Natalie Portman's Boycott of Netanyahu Borders on anti-Semitism, Israeli Minister Says

Among widespread criticism from Israeli political sector includes Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who wrote Natalie Portman a letter with references to Star Wars imploring her 'not to let the dark side win'

Actor/Director Natalie Portman speaks to former Israeli President Shimon Peres at the premiere of her film, "A Tale of Love and Darkness", 2015
Dan Balilty / AP

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman’s decision not to accept the Genesis Prize and her statements on the matter border on anti-Semitism. Portman said she would not accept the award in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was scheduled to speak at the award ceremony to be held in Jerusalem.

“Natalie Portman has played into the hands of the worst of our haters and of the worst of the anti-Semites in the Middle East,” Steinitz said in an interview on Sunday with the Kan public broadcasting corporation. Portman had made a serious mistake and owes Israel an apology, the energy minister said.

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“Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. Boycotting Israel has elements of anti-Semitism,” Steinitz asserted, adding that Portman would not have boycotted China or India. Boycotting the ceremony because of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s participation practically constitutes a boycott of Israel, Steinitz asserted.

Internal Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan wrote a letter to Portman that made reference to the “Star Wars” movies in which she appeared. “Anakin Skywalker, a character you know well from Star Wars, underwent a similar process. He began to believe that the Jedi Knights were evil, and that the forces of the Dark Side were the protectors of democracy, “Erdan wrote. “I call upon you not to let the Dark Side win.”

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Portman announced on Friday that she would not accept the Genesis Prize, which is given annualy to a Jewish recipient who serves “as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement along with their commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.” It is accompanied by a $1 million cash award that recipients may direct to charities of their choice. This year’s prize was doubled to $2 million by Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn.

Natalie Portman's decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony in Israel because of Prime Minister Netanyahu's participation drew praise from left-wing Jewish groups over the weekend who lauded her choice as a self-professed supporter and citizen of Israel to criticize its government.

"A Tale of Love and Darkness" official trailer.

Michal Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, wrote on Twitter that "the Natalie Portman saga is the ultimate cautionary tale, because it demonstrates just how wrong this is. I’d wager that she cares about Israel and feels connected to Israel as much as any American Jew out there, yet she clearly has a problem with trends in Israel."

Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of J Street, expressed support for Portman, stating that "Natalie Portman has every right to listen to her conscience and express her concerns when it comes to the current policies and direction of Israel and its government -- concerns that are shared by so many American Jews and supporters of Israel around the world."

Ben Ami added that "Instead of responding to her decision with indignation, Israeli officials and supporters of Israel should respect this right and encourage Portman to speak out openly and honestly." A similar message was conveyed by Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the left-wing organization Trua'h, who thanked Portman "for this strong statement that support for Israel can and should include opposing the current government and its attacks on democracy and entrenchment of occupation."

Portman’s representative initially explained that “[r]ecent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel” and that “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.” As a result, the ceremony was cancelled. At the time, Portman did not specify which events caused her distress. 

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On Saturday, Portman posted a statement on Instagram saying that her decision did not indicate her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, but rather as an expression of criticism of the prime minister. “I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony," she said on Instagram. “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation." 

In the past, Portman had been critical of comments deemed anti-Arab that Netanyahu had made during the 2015 Knesset election campaign, which she said caused her distress as an Israeli citizen. “I find his racist comments horrific,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. Two years ago, Portman directed and starred in a film shot in Israel with Israeli actors based on Israeli writer Amos Oz’s book “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

Portman’s decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony sparked criticism from other cabinet members. On Friday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said: “I was sorry to hear that Natalie Portman has fallen like ripe fruit into the hands of supporters of BDS. Natalie, a Jewish actress who was born in Israel, joins those who relate to the story of the success and wonder of the establishment of Israel as a ‘tale of darkness and darkness.’” MK Oren Hazan, who is currently suspended from the Knesset, called for Interior Minister Arye Dery to revoke Portman's  Israeli citizenship.

“Natalie’s charismatic on-screen presence has touched the hearts of millions,” Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation, said when Portman was originally named as the prize's recipient. “Her talent, her commitment to social causes and her deep connection to her Jewish and Israeli roots are greatly admired. She exemplifies the core traits of the Jewish character and values of the Jewish people – persistence and hard work, pursuit of excellence, intellectual curiosity, and a heartfelt desire to contribute to making the world a better place. Without a doubt, she is a role model for millions of young Jews around the world.”