Jewish Journal

The Portman Snub: A Calm Assessment

All sober analyses must begin with simple facts we can all agree on.

Fact: Actress Natalie Portman agreed to visit Israel to receive the Genesis Prize, often called the “Jewish Nobel.” Terms were set, the date was set, and organizers were preparing. Portman appointed a person to be in charge of allocating the prize money to organizations in Israel that work to empower women — organizations of her choosing.

Fact: The Academy Award-winning actress then canceled. Her explanation remains vague. She indicated her decision was related to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the event. But she knew all along that he was coming. The actress’ representative said that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel” but didn’t specify which “recent events.” Is she snubbing Israel over the Gaza unrest, over the fate of recent non-Jewish immigrants, over Israeli Supreme Court battles, over Netanyahu’s hair style? I assume it’s not the latter but I don’t know what it is. Maybe she’s got something up her sleeve that we didn’t take into consideration. Maybe when the case is laid out it will seem more convincing than it is now.

These are facts. If you doubt these facts — if you think she never wanted the prize, or if you think she did have clear explanation of her motivation — there’s no reason for you to keep reading this column.

Now we move from facts to analysis, which must include three main questions: 1) What was Portman’s objective? 2) Did she meet her objective? and 3) What was the price for meeting her objective?

Because we agree that Portman never provided a clear explanation for her decision, we must try to guess her motives. Possibilities include: 1) She didn’t want to visit Israel; 2) She didn’t want to stand next to Netanyahu; 3) She wanted to protest one of Israel’s policies;  4) She wanted to change public opinion in the United States; 5) She wanted to change public opinion in Israel;  6) She wanted to please certain friends or fans. And the list can go on.

Portman made Israelis even more suspicious of liberal Jewish Americans.

Because her motive is unknown, it’s difficult to determine if she accomplished her goal. Portman, who holds dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship, won’t visit Israel nor stand next to Netanyahu. Maybe she changed some minds in the U.S., but about what is unclear. Some people are using her decision for their agendas — one assumes it’s about Gaza, another that it’s about non-Jewish immigrants. Portman’s decision didn’t seem to change the opinion of Israelis on any of the debatable subjects. But it’s possible that, thanks to her, more Israelis are now convinced that relying on the support of Jewish Americans would be a mistake. And yes, we can assume that a certain circle of friends is now satisfied — but perhaps there also also friends who are now angry.

What was the price we all pay for her miscalculated (my term) decision? Although alleging she is against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Portman assisted those wanting to boycott Israel. She became a role model for those wanting to see U.S. Jews and Americans in general alienate Israel — a trend that could put Israel at increased risk. She made Israelis even more suspicious of liberal Jewish Americans, lowering the chance that they will ever heed the advice of those like Portman.

Portman’s cancelation enraged some Israeli politicians. Most of them aren’t policymakers, and they are merely utilizing Portman as a political punching bag. Netanyahu, to his credit, didn’t run with this issue (as of this writing). Portman deserves a harsh rebuke, but Israel will gain nothing from picking a fight with the popular actress. In fact, it ought to examine whether Portman’s move was deliberate, vicious and a first in a planned campaign — or whether it was truly a miscalculation.

Portman should have done her homework before insulting Israel. Israel would be wise to do its own homework before it insults her back.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.