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Natalie Portman’s cancellation: Inching towards the tipping point

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When New Zealand star Lorde cancelled her scheduled concert in Israel, directly citing BDS and Israel’s crimes, an editorial in the Washington Post predicted that she was setting a precedent. “Lorde will almost certainly be one of the last major artists to schedule an Israel concert date without appearing to have fully considered the global implications. From now on, if it weren’t the case already, merely scheduling a concert date in Israel will be considered a political act.”

Indeed, the cultural boycott of Israel has significantly ramped up over the past couple of years.  As the Boycott National Committee noted in a recent statement, of the 26 Oscar nominees who were offered an all-expenses paid trip to Israel in 2016, not one has accepted.   Athletes have also turned down such invitations, and in some cases, such as Seattle Seahawks’  Michael Bennett, explicitly denounced Israel’s attempt to use them for propaganda purposes.

Oscar-winner Natalie Portman’s declining to attend the 2018 Genesis Prize, however, sets yet another precedent.  She is a proud Zionist, who even after declining to attend (which led to the cancellation of the entire show, ) maintains that she loves Israel:  the country, the food, the people, the arts. Yet Portman refused to show up, explaining that she could not in good conscience go to the ceremony as a result of “recent events.”

The Genesis Prize, known as the “Jewish Nobel Prize,” was founded in 2012, and awards a $2 million prize annually to those who “inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.” The prize money is given in the form of a grant that the laureate can donate to the charities of their choice, and Portman indicated she would still be choosing charities and donating, even after declining to attend the award ceremony. The celebration was to be held in Natalie’s birth city, Jerusalem, in June 2018—meaning after Trump’s scheduled US embassy move, which he plans to complete by Nakba Day.  “Let me speak for myself.  I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it,” she wrote.

Nevertheless, because of the high visibility of her move, as soon as news got out of the cancellation, Israel denounced it as BDS-related, with Israeli Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev stating “I was very sorry to hear that Portman fell like a ripe fruit into the hands of BDS supporters,” and  MK Oren Hazan going so far as to suggest Portman be stripped of her Israeli citizenship. Meanwhile, Palestine-rights activists argued that, whether she acknowledges it or not, Portman was engaging in BDS.  Indeed, one could wonder about the logic of a statement such as “I don’t endorse vegetarianism, but I choose not to eat meat so as not to appear to endorse the meat industry,” considering most vegetarians are so out of ethical concerns.

I believe the BDS tug-of-war will continue for a short while, until the next celebrity cancellation.  Because a key operational principle of the BDS movement is the trajectory of incremental steps, from the most basic Israeli violators, to more complex and challenging targets.  And Portman’s cancellation will inevitably pave the way for more.

The trajectory is illustrated by the escalation in the targets that have been selected for major boycott campaigns over the 12 years since the call for BDS was first issued.  In the beginning, the focus was on the lowest hanging fruit: Israeli companies such as Ahava and SodaStream, both operating out of illegal settlements, and Sabra Hummus, a sponsor of two Israeli military brigades notorious for their human rights violations.  And the cultural appropriation in the claim that hummus is Israeli made for a more attractive campaign. Today, the companies targeted for BDS reflect a growing understanding of how Palestine represents aspects of oppression that are experienced elsewhere, and the importance of transnational reciprocal solidarity, rather than one-directional “charity.”  Thus G4S represents mass incarceration, Hewlett-Packard represents intrusive disciplinary government surveillance, ElBit represents border walls and xenophobia, and Caterpillar stands for Palestinian home demolitions and Indigenous land desecration and environmental devastation in the US. These targets are not necessarily Israeli companies, (only ElBit is), they are multinationals engaged in human rights violations on a global scale.

On the cultural boycott front, every time an artist declines to perform in Israel, or cancels a previously scheduled appearance, it makes it easier for others to do so, with greater reverberating consequences.  And Portman’s cancellation is particularly significant, because of her stature within Hollywood, and the fact that no one can convincingly accuse her of anti-Semitism. Yet even Portman is finding it hard to reconcile herself to the country she professes to love, the country she identifies with, over the US citizenship which she also holds, when she explains:  “I think all Israelis know that it’s much easier to criticize in Israel than outside, I don’t know, it’s such a hard combination to be — to obviously have deep love for the place you’re from and also see what’s wrong with it. So it becomes a tricky thing, certainly increasingly tricky.”

Portman pins her decision to decline the Prize on her being “extremely distressed by recent events” in Israel.  But she needs to understand that the problem with Israel is not Benjamin Netanyahu, it is Zionism, which dispossessed Palestinians seventy years ago.  Al Nakba, which Palestinians will be commemorating on May 15, is not a “recent” development, as the Great Return March, organized by a people who were turned into refugees in the middle of last century, reminds us.  To use Portman’s own words, criticizing Israel for the crimes it is engaging in today, without looking at the larger historical picture, is what is becoming “a tricky thing, certainly increasingly tricky.”

And it is becoming so not just for Portman.  As Knesset Member and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria noted, Portman’s cancellation is “a warning light.” “She is totally one of us, identifies with her Judaism and her Israeliness,” Azaria wrote, adding that Portman was “speaking for many Jews in the United States, and essentially the young generation.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that just as Portman announced her cancellation, students at Barnard College, which the Forward described as “one of the most Jewish colleges in the US,” voted overwhelmingly in favor of BDS.  We can safely assume that Barnard’s Jewish students, like the majority of American Jews, were raised in Zionist households.  Yet they voted to divest, in a major shift that happened over the past few years only. “It was only a few years ago that a banner reading ‘Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine got taken down” after some students characterized it as offensive, Nasreen Abd Elal told Mondoweiss. “There’s been a complete shift in consciousness on the campus.”

Like the Barnard BDS vote, Portman’s cancellation shows how deep the cracks in Zionism are running for a growing number of Jews who today find it “increasingly tricky” to reconcile one’s familiar love for Israel and one’s decency, and eventually opt towards dissociating themselves from Zionism.  As we watch the Great Return March from afar, along with Israel’s targeting of unarmed non-violent protestors, we need to amplify the voices that remind us that al Nakba is neither “recent events” nor a discrete moment in the distant past, somehow contained in a time capsule. It is an on ongoing oppression we must all denounce, and work to end as we take incremental steps, whatever our starting point, towards exposing Zionism as state-sanctioned violence and racism.

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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27 Responses

  1. eljay
    April 23, 2018, 10:01 am

    What’s really amazing about Israel’s current state of affairs is the inability of its hard-core Zionists to rein in their lust to conquer and colonize as much as possible of Palestine and to successfully limit “Jewish State” supremacism to within Israel’s / Partition borders or even 1967 borders.

    The mentality of victimhood, self-righteousness and entitlement that Zionists have worked so hard to cultivate seems to have rendered them powerless to step back from the precipice to which their hatefulness and immorality has brought them.

    Zionists will be the undoing of Zionism.

  2. Citizen
    April 23, 2018, 10:48 am

    What do Sarah K Silverman and Scarlett Jo Have to say? What’s Bernie’s latest on this? Seinfeld? Schumer?

    • John O
      April 23, 2018, 11:30 am

      I’d be more interested in what Daniel Barenboim might have to say.

  3. Citizen
    April 23, 2018, 10:55 am

    And the Award for Best Performance Goes to . . . Natalie Portman via @JewishPress
    Article slams her for marrying a Goy, inter alia

    • genesto
      April 24, 2018, 12:11 pm

      Wow! Married a Goy? That’s as bad as marrying a black, right?

      For sure, the response is just as racist!

      • RoHa
        April 24, 2018, 7:50 pm

        Jew marrying Goy is no big deal. I’m a man, and I married a woman! That’s about as mixed a marriage as you can get.

      • Mooser
        April 24, 2018, 9:22 pm

        “That’s about as mixed a marriage as you can get.”

        They’re a whole ‘nother feminine species. But why can’t a woman be more like a man? Men are so honest, so thoroughly square; eternally noble, historically fair; Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat. Why can’t a woman be like that?

  4. Ossinev
    April 23, 2018, 12:49 pm

    Thanks for the link. I am always amazed at the routine paranoia amongst right wing Israelis and the older generation of American Jews about “assimilation” and “intermarriage”. They appear to have absolutely no perception of the fact that this 100% racism and akin to the Nazi racist paranoia which Jews amongst others became the victims of. The use of the phrase “start up nation” in the same article as the predictable loony reference to “the indigenous home of the Jewish people(sic) for 3000 years” is also self evidently a contradiction. If it is a “start up” nation then it became/is a nation on the day it started up. Also it sounds strangely bionic.

    Bottom line is that however they try to dress it up Zioland is and forever will be a cult colony based on the genocide/expulsion and continued brutal oppression of the native population

    • marc b.
      April 23, 2018, 2:24 pm

      it’s a start-up nation, and the oldest civilization (worth mentioning). from an old SNL skit.

      Wife: New Shimmer is a floor wax!

      Husband: No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!

      Wife: It’s a floor wax!

      Husband: It’s a dessert topping!

      Wife: It’s a floor wax, I’m telling you!

      Husband: It’s a dessert topping, you cow!

      Spokesman: [ enters quickly ] Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping! Here, I’ll spray some on your mop.. [ sprays Shimmer onto mop ] ..and some on your butterscotch pudding. [ sprays Shimmer onto pudding ]

      [ Husband eats while Wife mops ]

      Husband: Mmmmm, tastes terrific!

      Wife: And just look at that shine!

    • genesto
      April 24, 2018, 12:14 pm

      That’s right! the only discrimination my Jewish wife and I, a Goy, have ever faced in the 19 years we’ve been together is from Zionists!

  5. JWalters
    April 23, 2018, 7:38 pm

    “Recent events” include discovering that kindly uncle Israel is a serial abuser.

    • CigarGod
      April 24, 2018, 11:47 am

      Great t-shirt.
      “Kindly uncle Israel is a serial abuser.”

      With some sort of murderous pervert image, of course.

      • JWalters
        April 25, 2018, 3:33 am

        I relinquish any rights to that phrase and assign it to the public domain.

      • JWalters
        April 25, 2018, 3:33 am

        Maybe a photo of Ahed Tamimi?

  6. Mayhem
    April 24, 2018, 4:52 am

    Elia claims that Portman is a proud Zionist and that it is Zionism, which dispossessed Palestinians seventy years ago. This is totally wrong.

    First of all Portman’s sense of Zionism is up the creek – Natalie Portman is wrong about Israel.

    “It’s hard to imagine that a woman who once worked as Alan Dershowitz’s research assistant could get this so wrong. Portman holds dual citizenship, and she, more than most Americans, should understand that Israel’s founding was the rebirth of a nation. The creation of the modern state of Israel was not a result of the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy from world powers aghast at what befell the Jews during World War II, but the product of many years of hard, determined work. Zionism as a political movement far predated the creation of the state, and that movement came centuries after the Jews were exiled from their national homeland.”

    It’s a shame that 70 years after Israel’s creation the most basic facts of its existence are unclear even to those who were born within its borders.”

    And for Elia to blame Zionism for dispossessing the Palestinians is deny the right of the Jews to self-determination giving the Palestinian some kind of exclusive, privileged right which trumps that of the Jewish people. This kind of unwillingness to accept that Zionism is a legitimate expression of the Jewish people is tantamount to anti-semitism.

    • eljay
      April 24, 2018, 9:04 am

      || Mayhem: … And for Elia to blame Zionism for dispossessing the Palestinians is deny the right of the Jews to self-determination giving the Palestinian some kind of exclusive, privileged right which trumps that of the Jewish people. … ||

      As far as I know, no-one denies the right of people to self-determine as Jewish – that is, to embrace the religion-based identity of Jewish.

      The freedom to self-determine as Jewish does not grant to the citizens of nations and homelands all over the world who have chosen to self-determine as Jewish the right to terrorize, ethnically cleanse, subjugate, oppress, torture or kill the indigenous population of a geographic region (in this case, Palestine) in order to occupy and colonize as much as possible of that region and establish in it a religion-supremacist state for themselves and their co-collectivists.

      || … This kind of unwillingness to accept that Zionism is a legitimate expression of the Jewish people is tantamount to anti-semitism. ||

      The persistent unwillingness of Zionists to understand and accept that they, their ideology and their religion-supremacist construct are unjust and immoral is tantamount to evil.

      • genesto
        April 24, 2018, 12:16 pm

        Couldn’t have said it better myself, eljay! Good work!

    • RoHa
      April 24, 2018, 9:55 am

      When “the right to self determination” means “the right to establish a state in a particular territory”, that right can only be the right of all the legitimate residents of the territory. It cannot be a right of religious, ethnic, or hobby groups. So the Jewish people do not have that sort of right to trump.

      If by “legitimate expression” you mean “morally right”, then Zionism cannot be a legitimate expression of anything. Zionism is morally wrong.

      And since it was Zionists who dispossessed the Palestinians as part of the process of carrying out the professed aims of Zionism, it seems reasonable to blame Zionism for that dispossession.

      • echinococcus
        April 24, 2018, 11:10 am

        Eljay’s confusion becomes contagious when he insists in making a mess of already well-defined terms with established usage.

        As far as I know, no-one denies the right of people to self-determine as Jewish – that is, to embrace the religion-based identity of Jewish

        It shouldn’t be too hard to use “self-determination” for the proper meaning, as explained again by RoHa, and use an adequate verb, e.g. “self-identification”, that would allow immediate understanding by a majority of readers.

        Besides, a “religion-based” identity cannot be “embraced” but by followers of a religion. Irreligious people self-identify on some other basis. In the case of the irreligious who call themselves “Jewish”, the basis is that of “being born to a Jewish woman”, The proper term for hereditary characters is “racial”.

        Language is extensible and elastic –but within the limits of a social consensus. The use of “religious” as equal to “hereditary” belongs to a medieval system where the state was the executive arm of the Church and minorities were under the temporal administration of their respective Churches, no one being allowed individual rights. NO self-definition there at all. Nobody outside old Ottoman and today’s Zionist entity law uses it like that any longer.

      • RoHa
        April 25, 2018, 3:06 am

        Echi, spare us another squabble with eljay, please.

      • eljay
        April 25, 2018, 8:23 am

        || RoHa: Echi, spare us another squabble with eljay, please. ||

        Don’t worry, RoHa, he and I won’t squabble. I stated a while back that I would no longer respond to his comments and I haven’t (and won’t).

      • echinococcus
        April 25, 2018, 9:23 am

        Avoiding squabbles, especially with people who presumably mean well, is essentially a good thing.
        Correcting the record when ceaseless iterations of dangerously confused thinking help spread enemy propaganda unopposed and unquestioned may at times be preferable to domestic tranquility.

    • Mooser
      April 24, 2018, 12:37 pm

      “This kind of unwillingness to accept that Zionism is a legitimate expression of the Jewish people is tantamount to anti-semitism.” “Mayhem”

      So the fact that “the Jewish people” did not respond in sufficient numbers, either in making Aliyah or supporting Zionism from the diaspora to make it work is tantamont to anti-Semitism? Must be that ol’ self-hatred..
      Even the most cursory studies plainly show that Zionism is short 3-5 million people in Palestine, and 10 million supporters in the diaspora necessary see a project of this size to completion. Zionism is about 13 million Zionist Jews short of what it needs, but Jews refuse to subordinate their reproduction to Zionist ends.

  7. Arby
    April 24, 2018, 8:56 am

    “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.”

    She opposes war ‘and’ peace. Hmm.

    Yes, This is more good than bad. But is that the extent of Portman’s concern? And analysis?

    • genesto
      April 24, 2018, 12:24 pm

      This is just reflective of the inner turmoil that ensues when a Zionist first confronts the conflict between his/her human values and the reality of what he/she discovers to be a racist ideology. It’s part of the growing process that, if carried through, must lead to a complete rejection of Zionism.

      • Arby
        April 25, 2018, 5:25 pm


  8. Kathleen
    April 25, 2018, 3:01 pm

    Nada Elia “Because a key operational principle of the BDS movement is the trajectory of incremental steps, from the most basic Israeli violators, to more complex and challenging targets. ”

    When you look 10 years down the road, at this pace not looking good for the apartheid state that is unless they come to their senses.

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