Over the past weekend, the Jewish world was transfixed by the actions of one Natalie Portman, Hollywood luminary and de facto cultural ambassador to the State of Israel. Once a reliable and outspoken supporter of the Jewish State, her loyalty was suddenly in question after her decision to cancel her appearance at the upcoming Genesis Prize ceremony to be held in late May, where she was to be awarded a prize of $2 million to be allotted to charities of her choosing. That most people did not know—and remain unaware—of what exactly the Genesis Prize, a quasi-governmental organization whose committee is made up of a number of figures including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, represented seemed irrelevant; all that mattered was the ostensible possibility that Portman had now become an unwitting proponent of the BDS campaign. A Friday night post on Instagram clarifying that, no, this was not a boycott but a specific rejection of Netanyahu, who was scheduled to appear and give a speech at the ceremony, and in no way indicated any sympathy towards BDS, did little to change the minds of those who had already written her off as a lost cause or lionized her as the new face of the boycott movement. It’s recently been revealed that Portman’s original misgivings may have started with the violence erupting on the Gaza border, though this information simply reflects the initial statement made by her representatives about “recent events in Israel” prompting her to pull out of the ceremony (the Genesis Prize Committee has neither confirmed nor denied this latest report).
Despite the controversy that her actions and response have elicited in the Jewish community here and abroad, anyone with even a passing knowledge of Portman should hardly have been surprised. While she’s made clear the fact that she believes public criticism of Israel should be handled delicately, she has never shied away from explicitly criticizing the actions of its various governments, nor has she felt any compunction in making apparent her thoughts about Netanyahu. Yet the incident signals both good and bad tidings for the future of Israeli-American Jewish ties and the manner in which Diaspora Jews choose to constructively engage with Israel.
First the bad news: the reaction from many on the right has been a predictably depressing one, a shrill denunciation of her actions as bordering on treason, and a complete dismissal of all the goodwill she’s amassed over the course of nearly two decades. As if reciting a prepared script written especially for this type of occasion, Israeli and American Jews who sang her praises only days ago have taken to social media to depict her as a self-hating, vapid, out of touch actress looking to burnish her progressive credentials. To say that members of the Likud Party’s responses have likewise been problematic is a generous understatement. They lay on a spectrum of anywhere from “embarrassing” to “despicable,” running the gamut from demands that Portman to be stripped of her Israeli citizenship to citing Star Wars films (and a prequel at that!) in order to persuade her to reconsider.
But perhaps worst of all has been the party’s official statement claiming that to avoid the ceremony because of Netanyahu’s presence would be a rejection of the “choice of the people of Israel”—a curiosity, given his party’s victory of a mere plurality of the voting public – and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz’s crude insinuation that Portman was effectively acting as an anti-Semite. The former is bad enough as it trucks in a bizarre populism that implies some permanent association between Netanyahu and Israel (a troubling sign for many people who have worked hard to create a semblance of difference between the government and the state) but the latter makes Steinitz appear as some sort of caricature created by anti-Israel partisans who believe that any and all objection to their actions are always made in bad faith to stifle debate.
At this point it’s difficult to differentiate between unacceptable behavior on the part of politicians and that which stems from the purported need to cater to their constituents no matter the price, with one eye always on the polls. Such behavior is unfortunate, but it’s also the feature of a system that allows for smaller parties to exercise a disproportionate amount of power over the political system, making early elections that much more likely. However, the ferocity with which Portman has been attacked and disowned, and the knee-jerk defense of the prime minister confirms an unfortunate trend on the political right that sees room for dissent gradually eroding.
One could write a book on all of the positive ways that Portman has promoted Israel, in both her public and private life, denouncing boycotts and devoting her premier directorial debut to a Hebrew-language film that was unlikely, even under the best of circumstances, to be a commercial success. Yet the moment she stepped outside of the confines of what is now deemed acceptable criticism she was met with swift condemnation. So too does the defense of the prime minister point to an entrenched cult of personality on the part of swathes of the political right that have dangerously conflated approval of Netanyahu and his policies as a litmus test for acceptance into the fold. That these phenomena have been making strides throughout the world, and point to a rising international threat of populism not exclusive to Israel, is hardly comforting.
If the increasing intolerance on the right bodes poorly for the future, the positive implications of Portman’s decision hopefully outweigh it. Prior to her statement on Friday night, the BDS campaign and its like-minded partners displayed joy at what appeared to them a coup: an actress once outspokenly supportive of Israel now openly shunning the state, a move that, in their eyes, could act as a catalyst for other celebrities to act in a similar fashion without fear of reprisal. Of course, given Portman’s history, such a conclusion was ridiculous even before she released her clarification explicitly noting her opposition to the movement, and not for the first time. Nor did her statement prevent activists from twisting her words to make it seem as though she was at least in partial agreement with them. But this type of behavior coming from anti-Israel partisans should hardly surprise us.
The reality is that the BDS movement, despite its self-image as a menacing juggernaut always on the cusp of victory, has achieved relatively little since its inception, other than to annoy Israelis and their supporters and to make discussions of the conflict on social media unpleasant. Portman’s decision and her subsequent statement are hardly a win for the boycotters, no matter how you slice it. On the contrary; by explicitly rejecting the movement and its goals, differentiating between the government and the state, and singing the praises of an Israeli culture with which she so closely identifies, Portman highlighted the very mundane notion that concerned observers should be able to criticize Israel without the fire and brimstone we’ve come to expect in these types of situations. None of this is in any way revolutionary, but as Elad Nehorai points out in the Forward, “Ultimately, Portman’s decision was a bombshell precisely because she does not represent the extremes that have dominated the PR battle over Israel.”
Not only did Portman articulate what has been taken for granted by many supporters of Israel, she is helping pave the way for a different form of engagement that, in our increasingly partisan world is coming to be seen as naively passé. But the notion of a responsible and moderate engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being past its prime is only able to gain traction because so many people seem either unwilling to defend its merits, or erroneously believe that tacking to the center is simply no longer possible. Portman, with her painstakingly nuanced response has been forced to play the responsible adult, offering a third way to those young American, and Diaspora Jews more broadly, who find themselves frustrated by the status quo yet unwilling to simply disengage from Israel entirely. This incident may fizzle out and be forgotten within a matter of days; however, Portman has, at the very least, left us a with a blueprint for the future that combines a warm embrace of Israel with a sober-minded analysis of its flaws that cannot simply be chalked by right-wing apologists as a new form of Israel-bashing.