Actress Natalie Portman, a strong supporter of Israel, has come under vicious attack for criticizing that country’s leadership. She now joins the club of scholars, journalists, and political leaders who are vilified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his right-wing cohorts.
Portman was born in Jerusalem, and although her family left Israel when she was only three, she became fluent in Hebrew. She is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States.
While studying at Harvard, she became a research assistant for right-wing Zionist Alan Dershowitz. She directed and starred in a feature film presenting the Jewish side of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state.
So Portman is an unlikely candidate for vilification by conservative Jews. Here’s what happened.
Last November officials of the Genesis award, often referred to as Israel’s Nobel, announced that Portman had won this year’s prize. The award is partially funded by the prime minister’s office. In response Portman said, “I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage. They are crucial parts of who I am.”
Then in late April she refused to attend the Genesis award ceremony in Jerusalem. In an Instagram post, Portman wrote, “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu is a ultra right-winger who has ended all peace talks with Palestinians, overseen vicious attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, threatened war against Iran, and is facing numerous corruption investigations.
Portman’s boycott of the ceremony caught a lot of people off guard. “She was a strong supporter of Israel,” Rebecca Vilcomerson told me. “Her action really came as a surprise.” Vilcomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive organization with 15,000 dues paying members and 250,000 supporters. Vilcomerson applauded Portman’s principled stand.
The Jewish right wing, however, immediately began hyperventilating. Oren Hazan, a member of parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, advocated stripping Portman of her Israeli citizenship. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said her refusal to accept the award “has elements of anti-Semitism.” (He did not explain how Natalie Portman, a proud Jew, could be anti-Semitic.)
Ronny Perlman, a peace and human rights activist whom I contacted in Jerusalem, said such attacks have become commonplace in Israel’s increasingly conservative political atmosphere. “Every time someone criticizes the occupation [of Palestinian territory], they are accused of treason and some idiots demand stripping them of citizenship.”
Portman’s stand caused a furor, in part, because Israeli government policies are being sharply criticized in the United States and around the world.
Since late March, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza demonstrated on the border with Israel. Israeli soldiers fired at unarmed protesters, killing 45 and wounding 5500, according to UN sources. No Israelis were killed.
In early April right-wingers in Likud scuttled a plan that would have given legal status to some of the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers now living in Israel. Israeli right-wingers, like their U.S. counterparts, want to expel all undocumented workers living within their borders.
In her Instagram statement, Portman seemed to indirectly criticize those Israeli policies. “The mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”
Right-wing Jews also accused Portman of supporting the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). That movement calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, full equality for Palestinians living in Israel and the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their land.
It’s a decentralized movement and tactics vary. Students supporting BDS have called for universities to sell off stocks of companies investing in Israel. Other activists have organized boycotts of Israeli products.
The BDS movement is extremely controversial in Israel and in the American Jewish community because it has picked up support, particularly on college campuses. Critics charge that the BDS movement ignores Palestinian failures to seek peace, among other issues.
For example, the Reform Jewish Movement, which describes itself as favoring Israel living in peace with its neighbors, writes, “We deeply deplore efforts that blame Israel for the failure of the peace process or that seek to use economic actions against Israel, including singling out for divestment companies working in or doing business with Israel. These efforts are more likely to hinder rather than advance the peace process.”
Portman made clear she did not support BDS. “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.”
Jewish Voice for Peace does support BDS, explained Vilcomerson, because it’s an effective, nonviolent means to pressure the Israeli government. An international boycott helped get rid of the apartheid government in South Africa, for example.
“It’s a time-honored tactic used by social justice movements,” Vilcomerson said. “We would welcome Portman to be part of it.”
Objectively, Portman’s actions encouraged others to selectively boycott Israel. “The BDS movement created the atmosphere in which her action took place,” said Vilcomerson. “She did something very brave.”
I have a question to those who oppose BDS. Exactly what methods should critics of Israel use, given that both liberal and conservative governments have expanded settlements and failed to set conditions for a Palestinian state?
You can’t engage in armed struggle because that’s terrorism. You can’t throw rocks during demonstrations because that’s violent. You can’t hold peaceful demonstrations because that’s a cover for violence. You can’t boycott and divest because that’s an attack on all Jews. You can’t even refuse to accept an award because that’s anti-Semitic.
In reality, Netanyahu and many other Israeli politicians, don’t want to see any effective opposition that might end the Israeli occupation. That’s why Portman’s protest is so important.
My hat’s off to you, Natalie. Keep up the good work.
Foreign Correspondent, Reese Erlich·s syndicated column on international affairs appears every two weeks at 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy and the Mideast Crisis, will be published in 2018. Reprinted from 48Hills.