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How a press release from the pro-Israel Genesis Foundation gave the BDS movement its biggest "win" to date
Ed note: Since the Natalie Portman story broke three weeks ago, we’ve been working hard to get to the bottom of what actually happened. Yesterday, the Genesis Prize Foundation issued a press release that again cast blame on Portman, charging that the statements made by Portman and her representatives have given ammunition to the BDS movement. While some key questions remained unanswered, we feel it's important to fill you in on what we've learned thus far and why we’ve come to believe that many on the right, left and in the media misinterpreted the entire episode. Produced with assistance from Danielle Berrin of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.
The Timeline: On the afternoon of April 19th, mere hours after Israel completed its celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), the Genesis Prize Foundation ignited a media firestorm when it issued a press release explaining that Natalie Portman was backing out of attending its upcoming award ceremony in Jerusalem. Genesis claimed a representative of Portman notified the foundation that “recent 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.”
The language -- implying Portman was backing out in political protest -- rippled across the media landscape, sparking an international controversy that earned Portman praise in some circles and condemnation in others. Most notably, it earned Portman the imprimatur of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), which calls for international isolation of Israel and omits any reference to a two-state solution in its literature.
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From across the political spectrum, journalists, pundits and politicians rushed to weigh in on Portman’s decision to publicize her critique of Israel. One columnist at Breitbart, Caroline Glick, wrote, “Given the use Portman routinely makes of her Israeli pedigree, many were astounded that Portman chose the occasion of Israel’s 70th Independence Day last Thursday to pounce on Israel.”
It appears, however, that Portman never made the decision to go public; Genesis did. After all, if an Oscar-winning actress with millions of social media followers wants to take a political stand, she doesn't need a foundation to issue a press release on her behalf.
In fact, the next day the actress took matters into her own hands, citing in an Instagram post that her position had been “mischaracterized by others” and that she chose not to attend the ceremony because she “did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech.” In a thinly veiled reference to the Genesis press release, the actress implored: “Please do not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own.”
According to sources involved in the exchange, Portman’s team originally asked Genesis to cite a scheduling conflict, allowing her to back out of the Jerusalem ceremony quietly. So how did Portman wind up becoming publicly associated with the BDS movement? The answer lies in the nebulous and selective wording of the Genesis press release.
The big question we’ve been trying to figure out: Why did Genesis decide to release a statement that -- intentionally or carelessly -- resulted in Portman being cast as bait for the BDS movement? Absent this press release, the entire episode might have passed with little incident.
Last year, Genesis agreed to cancel its award ceremony at the request of its 2017 honoree Anish Kapoor, an artist, activist and refugee advocate, who felt it was inappropriate to hold a festive event while the Syrian civil war raged just beyond Israel’s border. A Portman source questioned why Genesis couldn’t have accommodated her withdrawal in a similar manner.
On April 24th, we reported that Genesis knew of Portman’s concerns regarding the Prime Minister’s attendance and attempted to reassure her that she didn’t have to sit next to him or have him present her with the award. According to a source, “In the end Portman insisted Netanyahu not be invited to the event.” Genesis felt that was a demand they “couldn’t accept both for contractual and moral reasons. A bridge too far.”
Yesterday, the Genesis Prize Foundation published a lengthy press release in which it emphasized the following:
- “Prior to accepting the Genesis Prize, Ms. Portman was made aware that the Genesis Prize is a partnership between our foundation, the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, and The Jewish Agency for Israel. Moreover, we informed Ms. Portman that the Prime Minister of Israel presents the Genesis Prize and also delivers a keynote address at the award ceremony.”
Genesis was clearly aware in the weeks leading up to its initial press release that a key concern of Portman’s related to Netanyahu’s involvement in the event. Had the press release specifically stated Portman’s issue with the attendance of Prime Minister Netanyahu and not cherry-picked a vague sentence about “recent events in Israel,” it is less likely Portman would have been accused of supporting a broad boycott of the Jewish state. According to one clued-in source, “Genesis opted to throw Portman under the bus in an effort to protect their partner Netanyahu from public embarrassment.”
Before issuing the press release, a Genesis source claimed it gave Portman’s team “adequate time” to participate in crafting the statement, but there are conflicting accounts as to whether Portman or her team had a chance to review the press release before it went out. Portman’s team declined to respond to our inquiries on the record. Two sources familiar with Portman’s camp suggested the actress did not see the press release prior to publication, with one accusing Genesis of misquoting their side. But a Genesis source argued, “They did see the release. The quotes are 100 percent accurate” (neither side was willing to provide documentation). When asked why there was no mention of Portman’s objections regarding Netanyahu, the Genesis source claimed that legally they could only quote from written communications.
It remains unclear what actually led Portman to cancel her participation and what changed from the time she first accepted the award. We also don’t know whether Portman would still have attended if the Prime Minister opted not to. An even bigger question is why Portman herself has been reluctant to share her side of the story, particularly surrounding the process leading up to the press release.
Until Portman agrees to answer the question of what changed, pundits will argue she should have kept her commitment. As the Jewish Journal's David Suissa wrote a few weeks ago, "If Portman was so concerned about appearing to endorse Netanyahu, she had no business saying yes in the first place. But once she said yes, she had no business saying no."
Why this matters: Though all parties involved bear some responsibility for this controversy, the Genesis press release is what ultimately turned this into a “BDS" story. In a way, this episode is about more than a Hollywood actress or a ‘Jewish Nobel Prize.’ It highlights how some in the pro-Israel camp have at times inadvertently or perhaps intentionally -- either for fundraising or political gain -- given undue publicity and imputed unearned influence to the BDS movement they claim to oppose. If Genesis wanted to avoid giving BDS its biggest “win” to date, they could have let Natalie Portman explain for herself.
ISRAEL AT 70 -- The Israeli Embassy announced that Vice President Mike Pence will be the guest speaker at Ambassador Ron Dermer's Independence Day Celebration on Monday in Washington, DC.
JERUSALEM EMBASSY WATCH -- "U.S. Embassy In Tel Aviv Prepares A Monday Move To Jerusalem" by Sasha Ingbar: "Near the office, American and Israeli flags line the streets... The Friends of Zion Museum has plastered buildings and buses with more than 150 billboards in support of President Trump. And on Twitter, the Tel Aviv handle @USEmbassyTA has gone dormant and @usembassyjlm has taken its place... The State Department told NPR that it will be updating government maps to denote Jerusalem with a star, in line with its designation of other capital cities." [NPR]
From State Department talking points -- by Nahal Toosi: “We are not taking a position on final status issues like the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. The Administration is firmly committed to pursuing a lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians that promises a brighter future for both. The President’s team continues to work diligently on a plan that we intend to release when the time is right.” [Playbook]
-- "Trump Moving Embassy to Jerusalem Serves U.S. Interests and Not Part of Israeli 'Give-and-take', U.S. Official Says" by Amir Tibon and Noa Landau: "A senior American official said on Friday that the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, set to take place next week, wasn't made as part of a "give and take" with Israel, but rather based on "the interests of the United States." ... The official added that "there are people who are happy with the decision and people who are unhappy, but it's far too early to measure reactions. We are convinced this decision creates a platform and an opportunity to promote a peace process based on realities, not fantasies. We're sure it will create greater stability in the long run."" [Haaretz]
HEARD LAST NIGHT -- Trump at a campaign rally in Indiana: "Next week we will finally open the American embassy in Jerusalem."
HAPPENING ON SUNDAY -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will host a reception for U.S. dignitaries, and foreign diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to mark the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who are part of a presidential delegation attending Monday's ceremony, are listed as participants at Netanyahu's event. Before heading to Israel, Kushner will travel to Texas on Friday to promote his signature prison reform legislation.
JARED INSIDER -- "Kushner shares Jerusalem embassy spotlight" by Annie Karni: "When it comes to the historic opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, a move Kushner championed behind the scenes, the president’s son-in-law will be on the ground as an attendee of the U.S. delegation, not as its leader... “Jared Kushner has up until now had control of the Israeli-Palestinian file,” said Martin Indyk... "The fact that Jared Kushner is not leading the delegation is going to be noticed.” ... The White House said that Kushner is the one seeking it — and that his office originally reached out to Pompeo asking him to attend the embassy opening." [Politico]
"Jared Kushner’s New West Wing Life Involves Keeping His Head Down—and a Little Kim Kardashian" by Emily Jane Fox: "The trip is also something of a return to the forefront for Kushner, who has been mostly out of the public eye in recent months... Ivanka Trump’s attendance was less expected, but it was a strategic decision, according to a person close to the couple. The embassy opening is very important to President Trump, this person said, and Ivanka’s presence suggests that this is his achievement; both aides are representing the boss back home. “This is the president’s accomplishment, not a Jared accomplishment. This wasn’t a Jared initiative that Jared is basking in.” [VanityFair]
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IRAN DEAL -- "Trump vows US 'will not be walked into an Iran deal' at next month's North Korea summit" by Samuel Chamberlain: "President Trump told supporters in Indiana Thursday evening that the U.S. would not agree to a redux of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal when he sits down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month. "I think it's going to be a very big success," Trump told a rally in Elkhart, "and if it isn't, it isn't. We're not going to be walked into an Iran deal where the negotiator, [then-Secretary of State] John Kerry, refused to leave the table."" [FoxNews]
David Brooks writes... "Donald Trump’s Lizard Wisdom: I have doubts about the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuke agreement. But I do know that the argument that many of the Obama people relied on as predicate for the deal is wrong. They argued that, deep down, the Iranian leaders are worldly sophisticates who, if we just gave them the welcome mat, would want to join our community of nations... Maybe Trump is right to intuit that the only right response to a monster is to enclose it... Please don’t take this as an endorsement of the Trump foreign policy... But there is some lizard wisdom here. The world is a lot more like the Atlantic City real estate market than the G.R.E.s." [NYTimes]
"Why Netanyahu Really Wanted Trump to Scuttle the Iran Deal" by Bernard Avishai: "Trump’s now overt support for a military threat may encourage Netanyahu and Lieberman to see preëmption as the preferred course... Netanyahu may feel that he has an American green light for a high-stakes gamble: a conventional air war, already unofficially underway. Netanyahu may hope for a limited war, with no ground invasion, in which Syria and Hezbollah are cowed, Russia is satisfied that Assad remains in place, and Iranian leaders, knowing that the cards are stacked against them, dismantle their forces in Syria." [NewYorker]
TALK OF THE REGION -- "Saudi Arabia should ‘come out of the closet’ and help fight Iran in Syria, Israel says” by Tom O'Connor:“Israel has called on Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-aligned Gulf Arab states to help take on their mutual foe, Iran "Who supported Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran? Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. So I think it's time for those moderate countries to 'come out of the closet' and start talking openly. Just like there's an axis of evil, it's time for the Middle East to also have an axis of moderate countries," [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman said.” [Newsweek]
"The Israel-Iran cold war is getting hotter" by Barak Ravid: "As an Israeli official told me, "Unlike in Lebanon, this time we are going to nip it in the bud." [Axios]
Why Iran and Israel Are Clashing in Syria" by Sewell Chan: “It’s not a proxy war. It’s a direct war and that’s what makes it particularly dangerous,” said Martin S. Indyk... “Israel and Iran have been in a cold war for maybe 20 years now, but now it’s out in the open: direct, kinetic engagement between the forces, with Iranian casualties mounting. The potential for escalation is much greater now than before.” ... Mr. Indyk called the tensions “a car with an accelerator and no brake.” Asked where the situation goes from here, he replied: “Only to a bad place.” [NYTimes]
"Hezbollah’s ‘Warriors of God’ Brace for a Showdown With Israel" by Alex Rowell: “The chances of an escalation, miscalculation, [or] accident that could suck Lebanon into the conflict are worryingly high,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council... “If Israel attacks Hezbollah in Lebanon, or if Hezbollah helps Iran by attacking Israel from Lebanon, then the large-scale war for which we have been bracing for 12 years will be on,” Blanford told The Daily Beast... Neither side [Iran and Israel] appears willing to compromise at this stage and there is no third party—including the Russians—that is willing to mediate a solution or has the leverage to do so.” [DailyBeast]
"As tensions flare with Iran, Israel embraces Russia" by Maxim A. Suchkov: "Netanyahu understands he can’t sway Russia from its position opposing the US exit from the nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Therefore... Netanyahu seeks to expose the “malignant nature of the Iranian regime” and thus legitimize Israeli efforts at countering it. The latter is a hard sell with the Kremlin, but Netanyahu hopes that there is a chance that if Russia has heard the essence of Israeli concerns, Putin would be (a) more persuasive with Iran on its actions in Syria and (b) have a higher tolerance level for Israeli’s actions in Syria, and perhaps against Hezbollah in Lebanon." [Al-Monitor] After Israeli PM Netanyahu met Putin, Russia says it won't sell advanced missile defenses to Syria [BusinessInsider]
In an excerpt from his new memoir, Sen. McCain discusses his longstanding opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Vladimir Putin is an evil man, and he is intent on evil deeds, which include the destruction of the liberal world order that the United States has led and that has brought more stability, prosperity and freedom to humankind than has ever existed in history. He is exploiting the openness of our society and the increasingly acrimonious political divisions consuming us. He wants to widen those divides and paralyze us from responding to his aggression. He meddled in one election, and he will do it again because it worked and because he has not been made to stop. Putin’s goal isn’t to defeat a candidate or a party. He means to defeat the West.” [WSJ]
TOP TALKER: John Kelly says Trump is 'embarrassed' by Russia probe -- by Richard Gonzales and John Burnett: "On whether the Russia probe is a cloud hanging over this White House: "It may not be a cloud but certainly the President is, you know, somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in, it's kind of like you know Bibi Netanyahu is here and he who's under investigation himself and it's like, you know, you walk in and you know the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing." [NPR] Netanyahu, Trump Discuss Joint Legal Troubles Amid Corruption Allegations Back Home [Haaretz]
LongRead: “‘What Happened to Alan Dershowitz?’ How a liberal Harvard professor became Trump’s most distinguished defender on TV, freaked out his friends and got the legal world up in arms” by Evan Mandery: “Dershowitz speaks openly of having been shunned by friends and condemned by relatives since then—even, he told me, at his family’s recent Passover Seder, where his grandson and nephew urged him to dial down his public defense of the president. He’s been harshly critiqued by former Harvard colleagues and within the small, tightly entwined community of civil libertarians.”
“Dershowitz’s supporters see his position on Trump as consistent with the rest of his career. “If you look objectively at what he’s doing, he’s applying neutral civil liberties principles to Trump, as he would to anyone else,” said Harvey Silverglate, a civil rights lawyer in Boston and a longtime friend of Dershowitz’sIn this telling, Dershowitz is a still point in a turning world, a zealot for neutral civil liberties so dedicated to his principles that he’s willing to defend even people whose politics could undermine or destroy them.”
“His clients and advisees have included Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheldon Adelson, Natalie Portman, Mark Rich, Saul Bellow, David Mamet and, as of last week, Harvey Weinstein, who he is aiding in an effort to recover personal emails from his former company. Dershowitz has recounted many times that when he had dinner at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017, he was visited at his table by Trump himself, who “started schmoozing” and courting his vote for 2020" [PoliticoMag]
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BUSINESS BRIEFS: Daniel Loeb’s activist hedge fund Third Point LLC is in talks with investment banks about launching a “blank check” company that would raise money in an initial public offering to pursue an acquisition [Reuters] KKR Co-Founder Henry Kravis Expresses Optimism About U.S. Economy, Fed Moves [Bloomberg] Goodbye email? Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield draws his vision of future workplace productivity and communication [WSJ] Google to Acquire Israeli Cloud Migration Startup Velostrata [Calcalist]
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"Rubin... has an off-the-cuff Mark Cuban vibe and wears the same blue button-down, jeans and black sneaks to Game 4 that he did hours earlier inside an office filled with photos of other celebs and his appearance on “Undercover Boss.” He even hit up baseball’s All-Star Game last year with [Bob] Kraft and [Joel] Embiid. “By the way, Joel and Robert love each other. Meek and Robert love each other,” Rubin said. “I love to be able to foster those relationships.” [AP]
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DESSERT -- Miami's Zak the Baker posts on Instagram: "Big News: Deli Out, Old Cafe In........ 3 more weeks to eat hot smoked pastrami, then get yourself ready for the return of the Tuna Melt. Excited to bring the whole ZTB crew back under one roof. CHOMP!" [Pic]
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