Natalie’s Choice

It wasn't the American-Israeli actress who ruined the Genesis Prize celebrations. It was Netanyahu and his government

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Natalie Portman poses at the premiere for "Annihilation" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February
Natalie Portman poses at the premiere for "Annihilation" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., FebruaryCredit: \ MARIO ANZUONI/ REUTERS

The winner of this year’s Genesis Prize, the American-Israeli actress Natalie Portman, announced she will not attend the award ceremony for the prize in light of “recent events” in Israel. Due to her announcement, the prize committee canceled the ceremony, but not the prize – worth $1 million, which will be donated to charitable organizations of her choosing. But businessman Morris Kahn will not contribute the $1 million he had decided to add to the prize to be distributed by Portman.

Portman’s announcement led to severe criticism from government representatives, who said she supports the boycott movement against Israel. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev accused Portman of “falling like ripe fruit into the hands of the supporters of BDS.” Regev said she was sorry to hear the “Jewish actress who was born in Israel has joined those who tell the successful, wondrous rebirth of Israel as a tale of darkness and darkness.” 

This is an intentional misreading of Portman’s protest. First, she is not just a “Jew born in Israel,” she is an Israeli citizen. Her choice not to attend is an important political statement. As opposed to many Israeli artists who prefer to conform – singer Dana Berger canceled her appearance at the alternative Memorial Day ceremony, and Efrat Gosh followed her – Portman is using her cultural standing to criticize Israeli policy.

Portman made it clear her decision does not come from her support for a boycott against Israel, but is intended as criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it seems the distinction between Netanyahu and Israel is not understood by too many in his cabinet, with Regev at the head. As was clear from the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, Netanyahu has managed to instill his dangerous outlook of “the state is me.”

Portman did the right thing when she reminded everyone that the state is not Netanyahu or his destructive policies. It is good that she reminded the world that there are many Israelis and Jews who oppose the right-wing government and who are obligated to criticize its policies.

The responses of Portman’s critics in Israel and those involved in the Genesis Prize reveal the problems of the institution of the prize, sometimes called the “Jewish Nobel Prize.” The chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation board of directors, Stan Polovets, explained that Portman was chosen because she “exemplifies the core traits of the Jewish character and values of the Jewish people.” But what is the “Jewish character?” Is there even such a “character?” And is someone who criticizes the Israeli policy less Jewish?

After Portman’s announcement, the Genesis Prize Foundation said: “The mission of the Genesis Prize is to create a space where we can cast politics aside and come together to appreciate Jewish accomplishments that continue to contribute so much to human civilization; to contemplate Jewish identity and values and what they mean in the 21st century; to strengthen the bond between the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora; and to celebrate pride in being Jewish, and – especially in this 70th anniversary year – in the State of Israel. We are disappointed that this year we will not be able to fulfill this mission in full.”

But Portman did not ruin the celebration – it was Netanyahu and his government, who are painting the achievements of the Jewish people in black and tainting the relationship between world Jewry and Israel.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel