Whatever one thinks of Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman rescinding her participation in the Genesis Prize ceremony in Israel, there are a number of important differences that separate her decision from other celebrities who have chosen to distance themselves from the Jewish state. For those who find Portman’s non-attendance at the ceremony frustrating, it is easy, even tempting, to dismiss her out of hand. But Portman is no rabid anti-Zionist, and her actions speak to the concerns many in the political mainstream share about Israel’s present course.
Firstly, Portman walking back on the Genesis Prize presentation is not the same as a boycott-inclined European or American artist skipping a show in Tel Aviv. While the money for the Genesis Prize is collected from a private donor, the award is put out in partnership with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. Contra a number of misleading headlines, Portman has not declared she is refusing to visit Israel (or even accepting the prize itself), but that she is uncomfortable participating in a major public ceremony. She is not even the first to make such a decision. Amos Oz – Israel Prize winning writer Amos Oz, one of the Jewish state’s most prolific authors, informed the foreign ministry in 2015 that he would no longer participate in the government’s public diplomacy efforts while clarifying that this does not signal support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
There would be a world of difference between not traveling to the United States and deciding not to appear on stage with Donald Trump, but somehow the distinction seems to have been blurred in the case of Natalie Portman and Israel. It is more akin to players on the Philadelphia Eagles or members of the U.S. Olympic Team deciding not to take President Trump up on his invitation to the White House. From the perspective of Portman, just like her Eagles and Olympian counterparts in the Trump case, sharing a platform with Netanyahu lends him and his policies undue credibility.
Sadly, there is more than one reason today that someone might not want to be associated with the Israeli prime minister or the government he represents. Perhaps Netanyahu’s backtracking on a deal to resettle African asylum seekers pushed the actress over the edge. Maybe it was the premier’s inciting against left-wing NGOs. It could also have been the Gaza situation, the slide toward annexation and one state, the general climate, or any combination of things. Portman’s spokesperson has been fairly vague, simply citing “recent events,” and without further clarification it is impossible to pass definitive judgment on the entire affair. But the fact that so many factors could have driven her decision speaks volumes about the current Israeli government and progressive-minded Israeli and American Jews’ perception of it.
This brings me to Natalie Portman’s politics and background with Israel. Portman was born in Jerusalem and speaks fluent Hebrew. She has made no bones about openly associating with Israeli culture. In 2015, she directed and starred in a Hebrew-language adaptation of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. But Portman has been rather mum about Israeli politics. As a student at Harvard University, she defended the Israel writ large against the apartheid accusation and she helped research for Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. But in recent years, she has only offered passing criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu and campaigned for Hadassah, the major American women’s Zionist organization and a mainstream pillar of the U.S. Jewish community.
Unlike Roger Waters or Brian Eno or Lorde, Portman is herself Israeli and intimately connected to the Jewish state. Her choice will likely complicate her relationship with friends and family in Israel and supporters in the American Jewish community, so it was doubtful that it was a decision taken lightly. Portman effectively had one opportunity to take a critical stand on Israel and, tellingly, she has reserved it for the current government. Now that she has spoken out, she will forever be tarred by the right as an anti-Zionist and claimed as one by the radical left. What Portmam’s precise motivations were and how she handles her relationship with Israel going forward will be essential in determining whether the publicity generated by her decision on the Genesis Prize can be an engine for change and a wake-up call for Israel and the Diaspora.
To quote Natalie Portman in 2005’s Star Wars: Episode III, speaking to a newly minted Darth Vader, “you’re going down a path I can’t follow.” It’s a sentiment many who care deeply about the Jewish state certainly share when it comes to the Israeli government’s current direction.