This latest rebuff to Israeli cultural events and accolades, coming from an Israeli-American superstar, is arguably one of the strongest indicators yet of how toxic the Israel Brand has become, even in some liberal circles in Hollywood...I can sense our South Africa moment coming closer.” -Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, on Natalie Portman’s decision not to attend the 2018 Genesis Prize award ceremony in Jerusalem, New York Times, April 20, 2018.
The repercussions of the decision last week by Natalie Portman to shun the 2018 Genesis Prize Foundation’s award ceremony, at which she was supposed to receive what has been labelled by some as “The Jewish Nobel Prize” –together with two million dollars to spend on charitable causes of her choosing—still continue to reverberate through much of the media.
Imbecilic, infuriating, indefensible
Portman’s behavior throughout the entire affair has of course been indisputably imbecilic, infuriating and indefensible.
Portman’s behavior throughout the entire affair has of course been indisputably imbecilic, infuriating and indefensible.
To begin with, the Genesis Prize Foundation is hardly an unknown quantity. Indeed, since its establishment five years ago, it has awarded its annual prize to an array of high profile individuals— Michael Bloomberg (2014), Michael Douglas (2015),Itzhak Perlman (2016), and Sir Anish Kapoor (2017). Except for Kapoor, all were awarded the prize at a glittering ceremony at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke.
Significantly, the 2017 award ceremony was cancelled, not because of any recriminations against Israel, but because, as Kapoor requested, the ongoing horrors in Syria made it “inappropriate to hold a festive ceremony to honor Mr. Kapoor and his work on refugee issues…”
Moreover, the generic connection between the Genesis Foundation and the Prime Minister’s office is clearly touted on its website, where it is described as a “unique partnership”.
All this was clearly known—or should have been known—to Portman, who immediately after the 2015 elections expressedher aversion to Netanyahu and her dismay at his reelection.
Yet, evidently, none of this seemed to prevent her effusive acceptance of the prize when six months ago, it was announced that she was to be the 2018 recipient. Thus, early last November she gushed: “I am deeply touched and humbled by this honor. I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage; they are crucial parts of who I am”.
Incoherent, inconsistent, incomprehensible
Proudly, she proclaimed: “It is such a privilege to be counted among the outstanding Laureates whom I admire so much. I express my heartfelt gratitude to the Genesis Prize Foundation, and look forward to using the global platform it provides to make a difference in the lives of women in Israel and beyond.”
Enthusiastically, she endorsed Israel’s social achievements and embraced the award as an opportunity to make further progress: “I am particularly inspired by the opportunity to make an impact on women’s issues in Israel…Israel has already achieved much in terms of social and economic development, education and science, and we can all be rightfully proud of it as Jews…”
In light of all this—the known partnership between the Genesis Foundation and Netanyahu; her prior disapproval of Netanyahu; and her nonetheless eager acceptance of the award—makes Portman’s later conduct and her subsequent squirming to rationalize it, look decidedly incoherent, inconsistent and incomprehensible.
After all, it is difficult to understand what cataclysmic moral decay took place in Israel since Portman originally declared that she felt privileged “to be counted among the outstanding [prior] Laureates whom I admire so much”, that, subsequently, she felt that to be counted among them “would be not in line with my Jewish values.”
Blaming Bibi: The permanent default fallback
Indeed, there has been a dense fog of uncertainty as to what precisely prompted the discourteous snub of the prestigious award. However, it is difficult to avoid the distinct impression that the initial impulse was the events on the Gaza border—where, since the end of last month, thousands of rioters, incited by Hamas, “peacefully” protested by hurling rocks and firebombs at IDF soldiers, rolling burning tires at the border fence, and flying incendiary devices to set ablaze fields and properties on the Israeli side of frontier.
According to an email exchange on April 2, 2018, Portman’s representative specifically cites the Gaza clashes as the reason for the cancellation of the actress’s participation in the award ceremony: “We have been following the news from Gaza with growing concern and we are worried that it won’t be appropriate to hold the ceremony given the government’s actions and the latest escalation.”
Later, perhaps partially in response to the Foundation’s terse reply that: “The events in Gaza are the results of planned actions by Hamas, that are destined to sacrifice civilians for political benefit. Cancelling the ceremony of this most prestigious Jewish prize in the world will play into the hands of Hamas and will be a slap in the face of the nation in Israel”, Portman changed her tune—laying the blame on…Bibi.
Bibi: The all-purpose demon
In a later Instagram message, Portman stated: My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized…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... the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.
Asserting that: “I am not part of the BDS 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 added sanctimoniously: “Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power,” and reassured alarmed Israelis that: “I treasure Israeli…food…” How comforting!
There are several troubling aspects to Portman’s supercilious clarification –which has a distinctly hollow and mendacious ring to it.
First, if she felt such opprobrium towards Netanyahu, why did she agree to accept the award in the first place? After all, not only was it well known that the involvement of Prime Minister’s Office was an integral part of the Foundation, but Netanyahu spoke at every previous award ceremony ever held by the Foundation.
Arrogant and absurd
Moreover, by invoking her moralistic concerns for her decision, Portman is in fact impugning all the previous “outstanding Laureates whom I admire so much”.
After all, unless she can identify some dramatic malfeasance on the part of Netanyahu since her November acceptance of the award—one so grave that it disqualifies him from sharing a stage with her—she is in effect insinuating that they are all somehow morally impaired and inferior to her. For by them agreeing to appear with Netanyahu, Portman is necessarily implying that they were effectively endorsing a morally unworthy figure who “is simply not in line with my [apparently superior] Jewish values”.
Indeed, by refusing any appearance with Netanyahu, Portman is in fact expressing utter disdain for the Israeli democratic process, which she apparently “treasures” considerably less than Israel food, arrogantly implying that she knows better than the Israeli electorate—which has repeatedly reelected him, in free and fair elections, to govern the country she elected to forsake three decades ago.
For it is patently absurd to refuse to attend a national—or quasi-national—event, in which the elected prime minister participates, on the grounds that such attendance endorses him—or his policies.
Thus, in the recent Independence Day ceremonies, no-one even remotely imagined that all the honorees/prize recipients—such as author David Grossman, who has been a fierce critic of both Netanyahu and his policies–were endorsing him by taking part.
Accordingly, one can only wonder why Portman thought it would.
The speech Portman could have given.
Significantly, one of Portman’s apologists was Jeremy Ben Ami, head of the radical pro-appeasement J-Street, who pontificated: “Natalie Portman has every right to listen to her conscience and express her concerns when it comes to the current policies…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.”
But, of course, Israel did give Portman the right to speak. It was she who turned it down. And of course, folk of Ben Ami’s ilk don’t really give a hoot about the right to “speak out honestly and openly”—otherwise they would not suggest that those, who felt indignant at Portman’s refusal to attend (and speak), should pipe down.
Certainly, I too would encourage Portman to speak out and “stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power”. After all, the platform offered by the Genesis Foundation would have been an ideal one from which to excoriate all these vices in, say, Gaza or Syria, or Saudi Arabia or…anywhere in the region, where those vices are indisputably the most rife.
Indeed, she could have used the award ceremony as a grand opportunity to advance her preferred social cause, women’s rights, and call for their enhancement across the Arab/Muslim world...where the need for such enhancement is incontrovertibly the most dire.
But, as she didn’t, I guess that is “simply not in line with her Jewish values”.
The Dershowitz dictum.
At Harvard, Portman worked as a research assistant for Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a staunch advocate of both Israel and human rights. A point Dershowitz often brings up in his talks is the challenge with which he frequently confronts his audiences.
He asks them: “Name a single country in the history of the world faced with internal and external threats comparable to those faced by Israel that has ever had a better record in human rights; a better record with compliance of the rule of law; a better record of concern for civilians?”
According to Dershowitz: “I have been asking that question now for 20 years probably to a million people around the world, and I’ve never gotten a single person even to stand up and name a country, because you can’t do it.”
There is an important lesson here for Portman and one that other armchair US liberals, who are willing to defend their politically correct liberal principles down to the last Israeli, would do well to internalize, before passing judgment on a valiant democracy, fighting for its very existence in a rising sea of tyranny and fanaticism.
The wider malaise: Israel reaping what it never sowed
For all the gravity of Portman’s behavior and the severe damage it has inflicted on Israel and Zionism, it must be realized that it is part of a wider, more disturbing phenomena—a mere symptom of a more serious malaise.
In a recent Breitbart article, Caroline Glick diagnoses the root of this malaise as the fault of the dysfunctional priorities of the American-Jewish leadership, which, driven (or cowered) by the dictates of political correctness, has been drifting away from Israel—often compelled to deal with existential threats /challenges far more robustly than such dictates deem proper.
Reproachfully, she condemns “Portmanesque” phenomena as being a product of their miscomprehension and mismanagement of Jewish affairs, lamenting: “And now Israel is reaping what they sowed”.
So, while I would certainly agree with Glick that the Portman affair must be seen in a broader context, and that much criticism can be leveled at the leadership of American Jewry, there is, I believe, a deeper cause of the malaise—and one much closer to home. This is thedevastating failure and neglect of Israel’s public diplomacy, particularly on university campuses, which has allowed Israel’s image to be gravely degraded.
As I have dealt with this issue thoroughly elsewhere, allow me to end with a quote from that analysis from a liberal-leaning pro-Israel activist. He writes: “Israel has an obligation to aid in pro-Israel advocacy on university campuses. Israel has largely ignored those fighting for Israel on campus and has failed to offer any true support for diaspora Jews…this issue directly affects the viability of the Israeli state in the future and should be of primary concern for Israel.”
He is, of course, right! So instead of Glick’s charge that “Israel is now reaping what they [US Jewish leadership] sowed”, I would suggest that “Israel is now reaping what it itself never sowed”.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies