Natalie Portman’s recent decision not to attend the Israeli Genesis Prize ceremony has made loud noise across the world.
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said that she “was very sorry to hear that Portman fell like a ripe fruit into the hands of BDS supporters” and Minister of Strategic Affairs and Hasbara, Gilad Erdan invoked the Star Wars analogy in response to her move: “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.
For her part Portman tried to distance herself to some degree from the actual BDS movement in a subsequent statement:
“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”, she wrote.
Still, Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev depicted Portman as a ‘canary in the coal mine’:
“Despite her effort to diminish the significance of her move, Portman is like a canary in the coal mine for liberal supporters of Israel everywhere. Her decision dovetails with, and could very well deepen, the growing disaffection of the Democratic left from Trump-toting Israel and its policies. It could jolt many Israel-supporting liberal Jews, who have hitherto kept their opposition to Netanyahu and his policies to themselves, to speak up, perhaps to cross the line into pro-boycott agitation altogether,” he wrote. (His Haaretz piece was also re-published by the Forward under the heading “Natalie Portman Is Biggest Canary In Israel’s Coal Mine”).
We are already seeing this “jolt” in action among liberal supporters of Israel in the United States.
Let’s look at J Street, one of the most prominent ‘liberal-Zionst’ groups in the US.
On its official statement, J Street declares:
1) “We do not advocate for or support any boycott, divestment or sanctions initiative whatsoever”
2) “J Street has always been and remains opposed to the Global BDS Movement”
But still –
3) “We do not oppose boycott, divestment, or sanctions initiatives that explicitly support a two-state solution, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and focus only on occupied territory beyond the Green Line.”
J Street’s language here adheres to a line of thinking in ‘liberal-Zionist’ circles concerning BDS which advocates for a “selective boycott” aimed solely at Israeli activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.
But even with this in mind, this is how J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami responded to Portman’s recent move:
“Natalie Portman has every right to listen to her conscience and express her concerns when it comes to the current policies and direction of Israel and its government — concerns that are shared by so many American Jews and supporters of Israel around the world. Instead of responding to her decision with indignation, Israeli officials and supporters of Israel should respect this right and encourage Portman to speak out openly and honestly”, he said.
Ben Ami hedges with “concerns” regarding “current policies and direction of Israel and its government”, but it cannot go unnoticed that he is supporting an act which is a direct opposition to the whole of the state of Israel, as it directly and explicitly targets its head of state. Portman’s act is not focusing upon “occupied territory beyond the Green Line”. This is not “selective boycott”. Has J Street suddenly changed policy because it’s a prominent ‘liberal Zionist’ doing the boycotting?
Another prominent ‘Liberal Zionist’ organization, Peace Now, has now started a Portman-support campaign called “I’m with her”, saying: “Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, equality, and the abuse of power.”
Wait a minute – Chemi Shalev disparagingly wrote that Portman has become “a new poster girl for the anti-Zionist left and the BDS movement” – but now it appears she has become a poster girl for the ‘liberal-Zionists’ too!
What is going on here?
What is happening is, that Natalie Portman has created an opening – possibly and probably unwittingly so.
She wanted to make a stand against Netanyahu himself, as if he was a sole representative and cause of the “recent events” which have “distressed” her – but you cannot separate Netanyahu from his position as Prime Minister, neither can you separate the Prime Minister office from the State of Israel, nor can you separate Israeli policy today from its history, which is completely to do with Zionism, and starts way before Netanyahu was born. It’s all connected.
Portman may have been acting on instinct to some degree, experiencing a “selective” fit of repulsion at this point in time; and she might have thought that her act would be read to be aimed solely against Netanyahu and the right-wing in Israel. But her act is in fact targeting the whole of Israel from its top down, non-selectively so, whether she likes it or not.
This is a Pandora’s Box. And it’s not just a match between those who avidly oppose BDS and those who support it. This is hitting the middle – the ‘liberal-Zionists’ — who have at best wanted a ‘selective boycott’ and are now endorsing a boycott of the Israeli government.
The ‘liberal-Zionists’ who are rushing to her protection against right-wing accusations of treachery, anti-Semitism and what not, have to protect her right to “speak out openly and honestly”, and to “stand up against violence, corruption, equality, and the abuse of power.” So even ‘Liberal-Zionists’ are now effectively endorsing the targeting of the Israeli state as a whole for it’s actions and policies.
The taboo of “selective boycotts” has been effectively shattered – by the ‘center’.
If Portman indeed is a ‘canary in a coal mine’ as Shalev suggested, and if this ‘coal mine’ is indeed about boycott of Israel, and the canary lives, then the notion of boycott of the state of Israel as a one unified entity has been justified.
In the mythology of Pandora, after she opened the box, a swarm of troubles escaped, and by the time Pandora managed to close it again, there was only one thing left – Elpis, representing hope.
The taboos have escaped Natalie Portman’s box, they cannot be put back. But there is now hope, that we may finally call a spade a spade.