Natalie Portman’s decision to withdraw from the Jerusalem ceremony to mark her acceptance of the $2 million Genesis Prize is, not to put too fine a point on it, a very big deal. Portman is a top tier Hollywood star, an unusually admired and respected Tinsel Town celebrity, a prominent spokesperson for women and a liberal Zionist with credentials to spare. Her statement on Friday clarifying that her objections are limited to Benjamin Netanyahu rather than Israel as a whole was an effort in damage control, far too late to prevent Portman from becoming a new poster girl for the anti-Zionist left and the BDS movement, a treacherous Jew for official Israel and the Jewish right - and a vexing trigger for soul-searching for everyone in between.
In this social media age of instant martyrdom and/or immediate firing squad, Portman’s reliance on nuance is almost touchingly naive. Focusing on her distaste on Netanyahu may mollify many Israelis and Jews who share her distaste for the prime minister, but won’t necessarily blunt the overall impact of her decision to boycott the Genesis Prize ceremony. Because of who and what she is, Portman’s move symbolizes, and might actually accelerate, the already significant parting of ways between Israel and the American liberal left, especially its large Jewish component.
It is not only Portman’s celebrity prominence that makes her decision to spurn the Genesis Prize so dramatic. The Israeli-born Black Swan is no Roger Waters, who has embraced the whole gamut of anti-Israeli propaganda, nor the New Zealand singer Lorde, spooked by BDS supporters earlier this year into cancelling her Israeli gig. From assisting Alan Dershowitz at Harvard University with his unabashedly partisan book “A Case for Israel” all the way to accepting Israeli government funding for her Amos Oz-based film “A Tale of Love and Darkness” Portman has been identified, if anything, as a warm if sometimes critical defender of the country in which she was born. She was seen as a Zionist apologist by the radical left, a celebrity draw for many Jewish organizations, a hasbara asset for an Israeli right willing to overlook her transgressions – and as a beacon of balance for troubled liberal supporters of the Jewish state.
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The typically hysterical reaction of headline-grabbing Israeli ministers and lawmakers, who couldn’t wait for clarifications from Portman before branding her an enemy of the Jewish state, reflected the growing disconnect between the powers that be in Jerusalem and the bulk of Israel-supporting Jews overseas. Local bozo and Likud Knesset Member Oren Hazan called for her citizenship to be revoked, while Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Sarah Palin wannabe Miri Regev, aka Netanyahu’s minister of culture, portrayed Portman as a gullible naïf taken in by Hamas propaganda. On a day in which pictures of a 15-year old boy gunned down in the Gaza demonstrations sparked worldwide condemnation, the Israeli overkill on Portman could only take a bad situation and, as is often the case, make it much worse.
Still, one wonders what has changed since December of last year, when Portman gushingly accepted the Genesis Prize in the first place. A cursory glance at Google would have informed her that the same Netanyahu whose “horrific and racist” statements she condemned after the 2015 elections is the traditional default central speaker at the awards ceremony. A closer look would have told her that the original funders of the prize, co-sponsored by both the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, are three Russian oligarchs with close ties to Vladimir Putin, whose Alfa Bank has been mentioned in connection with the ongoing investigation of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia.
In fact, on the very same Friday that Portman issued her clarification, the three billionaires filed their second defamation suit in Washington D.C. against their inclusion in Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier as Trump-Putin go-betweens. In a series of exposes published by Franklin Foer in Slate in late 2016, it was even alleged that internet specialists had uncovered a concealed connection between the computer servers at Trump Tower in Manhattan and those at Alfa Bank headquarters in Moscow.
Three things do seem to have changed in the five months since the Genesis Prize Committee, headed by Natan Sharansky and including many other prominent personalities, reportedly backed away from bestowing the so-called Jewish Nobel Prize on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg, for fear of her critical comments on Trump, transferring it to the seemingly safer choice of Portman instead. The first is the unrest in Gaza that most Israelis may view as a manifestation of Hamas terror but which much of the world, sees as a proof of Jerusalem’s callout and often brutal policies towards the Palestinians. The second is the government’s handling of African asylum seekers, including Netanyahu’s infamous reneging on the deal worked out with the United Nations. The third is the #MeToo movement that has galvanized many Hollywood celebrities, including Portman, to enter the political arena, possibly radicalizing them in the process.
In January, Portman not only dressed in black in an act of female solidarity, she dramatically strayed from Golden Globes etiquette by mentioning the “all-male” nominees for the Best Director prize she was awarding. A few weeks later she railed against “sexual terrorism” in Hollywood and said she had 100 stories of harassment to tell. She and other women “won’t be silenced any more”, Portman said, a vow that she has now expanded, apparently, to include her well-known objections to Netanyahu and his policies towards the Palestinians.
It is one thing for Portman to courageously oppose to BDS and to reaffirm her allegiance to being “critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation” as she wrote on Friday; it is quite another for her to enrage many of her left leaning #MeToo colleagues by seemingly “endorsing” Netanyahu at the Genesis Prize ceremony. The prime minister is reviled in Portman’s circles not only because of his incendiary statements and anti-Palestinian policies but most of all by virtue of his guilt by association with Trump, the Big Satan for much of the women’s movement.
Despite her effort to diminish the significance of her move, Portman is like a canary in the coal mine for liberal supporters of Israel everywhere. Her decision dovetails with, and could very well deepen, the growing disaffection of the Democratic left from Trump-toting Israel and its policies. It could jolt many Israel-supporting liberal Jews, who have hitherto kept their opposition to Netanyahu and his policies to themselves, to speak up, perhaps to cross the line into pro-boycott agitation altogether. Thus, the panic radiated by Israeli government ministers as well as the embarrassed silence of Jewish organizations in the U.S. are telltale signs that Portman, despite her protestations, has touched a very raw nerve.