” by calling it a “fascist regime.”
CAA also dropped Saira Rao and Regina Jackson — who co-wrote the 2022 book “White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better” — over their social media posts. Rao had written on X, “Zionists are starting to panic that more and more of the world sees them for the bloodthirsty genocidal ghouls they are.”
Rao tells Variety that Hollywood is “punishing people of color for speaking out.” She adds, “It’s disgusting. The genocide is indisputable. You can watch it on live TV. CAA will be on the wrong side of history. And shame on CAA for doing that to Maha.” A CAA spokesperson says Rao was not dropped for supporting Palestinians but for posts deemed antisemitic.
When it comes to Israel, the use of the word “genocide” has long been considered problematic in Hollywood. In 2021, Mark Ruffalo apologized for suggesting Israel was committing genocide and added, “It’s not accurate, it’s inflammatory, disrespectful & is being used to justify antisemitism here & abroad.” In 2014, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz signed a letter that called Israel’s operations in Gaza “genocide.” They both later clarified their positions after being widely criticized.
The divisions in Hollywood could deepen. “I’m not entirely surprised by the Jew-hating we’re seeing, but the fact that the dead weren’t even being buried when, at best, you were getting both sides-ism was horrifying,” says Robert Newman, a WME agent. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
And many are questioning why Hollywood entities — notably the Writers Guild of America — have remained quiet. On Oct. 21, WGA West president Meredith Stiehm sent an email to a group of writers who had been calling for a statement. She explained that none would be forthcoming because “many members have asked us to refrain” and “consensus [is] out of reach.”
Writer David Shore, who was a member of the WGA’s negotiating committee, says he was stunned by the guild’s actions. “There was an opportunity to stand up and be one of the groups who said we stand with the victims of this terrorist attack,” he says. “I was disappointed that they did not do that.”
In this combustible atmosphere, WhatsApp text chains have popped up all over town, sharing instances of perceived antisemitism. WME’s is particularly lively, with one member deriding director Ava DuVernay for posting in support of her agent Dakhil. As for Dakhil, she is on a “Jewish listening tour,” according to a New York Post story that noted she had met with Greenblatt and Leder. Sources close to Greenblatt and Leder say they were unaware that their names would be mentioned in the story and “felt used.” (Leder declined comment, while Greenblatt declined to discuss an off-the-record conversation.)
Although she has become an inadvertent symbol of the Hollywood schism, one top agent at a CAA rival is hoping that Dakhil will continue to receive the backing of her bosses.
“I hope she stays there,” says the agent. “I think it will be incredibly awkward with her there.”