Jewish Journal

Don’t shoot the messenger: On Natalie Portman

When the Genesis Prize Foundation announced last November that the Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman would be the recipient of this year’s prize — often described as the “Jewish Nobel” — it offered Portman the highest praise:

“Without a doubt, she is a role model for millions of young Jews around the world.”

That compliment now seems both prescient and alarming.

Since Portman has decided to reject the prize and boycott the ceremony in protest of Israel government policies and practices — saying she did not wish to attend an event at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be present — what must those millions of young Jews think now? And what does it mean that the most high-profile cultural censure of Israel to date has not come from the invidious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but from one of our own?

It is worse than a pity that Portman chose to rebuke Israel with her boycott. As Jane Eisner wrote in The Forward, couldn’t she have gone to the ceremony and given a killer human rights speech in Netanyahu’s face? If she wishes to protest Israeli policies, I wish she would say which ones. Or does she want us and the world to think the entire Israeli government, despite a robust democratic opposition, is a total disgrace?

But OK, I get it. Portman didn’t want her acceptance of the prize or her presence at the event to be seen as an endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. As a citizen of Israel, she’s entitled to her dissent. That’s what Israeli democracy is about. We can be proud that one of Israel’s democratic strengths is that it can tolerate criticism.

That problem is the collapse of peace talks and the idea and promise of a two-state solution.

At this point, I’m far less interested in whether Portman’s decision to refuse the Genesis Prize makes her a hero or a traitor. Scores of outspoken Jews in the opposing camps have issued their views over the past week, exacerbating an already painful situation. I don’t really care what your personal politics are, when an Israeli Jew rejects an Israeli honor, it should hurt. It signifies that the Jewish world has a big problem on its hands, far more disruptive than Jewish disunity. Portman isn’t the problem, she is a reflection of that problem and a harbinger of how much worse it could get.

That problem is the collapse of peace talks and the idea and promise of a two-state solution.

Yes, the two-state solution. Remember that old thing? You should, because it’s the only thing that could end the terrible occupation that has been a stain on Israeli and Jewish consciences for more than five decades. And, because the alternative to a two-state solution spells political and moral catastrophe for the Israel we love.

Maintaining the status quo — the current one-state solution — means more and more boycotts. It means international isolation. It means more and more Jews turning away from the Jewish homeland because they can’t conscience a triumphalist Israel over a virtuous one. The alternative to a two-state solution is personified by Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement and an enemy to the idea of a Jewish state, who said: “I can sense our South Africa moment coming closer.”

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that South African apartheid didn’t end with a two-state solution. (Never mind that the comparison between Israel and South Africa is intellectually unsound; most people aren’t educated enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to know the difference, and as we all know, even fake news gets traction.)

Portman may not be the tipping point, but the tipping point may come if “millions of young Jews around the world” choose to follow in her footsteps and alienate the Jewish state when there are millions of reasons to love it. The tipping point is coming when the actions of those young Jews will be hard to distinguish from the actions of the BDS movement. Be angry about that outcome, but don’t dismiss it.

Whatever one feels about Portman’s decision or the “liberal American Jews” who might disappear in a generation, we should care about the reasons why they would want to distance themselves from Israel in the first place.

We should also want to find a way to get them back.