(April 22, 2018 / JNS) And the award for best performance by a non-supporting actor goes to . . . Natalie Portman.
In a 70th-anniversary present to the State of Israel, Portman announced that she would not come to accept this year’s $2 million Genesis Prize, which would then be directed to the charities of her choice, because according to a post on her Instagram feed, she “did not want to appear as endorsing [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”
In clarifying her reasoning for turning down the award, Portman noted that “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.”
America and Israel are both vibrant democracies—at least, in terms of basic freedoms of speech—and Portman’s decision is most certainly within her right. And, of course, with that right to protest comes the right to counter-protest from across the Jewish and Israeli political spectrum.
Portman’s comments raise several concerns. While Portman says that her “decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others,” if she believes that Israel was created to be a safe haven for Jewish Holocaust refugees, then her belief undermines the legitimate right of the Jewish people to live in Israel—the indigenous home of the Jewish people for nearly 3,000 years. Her statement ignores more than 1 million refugees from Arab lands absorbed into the Jewish state in the years shortly after its founding, and the whopping 1 million refugees from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.
If Portman honestly believes that if whatever “today’s atrocities” might be that they can rank high enough to be mentioned in the very next sentence after a reference to the Holocaust, then she has severely “mischaracterized” current events. While Portman emphatically states that she is “not part of the BDS movement and [does] not endorse it,” she echoes the mistruths mouthed by Israel’s fiercest enemies.
When Israel’s enemies stage theater to mischaracterize Israeli aggression, the term for such propaganda is called “Pallywood.”
Yet aside from the distortions that Portman is making about the underpinnings of the State of Israel—in addition to the climate of “atrocities” she believes are taking place here—there is perhaps a deeper concern: the concept that the best way to support Israel is to vocally criticize it.
Israelis and Jews around the world are without question simultaneously the most ardent supporters and critics of Israel and its leadership. Yet within the American Jewish Diaspora, in particular, for the past several decades Jewish leaders have been peddling the mantra that “you can support Israel while criticizing Israel.”
On the one hand, it sounds like an obvious truth. If Israel wants to continue receiving support, including tremendous fiscal support, from American Jewry, then the Jewish state needs to be able to absorb the critiques of those footing the bill for much of its growth.
As such, Israel has grown a thick skin. Today, it can be argued that no country in the world absorbs more criticism than the State of Israel. Still, for all the criticism Israel receives—even from its self-described biggest supporters—as the recent 70th-year anniversary celebrations demonstrated in vivid colors: Israel thrives.
The problem with the mantra about supporting Israel while simultaneously criticizing it is that the right to disparage, when put on the same pedestal as support, often does more damage to the critic than it does to the receiving party.
The constant criticism, even when well-intended, creates a toxic atmosphere that leaves the critic sick and tired of its subject, particularly when the subject fails to take the criticism too deeply to heart. To the critic, the warts soon begin to overtake the subject’s finer features.
And when the pattern of criticism becomes more toxic than the nurturing, a distance is created. This distance is at the core of the fraying state of Israel-Diaspora relations today.
Many Israelis and certainly Diaspora Jews are quick to criticize Israel’s second-longest tenured leader. Despite his mistakes, Netanyahu, as prime minister of Israel and CEO of the start-up nation, has fared admirably in his now 10-year stint.
While American Jews may have what to complain about regarding Israel’s (or Netanyahu’s) inability to make peace with each of its neighbors, inability to integrate asylum-seekers or unwillingness to quickly change a decades-old status quo at the Western Wall prayer plaza (just to name a few issues), for their part, Jews in Israel have a lot to say about the assimilation and intermarriage rates plaguing and weakening America’s Jewish community, as well as the lack of Jewish education of its youth.
While Portman says that the current state of affairs in Israel is “simply not in line with my Jewish values,” there are many Jews—and Israelis, especially—who will call into question her self-defined values set, and the set of values with which many progressive Jews in America espouse.
By marrying a non-Jewish partner, Portman, like nearly 75 percent of American Jews, has greatly diminished the chances that her children or grandchildren will have a strong connection to Israel, if any. Those criticizing a leader that has arguably done as much as anyone in his service to strengthen the Jewish people should first ask themselves whether they are putting forth the same effort before citing their “Jewish values.”
As was on full display this past week, Israel at 70 looks a lot better than Israel at 60. One may not be able to say the same about the state of America’s Jewish Diaspora community.
It’s easy to understand why the Genesis Prize Foundation selected to award Portman. After awarding Jewish Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, Jewish actor Kirk Douglas, Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman and Jewish sculptor Anish Kapoor, Portman certainly fit the part. She is Jewish, her mother is Israeli, and she speaks fluent Hebrew. She is an Oscar-winning actress, studied at Hebrew University and starred in Israeli films. In 2015, Portman directed and starred in the film adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The film was shot in Jerusalem with a grant from the Jerusalem Film Fund.
Now, in 2018, Portman has put on an award-winning show for all the critics of Israel and its oft-difficult and sensitive policies. It may be this latest performance that seals her record with the Jewish state.
For all of the Jewish and Israel connection she has accumulated over the years, Portman proved that she is not deserving of the Genesis Prize. There is no doubt that Israel will survive her spurning of the prize and her non-endorsement of Netanyahu. And next year, the Genesis Prize will go to some other prominent Jewish celebrity, who hopefully will be more appreciative of what the sentiment behind it represents.