Jews should be able to prioritize, and criticize, Israeli issues
Guest columnistNatalie Portman's actions do not make her hypocritical

Jews should be able to prioritize, and criticize, Israeli issues

Natalie Portman's willingness to go to China, but not Israel, does not make her hypocritical. Jews should be more passionate about the actions of their government.

Natalie Portman at the women’s march in Los Angeles, Jan. 20, 2018. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Natalie Portman at the women’s march in Los Angeles, Jan. 20, 2018. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

In the Jewish civil war over who gets to say what about Israel, apologists for the occupation frequently promote the fallacy that it is hypocritical to criticize the Jewish State without also protesting more egregious human rights violators. This strategy was employed against Natalie Portman, who declined to accept Israel’s Genesis Prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Her detractors — most prominently Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of the pro-Netanyahu World Values Network — excoriated Portman for attending a film festival in China. While Israel has a far better human rights record than China, the charge of hypocrisy is nonsense.

Saying that Portman — an Israeli citizen — is disqualified from criticizing Netanyahu, is akin to claiming that Americans who buy Chinese goods are hypocritical for criticizing President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Portman’s disagreement with Netanyahu presumably concerns his policy toward the West Bank and Gaza — an issue that cuts deep for any Israeli with a pulse. Shouldn’t Israelis be more passionate about their government’s actions, than the actions of a foreign power?

The same could be said of diaspora Jews, such as myself. While I identify as an American, and am active in community organizations, I am equally bonded to Israel. I have numerous Israeli relatives and visit every year.

But I have a primal connection to Israel that is stronger than these tangible ties. I identify with Israel because it is the Jewish State and I am Jewish.

While perusing my morning newspaper, I turn to stories about Israel before reading anything else. When an IDF soldier dies defending Eretz Yisrael I feel it a hundred times deeper than the death of Syrian innocents or terror victims in London. My feelings may not be logical, but they are real.

For me no issue resonates more than Israeli-Palestinian relations — the challenge that most defines Israel on the world stage. For several years I was active in J Street, the lobbying organization that advocates for a two-state solution. Maybe I should be just as concerned with China’s occupation of Tibet, but Beijing’s misdeeds simply don’t motivate me to action.

I suppose Rabbi Boteach and like-minded defenders of the occupation would prefer that Jewish detractors of Prime Minister Netanyahu disengage from Israeli issues. But nothing makes me more pessimistic about Judaism’s future than encountering Jews who feel they have no stake in the course of the Zionist project — the most likely vehicle for uniting Jews of all backgrounds.

While I am unable to speak for Portman, I assume that she is more interested in Israel than China for the same reason that so many Jews prioritize Israeli issues — she is Jewish. Those of us concerned about Judaism’s future should want all Jews to be passionate about Israel, no matter their political leanings.

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be lodged against Netanyahu’s detractors. It is fair to point out that Israel has made at least two workable proposals for a Palestinian state and reasonable to question whether the Palestinians are viable peace partners.

Moreover, advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel with no apparent ties to the Palestinian issue should be made to explain why they pick on Israel rather than far worse state actors? But criticizing Portman and other Jews for their alleged hypocrisy is simply a device by the political right to deflect attention from the occupation and monopolize public debate about Israel.

No Jew and certainly no Israeli need explain why they are focused on Israel. The Jewish State is part of every Jew’s psychic DNA, and all Jews should want to influence its future. PJC

Ben Krull is a New York-based writer.

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