In a life famously shared with seven husbands, Taylor’s relationship with Israel was one of her longest, writes Nathan Burstein in the Washington Post.
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.