Natalie Portman has recently made headlines in her decision not to attend the Israeli ceremony to award her the Genesis Prize because “[r]ecent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel”, meaning that “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.”
Portman’s refusal has been predictably met with ire from various Israeli right-wing politicians.
Yesterday Portman clarified her position on her Instagram:
“My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. 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 [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power. Please do not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own. This experience has inspired me to support a number of charities in Israel. I will be announcing them soon, and I hope others will join me in supporting the great work they are doing.”
Although Portman seems to be keeping herself within the anti-BDS ‘liberal-Zionist’ position, I would like to expand on where her position may yet lead – although it is a longshot.
The Genesis Prize Foundation
The Genesis Prize Foundation considers itself to be the “Jewish Nobel”, which “honors individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement along with their commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.” The foundation said it was “very saddened” that the Jewish-Israeli-American actress would not take part in the ceremony. The Genesis Prize Foundation canceled the prize ceremony, saying in a statement that its organizers “fear that Ms. Portman’s decision will cause our philanthropic initiative to be politicized, something we have worked hard for the past five years to avoid”.
Now, is this really just a “philanthropic initiative” that is not “political”? The JTA tells us that “The Genesis Prize was established by Mikhail Fridman and other wealthy Russian-Jewish businessmen and operates in a partnership with Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel.”
Well now, if you are really that “fearful” that your initiative will be “politicized”, then you just have to sever that relationship with Israeli-Jewish political agencies. Of course, to even suggest that the foundation is not political is just disingenuous. It promotes the Jewish aspect in the Jewish State and is a major Hasbara branding tool for Israel.
Using artists as a branding
Recently, I was asked to present a new film about violinist Itzhak Perlman, “Itzhak”, at the Jewish Film Festival in Copenhagen. It is brand new, and I could only see the trailer, which seemed to suggest it was politically benign, so I said yes. I told how Perlman had influenced me in my young years of playing violin, and my great esteem of the virtuoso and the person. Then came the film, and late into it, there is a part where he goes to Israel to get the Genesis Prize. In that conjunction, he’s also invited to the Prime Minister Netanyahu residence for a family dinner. There’s a discussion prior to that, back home in the US, where family members ask him whether he’s excited to meet Netanyahu, with a certain tone of concern. He says that it’s exciting to meet “any head of state”, and that “we don’t have to talk politics”. They don’t seem to talk politics on the documentary, but you see, it’s political. He’s not just pals with Netanyahu – he goes there because Netanyahu is the prime minister of the Jewish State.
After I saw the film, I had the bitter feeling that I had just inadvertently participated in an Israeli propaganda stunt that was inserted as if it was benign into this film. I recall having the fear that there might be something like that in the film, and although I asked to see it in advance, I could only get access to the trailer. I realized that you can’t be too careful when Israel is somehow involved.
So Natalie Portman is realizing that she will be used as a branding of Israel. Israeli “recent events” have been “extremely distressing” – surely a reference to Israel’s killing of nearly 40 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, which have shocked Jews around the world.
Critique of Portman’s decision
Portman’s decision not to attend the ceremony was met with predictable fury from Israeli politicians. Likud lawmaker Oren Hazan, who recenly called Palestinians visiting relatives in Israeli prison ‘beasts’ and ‘human scum’ and said he’d put Ahed Tamimi ‘in the hospital’ by kicking her face, suggested that Portman be stripped of her Israeli citizenship.
Culture Minister Miri Regev, who has called African refugees “cancer”, said that she “was very sorry to hear that Portman fell like a ripe fruit into the hands of BDS supporters. A Jewish actress, who was born in Israel, has joined those who see the miraculous success story of Israel’s creation as a ‘story of darkness’.”
The latter was a reference to the Amos Oz novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, which Portman has made her directing debut three years ago. Regev had simply omitted the “love”, to paint Portman as an agent of “darkness”. And it is as if Regev is trying to deliver a ‘Star Wars’ like message – that Portman, who played the good Princess Amidala in Star Wars, has simply fallen into the hands of the ‘dark side’.
Yesterday, Minister of Strategic Affairs and Hasbara, Gilad Erdan, sent Portman a two-page letter which he posted on his twitter. In his ending, he invoked the Star Wars analogy:
“Anakin Skywalker, a character you know well from Star Wars, went through a similar process. He began to believe that the Jedi knights were evil, and that the forces of the Dark Side were the defenders of democracy. I call on you not to let the Dark Side win”, he wrote.
Portman takes a position against Netanayhu
“I’m very much against Netanyahu. Against. I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was re-elected. I find his racist comments horrific”, Portman told the Hollywood Reporter in May 2015.
It is likely that she was referring to Netanyahu’s 2015 election racist baiting statements of “Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves”.
“However”, she added “I don’t — what I want to make sure is, I don’t want to use my platform [the wrong way]. I feel like there’s some people who become prominent, and then it’s out in the foreign press. You know, shit on Israel. I do not. I don’t want to do that.”
In a statement following the Genesis Prize announcement in November, Portman said she is proud of her “Israeli roots and Jewish heritage.”
Portman is thus positioned in what you could call a “liberal-Zionist” ideological position, but something seems to have shifted in her recently further, because she was still poised to receive the prize in June, with distinct pride over her “Israeli roots and Jewish heritage”.
Ashamed to be Israeli?
This “pride” seems to be cracking, and we have seen it also inside Israel. Following the recent mass killings of Palestinian protesters in Gaza, prominent Israeli Army Radio host Kobi Meidan said he was “ashamed to be Israeli”. The statement got him into hot water, and he had to publicly apologize in order to keep his job.
Portman has not taken that step literally. She is very cautious in her formulation. But her dropping of the Genesis Prize seems to be saying something in that direction.
Clash with Israel, or with Zionism?
Is it going to go any further? Has Portman noted the racism and propaganda inherent in liberal Zionism? It’s even in Amos Oz, the liberal Zionist ‘hero’. I reported about Oz’s participation in Israeli propaganda towards its 2014 Gaza onslaught, here:
On July 31st, 2014, at the midst of Israel’s unprecedented assault on Gaza, Oz gave an interview to the Deutsche Welle. He opened the interview with two questions of his own, defying world opinion:
“Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
“Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
With these two questions I pass the interview to you”.
Oz was thus, in his eloquent rhetoric capability, voicing two widespread Israeli fictitious myths, disseminated from the PM office itself: That Hamas uses the population (particularly young children) as human shields, and that it has “terror tunnels” that lead to Israeli nurseries.
The first myth hardly deserves mentioning, in that Israel systematically obliterated whole families with over 30 members in Gaza 2014, because a wanted Hamas member was amongst them. To regard those family members, including babies, as human shields, deserves nothing but contempt. As Amira Hass notes in her introduction to the project Obliterated Families: “Behind every erased Gazan family is an Israeli pilot”.
The second myth, of Hamas “terror tunnels” leading to kindergartens in nearby villages, was a deliberate lie disseminated by the Prime Minister’s office and widely circulated in international media, serving as an important hysteria-creator and means of manufacturing consent for the ground invasion, where the actual casus belli (missing before that) became these tunnels. But this myth was debunked shortly after.
No tunnel led into any Israeli village. The sole purpose for which the tunnels were ever used in the handful of cases – was military engagement, legitimate under international law.
Oz was thus serving as an ignorant and zealous propagandist for Israel’s 51 days of death and destruction, and I have not noticed that he has ever corrected himself, for I have not seen him address this myth in the Israeli mainstream.
Has Portman noticed this? Has Portman noticed the left-leader Isaac Herzog saying how the left shouldn’t be perceived as “Arab Lovers”? Has she noticed how the Israeli left has sold out African refugees as “infiltrators”?
These are not accidental expressions. Liberal Zionism is a contradiction in terms. ‘Liberal Zionist’ leaders like ‘leftist’ Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wanted to send Palestinians “to the moon”. “I want them all to go, even if they go to the moon”, he said.
This is not illogical. It is completely logical. Maintaining a Jewish State at the cost of continued expulsion and subjugation of Palestinians, has been the modus operandi of Israel since the start – and it encompasses all of its Zionist political spectrum.
Natalie Portman appears to be breaking with Israel in some way. But she appears to be on the fence in relation to Zionism. She may still believe that there is a Zionism that is not “racist”, one that may be less “distressing” for her.
Her acts seem to be suggesting that she is not quite as proud of her “Israeli roots”, and possibly even ashamed of Israel, although not saying it. Will she manage to extricate the Jewish from the Israeli? This is a very hard task, a painful one. Yet Portman seems to portray a dynamic and fighting character. She may one day break from Zionism.
Thanks to Ofer Neiman.