December 14, 2018

Portman’s Words Matter

In “Portman-gate,” this week’s scandal of sorts, acclaimed Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman has been variously praised as a hero for speaking truth to power or vilified as a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) dupe. She is neither.

It is a cautionary tale of irresponsibly wielding the political power of celebrity in the digital age, and unwittingly sending a powerful message that, apparently, is contrary to the intended message.

As nearly everyone knows by now, Natalie Portman announced in a statement issued on April 20 that she would not travel to Israel to accept the 2018 Genesis Prize. In the original announcement, her spokesperson stated that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” The prize was to be awarded by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The blogosphere erupted. Portman was praised from the left as a truth-telling hero, and vilified from the right as embracing the BDS movement. So she issued a new statement, apparently intended to clarify her actions. “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu,” she said. “I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance,” but “the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.”

Still unclear, at least of this writing, is whether or not Portman feels “comfortable participating in public events in Israel.”

Hopefully, Portman will further clarify her stance, and will announce her intention to re-engage in Israeli public life. But the damage is done. Most will ignore the successive clarifying press releases issued by her people and will regard her simply as the Israeli-American superstar who now despises Israel so much she can’t even go there.

Most … will regard her simply as the Israeli-American superstar who now despises Israel so much she can’t even go there.

Portman, however, is no predictable anti-Israel agitator. To the contrary, her lifelong connection with Israel is bona fide and documented. She’s a native Israeli, born Neta-Lee Hershlag in Jerusalem. She directed and starred in the Hebrew language film adaptation of Amos Oz’s novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” She has long vocally opposed Netanyahu’s policies, once noting that she found “his racist comments horrific.” Still, she has previously criticized those who utilize their celebrity to “shit” on Israel. “I don’t want to do that,” she said.

Yet, that is precisely what her original announcement did. It quite clearly signaled that she was boycotting Israel, at least for the time being. That incendiary but remarkably imprecise statement was unabashedly hypocritical. Portman is, after all, also a fierce critic of President Donald Trump. Yet, she is hardly retreating from public events in the United States. Rather, she has been a fixture at the women’s marches, and has participated in the robust anti-Trump protests. She has not retreated from the Hollywood awards scene either, and it’s a safe bet to assume that she won’t decline to accept an Oscar next year because she is distressed about “recent events” in the Trump administration.

Portman states unequivocally in her latest clarification that “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.” She may deny that her actions give support to BDS, but she’s wrong. They do. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti said that “this latest rebuff to Israeli cultural events and accolades, coming from an Israeli-American superstar, is arguably one of the strongest indicators yet of how toxic the Israel Brand has become, even in some liberal circles in Hollywood. I can sense our South Africa moment coming closer.”

And on the other end of the political spectrum, Knesset member Rachel Azaria of Netanyahu’s coalition partner Kulanu party gets it, too. She sees Portman’s cancellation as “a warning light.” “She is totally one of us, identifies with her Judaism and her Israeliness,” Azaria said.

Celebrities of Portman’s stature have a responsibility to carefully vet the wording and reasoning of public pronouncements that they know will have significant impact. Those who love Israel but wish to criticize the government must remember: Tailor your public criticisms accurately and carefully, but don’t inadvertently give aid and comfort to those who deny the very legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Stuart Tochner is an employment attorney in Los Angeles.