Natalie Portman has announced that she will not travel to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize, informally known as “the Jewish Nobel,” an award in the past given to the likes of artist Anish Kapoor, violinist Itzhak Perlman, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and actor-director Michael Douglas.
By taking this public stance at this time, Portman misses a great opportunity to express directly her opposition to Israeli government policies (which I totally share) in the land of her birth and exposes herself as at best a naïve, stumbling activist or at worst an utter hypocrite.
The Genesis Prize Foundation says its award, which typically comes with a $1 million payout but in Portman’s case will be double that (it’s still not clear if Portman will be offered or accept the cash prize), “honors individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement along with their commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.”
Had Portman gone to Israel and used her newfound platform as an international movie star and a prizewinner, Portman could have indeed challenged and inspired several generations of Jews — in Israel and abroad — to commit to Jewish values and the Jewish people. Many opponents of Israel’s right-wing government fervently believe that its policies toward its minority populations and neighboring Gaza and the West Bank are in direct violation of Jewish values, as well as simply and practically misguided.
By declining to visit her homeland and thus putting herself in the uncomfortable company of celebrity clowns such as Roger Waters as well as elements of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Portman thus trivializes her own politics and pretty much removes herself from the vociferous public debate in Israel over the direction of state policy.
Even more than this, however, and where I believe Portman has most unfortunately stumbled, is the hypocrisy of her stand in this matter. Like many Jews in and outside of Israel, Portman doesn’t like the current Israeli administration and its policies. That shouldn’t automatically mean, however, that she should boycott the country and the awards ceremony.
While I don’t know Natalie Portman and her views about American politics, I think it’s a pretty good guess that she is opposed to the current occupant of the White House and his administration’s policies. Will she therefore boycott any award ceremonies in the United States as long as Donald Trump (or, heaven forbid, Mike Pence) is president? Will she leave the U.S. and not set foot back here until a Democrat sits in the Oval Office? She did, after all, live as an expatriate in France for several years in the past decade or so.
And speaking of France — and Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, Austria, and even Germany — will Portman also boycott her own travel (and honors acceptances) to all nations that to various extents have implemented anti-immigrant policies and other aspects of “illiberal democracy”? If not, why then pick on only Israel?
The most effective protest Natalie Portman can make against the policies of the Netanyahu government are to speak out against them in one of the very few nations remaining on Earth that at least still pays lip service to the free expression of political speech.
Netanyahu and his cronies are of course “illiberal” democrats themselves, guilty of attempting to suppress political speech by the opposition, in very much the same manner that American president Donald Trump has been doing since January 20, 2017. But Natalie Portman is not one who could easily be censored. Portman — who is a dual citizen of Israel and the U.S — holds the rare status that comes with privilege and entitlement that would make her immune to any attempts by the Israeli government to silence her.
The Harvard University-trained Portman has portrayed a superhero in the “Thor” movies and a revolutionary activist in “V for Vendetta.” What we need from Natalie Portman now is to stop acting for a moment and to be herself, to exercise her potential to be a brilliant, educated, talented, superhuman spokesperson for Jewish and democratic values.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor of the Forward.