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What Does Natalie Portman’s Snub Mean For The Israeli Food World?

To a casual observer, Natalie Portman’s abdication from her position of prominent, staunch celebrity Israel supporter might seem shocking. To a more refined class of salariat types (like me, kind of) this position is nothing more than Miss Natalie expressing what she has always believed: that while she is a fan of vegan hummus and the Hilton beach, she cannot stand behind Netanyahu’s more ethically ambiguous political stances. You do you, Miss Natalie.

But first, some context.

Portman’s rejection of the Genesis Prize is certainly some kind of tipping point when it comes to Israeli-American relations. What ripple effect will it have in the food world? In her note, Portman wrote that she treasured “”Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema and dance.” I’m assuming this means some locally grown, ethically made, organically sourced shakshuka is still something she’ll look forward to digging into.

My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself. 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. By the same token, 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. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But 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. Please do not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own. This experience has inspired me to support a number of charities in Israel. I will be announcing them soon, and I hope others will join me in supporting the great work they are doing.

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Israel is ahead of the world when it comes to sustainable practices for food. Natalie Portman is a woman who is invested in sustainable living. After she sliced out dairy and eggs from her diet, those pesky adult acne breakouts vanished for good. After reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a hallmark in the genre of guilty white people who read nonfiction, she contacted him about lending her star power to a film based off the book. That film is due to hit theaters in San Francisco and New York (and nowhere else, probably) real soon, and rumor has it the movie just might turn you into a vegan.

Now everyone knows America is basically a cesspool of oligarchs who don’t give two hoots about the environment. Thanks to the Guardian, we now know everyone responsible for the decay of Mother Earth could fit on a Greyhound bus or two. At the standard glacial pace of typical bureaucrats, food companies are beginning to address this issue.

Moving at a slightly less glacial pace is that tiny Middle Eastern controversy magnet of Israel. When it comes to food, aside from boasting a wealth of irritatingly hipster-friendly vegan schwarma joints (complete with separate, differently priced menus for citizens and American tourists!), Israel also boasts a wealth of sustainability startups. There’s TIPA, which is working on compostable packaging. There’s Inspecto, a company busy “developing a nanoscale portable device for early detection of food contaminants in the field.” There’s Supermeat which is working on creating lab made ‘clean meat’ that won’t hurt animals it’s made from. Simply extract the cells from the chicken, grow em in a lab and put em in a burger. At least, that’s the hope. Then there are these kibbutzim dedicated to clean living.

Israel – one of the driest countries on the planet – is now making more freshwater than it needs, according to this article from the Scientific American. Israel is emerging as the world’s leader in water recycling. The World Food Prize went to Israeli Dr. Daniel Hillel for crafting a way to bring water to crops in arid and dry-land regions. Green Israel is a testament to the Israeli dedication to reducing food waste and green technology.

Portman’s decision to boycott the Genesis Prize is a complicated one. She hasn’t disavowed Israel. She hasn’t joined the ranks of BDS. She’ll still dig into hummus, falafel and some morning salat when the urge strikes. She hasn’t given up on her dream of a sustainable society. But now that dream seems to have changed. Israel might be innovating when it comes to sustainability, but to Portman, they’ve fallen short in other areas. Sustainability means caring about the future. Everyone’s future, from that of beleaguered overworked cows to undocumented immigrants.

So while Portman chows down on some sabich, she’s also busy holding Israel accountable. And that’s a good thing.

[Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected]


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