Analysis

Bibi-DS Instead of BDS: Portman's Strategy of Boycotting Netanyahu Could Be Next Wave of Political Protest

Natalie Portman's motives in declining to appear at the Genesis Prize ceremony aren't important. The real question is whether the Netanyahu brand has grown toxic and if it can be disassociated from Israel

Natalie Portman at the Venice Film Festival in 2016, September 2016.
CLAUDIO ONORATI / EPA

I know quite a few Israelis who hoped that David Grossman, honored with the Israel Prize for literature last week, would boycott the ceremony with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett in protest over their government’s policies.

It’s the same kind of feeling some get when an Israeli athlete wins a medal at the Olympics or an Israeli scientist is informed they have just won the Nobel Prize. Netanyahu calls to congratulate them and some wish that, just for once, instead of allowing the prime minister to share in the limelight, they just refuse to take the call.

It rarely happens that way. Grossman chose to see the Israel Prize as a national, not a political, accolade and went up to the stage and shook Netanyahu and Bennett’s hands – even though he has made no attempt to hide how much he abhors their policies. And so does nearly everyone else in such a situation.

>> That’s the spirit, Ms. Portman, but it's just a start | Gideon Levy >>

Are they wrong to do so? To what degree does a person have to disagree with the government of the day to refuse to be honored by its leader for their achievements?

Does a British citizen receiving a knighthood or damehood at Buckingham Palace have to accept the rather ridiculous concept of a hereditary monarchy? And what about an American whose long record is finally being recognized by the White House: Does anyone expect them to relinquish the honor simply because it’s their bad luck the recognition took place during Donald Trump’s unfortunate presidency?

But even if it’s unfair to expect someone to sacrifice a deserved honor over political principles, there is another largely untested side to the argument: Could the public effect of boycotting a reprehensible government far outweigh the individual sacrifice?

Actress Natalie Portman’s decision not to turn up to receive the Genesis Prize may not be the best test case for this. Without even asking whether she is a deserving recipient, it should be clear that the Genesis Prize is nothing more than a tawdry PR wheeze by a group of oligarchs who have far too much money than they could ever need and are trying to use a tiny fraction of it to buy respectability.

The real question we should be asking is why any respectable person agrees to play along with the charade of the “Jewish Nobel.”

Portman initially was happy to, so what she actually thinks is less important. Even if the statement put out by her publicists accurately conveys her thoughts now, as a famous actor she is at a disadvantage. Anyone who has seen her play a variety of roles will project onto her whatever image they wish. It may be unfair to her, but that is the price paid for success in her chosen profession.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, April 15, 2018.
Gali Tibbon/AP

However, the fact her statement was carefully phrased to distinguish between her love and connection to Israel and Netanyahu and the actions of his government, will resonate.

Netanyahu and Portman have basically just one thing in common: They are two of the three most recognized Israeli citizens in the world (together with Gal Gadot). Celebrity has its uses and its vulnerabilities. Portman could have announced she was relinquishing her Israeli identity – after all, she has chosen to live her life in the United States anyway. Instead, she announced she was just boycotting Netanyahu. Not a victory for BDS but "BBDS." And unlike BDS, this could actually catch on.

As a tool for influencing Israeli policy, the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement was always a nonstarter. Most decent people, no matter how much they hated Israel’s current policies, could easily spot the moral fallacy of singling out only one country in the world and tarring it with one brush.

Even many of those who initially believed in it as a nonviolent method of protest were dismayed by the way BDS activists tried to bully not just Israelis, but non-Israeli Jews, as well to recanting any connection to the Jewish state.

And besides, beyond pressuring a handful of musicians not to perform in Israel, BDS failed in 13 years to cause Israel even a dent – while the Palestinian issue at the same time slipped down the international agenda. The only thing BDS has succeeded in doing has been to feed the siege mentality that Israel’s right-wing politicians are so eager to maintain.

BDS is not the only boycott campaign launched in the hope of pressuring Israel that completely backfired. The same happened with the attempt to boycott the settlements that was in vogue a few years ago.

Boycotting just the settlements, not Israel within its pre-1967 borders, makes sense as a headline. And it certainly makes moral sense. Unlike BDS.

But actually implementing such a boycott is far from straightforward. Not attending public events at settlements is pretty easy. Few such events are held at which foreign guests are invited, and these are usually for ideological right-wing participants. But what about the many of us who would like to boycott settlements but have close family relatives living there? Should our political beliefs mean we shun our brothers and sisters with whom we have a deep political disagreement, and never go to their homes or attend their moments of rejoicing and mourning?

Neither is a consumer boycott of products manufactured on settlements so simple. Few products are clearly labeled as being made across the Green Line. Many companies have offices and facilities on either side of the pre-1967 border. And many of the Israeli-owned factories in the settlements’ industrial zones have an overwhelmingly Palestinian workforce. Does it make sense to boycott them and jeopardize those jobs? Some products, especially furniture, are actually made by Palestinian-owned companies, and then marketed under Israeli labels. Should we be boycotting them as well?

Walk down the aisles of any Israeli supermarket and you'll find it extremely hard to point out the settlement-made products. With the exception perhaps of the wine section, where you can easily spot the labels of West Bank wineries. (And those from the Golan, should they be boycotted too?) I’ve spoken with the owners of some of the West Bank wineries, who claim that whenever there’s talk of a settlement boycott, they see a spike in sales as right-wing connoisseurs make solidarity purchases. By all means, don’t buy settlement wine and olive oil as a personal choice. But as a means of political pressure, a boycott of the settlements is totally ineffective.

So, would a Bibi boycott do any better?

For a start, it’s relatively simple to implement. All it would take is for more Israelis to stay away from events where Netanyahu is speaking and for prominent visiting non-Israelis – especially representatives of Jewish communities – to drop the photo-op with the prime minister from their schedule. It would quickly have a cumulative effect as more people do it.

There are a couple of moral issues to address. First, isn’t boycotting Netanyahu the man also boycotting the 52 percent of Israelis who voted for parties in his governing coalition?

The answer to that is simple. Israel is a parliamentary democracy (within the pre-1967 borders) and you vote for parties who after the election get together in a coalition. The fact Netanyahu has tried to create a “L’état, C’est Moi” atmosphere around his leadership doesn’t mean it has to be so. He is a democratically elected leader but has no personal mandate from the voters, only from the Knesset – and that can be lifted tomorrow if 61 lawmakers decide to nominate a different prime minister.

A more pertinent issue is whether boycotting Netanyahu will deepen the divisions within Israeli society and among Israel-supporters abroad.

Once again, we only have to look to Netanyahu himself for an answer. The master of “divide and rule” has done everything to exploit and widen the cracks between Israelis and Jews. It could hardly be argued that boycotting the splitter will make things worse.

The only issue that matters is whether such a boycott would achieve anything. Could it have an effect on Israeli policies or on voters in a future election?

Israelis love to be admired and, knowing this, Netanyahu has in recent years relentlessly played up the receptions he receives abroad as proof of him being a successful leader.

He mentions his meetings with other world leaders in nearly every speech, while his election broadcasts featured footage of standing ovations overseas (including splicing the soundtrack of applause from one of his addresses to Congress onto images of him speaking at the United Nations to make it seem as if he was getting a rapturous reception there as well).

In his trips abroad, Netanyahu moves in bubbles of admiration such as the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, where he ensures he speaks at prime time back home. It’s not a myth: he can be an excellent performer and there are audiences who truly admire him. But the fact there are equally large, if not larger, pro-Israel constituencies that detest him is rarely brought home to Israeli viewers.

That may be about to change, and the hysterical response of some Likud ministers to Portman’s snub is proof that they realize how important it is for the party that Netanyahu continue to be seen as a powerful figure abroad. One of Likud’s old slogans was “When Netanyahu talks, the world listens.”

Interestingly, right-wing ministers who have already detached themselves from Netanyahu – most notably his former aides Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – have remained silent over the Portman affair. It’s one thing to disagree with Netanyahu the politician. It’s another to feel that any association with him taints you. For some people, it seems, he is reaching that level.

Boycotting Netanyahu rather than Israel is not an entirely new tactic. Portman invented nothing. She was preceded by bereaved Israeli parents who refused to attend a memorial event with him; by Democratic lawmakers who stayed away from his Congress address in 2015; and by Jewish Diaspora leaders, who would not attend a meeting with him last year after he abandoned the Western Wall egalitarian prayer agreement.

All these people have a more principled position than Portman, who didn’t mind being tainted by the Genesis Prize but wouldn’t share a stage with Netanyahu. But in our world, the actions and words of a Hollywood star count more than those of principled people.

For most people, Portman and Netanyahu are not ordinary human beings. They are both brands. And the most dangerous thing for a brand is to become toxic. A country is a brand as well. Netanyahu has succeeded to a large degree in merging his own brand with that of Israel. It is only to be expected that those who care about the country will begin to make greater efforts to distinguish between them – further toxifying Brand Netanyahu in the process.

It won’t be surprising if we soon see more Israelis, non-Israeli Jews and people like Portman – who combine the multiple conflicted identities of Israel and the Diaspora – boycotting Netanyahu. Especially if in a few months he gets indicted and insists on remaining in office, tarnishing his legitimacy as prime minister.

If celebrities are good at one thing, it’s spotting a trend and enhancing it by example. The Bibi boycott may turn out to be surprisingly effective.