When news first broke that Natalie Portman would not be attending the Genesis Prize ceremony in Israel, the internet exploded with commentary. What were her reasons? Was she joining the BDS movement (Portman had been a vocal critic of it in the past)? Was she cutting ties with Israel writ large?
Soon Portman released her statement. She was not endorsing BDS. She was not boycotting Israel writ large. She was specifically objecting to sharing a platform with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She urged her followers: "Please do not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own."
Everyone took a breath.
And then kept talking, as if Portman had never spoken.
In The Forward, Youssef Munayyer penned a column under the title "Actually, Natalie Portman, You ARE Practicing BDS." Portman’s express disclaimer that she wasn’t endorsing BDS was immaterial, in Munayyer’s view. It simply showed she didn’t understand what BDS was.
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- Natalie Portman's boycott of Netanyahu borders on anti-Semitism, Israeli minister says
From the opposite political stance Hen Mazzig basically agreed with Munayyer that Portman’s own words didn’t matter. He repeatedly accused Portman of refusing to visit Israel outright, despite the fact that Portman had never said anything of the sort.
And when reminded of that fact (and Portman’s explicit request that people not treat the words of others as her own), Mazzig resorted to citing the voices of others as having more credence than Portman’s own.
The image of men on the internet racing to tell a Harvard-educated woman that she doesn’t really comprehend her own expressly stated political position is striking, if not wholly surprising.
But what would happen if we took Portman at her word? What if we took seriously the radical idea that Portman knew of what she spoke?
Start with the Mazzigs of the world. Mazzig suggested to Portman that she should have come to Israel, accepted her prize, but used her platform to "speak your mind at the ceremony" and deliver her criticism of Netanyahu in public, to his face.
It is good to get Mazzig on the record favoring this sort of approach. I’m so old, I remember when Israel was banning people from entering the country because of the belief they’d use their time in the country to criticize it.
Now we know that coming to the Israel and using the platform of a prestigious Israeli prize to call out the Israeli government for betraying Jewish values and to stand up against "violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power" done in Israel’s name would be salutary and patriotic. One marvels at how goalposts shift.
Still, I confess that my initial reaction was much like Mazzig’s. I’ve often fantasized about what I would do if I had the opportunity to deliver a speech where Donald Trump was in the room as a captive audience. I dream about the striking rebuke I could deliver him, all the words and fury and frustration that I feel that he is so maddeningly insulated from but which are so essential to be expressed.
What an opportunity it would be, to have that platform! How could Portman throw hers away?
But of course, my dream ends when my speech ends. And so my dream does not include the next day’s microscopic parsing of every imprecision in my rhetoric, magnified and exploded and taken out of context. It does not envision the inevitable loss of control of my own narrative, as forces and movements and parties not mine forcibly conscript me into this or that political campaign or social trend. It certainly does not include the inevitable death threats.
The fact is, if I was given the opportunity to speak on a platform shared by Donald Trump, the impact would almost certainly not be what I dreamed of. And so, were actually I asked to give it, I’m not sure I’d say yes. At the very least, I’d have to think long and hard on the matter. And if I ultimately said no, I’d hardly be announcing a "boycott of America." There is much more to America than Donald Trump, just as there is much more to Israel than Bibi Netanyahu.
Portman is not washing her hands of Israel and she is not disassociating herself from it. Declining one forum of engagement does not equate to the systematic refusal to converse with the Israeli people as a whole.
Which brings us to the Munayyers.
Munayyer contends that BDS is simply a means of "sending a message" to the Israeli state, and "how one chooses to send the Israeli state the message is up to each individual person." Boycotts are, we’re often told, acts of individual conscience - and the choice not to engage with a particular institution, politician, or corporation lies well within the ambit of individual conscientious action that is an unremarkable part of ordinary political activism.
On one level, this is surely right. Even staunch critics of BDS surely can’t believe that any decision to disassociate from a particular company or speaker is an illegitimate political move. Just last year, after all, the right-wing Israel Group urged its followers to begin a divestment campaign against the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (for being too solicitous of Israel’s Arab minority) - presumably without thinking of themselves as endorsing the BDS movement.
Yet, even fervent backers of BDS should be willing to recognize that boycotts come with ethical peril - and the wider they swing, the more perilous they are.
It is one thing to say that a particular politician or a specific company stands beyond the pale, such that they cannot be productively engaged with until they alter their behavior. But when it is every politician, every company, every university, every artist, every film - at that point the message communicated becomes something different.
The (well, a) problem with BDS, as a movement, is not that there is something intrinsically objectionable to not wanting to share a stage with Bibi or not purchasing a Sodastream.
The problem is that BDS does not just cover Bibi or Sodastream. It covers the Anti-Defamation League and Jerusalem Open House and A Wider Bridge. It covers Moshe Halbertal and David Grossman and Ami Ayalon. It covers Tel Aviv University and it covers random middle schoolers who have questions about horses.
Time and again BDS has shown itself to be a train that has no brakes. Vagaries about targeting "institutions, not individuals" - often only honored in the breach regardless - serve as no limit when any every institution is found guilty and any affiliation is implicating.
Crossed with cousins like "anti-normalization" and "pinkwashing," BDS becomes a systemic and inescapable net ensnaring and excluding Israelis indiscriminately. Too often, it stretches even further and simply serves to exclude Jews-qua-Jews - anywhere, everywhere, in toto.
Persons who wish to laud Portman’s principled stand against Netanyahu would do well to absorb why she insists on separating it from BDS.
Israelis and Jews of a wide range of political views on Israel are well aware of where the BDS train has historically led - wholesale exclusion and fundamental delegitimization that sweeps wide in its reach and is indifferent to whom it catches. It is no wonder Portman wants no part in that label, and it is unsurprising that she has taken pains to disassociate herself from it.
Portman’s statement is tailored precisely to avoid the pitfalls that have made BDS such a destructive force. It is bounded and limited. It does not assert that simply being Israeli or an institution in Israel represents an irreparable taint. It has a particular objection to a particular governmental officer and limits itself accordingly, while expressly committing herself to engaging with other Israeli organizations.
As a result, it does not and could not support any sweeping refusal to associate with Israelis or marginalize Israeli voices, and it fits well within Portman’s history of standing up to those who demand such indiscriminate exclusion.
In a different context, Portman’s uncompromising insistence that she will keep engaging with Israeli organizations, keep traveling to Israel, and keep Israel close to her heart would make her a target for the antipathy of BDS supporters. One marvels (again) at how goalposts shift.
The heart of the feminist method, Christine Littleton once wrote, starts "with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us."
And indeed, what Portman has said about what she did and why she did it bears little relationship to what is being said about her.
But if we take the radical step of simply taking Natalie Portman seriously, well, there is no limit to things we might learn.