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.