Natalie Portman’s announcement of her decision to boycott the Genesis Prize ceremony was a tremendous shot in the arm. Here it is, coming from the heights of glamor, from a lover of Israel like she is, Jewish, Hebrew-speaking, born in Israel, a citizen of Israel and a source of pride for Israel, who has a lot to lose. Not an anti-Semite or a fundamentalist, not extreme right or radical left, not Roger Waters, not even BDS. From smack in the middle, from the heart of the Jewish center: criticism of Israel, the Biblical “wounds of a friend,” even a kind of boycott.
While “leftist” Israeli artists are scared of far-right rapper “The Shadow” and especially of their own shadow, an artist of her caliber goes and makes a clear statement about Israel. Together with a conscience, a large helping of courage is required for such a step, especially in the face of Jewish, Zionist, ruthless Hollywood, which will neither forgive Portman nor forget.
Nor will the Israeli right wing forgive her for this: The minister of war (against the BDS movement), Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, was quick to publish a letter explaining the situation to Portman. What’s happening in Gaza is not because of us, it’s all because of Hamas. The usual propaganda of lies and nonsense, on the very day when Israeli army sharpshooters killed another 15-year-old in cold blood and the photo of Mohammed Ayoub bleeding in the sands of Gaza was made public around the world. It soon turned out that Erdan, like many others, was sure that the slaughter of protesters in Gaza was what lit the fire in Portman’s belly. But that was not the case.
Portman’s clarification blunted the force of the step she had taken: “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu,” she wrote. A great step forward and a small step backward. Netanyahu is indeed a problem, but he is not the problem over which Portman, as a person of good conscience and a Zionist, must make her voice heard. Netanyahu is Israel.
Portman has come a long way, not only between her first film and her Oscar, but also between the letter she published in the Harvard Crimson 16 years ago defending Israel and denying its apartheid conditions, and the step she took on Friday.
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The change in her, which has apparently taken place in many Jews, is good news, as is her courage. But the road is still long. Portman wrote that she would not come because of “violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.” Not one direct word about the original sin, the occupation.
Neither is Portman’s protest directed to the right address. It is self-protective to blame Netanyahu for everything. Like most liberal Jews (and Israelis), Portman considers Netanyahu the root of all evil. And what about his predecessors, those who sowed the seeds of destruction and killing in Gaza and in Lebanon, who imposed a cruel closure on Gaza, who strengthened the occupation in the West Bank and tripled the number of settlers – she shakes their hands, just not Netanyahu’s?
Portman’s media power is enormous. Friday morning her statement on Instagram already had 100,000 “likes.” The Jews breathed a sigh of relief, as did many Israelis. Portman is against BDS and against Netanyahu, but she continues to celebrate “Israeli food, books, art, cinema and dance.”
With all respect, Ms. Portman, Israeli food, dance and cinema are also tainted by the occupation to a greater or lesser extent. We are all to blame for it. The way to end it, which is the first and essential condition for making Israel a more just country, passes through courageous steps like the one you took, but they must address the core of the inferno and not just its edges; the focus of the cancer and not just its metastases. They must become practical steps, like those the BDS movement calls for. That’s the only way to shake Israel out of its complacency.
I humbly take my hat off to you for your courage, Ms. Portman. Your direction is the right one; without a tailwind from people like you, nothing here will change. But it’s just a start.