Last week was supposed to be focused on the celebration of the State of Israel and the recognition that 70 years after David Ben-Gurion declared the country’s independence, the Jewish state is a strong and prosperous first-world nation in the heart of the Middle East. But along with the parades and the parties came the news that Natalie Portman, one of the most visible pro-Israel faces in Hollywood, was declining to participate in what was to be the June conferral on her of the annual Genesis Foundation Prize in Israel.
At the time, by way of a statement attributed to Portman’s representative and released on Yom Ha’atzmaut itself, the explanation was offered that given “recent events in Israel [that] have been extremely distressing to her,” the Jerusalem-born Portman “does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” We assumed that by “recent events,” Portman meant the deaths of Palestinians at the Gaza border, shot by Israeli soldiers responding to violent Hamas terrorists among the crowds attempting to breach the border.
Many on Israel’s right — joined by many more on the right flank of the American pro-Israel community — reacted harshly, assuming that Portman was just another Hollywood celebrity to fall into the clutches of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. She was, in the analysis of one Likud MK, nothing more than a traitor, and deserved to be stripped of her citizenship.
Portman soon restated her reason for declining to go to Israel to receive the prize, characterizing her decision as not wanting to appear to endorse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom she famously derided in 2015. She also clarified that she was not a supporter of BDS. Indeed, she went on to say, “I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.”
We applaud Portman for publicly stating that she does not support BDS. But at the same time, we find her statement — at best — to be incredibly naïve, especially considering that those who do support the BDS movement are using her refusal to go to Israel as a validation of their cause.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel praised the actress, saying: “After decades of egregious human rights violations against Palestinians, Israel’s recent massacre of peaceful protesters in Gaza has made its brand so toxic that even well-known Israeli-American cultural figures, like Natalie Portman, now refuse to blatantly whitewash, or art-wash, Israeli crimes and apartheid policies.”
The pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace thanked Portman for her decision, along with this post on Twitter: “Change is a beautiful thing.”
While we acknowledge Portman’s right to disagree vocally with Israel’s latest actions — even if we question her assessment — we simply cannot escape the fact that whatever her intentions, the effect of her announcement was to encourage and reinforce Israel’s vilifiers. PJC