Jewish Insider has continued investigating what was actually behind Natalie Portman’s decision not to attend the Israeli Genesis Prize ceremony – a decision which made headlines last month, when the Genesis Foundation issued a press release, as if on her behalf, saying that “[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.”
The declaration was predictably met with ire from Israeli right-wing politicians, and with enthusiasm by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters. 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”.
But Portman did not want any such affiliation, and thus issued a clarification a day later, opening with the statement:
“My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself.”
One would have thought, that Portman’s subsequent clarification statement was primarily in order to address interpretations of the earlier mentioned statement. But the Jewish Insider’s (JI) investigation suggests that it was actually an attempt to damage control the Genesis statement itself, which, according to the JI’s cited clued-in source, came without Portman’s approval, and had a rather sinister motive:
“Genesis opted to throw Portman under the bus in an effort to protect their partner Netanyahu from public embarrassment.”
What was Portman troubled by, and why did she want to cancel her participation in the ceremony?
Here’s where it gets really tricky. If we are to take Portman’s subsequent clarification statement by the word, then she “chose not to attend because [she] did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.” But revelations of emails between her team and the Genesis Foundation released a week later, suggest that the events in Gaza involving the killing of unarmed protesters were indeed troubling her in relation to the prize ceremony (the emails were revealed on Israeli Hadashot, cited by Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JTA). These were the “recent events” vaguely alluded to in the Genesis statement. Many could guess it anyway, and even Strategic Affairs and Hasbara Minister Gilad Erdan made it clear that he thought so, where he wrote to Portman: “It appears that the events to which you are referring are those that took place on our border with Gaza”.
So was Portman troubled by Netanyahu’s presence, or by the events in Gaza? The answer appears to be – both.
On April 24th, we reported that Genesis knew of Portman’s concerns regarding the Prime Minister’s attendance and attempted to reassure her that she didn’t have to sit next to him or have him present her with the award. According to a source, “In the end Portman insisted Netanyahu not be invited to the event.” Genesis felt that was a demand they “couldn’t accept both for contractual and moral reasons. A bridge too far.”
According to JI, Portman’s preferred way out was thus to cite a “scheduling conflict”.
“Portman never made the decision to go public; Genesis did.”
So there would have been a quieter way out, citing a “scheduling conflict”. Remember, that after all, Portman wasn’t publicly boycotting the prize as such – only the public ceremony. It is interesting to note another recent example of such a quiet backing out: Paul McCartney. And did anyone really notice?
Paul McCartney announced some weeks ago that he would not come to Israel later in the month to receive the Wolf Prize for Music he was awarded in February. McCartney:
“It’s very flattering and I’m grateful to be chosen for the Wolf Prize for Music this year. It’s certainly a great honor for me to be included among the greatest artists, creators, scientists and writers of today’s history. But after reviewing my schedule I have to announce that I will not be able to arrive at the date set.”
We can only guess at whether McCartney actually has other motives. We cannot know at this point. But this is how it’s done when you don’t want to make a political statement, whereas at the same time you don’t want to be seen being there. It’s damage control.
The JI suggested that Portman could have opted for another model, one that indeed mentions the Gaza events. JI:
“Last year, Genesis agreed to cancel its award ceremony at the request of its 2017 honoree Anish Kapoor, an artist, activist and refugee advocate, who felt it was inappropriate to hold a festive event while the Syrian civil war raged just beyond Israel’s border. A Portman source questioned why Genesis couldn’t have accommodated her withdrawal in a similar manner.”
But there’s a difference. Because Syria is not as directly related to Israel as Gaza is. And in fact, the Genesis Foundation statement was rather close to such a formulation. This shows precisely how even such a soft formulation could not avoid being seen as highly political and as a kind of boycott of Israel.
A private vendetta against Netanyahu?
Portman apparently wanted to avoid any politicizing in preferring to back out of the ceremony citing a ‘schedule conflict’. But the Genesis statement openly politicized it.
Portman’s clarification, pointing so personally to Netanyahu, hardly made it less political. And it is not fully encompassing. Gaza was on her mind and conscience too, we know that much. So why did she issue such a statement, that seemed to contradict the one issued by the Genesis Foundation, one which focused so personally upon Netanyahu?
It seems that both sides were shooting at each other.
And why did Genesis shoot first? It’s possible, that someone, even Netanyahu himself, was offended by Portman’s insistence to have his role reduced, and even excluded from the ceremony. Netanyahu or his associates may have been worried that Portman’s motive against Netanyahu would anyway have been revealed somehow, and decided to ‘shoot first’ – to “throw her under the bus” with a statement that would place her in the BDS arena. This would explain why Portman’s subsequent clarification went so personally formulated against Netanyahu. It should be noted, that her clarification text is completely devoid of the Gaza issue – she’s not saying “I was distressed by Gaza, but also…”. This suggests that Portman was somehow trying to get back at Netanyahu – for throwing her under the bus.
And what about the money?
Also here there have been different speculations and accusations concerning the money issue, further pointing to the ‘bad blood’ between Genesis and Portman. First it was reported that the cancellation of the ceremony did not mean cancellation of the prize itself. See JTA and Haaretz:
“The [Genesis] Foundation did not indicate whether Portman would still receive the prize money in light of her announcement”.
But on the same day, Haaretz’s Judy Maltz cited Genesis sources, suggesting that Portman is still getting the money, and donating it to charities in Israel:
“Natalie Portman has not expressed any intention to the Genesis Prize Foundation that she will not be donating the $2 million prize to charities in Israel, a source at the organization said, even though the Israeli-American actor is boycotting the awards ceremony in Israel that was to be held in her honor.”
So what’s going on? Is Portman still getting the money or not? Maltz continues with a response from Portman’s representative contradicting the Genesis claim:
“Natalie Portman never received any money from the Genesis Prize Foundation. In fact, last December, she informed the foundation’s president, in writing, that she did not wish to receive the monetary award attached to the prize. There have never been any funds to return. Any suggestion to the contrary is false, misleading and defamatory. Ms. Portman will be using her own money to contribute to a number of charities in Israel, and she will be announcing them in the near future, with the hope that others will join her in supporting them.”
So this turns out to be a long story, wherein Portman, already half a year ago, was trying to quietly distance herself from Genesis – to quietly decline the money, and after failed attempts to reduce Netanyahu’s part in the ceremony, to quietly decline the ceremony altogether. But at some point, this became too much for Genesis – and it was them who then made the big noise, behind her back, where she then had to do damage control. And when she did that, she lashed out against Netanyahu himself.
Between Portman and Perlman
Portman’s story so far, is typical of the conundrum facing ‘liberal Zionists’, who seek to apply a kind of ‘selective-boycott’, but whose feet get trapped in their own net of complexity. Abba Solomon has recently written on this site comparing violinist Itzhak Perlman (who received the Genesis Prize and also visited Netanyahu at home in conjunction with it) and Portman. Solomon notes:
“In a Billboard interview, after the release of the documentary film ‘Itzhak,’ Perlman’s wife Toby said it was ‘problematic’ meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for tea after receiving last year’s Genesis Prize (shown in the movie), but Itzhak Perlman said he felt he must honor the office.”
“After Natalie Portman’s startling refusal to be honored by the ‘Genesis’ Prize, is it unimaginable to think that Itzhak Perlman might honor the Palestine civil society appeal to boycott Israel?”
But in that same Billboard interview, Perlman made it clear that he thinks the BDS is a “bandwagon”:
[Billboard]: What do you make of musicians like Roger Waters, who also lives part-time out here in the Hamptons, who boycott Israel?
Toby Perlman: Who’s Roger Waters?
[Billboard]: He was the main songwriter in Pink Floyd. He’s very vocal in the boycott of Israel — the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Itzhak Perlman: So, fine. What am I going to say? He’s entitled to his opinion. There’s nothing I say that will convince people otherwise, so that’s it. What can you do? There are many, many people who are on the bandwagon of boycotting Israel. (My emphasis).
[Billboard]: It’s a larger question, not specific to him, but he does live out here and is a famous musician.
Itzhak Perlman: He’s no friend of mine, so…
But the Billboard wasn’t asking whether Roger Waters is a friend of Itzhak Perlman. It was made clear that it’s not about Waters as a person. It is Perlman who is making it personal, in order to avoid the issue. This is also what Portman appears to be doing in her lashing out against Netanyahu. But it’s really not that personal. And as Solomon noted, Perlman was completely willing to boycott North Carolina when he refused an opportunity to perform there in protest of the anti-LGBT law HB2 two years ago. So why not boycott Israel for anti-Palestinian policies? North Carolina boycott is not a “badwagon” for Perlman, but boycott of Israel is. Perlman sees it necessary to “honor the office” – of Netanyahu – but he said outright that he would “make an exception” if it was Trump. So Perlman would boycott Trump, even if it costs “dishonoring the office”, but not Netanyahu.
And Natalie Portman doesn’t want to “shit on Israel” as she says it. So when the shit did hit the fan in her case, she seemed to be throwing the shit back at Netanyahu – not Israel, as it were.
But at some point, we have to realise that all this mud-slinging can be distracting from the real issues. This is not just about this or that person occupying an office. It is about states, it is about their policies, it is about how we react to them. And those who seek to merely level “soft critique” at Israel so as not to offend, as it were, often become victims of their own caution.